One of the interesting points deep in the results of a new survey of over 780 instructional designers in the United States shows mixed feelings about the tools that this growing group of professionals use. For example, we found it interesting that some of the same technology products showed up at the top of both the favorite and least favorite tables.
That and other insights into the instructional design profession are revealed by the work of the strategy and design firm Intentional Futures, which surveyed 853 people to create comprehensive profiles of who is working in and leading this field. The project was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as part of its Next Generation Courseware Challenge grants and resulted in a report titled Instructional Design in Higher Education: A Report on the Role, Workflow, and Experience of Instructional Designers.
The partners in the work, including Acrobatiq, EdSurge and the Online Learning Consortium, are also conducting a series of three webinars beginning June 3.
As we noted in an earlier post, some of the top line results of the survey show that there are more than 13,000 people working in higher ed as instructional designers but that there is a surprising amount of diversity in their roles, responsibilities, and training.
The double edged sword of the LMS
The survey responses regarding favorite technology tools mentioned a vast number of them — Asana (project management), Slack (communication), Zotero (bookmarking), Camtasia and Screencastomatic (video creation), Dragon (dictation), Dropbox (file management), and so on. Instructional designers are constantly experimenting with latest software.
A scan of the most and least favorite technology tools reveals a lot of duplication. For example, Adobe products and PowerPoint show up near the top of both lists. Canvas was one of the most favorite, while Blackboard was the named the least favorite tool, right ahead of “LMSs in general.”
Kristin Powers, Senior Producer at Intentional Futures, ascribes this to what she calls the double-edged sword of the LMS. In many cases, instructional designers are happy to have them because they create structure, but the LMS can also limit the ability of innovative instructional designers to create interactive and engaging content. “LMSs are a weird burden and a great product at the same time,” she says.
That echoes a point made to us recently in an in-depth interview with Ray Henderson, an investor and advisor in education technology firms who was President and Chief Technical Officer of the Academic Division of Blackboard, from 2009 to 2013. He said that LMSs “have been called with some affection the minivan of education technologies. It’s not that exciting, but we feel fairly safe putting our kids into it, and we are reasonably confident that it’s a convenient vehicle for content.”
What is it used for, and who decides?
Powers wonders if there is a correlation between enthusiasm for education technologies and where decision-making lies. Many instructional designers, 47 percent, responded that they have the majority say about the tools used on campus. Of the favorites list, she asks, “Do they love these tools because they see the potential in them? Or do they love them because they personally selected them?”
Another possible explanation for the mixed attitudes about these technology tools is the variety of projects they are used for. In the past, they were used mostly to port old course content into online environments, something that Powers says is happening less.
“There’s a transition,” she says. “In places where they’re still pushing a lot of content into an LMS from an old course, that can be cumbersome. It’s a square-peg-in-a-round-hole experience. But where they are using the LMS to build new courses, they may feel that the opportunity to use the features fully is there.”
Designing from a user’s perspective
Powers says many universities are trying different combinations of major brand LMSs with home-brewed tools. That might work well in many ways, but the lack of standardization produces varied data sets in different places around campus.
“If you actually want to get a comprehensive view of how a student is doing collectively in all their courses, it’s very difficult to do,” she explains. “There’s definitely an awareness that advisors who are trying to help students have a hard job because data is not all in place. Instructional designers are trying to create an environment for consistency where those things become easier.”
This also impacts the ultimate user experience for the learner if they have to navigate multiple entry points and interfaces for education technology.
“It’s very difficult to get everyone on board to agree on something,” Powers says. “At the end of the day, what’s most important is the student’s experience with their education. Getting data for themselves. Getting feedback for the work they’re doing. A lot of that depends on a consistent experience across all their courses.”
To hear more about this survey and from other leaders in the field, be sure to check out the webinar series next month.
- Instructional Designers in Higher Education: The Role, Responsibilities and Experiences of IDs will be June 2 at 1 p.m. Eastern.
- From Campus to Classroom: Leveraging Instructional Designers at Different Scales will be June 17 at 1 p.m. Eastern.
- Moving the Innovative Institution Forward: Tools & Strategies for Instructional Designers will be June 30 at 1 p.m. Eastern.