Instructional Design

Demand Grows for a New Breed of Academic

Dan Barrett - February 29, 2016 - Chronicle of Higher Ed

Rolando R. Garza’s job stands at the convergence of several forces transforming higher education. As an instructional designer at Texas A&M University at Kingsville, Mr. Garza works with hundreds of faculty members, helping them translate their in-person courses to be offered online.

The job requires technical ability, design skills, pedagogical knowledge, and a deft interpersonal touch. "We’re on the same team," he often reassures academics when he begins working with them. "I’m here to tell you how to teach using distance learning."

Jobs like Mr. Garza’s are increasingly important and sought-after in academe. Membership in the Association for Educational Communications and Technology, which is composed mostly of instructional designers at the post­secondary level, has grown by 50 percent over the past decade, to more than 2,400. The number of instructional designers attending conferences on teaching online, such as Educause’s Learning Initiative, has grown substantially in recent years as well, as have job postings.

The push for instructional designers reflects a number of broad trends: the growing pressure on colleges to improve teaching and substantiate learning; the maturation of online courses; and the increasingly sophisticated technology available to reach and engage students and analyze their behavior. But that growth has occurred largely under the radar, in part because the job is as multifaceted as it is hard to define.

"We’re usually behind the scenes, and no one knows what we do," says Penny Ralston-Berg, a senior instructional designer for Pennsylvania State University’s World Campus, an established provider of online learning. Some instructional designers focus on graphics, while others are technical experts. Increasingly, many are expected to be conversant with learning theory and pedagogy.

However it is defined, at its core the job has the same goal. "Proving that objectives are met: That’s what designers do," says Ms. Ralston-Berg, who is also chair of the Quality Matters Instructional Designers Association. Only three years old, the association already has nearly 600 members.

The roots of instructional design date to World War II, when the armed forces needed to provide technical training to large numbers of people efficiently. Companies now use instructional design to develop training materials for their employees.

Colleges have long relied on instructional design for their distance-learning and extension programs, which tend to appeal to nontraditional students with family and work obligations. As the proportion of those students increases, online learning has grown more popular, and with it the need for instructional design.

The share of students taking online courses has nearly tripled, from less than 10 percent in 2002 to 28 percent in 2014, according to the Babson Survey Research Group. During a similar period, Babson also found, the percentage of academic leaders who see online learning as critical to their institution’s long-term strategy went from about half to nearly two-thirds.

Meanwhile, technology has embedded itself in the everyday classroom, in hybrid courses and through the learning-management systems used in face-to-face settings. The lines between technology and teaching have blurred, says Malcolm Brown, director of the learning initiative at Educause, the higher-education-technology consortium.

Once, technology was a world unto itself. Now, he says, it’s seen as a tool to serve teaching and learning: "The question," he asks, "is, What are we going to do with it?"

The answer doesn’t come easily to many instructors. "Many faculty are uncomfortable and don’t know best practices in online education," says Albert D. Ritzhaupt, an associate professor of educational technology at the University of Florida. The Association of American Colleges and Universities recently reported that only about a third of chief academic officers said most of their faculty members effectively used digital learning tools.

That sentiment may reflect deeper skepticism in academe. Many academic leaders and faculty members see online offerings as inferior to face-to-face courses. It isn’t unusual for instructional designers to have to allay anxiety and suspicions among instructors. The designers’ job is also still being professionalized. A recent analysis by Mr. Ritzhaupt found that 70 percent of job ads for instructional designers didn’t require a graduate degree.

Instructional design also has a way of playing into larger concerns about shifts in educational practice. Many theories of instructional design are based in systems thinking, a form of analysis that came out of engineering and focuses on the interplay of components within a larger environment. Instructional design can be seen as a force for standardizing education and its processes, placing efficiency above the individual relationships that are at the heart of teaching and learning.

"The learner becomes a generic factor in the planning of mechanized, scheduled knowledge brokering," Sean Michael Morris wrote recently on the website Digital Pedagogy Lab. "The instructor, through design, becomes nothing more than a recording, a megaphone, her only nuance the occasional typo."

Melody J. Buckner, director of the Office of Digital Learning at the University of Arizona, sympathizes with that kind of critique. She worries when systems become more important than the people they are supposed to help. As the doctorate-holding leader of a 12-person office (with six instructional designers, a pedagogical expert, graphic designers, videographers, project managers, and a quality-assurance coordinator), she and her team reflect the growing profile and scale of this work.

Although her staff has technical expertise, the real commodity it offers is helping faculty members use technology in a way that makes for a better educational experience, Ms. Buckner says.

It is a laborious process that begins when she and her colleagues meet with faculty members. The first thing she does is ask instructors how they approach their in-person courses. What do they feel most comfortable doing in their classroom? How can she help them make the shift to teaching online?

Her team follows each instructor’s course week by week, distilling their goals and reimagining them in online form. Teaching online may be a different mode than teaching in person, she says, but the underlying goals are the same.
Online courses have the potential to be particularly effective if carried out well, Ms. Buckner says. "You can make online just as rich and engaging, and in some cases more, because online is more student-centered than face-to-face teaching."