Challenges still present in partnering instructors with instructional designers

Male college student sitting on outside staircase looking at a laptop

As someone who has worked in instructional design for more than 15 years, my interest in the recent Chronicle of Higher Education report, Instructional Designers in Higher Education: Changing the Course of Next-Generation Learning, was more than casual. I was curious about how reality differed from the ideal of a collaborative and effective partnership between an instructor and instructional designer. The answer: the reality has not met the ideal. Even though the use of instructional designers is increasing, tensions between instructors and instructional designers prevent ongoing and strong partnership from becoming the norm.

The report identifies a few findings that suggest why some of these tensions might exist, thereby giving an indication of how educators might minimize or eliminate the tensions. One of these findings is that instructional designers most commonly support fully online courses. This suggests that instructional designers are brought in for their specialized skills in educational technology.

Who makes the technology choices?

Does this mean that the specialized educational technology skill set of instructional designers indicates they should call the shots in terms of the technology in the course? The survey results show disagreement between the two groups about who should be in charge when it comes to technology-enhanced learning. Eighty-two percent of faculty members believe it should be their responsibility and 39% of instructional designers believe it should be their responsibility. So how do we resolve this tension?

I think the answer is not simply in the clarification of roles, but an understanding of what underlies the role division. Instructional designers bring great knowledge of educational technology and have implemented it in a variety of situations. Therefore they should be seen as solution generators for situations in which educational technology is involved. Based on their breadth and depth of experience working with different technologies and courses, they are best prepared to generate many different solutions to achieve the instructional needs. That being said, faculty members should make the decisions about technologies used in the course, because they will be the ones teaching with the technology, and they need to feel comfortable with both the approach and the technology.

Improve educator support for implementing technology

Faculty members’ comfort in using technology in the classroom is an area that can be improved. According to the Chronicle report, only 25% of faculty feel that they receive sufficient support in rethinking their teaching using technology, and 23% feel that faculty use technology in ways that improve student learning. As the report describes, faculty members focus their classroom technology use on a small set of tools such as message boards and slide presentation software.

Literature-backed technologies like simulations, live video chat, animations, and live broadcast of lectures are much less frequently used. Perhaps part of the infrequent use of these technologies is the lack of understanding of how to make that technology effective, because faculty members recognize that technology is a tool and it can be effective or ineffective depending on how it is used. They are often looking for a model of another instructor’s effective use of technology from which they can model their own approach, but this leads to the problem of finding an effective example when none of your colleagues have tried using the technologies in their classes. When these models don’t exist, instructional designers can support faculty members by creating their own examples, pulling together the literature to provide guidance in how to effectively use the technology, providing training, creating wireframes of simulations, and allowing faculty members to conduct trial runs when using live technologies. Instructional designers should critically evaluate the approaches they are currently using to support faculty to get a better understanding of how well those approaches are working.

Examining pedagogy

While most faculty (96%) receive instructional design assistance for fully online courses, comparatively few (37%) receive assistance for their face-to-face course. This finding suggests that instructional designers are seen as useful when working with educational technology, but not when examining pedagogy. Faculty members are experts in their content area and the pedagogy that best serves it. They possess an insider’s perspective with an eye on both the global goals of the course and adjustments to it as they teach and receive feedback. As the person who teaches the course term after term, it is easy for a faculty member to fall into routines and become less likely to look at their instruction with a critical eye.

Working with an instructional designer provides faculty members with an opportunity to engage in focused thinking about the craft of teaching. The instructional designer provides an outside perspective on the course and facilitates the instructors’ reflections about the pedagogical choices they are making in their class. The instructional designers’ pedagogical knowledge does not supplant the faculty members’. Instead, it provides an additional perspective that can help faculty members critically evaluate and refine their craft. Instructional design support should be a part of all courses regardless of the modality (online, hybrid, or face-to-face) to provide that outside perspective.

The tensions between faculty members and instructional designers need to be addressed, because the ideal of an effective partnership is not a fairy tale. I’ve heard too many faculty members describe the true partnership they have with their instructional designers and the wonderful outcomes that partnership produces to think that the ideal is impossible. Some adjustments need to be made to how instructional designers commonly support faculty members before effective partnership is an everyday reality.

Gain more insight into the role instructional designers are playing by downloading the full report, Instructional Designers in Higher Ed: Changing the Course of Next-Generation Learning.


About the Author

Amy Peterson leads Pearson’s Curriculum Services team and has more than 15 years of experience developing online and hybrid courses and learning experiences for dozens of universities and colleges. Prior to joining Pearson, Amy served in several leadership positions in course development, education technology, student support services, and higher education online operations.

She has master’s degrees in Education from Michigan State University and Public History from Loyola University. She is currently working on a PhD in Educational Psychology and Educational Technology at Michigan State University. Her research focuses on collaborative learning facilitated by computer-­mediated communication (CMC) in post­secondary education, specifically the pedagogy and technology that support interpersonal and group processes in synchronous and asynchronous online courses.