Hottest Job in Higher Education: Instructional Designer


The answer to the question “Who is leading the digital transformation in your university?” he is not your president, your provost or your CTO. It is COVID-19. As the virus threat increased, universities transformed their on-campus course schedules into virtual catalogs in a matter of days, and are now settling in for virtual office hours, virtual symposiums, and soon virtual graduations and alumni reunions.

While everyone has been careful to call this overnight online movement “remote teaching,” that won’t be good enough when universities have months to plan fully online summer sessions and possibly even partial fall semesters. or fully online. Tuition-paying students and their parents will not tolerate simply improvising. Even the most resilient faculty members, students, and administrators will need to fully embrace online learning and all that it entails.

Online learning requires a more intentional approach to teaching than the remote delivery we have been doing to finish our semesters. It requires us to ask ourselves, “What are the goals of a course and how best to achieve them using online teaching tools and methods?” And it forces us to take a hard look at our teaching habits and assess whether they optimally meet the needs of our students.

Luckily, we are not going to start from scratch. More than a third of college and university students were enrolled in online courses before the pandemic. Thirteen percent were in fully online programs. Online learning is already a mature field, based on decades of research and experience, backed by multi-million dollar companies, and guided by established practices. Perhaps most importantly, where on-campus professors are often alone in the classroom, online learning is always a team effort.

Professors may be experts in their fields, but not all of them can be expected to be experts in the research that supports online teaching and learning. They may know organic chemistry or classical mythology, but they are not keeping up with learning outcomes studies or assessment design strategies or adaptive learning technologies. And so instructional designers have become the sherpas of online learning teams, experts in excuse me to teach and design a course.

We’ve both seen this phenomenon over and over again: Experienced teachers are initially hesitant to work with instructional designers. But after the collaboration, they completely convert. Just like having a personal trainer at the gym, getting the fresh look of an expert on the material we’ve been teaching for years can be exhilarating. New online versions of these traditional classes are not only enhanced by the collaborative input of an instructional designer, but on-campus teaching by faculty members is also renewed, refreshed, and transformed for the better.

The field of instructional design has exploded in recent decades. Since 2004, demand has been on the rise, more than 20 percent across the country. Even before COVID-19 led the global wave of online educational disruption, the dozens of instructional design certificate and degree programs couldn’t keep up with the growing demand.

Due to the black swan event that is COVID-19, this new field of academic work has received a previously unimaginable boost. As universities institute hiring freezes and threaten layoffs, those same universities are posting new ads for instructional designers, learning designers, and instructional technologists. The titles cover overlapping aspects of the same online course design process that schools know will be essential to their future success.

For those universities that choose not to build but to buy this capability, there is the option of turning to companies that offer support in course development and instructional design. But these companies often charge a hefty fee that takes a significant percentage of your tuition dollars. Instructional design is one of a series of combined support services that OPM companies offer to universities, along with marketing, course creation, platform support, and coaching for student success.

And as we’ve seen so often in the press recently, these companies can charge up to 60 percent or even 70 percent of tuition revenue. Faced with these unsustainable numbers, even the most economically disadvantaged universities will need to expand their internal resources and teams of instructional designers. It won’t be cheap, but it’s better than outsourcing the course design for most of the tuition revenue. And, most importantly, it will focus on effective teaching and enhance the educational experience.

Perhaps the biggest revelation about educational designers, however, is that their talents aren’t just relevant to online classes. Each course on campus would also benefit from experience in curriculum design, learning outcomes, and the advantages of different assessment methods.

Pedagogy, or the theory and practice of teaching, has been around since Socrates. But COVID-19 may enter the history books as the greatest transformative of pedagogy.

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