Whitney Kilgore
Diane Weaver


Instructional design is an established field in transition. Unclear roles and responsibilities, and a growing list of expectations from the institutions and organizations they serve, prompted us to learn more about instructional design as a profession (Kilgore, Prusko, & Gogia, 2019). We interviewed seven instructional design leaders and asked them how they would describe instructional design roles to an audience not practicing in the industry, what are some of the biggest hurdles they face, how to best overcome those challenges, and where the profession is headed. This chapter sets the stage for those that follow by sharing the insights offered by these thought leaders in their interviews.

How we define instructional design today is born from a rich history of dramatic changes in both theory and practice, originating in the 1930s and 1940s. Penny Ralston-Berg, Senior Instructional Designer at Penn State World Campus, reminded us in her interview that,

“Instructional design is not as new as some might think. It started in World War II when we needed to quickly and effectively train troops. Since then it has had a presence in government, business, and industry but did not really take hold in higher education until the use of computer-based training and later as online learning became more widespread.”

The demand for online learning has certainly accelerated the need for instructional designers (Riter, 2016). These professionals typically have a graduate degree and expertise in educational technologies and innovative pedagogical practices that leverage the affordances of those technologies. But what does an instructional designer do, exactly? This varies based on their respective work environment, but in higher education the general expectation for the role is a consistent focus on providing support for faculty as they design and develop quality learning.

According to the 2014 Intentional Futures report, which surveyed instructional designers about their roles, responsibilities, education, and training, instructional designers have four primary areas of responsibility: designing course materials alongside faculty for online or blended delivery, managing others in the support of these online and blended offerings, training faculty to utilize technologies and effective pedagogical practices, and supporting the technical aspects of these online offerings. This same study reported that 87% of respondents held master’s degrees while 32% had attained doctoral degrees. At the time of the study, Intentional Futures estimated there were roughly 13,000 instructional designers or more working in higher education (Intentional Futures, 2014).

Teaching and learning today look very different when compared to the field even just a few years ago. The same can be said of the pathway taken by those professionals who become instructional designers, as related by Steve Kauffman, Senior Instructional Designer and Strategic Initiatives Coordinator at the University of Akron. When asked about the changes that have occurred, he reflected, “It’s interesting because when you ask people, how did you become an instructional designer? Nobody that I’ve talked to has said, “Yep. When I went to college, that’s what I wanted to do.” They can do that now. Right? There are instructional design programs, but 10 or even 15 years ago, it wasn’t a thing.” This experience creates a unique point of view when designing learning, because “we always hear the quote about how we’re training students for jobs that don’t exist yet. Instructional design is a great example of that, I think.”

The instructional design leaders we interviewed have seen many iterations of their roles and responsibilities as the industry has evolved: webmaster, producer, designer, technical support; primarily focusing on technical functionality and delivery of online learning. As technology has become innocuous in learning and has blended into the background of the experience, these roles have built upon their pedagogical roots with a growing emphasis on developing quality standards for courses and programs, engagement and outcomes, course structures, and ease of navigation, as well as universal design and accessibility.

“Going from a tech support person to a pedagogical strategist is where I’ve seen the field absolutely change,” reflects Susan Adams, Instructional Designer at Achieving the Dream. “And the most recent change I’m seeing, which I’m most excited about, comes with more comfort and capacity with technology because of the way the Internet is changing our lives . . . . Inhabiting a digital space, is what I like to call it. I think people are seeing the possibility of conceptualizing the Internet as a one-room schoolhouse. To actually trust it a bit more by balancing a healthy consumption of content with healthy contributions to the streams of the internet. As educators and instructional designers our charge is helping people raise their capacity to engage in that possibility.”

Our interviewees used many terms to define the role of an instructional designer. To facilitate the understanding of this chapter, please note that the following terms are used interchangeably: instructional designer (ID), learning designer, learning experience designer (LX designer), learning architect, and pedagogical strategist.

Defining the learner experience

The benefits of quality instructional design apply to online, face-to-face, blended, remote, and technology enhanced face-to-face learning experiences. Instructional designers understand the underlying learning theories, take a big-picture view of the course and program, and possess the ability to leverage the edtech ecosystem to design rich student experiences, regardless of modality. Designers think about learning holistically: “What is the ultimate goal that we’re trying to achieve with our courses? It’s not just about the content. It’s how it’s presented, and presenting it in a way that will help students learn the material and then, ultimately, hopefully be successful in the course,” explains Kelvin Bentley, Vice President of Learning Strategy at Six Red Marbles.

“On a course and modular level, instructional design is important because it is a broad understanding of all of the components that make up a high-quality learning experience,” explains Paul Huckett, Assistant Dean of Learning Design and Innovation at Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering. He continues, “For example, instructional design, graphic design, universal design for learning, accessibility . . . all of those components make a high-quality learning experience; IDs bring this to the table . . . . Developing any course, or probably more specifically an online course, is very difficult, so having that faculty support mechanism not only to design the course, but also to [help] develop the course and work on some of those facilitation practices, is invaluable in the process.”

Ultimately, instructional design is about the learner experience. Karen Miner-Romanoff, Assistant Dean for Academic Excellence at the NYU School of Professional Studies, summarizes one definition of instructional design: “it creates an intentionality to how we teach our students . . . . In today’s world we have the relatively new learning sciences; it’s part neurological, psychological, social, biological, environmental. It is the combination of all of those that has helped us better understand how we learn today. It’s moved us, at a very simple level, for instance, from the passive lecture to the active learning.”

Successful LX designers are incorporating the skills of user experience design, graphic design, interaction design, video production, and learning theory to develop content that cultivates engagement. They use technology to foster connections with faculty, design student-to-student interactions, and develop real-world experiences that make online courses more meaningful to students. The shift from “instructional” design (ID) to learner experience design (LX Design) is important. It is not simply about changing the language but, more importantly, about shifting how we think about designing experiences and developing student-centered learning (Kilgore, 2016).

Collaboration between Faculty and Instructional Designers

Designing high-quality digital learning experiences requires a collective effort. Shifts in learner expectations and technology advances have created a need for faculty and instructional designers to share the responsibility of designing learning experiences. Moore asks the essential question about faculty working independently: “Can they be successful without an instructional designer? Yes, they can, but is that preferred? No, I think that they are missing out. I think that their learning curve will be steeper. They will learn through . . . having to fail.” Despite the clear benefits to collaboration, we continue to work in silos. Moore unpacks this delicate situation: “I think the challenge [is in] understanding that it’s important and why it’s important. That the instructional designer has a relationship in such a way that the faculty members trust them and are willing to work with them and put that time in. There’s value to it, but it takes work on both sides. I think the instructional designers meet faculty members where they are and I think faculty members need to be more open to instructional design support and help, that it needs to be more of a collaborative relationship instead of an adversarial or ‘I’m going to tell you what to do and you’re just going to do it’ type of relationship.”

Shannon Riggs, Executive Director of Academic Programs and Learning Innovation at Oregon State University, spoke to the importance of collaborating with faculty in the instructional design process to achieve a quality student experience, “it’s also about improving the learning experience for students, which it’s really important for online education and hybrid education in particular because we’re at a point in time where . . . we’re teaching in modalities that didn’t exist when we were really doing the majority of our learning. Instructional designers set up the architecture of engagement, of how everybody’s going to interact with the content and each other and the instructor and what exactly are we going to do in this wide open space of the Internet. How do we connect with each other? How do we all behave?”

Miner-Romanoff shows empathy in her description of the relationship between faculty and instructional designers and why they sometimes turn toxic, “Most disciplinary faculty that aren’t in this space don’t know what it is. It can be challenging. It can be threatening. When we use our terminology, we see faculty’s eyes just kind of gloss over. And I would do the same thing if I was sitting in a space that I previously thought was my space, that I was responsible for this space. And I am passionate about that responsibility. And all of a sudden you’re telling me that there are all of these other experts and people and populations that want to come into my classroom . . . . And because of that, you could end up in a toxic environment . . . . But if you don’t do it in a way that you really reach out and co-create the space with your faculty, it is a losing game. . . . Even if you do that, you’d better be ready for gut-wrenching moments because you will have them. And you have to stay the course. You have to back up, you have to start over, you have to listen, listen, listen.”

Bentley explores a dynamic familiar to many: “I think there is a perception of, ‘Well, if an instructional designer is going to do certain elements of my work or a multimedia expert is going to do certain elements of my work, where is my ownership in the final product? Will schools get to a point where they’re just going to hire other folks to do the work in my place, and then I will no longer be needed?’ So I think there’s a concern there.” He goes on to explain that the inability to collaborate doesn’t just hold instructional designers back from excelling in their role: “academic departments are very . . . autonomous, and so there’s not a great opportunity for even instructors to collaborate and share ideas across departments. I think we need more of a leaky silos approach where we share ideas, show off our courses, and really learn from each other more.”

How can we foster a culture that is conducive to such sharing and openness? Bentley makes the following recommendation: “it’s faculty educating faculty. The instructional designers are in a weird place. They can’t really enforce or require a faculty member to do anything. But if the institution allows for opportunities where faculty, maybe within a teaching and learning center or the distance learning office, where they could really hear success stories or even stories where maybe the collaboration didn’t go so well, but how they course-corrected over time to make it better, those conversations I think could be very powerful to help faculty who are maybe skeptical or still fearful to at least be more open to it.”

Clearly understanding the role and responsibilities of each member of a team is crucial to collaboration. “Sometimes you get in these weird circles without understanding what the roles are,” Moore explains; the relationship is strained when there is a lack of understanding of each other’s roles and no consensus on expectations. “Sometimes there’s a gap between what the subject matter expert is able to do and what the subject matter expert expects an instructional designer to do.” For example, he continues, a faculty member may say, ‘I’m just going to give you my 75-page word document . . . and you’re going to make this engaging and interactive and then you’re gonna give it back to me and everything’s good’. And then an instructional designer is like, ‘I have no idea what the content is, so I can’t really do this.’”

Miner-Romanoff has a vision for how this collaborative work all comes together: “[instructional designers] understand what generally, empirically, leads to the deepest learning. When you combine someone who is highly experienced in those worlds with someone who is a disciplinary expert and maybe even a teacher, who has a vision for their course. They know some things that work inside their course. They understand their students. When you combine those with educational technologists, . . . online graphic designers and coders and librarians and career centers [into] this beautiful educational ecosystem. You have got this team that is working to support students at every step of the way.”

Anthony Salinas, Instructional Development Designer II at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, describes how he talks about instructional design to non-designers: “Instructional design isn’t just a technological part of the design process. We always bring that up very quickly. We still have to teach faculty members how to actually design instruction for . . . creating measurable learning objectives. They are great subject matter experts, but some have no experience in actually teaching. Instructional design is so important because it ensures that whether as a program or a course, the design is deliberate and with intention.” Salinas goes on to explain that the days when faculty can declare, “I am the faculty member. This is the way I’m going to teach the course,” are over. The conversation now is much more collaborative and centered on “[Why] are you going to teach it in this manner and how are you going to improve upon it?”

Regardless of where or how the learning is happening, “Designers are still at the center to ensure objectives are clearly defined, to align all the enhanced content and activities to those objectives, and to assess learning to show those objectives are met,” Ralston-Berg summarizes. Increasingly, the instructional design role is about leveraging their training and experience in learning theory in order to improve student experiences and outcomes in collaboration with subject matter experts (SMEs). This pairing is often critical to effective learning design as most higher education faculty and adjunct instructors are subject matter experts from industry with little or no teacher training. Kaufmann says: “The instructional designer is a partner in course development. And I always harp on this because it’s so important for instructional designers to insist upon being included in the conversation. A lot of universities haven’t invested in this particular role, but I think now it’s becoming apparent that if you want to do online and you want to do it well, you really need a team that you can bounce ideas off of . . . . So to be invited to the conversation in an approachable way is really important.”

Navigating dozens or even hundreds of varied partnerships with faculty requires savvy interpersonal skills. Ralston-Berg explains how even with the widespread adoption of online learning, varied skill sets, levels of buy-in, and attitudes can add challenges to the process. “One of the greatest challenges is working with faculty/SMEs from across a spectrum—from those who don’t believe online learning will work to those who are completely open and ready to make ‘out of the box’ innovative courses and everything in between. As designers we constantly adjust our starting points, approaches, and kick-off strategies to meet faculty/SMEs where they are.”

To summarize, instructional designers are pedagogical strategists who understand how to craft quality learning experiences. They also design with the intention that their work products will be deliberately meaningful to learners. They must possess keen interpersonal skills that will enable them to adjust their approaches to best meet faculty where they are in terms of technology and help them take the learning to the highest level possible.

Instructional Designers as the Quality Champions

When you think about quality in online learning, Quality Matters (QM) may immediately come to mind. QM started at Maryland Online, and in 2003 as a part of a FIPSE (Fund for the improvement of post-secondary grant they produced the first research-backed quality course design rubric and peer review process, which would change instructional design. (There’s more about QM and quality in general in Chapter 3.) The Changing Landscape of Online Education or CHLOE report (produced by Quality Matters and Eduventures) suggests that a team-based approach to design that includes instruction designers is positively associated with a more well-rounded student experience (Quality Matters, 2018). Our interviewees suggest some of these measures of quality that instructional designers utilize and champion online are making their way into other teaching modalities.

As online learning has become more mainstream, the quality standards for online learning are increasingly being applied to blended and face-to-face learning as well. Ralston-Berg gives a sensible summary of the current reality: “We’re so concentrated on taking the classroom and translating it to online, but it does also flow the other way. To not have any materials on the web at all or not present anything online or have any kind of engagement online with students is pretty rare now. It would really be unusual and students expect that. They do everything online. They meet each other online, they date online. Everything is social. So why wouldn’t their education be online? . . . It’s just kind of natural. I think of it in terms of the technology becoming invisible, right? When you use technology at first, it’s new to you. All you can focus on is not what you’re trying to do with it, but how it works and what it feels like and how do I use it?”

Kaufman shares, “It’s just an extension of you and you don’t think about the technology anymore, and it’s seamless and it gets to be invisible. So that it’s just about that content, and I think from the student point of view, learning online is like that for many students. I think that will only grow over time and so it doesn’t make sense to compartmentalize those skills for . . . helping learning happen online to just online courses because . . . I think those lines between online and hybrid and face-to-face courses are just going to get blurrier over time and that we’re going to have to see those skills kind of move across those areas.”

Remember, the rise of instructional design has run parallel to the boom of online learning, which, as a modality under extreme scrutiny, has required the ID role to take on the quality standard lens. Miner-Romanoff explains the evolution of quality standards appearing across modalities—beginning with online, migrating into blended, and then returning to face-to-face: “What I’ve seen also in the last, I’d say four or five years, is that instructional design has become almost the quality movement that started really in online because online programs had to prove it in ways that in-person didn’t. Then it kind of seeped into the in-person and blended and hybrid classrooms.”

Salinas sees quality across modalities converging in the near future. The biggest challenge isn’t the tech, it’s deciding when and how to use it: “When I think about closing the gap or if we’re near the point where engagement of this is equivalent to the traditional setting versus the online. I think the technology’s there . . . . It’s a synchronous session with the webinar tool. And on top of that, it’s just full web. There’s no need to download anything. So there’s no limitations to bandwidth or Internet access . . . . The majority of students have a smartphone. Being connected is there . . . . But is it the right thing to include such technologies, or do you increase engagement if it’s not going to be accessible, if it’s not going to actually matter what the instruction is? That’s just another thing where instructional design is so important, to be sure that we’re choosing the right technologies within the classes.”

Kaufman disagrees: “I think that the widespread belief is that classroom face-to-face instruction is irreplaceable still. And I would probably agree with that sentiment even though I do this for a living. Only from the perspective of, I think the technology hasn’t caught up yet where it is universally available to everyone. Like Anthony Salinas said, we have a lot . . . in Akron, if you drive 20 minutes in any direction, you’re in a farm country. Some students do an online class by dropping into their local McDonald’s and getting on their WiFi and that, I wouldn’t say is the ideal study environment for them.”

He’s still an online learning advocate, however, and continues, “We’re also at a point in ed tech history where you can, if you design with intention, you can design online classes that give everybody a voice and provide a high level of instructor presence. I love hearing the challenge from a faculty member that says, ‘Steve, I hear what you’re saying about developing this online class, but I cannot possibly do this lesson online.’ I love that challenge and I hear it every semester.” He continues with an analogy familiar to many online advocates, “Imagine you’re in your lecture hall with 50 students. Who are your students who were the least engaged? . . . Faculty member says, ‘Oh, it’s always the back row. They always have their hats on. It’s their eyes.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, do they raise their hand? Do they participate in conversations?’ ‘No.’ Well, guess what? In an online class, that’s not an option. If Jimmy doesn’t say anything, he’s got a zero next to his name. So just by the sheer fact of being able to set up courses in such a way that [they] promote and require student participation, you can create a more engaging experience.”

The design of learning experiences should be thought of in a similar way to the design of customer experiences on the web or UX in software. Usability, navigation, and clarity are critical to the learner experience. Adams shares her views regarding quality in the digital experience: “When I think about quality, I go back to the presentation of content. For example, I see a tightly aligned, well-presented module where there is a strong and consistent set of headlines. The content in there is easy to see and easy to read. When the font choice is good, it avoids cognitive overload. Overlooking fonts is a huge harbinger of failure. The other piece of quality is alignment of learning outcomes to assessments and activities.”

Quality in online learning can be measured with rubrics, time on task estimators, and Learning Management System (LMS) data, which helps us make data-driven decisions. But let’s not neglect the qualitative aspects; some of the best information one can gather about the quality of learning experiences comes from the students and faculty who engage in the teaching and learning experience together. Adams notes, “more and more quality feedback is coming from the students themselves. Students want to feel like their assignment is not disposable. They prefer creating something that is an activity that either gets them interacting with their peers or mentors or their network, or creating something that contributes to their practice, or their community of practice. Let’s give students the feeling that they’ve left the experience with something meaningful.”

Rob Moore, Assistant Professor of Instructional Design and Technology at Old Dominion University, cuts to the chase: “I also think that a lot of times when you talk to people about what they don’t like in education, it’s often because they had a poor online learning experience. They had a class that was just poorly designed. They had some bad interactions in the classroom and I think all those things point to a necessity of effective instructional design.”

There have been many changes over the last 15 years in the digital learning tools that can support online teaching and learning. Advancements in technology have provided us with the ability to stream Internet content, video, and media to an extent and speed that wasn’t possible only a few years ago. These changes have advanced instructional design and facilitation of online learning in ways that allow us to humanize the online learning experience with the use of video and voice. These advances are not trivial. Moore explains how the age-old debate about the quality of online versus face-to-face learning is shifting: “I don’t know that we can make such a general statement because there are some instructors who are fantastic face-to-face and are terrible online, and vice versa. I do think that we’re at the point now where the gap is narrower between the two. And I think that we have the infrastructure in place that an online experience can be just as engaging as a face-to-face experience, and I don’t think that was the case maybe five or ten years ago.”

A big factor here, Moore continues, is perceived quality: “it used to be perceived that you could not learn online. So if a student has that perception going into the online learning environment, no matter what that instructor does, they’re never going to be able to reach that student because that student already walked in with a failure mentality. What’s changed now is that students know that you can be successful online, and by going into the class with that perspective . . . that has actually improved the overall interaction and engagement within the online learning environment because the students were more likely to engage and participate in the discussion forums because they’re seeing that there is value to it.”

Huckett suggests a three-step plan to ensure quality: “I think if I was to offer someone three things, one would be to have instructional design support available, number two is having kind of a measurement of quality, and number three is having resources and development of faculty to be able to teach in that environment.”

Challenges: Competition and a Changing Landscape

The price of college tuition has grown at a rate eight times that of wages earned in the United States over the same time period (Forbes, 2018). Students are paying a premium, in both tuition and time commitment, and have an expectation that their learning experiences will deliver new insights, beyond what they could learn from a Google search. The learning should have relevance and application that directly impact their future careers, and these experiences should be packaged and presented in a manner that mirrors their daily use and expectations of technology.

Students are increasingly turning to a variety of sources when seeking learning experiences—universities and trade schools are no longer their only options for online training and certification. Beyond degrees, there are now microcredentials, nanodegrees, specializations, masterclasses, and many other microlearning options. There are also more companies and industries working to deliver learning directly to their current and future employees. Perhaps due to this diversification of digital learning options, the instructional design role has become a critical component beyond traditional schools and institutions. These roles now essentially exist anywhere that learning outcomes are being sought and are deemed a priority.

Shifts in student demographics, market or industry needs, rising education costs, lower salary increases, automation, and other factors have created a trend toward options and flexibility in education. Learning by anyone, anytime, and anywhere has become a necessity. Riggs explains, “It’s a shifting audience that we’re working with and they have different financial demands and different work and life demands and online and part time really fit those needs.” She continues, “There’s a decreasing number of K–12 students that are graduating high school and going to college . . . . But then also, if you look at just the changing nature of the workplace and that people need [to return to] education throughout their lives more than used to be the case. The cost of a bachelor’s degree has gone up about 120% in the last few decades. Then, in the same time period, the earnings of someone who holds a bachelor degree have only gone up about 20%. It’s not affordable to do it all at once. A lot of people are needing to work while they’re attending school to make it more affordable.”

Geography and transportation are also factors. Salinas describes issues that students encounter when attending a large university with multiple campuses: “We have 10 locations that are separated by 70 miles and after the merger between both campuses, we have only one class that’s only offered at one location. And the student goes there one time out of a week. It might be after they had work and then they got to drive back. They might not have the means of travel, they might have to take the shuttle. That gives the students an incentive to take the online class.”

Kaufman shares his insight about another significant impact: a culture of convenience. “I think a large part of what drives the innovation on the different modalities that are being offered is the culture shift toward convenience. The costs are going up to be able to offer access to an instructor that ordinarily would only be available in one building one night a week. It’s just not feasible. For example, in our state, we’re losing population. We’re competing for a tighter and tighter pool of high school students. And what’s interesting is that our median age on campus is not the traditional student. I hate when people say ‘a nontraditional student’. Guess what? That’s the new normal. I think the average age for our students is 23 or 24, they’re not 18-year-old high schoolers anymore.”

The competition for enrollments in higher education is escalating, and there can be many barriers that hinder an institution’s ability to meet this market challenge. Speaking to the growth taking place in some learning modalities, Huckett summarizes, “Students, as research indicates, want more opportunities to learn online. They want more flexibility in how they learn. They don’t want to be bound by physical location. So, all of those factors I think have . . . forced those institutions to offer more online programs, and then over the years, as institutions have started to really refine and define quality for their online programs, . . . that’s where we’ve seen success.”

How are schools responding to the increased competition for enrollments? “I think at least in the short term to mid-term, I think we will only see a smaller number of schools really doing what’s needed across their institutions to maintain that quality over time,” Bentley states, expressing doubt regarding the motivation and sustainability of overcoming the task at hand. He continues, “I think what might happen is that even a school might recognize that they need to offer various modalities of courses, but then it’s done very tactfully. It’s not always done very strategically.”

Suggesting ways that schools should go about offering students choice in how they prefer to learn, Bentley continues, “You can do it through ongoing professional development. But I think the challenge is not always a lack of information. It’s trying to get the faculty to actually listen and participate in that collaboration with the instructional designers. And that’s why . . . incentives are needed, policies are needed that will require or strongly encourage a faculty member to engage in this work.”

Challenges: Lack of Time and Resources

The two main challenges, real or perceived, that exist in the realm of instructional design are a shortage of time and a lack of resources. If real, these deficits hamper the creation of learning experiences by faculty and instructional designers. If perceived, they create a scarcity mindset which can be extremely damaging to morale and difficult to resolve. This perception—that efforts focused on creating high-quality learning experiences are doomed to fail—hinders the ability to think strategically, prioritize, and find innovative alternatives. As one of our experts relates, it can also mean that important issues aren’t prioritized and good design falls by the wayside.

Adams details one such challenge that is particularly difficult for adjunct faculty: “The biggest barrier at the system-wide level . . . is the lack of time and resources for an educator to even work with an instructional designer, to even consider walking through the doors of an office of academic innovation or teaching and learning center . . . . Even if we do find the time, having the ability and technology to take the courses to where they need to go is a significant barrier to individual faculty success.” Salinas often hears faculty say, “I don’t have the time to create new engaging materials.” Or, “I don’t have the time to learn or take professional development so I can become a better facilitator on synchronous sessions or discussion boards.”

When the perception is that there isn’t enough time, it is also perceived that the work is not of value or priority. Moore states, “Another challenge is just how much time it takes to do effective online instruction, and sometimes faculty are not willing to put that time in because the administration has not placed a value on that.”

The result can be disastrous; Moore continues: “So, what ends up happening is a faculty member is teaching an online class and attempts to integrate technology, but for whatever reason they have not integrated it well. Let’s say, for instance, they get bad course evaluations because they integrated Zoom into their class, but Zoom kept breaking. They get bad evaluations because of technology and [the takeaway is] I’m not going to use technology anymore because every time I use it, I get dinged on my evaluations. So it ends up creating these weird loops where it’s hard to implement technology if they don’t have the proper support.”

Lack of time and resources impacts quality in other ways as well. Huckett talks about why, even though it is a critical element in design, accessibility is a major issue: “Accessibility is a really difficult thing to incorporate because it means more; it’s asking more of the faculty and it means asking more of the instructional support staff . . . I’m going to use the School of Engineering as an example here: the subject matter expertise lives with the instructor and with the instructor alone. So in our case, we can’t provide that alternative text, or long descriptions or whatever it may be. To meet those requirements, it has to fall back on the instructor. Ultimately, you can have a checklist or you can try to achieve those things, but if they do not do it, because they don’t have time in many cases, then you have the challenge of either not running that course because it doesn’t meet accessibility, or running it knowing that it doesn’t meet the compliance of accessibility.”

When instructional design becomes a priority, faculty and instructional designers can approach it from a universal design mindset, “to make sure that, first of all, this isn’t primarily just focused on students who are on the fringes who may need accommodations,” Huckett explains. “We are thinking about how we design learning for all learners, and how all learners can be successful in their environments but ensuring that some accessibility standards are met. Again, this means different things for different schools, but I think if you can define what you can achieve, then that’s a really good step.”

Continuous Improvement

The shared work of instructional design isn’t a one-and-done approach. There should be a continuous improvement life cycle for every digital learning experience. As learning designers, we have access to a significant body of information to inform ongoing improvements and redesign. Data from the learning management system, the lived experiences of the instructors themselves, student survey data, and changing standards and content can all be of value and can support our continuous improvement process. Achieving ongoing improvement of learning outcomes and student success while maintaining the quality and rigor of the learning experience are the ultimate goals.

Looking ahead, data is clearly becoming more and more essential to the design and continuous improvement process. Bentley shares, “I think that’s where we’re going to go more in the future with instructional design. It won’t just be helping one instructor over a semester per se. I think there’ll be larger conversations, more strategic planning, leveraging instructional designers to help an institution as a whole improve the overall quality of online instruction across disciplines. So hopefully more schools will engage in that as we move forward.”

Digital learning environments are excellent sources of data about student experiences. However, understanding this data and turning it into actionable insights can be a challenge for faculty without support. An instructional designer and a faculty member teaching a course can work together to contextualize the data and use these insights to determine where changes should be made to enhance the learning experience and improve student learning outcomes.

According to Moore, the future is now: “Because we have all this data, we’ve got to figure out what we’re going to do with [it] and how are we going to use it for decision making?” He advises, “As a new instructional designer, or entering the field, no matter what context you’re in, whether it’s higher ed, whether it’s the corporate world, I think as an instructional designer, . . . you have to be able to speak the language of the faculty members. So, you have to be able to talk to them at the level which they are actually at. You need to learn from them, in such a way that it allows you to teach them and collaborate with them.”

Moore also shares what this looks like in action. He explains how he and members of his team are able to get faculty excited about making changes to their teaching with technology: “When you present it to them, you presented it as a way that will benefit them, not as like, ‘Hey, I want to show you the shiny new tool.’ It’s helpful to learn how they’re currently teaching, so you can look at ways of improving their teaching. As opposed to like, ‘Hey, you need to do X, you need to do these six different things.’ So, I think really making sure it’s relevant to the faculty members [is important] because that’s going to make it easier and more likely for them to want to transition.”

Here are a few questions to consider. Do you update your online courses on the same schedule and pace at which you replace laptop computers for your faculty—or at all? Have you ever interviewed students from the first cohort of a program to gain their insights into how the program might be improved? How is your institution using data to make learning experiences better for future students?

Instructional Design as a Strategic Investment

Many higher education institutions in the United States have included steps within their strategic plans that are specifically focused on moving their programs online. Some are looking to maintain enrollments as the enrollment for campus-based programs decline, while others are actively searching for a new way to meet the needs of the community or even create a new revenue stream for the institution. No doubt, more flexibility has been the answer for many schools to maintain enrollments—but, Moore warns, it shouldn’t be perceived as a cash cow. “I think the biggest mistake with going online is, you should never start an online program or degree, with the intention that we’re going to make a lot of money [from] it. It shouldn’t be, ‘Oh, we’re having enrollment issues’ or ‘We’re having the state cutting our budget. So let’s make an online degree because that will generate $5 million of revenue and we’ll be good.’ When you approach it that way, you’re setting yourself up for failure.”

Here’s how Miner-Romanoff unpacks necessary considerations: “I think that the first common mistake is not doing a really significant cost analysis. This is not cheap. This is expensive. It’s an investment for the schools who do it best. The ROI [return on investment] is appropriate, but it is not cheap. To [not] understand what it truly costs: to have the right LMS system and to support that LMS system; to have the right design and take the time for a media rich program; to appropriately develop the faculty to teach online; to take the time to teach online. I think that that is easily the first mistake. I think the second mistake is not having cross-functional teams around every single online program—‘cross-functional’ meaning student services, advising, career counselors, learning designers, faculty, leadership, librarians.”

Having extensive market research is critical for making decisions on where to invest. If a program doesn’t have significant demand and isn’t going to enable students to earn a promotion or take advantage of corporate tuition benefits, then it probably isn’t the right program to invest in. Miner-Romanoff relates that when an investment is strategic, the goal is attainable: “Yes, you can indeed launch successful online programs in far more disciplines than most people think . . . . There is a way to do this high quality. It doesn’t mean that every one of your classes have to cost you $100,000. We spend and we scale where it makes sense. [Courses] don’t all have to be outrageously media rich.” Getting the balance right when designing is critical; she continues: “In fact, sometimes if you’re not thinking about the pedagogy and the design science behind why you’re adding media, it can be distracting. So we have to be very careful.”

What Advice Do Our Experts Have for Instructional Designers Entering the Field?

“Always be open to new ideas and continually collect tools, models, and design strategies you may use in the future. A good idea can come from anywhere—conferences, webinars, colleagues, publications, professional organizations. Designers need to continually add to their bag of tricks. Designers must also be able to retrieve those ideas at the appropriate moment. Explore many different models and views of instructional design. This gives you the flexibility to fit the right model or strategy to your situation.” – Penny Ralston-Berg

“Well, I think the future of the field is [to] continue to network with your peers at conferences, get to know what your peers are up to in this space . . . instructional designers should probably be thinking about their job pathways as well, seeing will there be opportunities for them to do more, to maybe be learning engineers or maybe new directors of online learning programs. Those individuals who aspire for greater responsibilities should definitely continue to think about how they can grow into those roles, either at their current institution or somewhere else, over time . . . . Listen for messages behind certain things that faculty members say. For faculty members vary—like anti-online ed, having the instructional designer try to find out what is the deeper message behind that. Is it fear or is it . . . . And if it is fear, what type of fear? Is it fear of the faculty member losing their jobs, or is it fear around the faculty member feeling uncomfortable with the technology and not wanting to be perceived as someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing?—but really kind of trying to understand any concerns the faculty member has. But then trying to work with the faculty member as best as possible, maybe baby steps at first, and then gradually building up that relationship with the faculty member, to hopefully have him or her feel more comfortable working in a collaborative way with the instructional designer.” – Kelvin Bentley

“It’s definitely not just the tech. . . . When you think of humanizing online education, what comes to mind for you? We need to continue to make sure that we are poised and ready to respond to these questions and get ourselves at the right tables. . . . The more we can utilize a similar language in the way that we speak about what is possible, I think the more we’re going to gain traction.” – Susan Adams

“You’re going to have to learn. You’re going to have to understand where they’re coming from. You’re going to have to learn their content and you’re going to have to keep up on your content, in order to better advise them. You need to meet them where they are, and in doing so, that will build the type of collaborative relationship that in turn lets the faculty trust you more, and then from there you can develop new projects.” – Rob Moore

“Having the fundamental knowledge of instructional design and learning theory is critical because you make decisions about designing and learning on those fundamental principles. I would recommend, for any new instructional designer, make sure that you have a really clear understanding on what the principles are and how you can incorporate them. Then, whatever context that you’re in, whether it’s higher education, whether or not it’s developing training, you’re always thinking about those core principles and how you can align them with technologies or with an authentic assessment strategy. . . . The other component is to make sure you have a good understanding of technology, because ultimately I think that’s where some faculty need the most help—like ‘What technology can I use and how will it be useful,’ as opposed to just kind of ‘Here is technology and it may or may not help you, but apply it to your course.’ . . . Third is to understand that instructional design is more than just designing and learning . . . it’s people and project management as well.” – Paul Huckett

Now that we’ve set the stage by laying out the challenges and opportunities at hand, the chapters that follow give real-world examples of doing this deep and critical work, with a significant emphasis on accessibility and quality as the hallmarks of connecting the dots between instructional design and positive student outcomes.


Chloe Report (2018). Quality Matters and Eduventures. Retrieved from https://www.qualitymatters.org/qa-resources/resource-center/articles-resources/CHLOE-2-report-2018

Instructional Design in Higher Education (2014). Intentional Futures. Retrieved from https://intentionalfutures.com/work/instructional-design

Kilgore, W. (2016) UX to LX: The Rise of Learner Experience Design. Edsurge. Retrieved from https://www.edsurge.com/news/2016-06-20-ux-to-lx-the-rise-of-learner-experience-design

Kilgore, W. Prusko, P., & Gogia, L. (2019) A Snapshot of Instructional Design: Talking Points for a Field in Transition, Educause Review. Retrieved from https://er.educause.edu/blogs/2019/8/a-snapshot-of-instructional-design-talking-points-for-a-field-in-transition

Maldano, C. (2018) Price Of College Increasing Almost 8 Times Faster Than Wages, Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/camilomaldonado/2018/07/24/price-of-college-increasing-almost-8-times-faster-than-wages/#44f41e9b66c1

Riter, P. (2016) The Quest for Great Instructional Designers. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2016/06/07/troublesome-shortage-instructional-designers-essay#.WI_StKWGmTY.mailto


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Connecting the Dots: Improving Student Outcomes and Experiences with Exceptional Instructional Design Copyright © 2020 by Whitney Kilgore and Diane Weaver is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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