This month we are pleased to welcome a guest post from Rhiannon Pollard, PhD candidate and Assistant Director of Academic Support at the UF/IFAS School of Forest, Fisheries, and Geomatics Sciences (formerly known as SFRC). Rhiannon is a passionate scholar, researcher, and advocate of instructional designers in higher education, in addition to being an active practitioner herself at the University of Florida. Her research interests revolve around the intersection of technology and pedagogy and tend to involve issues of inclusivity, criticality, social justice, and power. She thrives on opportunities to identify problems, issues, or bottlenecks and then create solutions to help other humans. Rhiannon’s passions align with what we care about at Coursetune– thoughtful, intentional design of curriculum. We are delighted to share this guest post that illuminates the work of instructional designers and their unique voices. I hope this helps raise awareness of their needs and brings more support to the people who support this work! – Kristin Powers
I spend a lot of time thinking about instructional designers, specifically those working in higher education institutions. Not only are these creative superhumans the focus of my scholarly research, but they’re my friends and colleagues and I count myself privileged to be among them. For nearly ten years I have been practicing instructional design and managing and facilitating online teaching and learning at a large university. I know this life from a deeply personal perspective that informs my research and also provides a critical angle through which to consider the research that non-IDs are doing about us.
Instructional design is rapidly gaining momentum and prestige within higher education, thanks to the amazing work that IDs have done to support and stabilize the continuity of teaching and learning in the context of—and maybe even improving it in spite of—otherwise catastrophic disruption (I see you, COVID-19). We’ve always worked somewhat unnoticed in the background, supporting, enabling, and innovating alongside our faculty subject matter experts and partners-in-pedagogy as they move towards technology-enhanced teaching methods. But now the wealth of expertise IDs bring to higher education is starting to be recognized as the critical contribution it is.
To be clear, we’ve known who we are and what we bring to that table for a long time. And while higher education as a whole is still figuring it out and there’s a long way to go, it feels good finally to be seen. Our voices are beginning to be heard and we’re getting more seats at the table in academia.
Research that has been done on instructional designers in higher education paints a very complete picture of a few specific things: the variety of roles they play, their backgrounds and education, the design models they use (or don’t use), and the ways they work with faculty subject-matter experts. We even know what their job descriptions probably look like. And, perhaps most importantly, we are starting to understand the variety of unique challenges they face when working in higher education versus other contexts. What I find fascinating is that there is so much research that illuminates what is special and challenging about being an ID in higher ed, but so little that helps us understand where those IDs find support in facing their challenges.
While many of the challenges are centered around relationship and power dynamics between IDs and professors or institutions, there are just as many that arise out of faculty technological distrust or inexperience, time constraints, lack of understanding of pedagogical best practice or learning theories, or simply not knowing where to start when faced with what seems to be an overwhelming course re-/design project. I’ve learned through personal experience and scholarly study that one of my most powerful tools as an ID is to be a confident, knowledgeable, and reassuring presence for the professors I work with. Building trust, easing them into learning new things, and offering them emotional safety reduces a significant amount of stress and angst during our collaborations and is where I ideally like to have most of my energy invested. But at the same time, it is my “official” responsibility to be the tech expert, to innovate, to align, to co-design the actual learning experience itself! How can I enact both roles effectively? And what if I’m supporting more than one course or professor (and I always am)?
The Amateur Therapist persona is on her own here, but the Instructional Designer persona can, thankfully, find support in the right tools: number one on my list are software platforms that facilitate efficient, user-friendly creation and communication of course maps. One of the most difficult parts of re-/designing courses is mapping out the objectives and outcomes and aligning it all with the right kinds of assessments and activities. For professors, this task is often the equivalent of being asked to write an essay in a foreign language they heard once in a film ten years ago. It is not something they’re typically trained for (i.e., most of their degrees are not in teaching), and I wince a little inside when I realize I need to bring up “alignment” with any professor who has been teaching for more than a handful of years. CourseTune is a beautiful way of making that conversation so much less scary. Even better, it makes doing the work so much easier and faster – even fun. I love working with tools that have been deliberately designed to ease my challenges; as an ID I need that wherever I can get it.
The conversation about how to support instructional designers in higher education has barely begun, but I’ll start us off by suggesting: we need more tools and systems at our disposal that were designed with us in mind. Yes, we are clever and can work with complicated systems if we have to. Instead, help us take the time and energy costs of technology down a few notches so that we can focus on the interpersonal aspects of our work with professors, which are ultimately so much more important in the bigger picture. We can’t teach anyone to fish while we are tangled up in the line.