Why Instructional Designers Are Underutilized

Only one-fourth of faculty members responding to an Inside Higher Ed survey said they collaborate with designers on online course development. Experts say that low percentage is no surprise.

November 1, 2017
 
Eli Burakian / Dartmouth College
Professor Rebecca Biron (left) works with instructional designer Ashley Kehoe.

Anthony Piña, associate provost of instruction and online learning at Sullivan University, in Louisville, Ky., says, “Instructional designers are the best kept secret in higher education. A lot of faculty and administrators don’t know what instructional designers can do.”

That’s just one of the reasons why instructional designers and digital learning leaders believe designers are underutilized by instructors at two- and four-year colleges and universities. Other factors include few designers on staff and resistance from skeptical faculty members.

Inside Higher Ed’s 2017 Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology, released this week, highlights the situation. Of the 2,360 faculty members who responded to the study, 25 percent said they have worked with an instructional designer to develop or revise an online or a blended course, and 23 percent said they collaborated with a designer to create or revise a face-to-face class. (This was the first year that the annual survey asked this question, so no comparison data are available for previous years.)

Designers, administrators and others interviewed for this article said they weren’t surprised by the low percentages, and provided a variety of explanations.

Lack of Staff

While there is anecdotal evidence that the number of instructional designers is swelling across college campuses, many institutions, especially less well-funded ones, still employ few or no designers.

Joshua Kim, director of digital learning initiatives at Dartmouth College's Center for the Advancement of Learning, said the lack of instructional designers on staff represents a larger issue in higher education.

“At places that have resources, it stands to have a faculty member working with an instructional designer,” said Kim, who is a blogger for “Inside Digital Learning.” “Then the faculty love teaching online. When the faculty members see what they can do online, they say, ‘Wow, this is awesome. I want to use [these tools] in my residential classes.’”

But many institutions that don’t have large endowments and are tuition dependent have to make tough budgetary choices, Kim said. “Everyone would [hire instructional designers] if they had the resources, but designers are expensive.”

Even at public institutions of similar size, the number of instructional designers can vary greatly. Steve Kaufman, senior instructional designer at the University of Akron, in Ohio, said Akron has 22,000 students and three full-time instructional designers; nearby Kent State University, with 28,000 students, and has seven instructional designers and seven educational technology designers. 

Community colleges, which tend to have smaller budgets than four-year institutions but often as many or more students, often have one instructional designer or none.

“It is less common that you would find dedicated instructional design staff at a community college,” said Loraine Schmitt, dean of online education at Portland Community College, in Oregon. “Resources don’t allow for that.”

And when community colleges have one or more designers, those staffers often have many other responsibilities, including administration of the learning management system, technology support and faculty development.

“It is a national theme that [all institutions] are focusing on quality,” Schmitt said. “But with declining budgets, instructional design is competing with many important initiatives.”

Still, Schmitt said, community college instructors often receive design support, even if it’s not from a person with an instructional design title.

Lack of Knowledge

Another reason why only a quarter of faculty members in the Inside Higher Ed survey said they collaborate with instructional designers could be that designers have a variety of titles, including educational technology specialist, learning designer, curriculum developer and learning management support, said Kaufman, vice chair of the Quality Matters Instructional Designer Association. Plus, he said, many instructors “don’t know how an instructional designer can help with course design.”

Anthony Salinas, an instructional designer at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, said professors often don’t realize that their institutions offer instructional design services. He said his university has 12 full-time designers, but still, it’s difficult to establish contact with all instructors.

“If there are just a few instructional designers, how can you communicate to all the faculty?” he said. “You’ve got to have a marketing strategy for reaching faculty.”

Even with a plan, said Salinas, an IDA board member, faculty members are bombarded with emails, so messages from instructional designers may go unopened. Mailing printed materials to instructors is expensive.

Also, demands on professors’ time are great, and they may not have time for online course professional development, Salinas said. “They are drowning in their workloads,” he said. “Instructional designers must understand that faculty value their time.”

Lack of Faculty Support

Sources contacted by “Inside Digital Learning” for this article said that many faculty members are resistant to working with designers. “Some will feel more comfortable than others working with instructional designers,” Piña said. “There can be anxiety by faculty -- will this person tell me how to teach? But that’s not the role of the instructional designer.”

Salinas said professors often don’t seek out an instructional designer’s help because of “fear of change or of the unknown. It’s like a patient not wanting to see a doctor.”

“You are always marketing yourself,” he said. “You have to be confident and show you can meet their needs. Instructional designers have to provide lots of data to back up their recommendations.”

Instructional designers have to consider that instructors “take on a lot of risk,” and if a course fails, it could impact their tenure application or adjunct status, Salinas added. “Instructional designers have to understand that and … coach them through the process. If they are reluctant, then you have to be there for encouragement, especially.”

Status Boost

For the past five years, Sullivan University has required instructors to collaborate with instructional designers to develop online courses; the designers serve as the project managers and the professors function as the subject-matter experts. Instructors also are paid for the additional work.

“The faculty is responsible for the course content and assessment, but they aren’t burdened with having to construct the course in the learning management system,” Piña said. “It’s less work for the faculty. Once the faculty came through the experience, they loved it,”

Piña also said Sullivan has upgraded the expectations of instructional designers, who all must have at least a master’s degree.

At some institutions, instructional designers fall under the information technology department, but at Akron, they report to a dean. “We can say we have your best interests at heart,” Kaufman said. “We want faculty to see us as a partner; that is super important.”

Kim predicts that as educators who have experience in learning science and pedagogy move into leadership roles, more instructional designers will be hired.

“We should celebrate that online education is getting better, and it’s leading residential education in a lot of ways,” he said. But, he added, “the benefits are not easily apportioned.”

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