An unabashedly optimistic view
Before the pandemic, not all colleges and universities had instructional designers on the payroll. More if not all do now. As an integral part of the team, they play a key role in creating memorable, effective, engaging learning experiences, and are able to translate the ideas and aspirations of faculty into course designs and activities that work.
As it became clear at the start of the pandemic that colleges and universities would need to pivot to online and synchronous learning, instructional designers realized they were in a unique position to help.
They did these five things really well:
- Shared their expert knowledge widely.
Using short videos, how-to kits, webinars and small group work, they shared their design frameworks and experience with student engagement activities within and beyond their institutions. Others set up helpdesks for faculty struggling with shifting their courses online. They offered clinics to support groups of faculty. They did what they could to share their expert knowledge widely.
- Focused on known challenges.
Some courses were relatively easy to shift online (a course in poetry, for example). Others posed real challenges, including those with labs, performance arts, music, drawing and painting, statistics and mathematics. Instructional designers spent time sourcing solutions, ensuring these classes could continue, leveraging their professional networks and sharing their solutions.
- Helped to reimagine assessment.
Many faculty had not really explored alternatives to mid-terms and end-of-term exams as the basis for assessments. But developing and evaluating assessment has been a major focus over the past two decades, and instructional designers have been deeply involved in this work. Among their contributions since the pandemic began: strengthening the use of adaptive assessment within a learning management system, and helping faculty explore new ways of assessing students’ own work and their work in groups. There has also been a significant adoption of peer assessment.
- Created how-to-learn online courses and supports for students.
The primary focus on the work of instructional designers is the student experience and the way in which students master knowledge, develop capabilities and competence, and do so with confidence. Realizing many students were new to real-time (Zoom, Adobe Connect, WebEx, Microsoft Teams) and anytime (learning via a learning management system), instructional designers created short courses, learning materials and help sheets to build online learners’ skills and to strengthen their confidence in the use of technology.
- Helped evaluate and deploy appropriate technology.
One challenge was that some faculty members wanted to experiment and deploy all sorts of new technology or software, including new peer assessment and videoconferencing software, assessment tools, links to open educational resources and AR/VR technology. Many instructional designers understood that learners faced different issues of access, equity and usability. These issues ranged from no access to broadband, limited access and skills with technology devices, challenges of leveraging technology for certain classes (art, design, music, apprenticeship) and difficulty with students creating content. They also understand the challenge of ensuring technologies are accessible to all, including those with a disability or special needs. They evaluated options and ensured a deployed technology met accessibility and security/privacy standards.
Over the past year, new respect for instructional designers’ work emerged in many colleges and universities. Faculty were grateful to be able to explore examples of courses successfully created and delivered in an online format. They were also grateful for the connections that many instructional designers created with colleagues in other colleges and universities that tried new approaches.
A real strength of instructional designers is they can learn from failure, both their own and that of their colleagues. Using analytics of what students actually do — whether they actually watched the video, completed the quizzes, explored the storyboard — and evaluation data of the student experience, they were able to make real improvements between the Spring/Summer 2020 offerings and the courses taught in Fall 2020.
A related strength is that instructional designers in most countries belong to a small, connected community of practice and inquiry. Many know and work with others in their respective countries on specific instructional design challenges or studied together in graduate programs. They leveraged this network to support their work.
No doubt several new articles and books will appear about the work of instructional designers, and it is appropriate they should seek to capture their learning and insights in this way. Instructional designers deserve applause and recognition for the important contributions they made during the past year.