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Instructional Designers Are Teachers

 Published on April 12, 2018 /  Written by /  “The Best Offense is a Strong Defense” by Wayne S. Grazio; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 /  18

Writing, not teaching. This is what Peter Horrocks, had to say about the faculty’s work at England’s Open University… where he is Vice Chancellor. Writing, not teaching. The VC offered a deluge of disparaging comments about the work of OU faculty, in particular an accusation that these faculty are not teachers at all. “It’s ridiculous that they’re spoken about as teaching when they are writing, that’s not teaching. And they used to teach in residential [universities] and this university has allowed central academics to get away with not being teachers for decades.”

The absurdity of these comments is manifold. On the one hand, Horrocks is deeply undermining the work of his own institution—an institution with an international reputation for innovation and quality in online learning. On another hand, the VC is betraying his own naivete about what teaching is in a digital world. Upon a landscape where Facebook data can be used to wrongfully elect an American president, and where hand-held devices now create the filter through which we meet one another, date one another, and form lasting, meaningful, productive collegial relationships, it’s frankly absurd to think that teaching and learning would remain untouched by the changes wrought upon our social and professional lives by digital technology. To make any assumption of what teaching is today is hubris at best. (The VC has since apologized for his remarks.)

We cannot call one thing teaching any more. We cannot call it teaching if we stand in front of a classroom situated down the hall of an ivied old building, and then call nothing else teaching. Lecturing isn’t teaching. Assigning group work isn’t teaching. Writing a lesson plan isn’t teaching. Creating a discussion prompt isn’t teaching. Figuring out how to join a video conference with your class. Meeting with a student, responding to an email, getting creative about grading. Not teaching. Not unless all of these things are.

Where Peter Horrocks was speaking about the faculty at Open University, his remarks reflect also the prevalent opinion about instructional designers across higher education. The instructional designer — a title used as commonly in corporate settings as in educational ones — is a generally misunderstood figure in academia, and one that struggles to find its place in the hierarchies of expertise and reputation that form the infrastructure of academic life. And so, catapulting from a critique and rumination on the Vice Chancellor’s remarks, I want to turn a careful, compassionate eye on instructional designers.

Instructional designers are teachers. Three-fold. On Monday, they are teachers of teachers, assisting with the framing of an instructor’s ideas for their class into the shape of the LMS or other digital platform. They know, or should know, what is possible, what isn’t possible, what stretches the boundaries of tradition, and what bends toward new and imaginative applications. But to define instructional designers as only this, as experts in content delivery, is reductive and incorrect. Because instructional designers are not IT staff. They are not technologists. At the root of what they do is a maddening desire to create meaningful learning experiences in digital space.

Instructional designers, then, understand digital space. They understand learning. They understand teaching. And they understand technology.

But their week doesn’t end on Monday. By Wednesday, they have moved from teaching teachers to teaching students. It’s a mistake to think that an instructional designer ever disappears from an online course. Their fingerprints are upon the pages, the discussions, the quizzes, the assignments. An instructional designer may have touched every piece of a course before it’s offered, may have helped with the logical arrangement of ideas, of digital components, with the flow of the course, the scaffolding, the movement from beginning to end of the narrative and story the course tells. As creative as a teacher wishes to be in the presentation of the course — from the use of traditional online techniques like discussions and video lectures, to deeply particular decisions about interactivity, open educational resources, and more — the instructional designer has to be that much more creative. It’s their job to watch out for the student, to make sure that they will be able not only to follow the course, and locate relevant information like due dates and assignment descriptions, but also that they’ll enjoy the course, get something from the course, and remember the course as a true college experience.

Instructional designers, then, must have empathy, a natural sense for how a student will feel about the LMS, about the presentation of course materials. And they must have nothing short of brilliant ideas about how to help students engage in the community of the online classroom from all their remote locations.

On Friday, instructional designers become teachers of institutions. They wade patiently into meeting after meeting and memo after memo about the importance of “student success” (read: retention and graduation rates), analytics and reporting, and the trials and tribulations of serving a faculty population that not only doesn’t know what instructional designers do (they’re either overpaid help desk people or magical unicorns), but that also resists going digital at all. Instructional designers are at the center of the battle over the place of digital learning in the scope and hopes and dreams of their institutions. They make cases for the need for more and better resources, and they maintain an encyclopedic knowledge of the digital tools available to meet institutional goals.

And yet, instructional designers are often operating under less-than-minimum circumstances. There are teams separated by departments (some in IT, some in Digital Learning offices); there are teams whose ideological goals are subsumed by the chop-shop grind of uploading videos, fixing quizzes, helping teachers log in (again) to their courses. They are usually much smaller groups than they should be, and underfunded.

Instructional designers shouldn’t have to face a scarcity of resources, especially when a university pins its hopes on raising enrollment through online course offerings. The work that offices of Digital Learning do is rarely given the support required. And the support that digital learning needs isn’t just financial. Instructional design needs an investment of trust — from the administration, from digitally timid staff and faculty — and an investment of the same ideologies that support the rest of learning as it happens at the institution.

The last thing digital learning or instructional design needs is reinforcement that online teaching isn’t teaching… or that instructional design isn’t teaching also.



I have painted the instructional designer as something of a hero. Many of them are. I have met some who are so committed to students and to learning online that they will not be satisfied until college is successfully translated for students who cannot come to campus. They wield compassion and empathy before they turn to digital tools, and they show up to work hopeful and determined. These are the instructional designers who are dissatisfied with the progress the field has made. But they use this dissatisfaction to drive an imagination for better things.

But I should also be honest: this is not the majority of instructional designers. Not because they are unwilling to be all that and a bag of chips, but because even most instructional designers do not understand what an instructional designer is.

Skills-based and outcomes-based, positivist-inclined, Bloomsy instructional design training programs, often disguised as advanced degrees or certificate programs in online teaching, have perpetuated the notion that instructional designers are computational, technicist, and mechanistic in their work. Most instructional designers are taught that their work should consist of aligning outcomes to assessments, assessments to assignments, assignments to content. That they should be masters of Screencast-o-Matic and Powerpoint and Voicethread rather than teachers. Courses are not compositions for these instructional designers, but rather blocks fit together and packaged, tied round with a rubric for a bow. Most are satisfied with this.

But I am not. Design has so much more potential. Understanding the full impact of instructional design requires reflection, and not a little humility. Amy Collier, Associate Provost for Digital Learning at Middlebury College, writes:

Design is not a neutral activity. We design through our own lenses, assumptions, politics, goals, beliefs about the world — through our own humanity. Instructional design is no different, whether you are someone with an Instructional Designer title, or someone who does instructional design as part of their work (e.g., a faculty member). Our instructional designs — both digital and analog, implicit and explicit — embody what we believe about students, about education, about the goals of learning. Taking the time to recognize and critically visit our design principles can help us to be aware of how they influence our course designs.

In this time of ballooning online course offerings, attention to design — and recognition of design as teaching — is vital. Words on a page are seats in a room. “For the vast majority of students learning in fully online classes,” I’ve said elsewhere, “the LMS may be their classroom, but you are their campus. You are their connection to what it means to be a student.” Design is the secret to creating online a chemistry that parallels the delight and argument, the spontaneity and confusion, the peak moments and revelations of an on-ground class.

The best instructional designers will recognize their role in making learning online meaningful, and not just instructional. But they cannot do that — and we cannot cultivate more “best” instructional designers — unless we recognize the essential, productive, imaginative, pedagogical role they play in digital learning. We must likewise recognize that the field of instructional design is morbidly misconceived by most institutions that employ them and by most programs that train them. The future of digital learning, which is the Tinman to the Dorothy of higher education, depends on taking seriously the work of instructional designers as teachers, both by pushing them to be more and acknowledging when they are far more than we realized.

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18 Responses
  1. Tania McDonald

    Thank you so much for this accurate and insightful explanation of our roles as Learning Designer. Never before have I seen a description that outlines my week and my world so clearly for others to understand. I am frequently asked “what do you do?” I am going to share this far and wide to explain what I do. Thank you !

  2. I love how you brought up that design isn’t neutral with the Amy Collier quote.

    You said empathy is important for an instructional designer to have. Is this the most important skill? And how can this be trained/improved?

    Thanks! This article was a joy to read and made me excited to do my work today.

    1. ian

      Empathy is relating and understanding another experience. I would recommend connecting with others to hear their stories. Listen to teachers to understand what they experience is like. Do the same with students. Volunteering for the homeless can also help.

  3. Great piece Sean. I’m not sure about the landscape in the US but in Australia we seem to have more specialised roles – even though most people (learning designers, academic developers, Ed technologists) are largely all-rounders. Your idea of us teaching everyone rings true – I do wonder how the other stakeholders see that though, particularly management 🙂

  4. ian

    Great writing, thanks. Reminds me why I do this type of work, to use my creativity, to make meaningful learning experiences. While studying this in grad school one of my first realizations about online learning was when I was asked to think about how many traditional courses were not meaningful to me. With such few courses making a real impact on me, instructional designers have such an opportunity.

  5. Adrienne Phelps-Coco

    Thanks so much for this article! I’m in the last week of the instructional design course that I teach, and I’ll definitely share this with my students as a final vision of the types of designers I hope they become. (Hi class, if you’re reading this!)

    This sentence really struck me, “Skills-based and outcomes-based, positivist-inclined, Bloomsy instructional design training programs, often disguised as advanced degrees or certificate programs in online teaching, have perpetuated the notion that instructional designers are computational, technicist, and mechanistic in their work.”

    This was exactly the kind of training I got in the instructional design courses I took. And I try very hard not to replicate it in my own teaching.

    I’d love to hear from others who are teaching instructional design about how we can best prepare students to be the type of creative, empathetic designers that Sean’s describing here.

  6. Dan Piedra

    In much of Ontario, Instructional Designers are the foundation of a new wave of online course design and development. They work together with instructors, multi-media personnel, and learning systems technologists to drive creativity, innovation, applied learning, and to push the bounds of what is possible in an online course. I have the pleasure of working with such individuals who together are moving the vision of online at McMaster University beyond the typical look of online courses. They do need to have been in the classroom, for only then will they truly understand what the instructor they work with will experience. To allow instructors to develop courses without an ID is like allowing a home owner to build a home without an architect.

  7. cathy griffin

    Hi Sean
    Cathy from Canada here. I enjoyed your article. A great summary of the work I do as an instructional designer. Its the creativity and living on the edge that makes the work so interesting to me. It also helps me to work in an environment where every day is different. My colleague passed this on to me and I wasn’t going to read it, but am very glad I did.
    Cathy G

  8. Instructional designers are not teachers, just as engineers are not builders. The engineer engineers the building, and then the builder builds it. Similarly, the instructional designer works out what and how learning will happen, then the teacher works with the student for it to happen. Ideally, an engineer will have had some hands on experience building, so they have a better idea as to what is possible, and should consult the builder. Similarly the instructional designer should have teaching experience, and consult the teachers. In many cases the one person will switch between the roles of designer and teacher.

    I designed my first online course, with no training or experience in teaching an online course, and without ever having been a student in one. This is a little like someone designing a building who had never occupied one. I found later training very useful, and the experience of being an online student especially useful.

  9. This is really inspiring, Sean. So much of this really resonated with me, but I absolutely love when you said, “Instructional designers, then, must have empathy, a natural sense for how a student will feel about the LMS, about the presentation of course materials.” All too often I think it’s easier to let the learning objectives steer the path of the course without having any regard for how students will perceive and use it. My team really advocates for “putting the leaner first” when designing and creating any type of content. We also use the same learning management software. where the elearning is stored to gather students’ feedback and see how they’re engaging with the content. We can keep their preferences and how they learn at the top of our minds for future learning which we’ve found successful.

  10. Yi Zhang

    You paint a great portrait of instructional designers, it is so real that I can see myself there. Thank you for addressing the challenges we face everyday that almost nobody mentioned before.

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