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As Demand Grows for Instructional Designers, So Too are Efforts to Better Prepare Them

Jeff Selingo

Originally published by Jeff Selingo on LinkedIn: As Demand Grows for Instructional Designers, So Too are Efforts to Better Prepare Them

One of the fastest growing jobs in education these days is instructional designer.

Colleges and universities, in particular, are using instructional designers to improve the quality of teaching both online—where designers first got their start—but also increasingly for in-person classes to take advantage of the latest research on pedagogy and use of technology in the classroom. 

Membership in the association that mostly represents instruction designers, the Association for Educational Communications and Technology, has grown by 50 percent over the last decade, to more than 2,400, and so too has the number of job postings.

Now training and education for instructional designers is catching up to demand for the job. Recently, Georgetown University launched a new program in learning and design, which aims to give students a deep background in technology innovation, leaning analytics, higher education leadership, and learning design.

The program, which leads to a master’s degree, begins in the fall and students are being accepted on a rolling basis.

I recently caught up with Edward Maloney, executive director of Georgetown’s Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship, who is founding director of the program and my exchange with him follows:

Q. The college lecture with the professor as the sage on the stage was the primary method of delivery of education for centuries. But in the last five years or so we're seeing more experimentation with teaching. What happened?

A. On the technology side, greater access and facility with video technologies, digital resources, and social media has meant that more and more faculty are willing to experiment what happens in the classroom because there are increasing ways for them to engage with students in meaningful ways outside the constraints of space and time in a traditional classroom.

In addition to the changes in teaching prompted by new technologies, I would also argue that the growing interest in pedagogical practice in general—partly because of greater awareness of what our students are learning through increased assessment activities and partly because of greater research and scholarship on teaching and learning—has led to more dynamic, engaged and learner-centered teaching practices. 

Q. What is the most promising research or the most promising experiments happening with teaching right now?

A. There is actually quite a bit of research happening in higher education that is promising. There are two areas I would want to highlight. The first I mentioned earlier. We are collecting more and more data about what and how we are teaching and what and if anything our students are learning.

A video about the new learning and design degree at Georgetown

The second area of experimentation I would highlight is the work that is happening curricular incubators like the Red House at Georgetown or the Digital Innovation Greenhouse at University of Michigan. Here, faculty are challenging some of the fundamental assumptions that structure teaching and learning at colleges and universities, from the standard semester or quarter to the notion of the credit hour to what seat time and faculty load means. This work is showing that if we are ever going to fully change how we teach and learn, we are going to have to tackle the structural limitations of institutions that were designed and implemented in most cases long before the dawn of the digital era.

Q. The old joke, of course, is that college faculty get there because they want to research, not teach, and are rarely taught how to teach in graduate school. Do you see the role of teacher becoming more important or do you see the roles bifurcating in the future with faculty for research and those who are great teachers?

A. There certainly is a strong case to be made for the splitting off of faculty into more specialized roles, and in general we’re already seeing some of this happening in the shift of the majority of teaching responsibilities away from tenure-line faculty in many colleges. Just as interesting to me, though, is the growing role of educators of all types who occupy hybrid roles in administration and teaching.

That said, there are some problems with this shift. One potential advantage of higher education over K-12 education is that professors have spent a significant amount of time specializing in their fields. This attention to research can have a powerful pedagogical impact on students who are entering into the disciplinary way of thinking themselves. We know that one of the greatest experiences that students have is mentoring and faculty with a deep and ongoing investment in research can be powerful mentors to students.

This is not to say that teaching-focused faculty will not have this research background, but I do believe an ongoing investment in research is a critical component of the value that higher education provides to our students overall.

Q. Why is Georgetown starting a master's in learning and design? Who should be thinking about enrolling in a program like this? How is it different than what already exists?

A. As the executive director of a teaching and learning center I’ve had the chance to witness changing needs in this field from many different angles.

What kinds of skills do we increasingly value as we hire? What types of expanding roles are our colleagues at peer institutions playing? What managerial and technical areas, such as project management and creative direction and data analysis, do we see becoming increasingly critical to being a versatile professional in our field?

One could imagine faculty support some years ago looking relatively straightforward—consultations with faculty based on a manageable body of knowledge updated with an annual consolidation of some new research—but today the range of projects that faculty turn to learning professionals for help with is incredibly expansive and interdisciplinary, and we’ve turned to a team-based approach to really do justice to the complexity of the ideas faculty bring to us and design with us.

On the other hand, pressures on higher education have given momentum to conversations at colleges and universities about the future of postsecondary education. While these conversations are not exactly new, they have picked up steam in recent years as the cost of an education outpaces most student’s ability to pay for it and new edtech startups have presented themselves as alternatives. What is new, though, is that designers, technologists, and educators in hybrid roles are being asked to provide input on the future of higher education. They increasingly have a seat at the table, so to speak.

So that’s where our new program comes in. We realized there was a great need out there to craft a program that will nurture that kind of learning professional—someone who can reach across disciplines and point to the best pedagogical insights from a dynamic body of knowledge, who integrates seamlessly into teams and has developed an affinity for the organizational components of design work—and those kinds of leaders. We see the MLD program as an answer to that need. It was conceptualized as a learning design program oriented toward the future, based on the best of our disciplinary traditions but infused with a healthy appetite for challenging the status quo when it comes to the structures around learning.

We hope the program will be as attractive to recently graduated undergraduate students to mid-career professionals who want to have a seat at that table where the future of higher education is being designed.

Q. Given changes in technology and the economy, there is a growing need for learning throughout our lifetime rather than just one time in life. Who is going to fill that role of teaching for life -- will it come through our jobs, through continuing education in university settings, online with Lynda.com or YouTube, or something that doesn't exist yet?

A. It’s up to us as individuals to learn how to guide ourselves on our lifelong learning journeys—to become aware of our own learning preferences and how to persevere, to become savvy seekers of quality information sources and wise vetters of what we find. Learning how to learn is one of the greatest personal investments we can make, and I believe universities will continue to play an important role in helping students develop strong metacognitive skills, skills that will ultimately encourage lifelong learning.

That said, the question of who will meet our collective appetite for lifelong learning is critical, and I do believe universities—and the projects that emerge from places like our curricular incubators—have the opportunity to lead the charge, since learning and growth are woven into everything we do as educational institutions. And we’re not lacking ideas—it’s up to decision-makers at our universities to be ready to take the next step and run with some of the great ideas that are emerging.

Take, for example, Stanford2025’s Open Loop idea—as part of a year-long project, participants dreamed up a model in which students would spread their six Stanford years across their lifetime as best suited the modulations of their professional lives. That’s an ambitious and intriguing idea. Who will be the in vanguard, experimenting with models as radical as this one?

Jeffrey Selingo is author of There Is Life After College: What Parents and Students Should Know About Navigating School to Prepare for the Jobs of Tomorrow. You can follow his writing here, on Twitter @jselingo, on Facebook, and sign up for free newsletters about the future of higher education at jeffselingo.com.

He is a regular contributor to the Washington Post’s Grade Point blog, a professor of practice at Arizona State University, and a visiting scholar at Georgia Tech's Center for 21st Century Universities.