Teaching and Learning

3 Keys to Engaging Faculty in Instructional Design

Most instructional designers will tell you their work begins with getting a foot in the door with faculty and building rapport from there. Here are three ways to make that relationship a success.

colleagues collaborating on laptop

With the growth in hybrid and online courses and the introduction of open educational resources, active learning concepts and new learning spaces, it is an exciting time to be an instructional designer in higher education. More faculty members need help rethinking course activities, materials and assessments. 

Yet like campus librarians, instructional designers still struggle at times to raise awareness about the variety of services they can offer and to form meaningful partnerships with other stakeholders on campus — in part because some faculty members see them as IT support staff. That misconception gets magnified if the instructional design team resides in the IT department and reports to the CIO (which tends to be the case about half the time, instructional designers say).

"I learned early on in my career not to install printers, because that can be the thing that puts a particular perspective in people's minds," said Erin DeSilva, assistant director of Learning Design and Technology at Dartmouth College (NH). Yet DeSilva and other instructional designers interviewed for this article agreed that helping faculty with their immediate tech issues is a way to get their foot in the door, especially with faculty who aren't teaching online and so don't have an impetus to seek out instructional design help. "They may come to talk to you about setting up a Canvas site," she said, "but end up speaking with you about assignment design.

Like many colleges and universities, Dartmouth has people who work on instructional design located in individual colleges as well as a small centralized organization with four instructional designers who work mostly with undergraduate programs. Also, DeSilva noted, you won't find people at Dartmouth with the actual title of instructional designer. "We call ourselves learning designers here," she said. There is a connotation to instructional design that comes from the corporate world, while a learning designer is more focused on the user experience, she explained. "We really wanted to indicate that the student was the center of our focus and not the material development. We have some learning experience design training, but we also have training in motivational interviewing, which is a therapy technique and which is probably used in our work as much as the design stuff."

Build a Network

A former middle school science teacher, Sara Davis has been an instructional designer in the Teaching and Learning with Technology Department at Pennsylvania State University for three years.

When she first started at Penn State, her job was to help faculty migrate from the old learning management system to Canvas. "Because we were migrating to a new platform, it opened up the door to have conversations about the way the course was designed — because we had to restructure them anyway," she explained.

Davis said she realized early on that it would be important to network to develop relationships with people whose expertise she could draw upon.

"There is so much technology in use now that it is impossible to be an expert on all of it, so you need to find people who are experts and build a network," she said. "One of the first things I did as an instructional designer was to seek out professional development in project management. That helped me make a lot of connections with people who were project managers in IT and other areas. I am fortunate that our department is full of people who are not just instructional designers, they also have expertise in OER, research and multimedia. Those colleagues have helped me improve projects I am working on because of their knowledge and expertise."

Davis said she hasn't become an expert on anything yet, but she is interested in learning analytics. "I have made that known, so I am able to sit in on conversations and learn more about it," she said.

Establish Trust

Todd Conaway, an instructional designer in the Office of Digital Learning & Innovation at the University of Washington's Bothell campus, said traditionally instructional designers have not done a very good job of going out to meet faculty where they are. "The first week of every semester we used to invite faculty into our office for coffee and cookies, and we would be there to address any questions about pedagogy or technology. That was fine. But we have found that it is much better to take the food to their offices. We go to their office with a basket of cookies and a thermos of coffee and cups. That is just good customer service. You want the auto mechanic to come out to your driveway and say, 'How is your car running?'"

When faculty members express interest in a topic, they say things like, "When are you going to have a training session on that?" And Conaway always responds with, "Right this second! Come sit with me and we will discover all kinds of things."

Conaway, who came to UW Bothell three years ago from Yavapai College in Arizona, said he focuses on building personal relationships. "When I talk to faculty here, the hardest thing for me to get past is them seeing me as the guy who might fix their printer," he said. "I realized that the best thing I have to offer the University of Washington was lost the moment I arrived here — and that was 10 years of trusting relationships developed with faculty at Yavapai College." He had to begin building those from scratch at Bothell.

The Office of Digital Learning & Innovation used to put out a call for proposals for anybody who wanted to participate in course redesign efforts. "Now we are targeting specific schools and approaching the dean and asking him or her to get 10 faculty members together and find 10 courses that are high-enrollment or mandatory, and let's see if we can't get those faculty to work together for a year," Conaway said. "We are working more with groups in a cohort model."  

He also enjoys working with faculty members on an informal basis. "I want to work with faculty individually and see them progress as educators, from wherever they are today to wherever we can get them to tomorrow," he said. "While it is nice to get a group of courses moving toward hybrid or online, I see those faculty develop as educators in ways that inform all of their courses, whether face-to-face or online."

Be Flexible

Dartmouth's DeSilva said university instructional design teams should remain flexible and open to new opportunities that present themselves. "We find ourselves right now coordinating a Learning Fellows Program that grew out of a course redesign initiative," she said. The program creates partnerships between professors, undergraduate students, learning designers and faculty developers to design and deliver active and collaborative learning environments. Learning fellows support faculty by helping small groups of students interact with each other and engage more deeply in the course material through in-class problem-solving sessions, discussions, projects and other activities.

"Running it out of our department has been an interesting adventure," she said. "We have gotten more faculty development and meaningful course redesign and excellent relationship building through this program than through anything else we have done. It was a completely different thing to take on. It involves student employees and doing payroll. It wasn't in our wheelhouse. It is nice we were able to stand that up, because we have really seen some meaningful change."

Whatever technology course redesign involves, instructional designers are increasingly focused on humanizing course materials and empathetic design. "I always start with asking faculty what they want their students to get out of their course experience, and we talk through that before we start any design work," said Penn State's Davis. "There is a saying that people ignore design that ignores people. You can set something up with the best of intentions, but if you are not listening to your users, it might not be used in the way it was intended to be used."

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