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How instructional designers enabled the great shift to digital learning amid COVID-19

Particularly in the initial phase of the public health emergency, these unsung university staff did most of the heavy lifting to rework face-to-face courses.


More than 18 months into the pandemic, we have learned much about the extreme efforts university administrators, professors and students have made to adapt to our radically different circumstances — but what about the contributions of instructional designers?

The professionals who support the effective design, development and delivery of courses have been largely absent from public discussions about the emergency shift to remote teaching on university campuses. Yet, their expertise has been key to allowing these institutions to continue serving students.

When it comes to building a learning experience, instructional designers are typically involved in conducting a needs assessment, establishing learning objectives, identifying relevant content, determining and implementing the learning management system, designing instructional materials, coordinating with the technical team, training faculty and developing learning-evaluation tools. During the initial weeks and months of the pandemic, they did most of the heavy lifting to rework face-to-face courses, introduce new assessment methods and guide faculty, particularly those who were new to online teaching.

“It was an all-hands-on-deck situation,” recalled Sophia Palahicky, who leads a team of over 30 learning designers, course developers, and learning technologists and technicians at Royal Roads University. “The people on my team were willing to work so hard because they care about their jobs and each other, about the people they support, and ultimately the students… That is the only way we made it through this.”

Dr. Palahicky’s team serves about 80 core faculty and 700 associate instructors via the university’s Centre for Teaching and Educational Technologies (CTET). While Royal Roads is a blended university that already delivered 90 per cent of its programs online, the team faced immense pressure to quickly convert the existing in-person programs, plus the short-term campus residencies some students complete for their online programs, to web-based formats and revise or optimize existing online courses.

Responding to the sudden surge in demand for CTET services required Dr. Palahicky to make significant changes. Traditionally, the university’s seven schools and one college have been assigned a dedicated instructional designer (or IDs, as they’re sometimes called) and learning technologist, but they could also request help directly from the centre. To streamline these requests, Dr. Palahicky designated the school liaisons as the only points of contact and communicated this change across the institution. Three new instructional designers were hired to handle the expanded workload and Dr. Palahicky pitched in with direct instructional design work. She switched her team’s usual biweekly meetings to daily digital huddles to discuss and problem-solve emergencies. Together they managed to triple the number of workshops for professors on facilitating online learning.

Acknowledging the vital role that people like Dr. Palahicky play at Canadian universities — particularly amid COVID-19 — is a high priority for Carolle Roy. She is president of the Canadian Association of Instructional Designers (CAID), which represents the interests of IDs — whether they work in education, government or industry, or as freelancers — and advances the profession by offering training, networking opportunities and job leads. Last year, it added a workshop series called “Transition to Digital in Emergencies: What Lessons can be Learned?” to support people in the field through a demanding period.

Growing demand for credentials

Historically, the title of instructional designer has been used liberally by many people who lack formal qualifications, Dr. Roy said, and it’s not uncommon for schools to hire those who lack relevant training. But after the pandemic hit, CAID was flooded with inquiries from educational institutions seeking leads and guidance for hiring instructional designers with the proper credentials. The training landscape is broad, encompassing programs and courses typically called instructional design, educational design, learning design or educational technology. Actual degrees are rare, so CAID includes on its websites core competencies for the occupation, recognized by the International Board of Standards for Training, Performance and Instruction, that can help employers vet candidates.

“Universities had to hire a lot of IDs who needed to be ready to work right away. There was no time to train them,” said Dr. Roy, who is an instructional designer in the faculty of medicine at Université de Montréal with nearly 25 years of experience in the field. “An understanding emerged that IDs without prior experience or knowledge wouldn’t be able to hit the ground running.”

At the pandemic’s onset, Dr. Roy said, it became clear that many people in the postsecondary sector misunderstood the value of IDs, associating their work with solving technological problems instead of facilitating teaching and learning objectives. “We became a little too linked with the technology rather the pedagogical aspects of the practice,” she noted. But the perception changed as exposure to their work increased through intensive collaboration with faculty . This was especially the case among instructors who were previously weary of teaching online and resisted interference in their methods. In the face of this game-changing external threat, she said, they were “pleased to have skilled people around who could help.”

That is how John Harper felt when he turned to the University of Manitoba’s Centre for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning (CATL) to help transition an environmental design course. Dr. Harper has taught the first-year course since 2016 but always face to face, which he prefers. When COVID changed the game, he chose to make a quick and simple pivot to Cisco WebEx, using the platform in a straightforward way to deliver synchronous lectures, present PowerPoint slides and hold open-textbook exams.

But by the time summer 2021 rolled around, he was reassessing whether the format was truly engaging his students in the subject material. He also wanted to incorporate more interactive and creative learning methods. Over about six weeks, instructional designer Sasha White of the CATL collaborated with Dr. Harper to reorganize his course content into a framework that better represented the learning objectives. Ms. White also incorporated a discussion forum for students to reflect on and discuss the course material.

“It was like dissection, it was very messy, we had to take it all apart,” Dr. Harper recalled.

Dr. Harper started teaching the revised course in September, and said he has become more comfortable and confident with online teaching. He is also pleased with how the discussion posts let students practice their persuasive writing skills in a more dynamic way.

“I couldn’t have made this change without the input, resources and support of the instructional designer the CATL,” Dr. Harper said. “I don’t think people realize how much they’re doing behind the scenes.”

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