3 Ways I Was Completely Wrong About Higher Ed Instructional Design


Over the past few months, I have had the pleasure of working with the George Washington University to help bring a few of their classes online. I came to this position having never worked in Higher Ed before and ended up uncovering a new home in my field! I loved the problem-solving and creativity that working in a university setting demanded—which was surprising to me, since I came into it with a few assumptions that ended up being totally false.   

Assumption #1: Working in Higher Ed is boring. 

Higher Ed is a giant pillar of the Instructional Design field, so there are thousands of people that would rightfully find this statement offensive, amusingly naive, or both. I’m not proud of it. 

Looking back, I’m not sure where this assumption came from. I loved being in college. If I could, I would take a steady stream of classes for the rest of my life. Working at a University really scratched that itch for me. My course load contained classes on Music, Anthropology, Political Science, and National Security, to name a few. I learned so much about so much

Reality: Higher Ed is a wonderful place for an instructional designer!

This work mixed all of the things love about being an ID. I had an eclectic mix of courses to work on. I got to work directly with faculty to craft their courses and share their expertise with students. I was surrounded by a team of skilled people who shared my passion for learning. And working in a library on a college campus was a blast! It was like being back in school, except without all of the hangovers and adolescent drama. 

Assumption #2: Higher Ed Faculty are naturals at instructional design. 

One reason I thought this job might be boring was that I thought the “fun stuff” would be done before the ID gets involved. I assumed the faculty was trained in creating objectives and developing assessments, learning activities, and media. Not necessarily the case. 

Each faculty member I worked with had a different approach to their material and how it should be taught. That was understandable and expected. 

What I did not expect was that their approaches weren’t always consistent with ID best practices. Some courses didn’t contain actionable objectives (gasp!). Others had lecture or media that didn’t tie back to their objectives (oh, the humanity!).  As it turns out, there was still plenty of “fun stuff” for me to sink my teeth into. I found that, by and large, faculty are experts in their research area and not necessarily trained in pedagogy, barring any personal interests they may have pursued. 

Reality: Collaboration with IDs is an important component of faculty development. 

To be clear, this not an indictment of faculty; it’s simply a shift in my understanding of their roles.

All of the faculty I worked with were brilliant, passionate about their subject and the craft of teaching, and very hard-working. From what I could tell, they were all effective instructors and beloved by their students. Some had courses that needed serious work to get to an effective and accountable place, others had solid courses that could be greatly improved with a few ID-based tweaks and guidance. *

One of my biggest takeaways from this experience was the powerful impact a faculty/ID duo can have on the student experience. It’s like a superpower!

There is much to be said about the relationship between faculty, IDs, and Higher Ed leadership. While my experience was largely positive, I could see how competing priorities could derail this collaboration to the detriment of the student. My two cents: IDs should continue to see ourselves as facilitators of faculty’s professional development and avoid becoming detached from the student experience by underselling our value to the institutions that employ us. 

Assumption #3: The shift to online Higher Ed degrees evens the playing-field for marginalized students.

I’ve always found online higher education compelling because I’ve assumed it levels the playing field.  Shifting to distance learning, I thought, promotes affordability, flexibility, and personalization, which should increase the diversity of the student population. 

Not exactly. 

Reality: We can do more to make higher education accessible for adults (and the responsibility to do so belongs to all of us).

Previously I thought accessibility and online learning naturally went hand-in-hand, but it turns out the two are not inextricably linked. Creating accessible, affordable, and diverse learning environments takes purposeful growth and dedication.

I think that it is tempting for Higher Ed institutions to rely on the perception that their online courses are inclusive and accessible without actually taking the conscious effort to make them so. 

It is up to all of us—as IDs, instructors, and consumers—to hold Higher Education institutions accountable as they continue to make the shift to online. As Higher Ed continues to transform (with online education being a mere piece of that transformation) we need to make sure that we don’t pass up the opportunity to make education more affordable, diverse and effective.


*It should be noted that faculty were altering 15-week, in-person courses to fit into 6-week intensive, online courses. This was no easy feat and a course overhaul was expected in many cases. 

The ID Savvy of Last Week Tonight