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Post by Jacob Cragg, Director of Instructional Design and Technology, Instructional Design Group.

The instructional design world is abuzz with the recent news of the Denver Broncos hiring John Vieira, a former high school teacher, as an instructional designer and special assistant to the head coach. A coach to coach the coaches? Revolutionary. 

But what does an instructional designer do exactly? Instructional designers are responsible for the process of creating and delivering learning materials and experiences. To start, instructional designers partner with subject matter experts to develop learning objectives, activities, and assessments for a particular course or program. Once course materials are established, designers deploy theory- and evidence-based solutions that address curriculum design, digital transformation, faculty/staff development, quality assurance of learning, and academic technology support, just to name a few. The benefits of instructional design services include measurable and equitable learning objectives and assessments, inclusive learning activities, accessible and consistent course navigation, increased student engagement, and customized programming.

Deemed “The Hottest Job in Higher Education” at the cusp of the COVID-19 pandemic, instructional designers were asked to help lead the charge of digital transformation and the transition to emergency remote teaching. Overnight, instructional designers leaped from the institutional shadows to the forefront of digital strategy in higher education. Designers then assisted institutions in navigating the new normal, which included increased online asynchronous and hybrid learning opportunities. Though a significant part of the job is designing learning experiences for asynchronous courses, there are growing demands for designers to work across all academic modalities, including the traditional face-to-face learning environments and emerging modalities like hyflex and remote synchronous. The demands now extend beyond the academic environments in higher education with instructional designers offering services in the not-for-credit, corporate, staff development, and student organization spaces. Additionally, many designers are trained in differentiation and inclusive pedagogy, and serve as support for institutions wanting to address the inequities in higher education. Instructional designer, educational leadership faculty, and scholar of equitable, inclusive, and antiracist teaching in higher education, Flower Darby, argues that it is our duty to teach more inclusively across modalities.

Jacob Cragg
Jacob Cragg, Director of Instructional Design and Technology, Instructional Design Group.

So who are instructional designers? Applicable skills and knowledge regarding pedagogy (dependent learning), andragogy (self-directed learning), and heutagogy (self-determined learning) can converge from a variety of different professional backgrounds where education is a focus. It is not just the traditional students that need to learn. Faculty and staff need to know how to effectively use technology for teaching and learning with digital convergence driving the need for people to teach those skills. Now, there are more formal pathways for instructional designers such as a master's degree or graduate certificate from Northeastern University. Though like me, many instructional designers began as teachers in the traditional secondary education classroom.

I would not trade my classroom experience for the world, but it is no secret that many secondary educators are leaving the traditional classroom in search of new opportunities. For years, teachers have cited burnout and demoralization as reasons for leaving the classroom. The degradation of teacher salaries, demands of “additional duties as assigned,” and potential value conflicts caused by secondary leadership and increasing local government intervention, it is no surprise that teachers are feeling burdened with the weight of career decision-making. With the COVID-19 pandemic however, those feelings have become heightened by policy changes, significant staff shortages, and remote teaching.

Public secondary education became one of the hardest-hit sectors of the economy and a springboard for the Great Resignation. The Economic Policy Institute reports that there was a potential shortfall of 658,000 local public education jobs as of December 2021. All public secondary employment has suffered a -4.7% change since 2019 with teachers representing a -6.8% change. New England is no exception with five of the six states reporting negative public education employment growth since 2019, with Vermont experiencing a -11.6% change, one of the most significant shifts in the nation. Education Week reported that 77% of surveyed administrators were experiencing notable staffing shortages last year, and the National Education Association reported that 55% of teachers said that they have considered leaving their jobs sooner than planned. While addressing salaries and workload for teachers and support staff is of utmost importance, secondary institutions should consider using funding for more instructional design services and academic technology support for teachers remaining in the classroom. Following suit, institutions of higher education should be leveraging the knowledge and skills gained during the COVID-19 pandemic, making instructional design services available to all faculty and staff as a part of their new digital strategies. This strategy will signal a prioritization of customized, engaging, and inclusive learning experiences for all stakeholders, across all modalities.

Secondary and higher education institutions are not the only ones paying attention to the impact of instructional design on learning. Obviously, the groundbreaking move by the Denver Broncos is surprising to some, but instructional designers are becoming adept at pivoting across industries. The healthcare industry was one of the first industries to notice the impact of designers serving as scholar-practitioners, using theory- and evidence-based learning to create engaging and compliant online courses through a learning management system, similar to traditional educational institutions. Since then, the floodgates have opened, and instructional designers can be found making a difference across a variety of industries. Want to help develop educational scenarios and simulations for Air Force pilots? You can do that. Want to build learning opportunities for pet parents and partners at Chewy? You can do that. Want to identify and address gaps in the training of DoorDash employees? You can do that. A few other companies recently in search of instructional design talent include Johnson & Johnson, Wayfair, Liberty Mutual, Santander Bank, and Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind Sesame Street.

Though instructional design is not a new field, it is quickly being recognized as a necessary one. Teachers are needed everywhere, not just in the brick-and-mortar classroom. Instructional design has become a natural pathway for a variety of educators to converge their unique skillsets to positively impact learning across secondary and higher education, as well as many other industries. Undoubtedly, this is a field that welcomes all, including teachers, while simultaneously providing an opportunity to give support to the faculty, staff, and students still navigating the 21st century classroom and beyond. Before I even knew what instructional design was early on in my professional career, I recognized how my teaching skills impacted how I coached high school athletics. I believe that John Vieira will help the Denver Broncos compete in the AFC West as we continue to watch instructional designers thrive from the classroom to the field, and everywhere else in between.