What Is Instructional Design?

Man presenting a course idea on a whiteboard.

Answering the question “What is instructional design?” by saying it’s the systematic design, development, and delivery of learning experiences and materials which result in the acquisition and application of knowledge and skills will be marked correct on any assessment.

But if you ask Dr. Shenita Ray, Vice Dean for Education and Faculty Affairs for Georgetown University's School of Continuing Studies, she’ll show you what instructional design can be.

“Instructional design is more than processes, frameworks, and tools,” says Ray. “It is intentionally and collaboratively creating a vision, strategy, and plan to thoughtfully design an environment that engages every single learner and beckons them to stretch to new levels of achievement. Simultaneously, instructional design is the application of learning science, best practices in curriculum design, creativity, and relevant technologies to bring that vision to life.”

For 15 years, instructional design has been a primary component of Ray’s portfolio of responsibilities in higher education. Her objective continues to be to deliver the best learning experience for her instructors and students, and there are three ways in which Ray assesses this: advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion; infusing organizational resilience with academic excellence; and changing hearts and minds.

Advancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

When the pandemic closed schools and forced teachers and students to re-create the classroom experience online, it exposed social, racial, and economic differences between states, districts, and students. Nationwide there was also a palpable demand to confront and address racial, ethnic, and socio-economic inequities.

Inspired by the 2020 social justice uprising to leverage instructional design as a strategy to advance diversity and inclusion, Ray and her team of instructional designers at Georgetown developed and implemented a certificate program that uses scenario-based learning to teach students how to infuse social impact throughout the instructional design process.

Georgetown’s Online Certificate in Instructional Design introduces the fundamentals of creating online learning experiences that integrate social impact concepts to inform and activate students, employees, and clients to serve as agents of social change in work and the world. Students focus on designing, developing, and evaluating online learning experiences with an eye on social impact and another on engaging learners in projects related to addressing social challenges.

“In collaboration with subject matter experts, instructional designers integrate social impact learning objectives, projects, assessments, and instructional materials to promote social justice in the curriculum,” Ray says. “Social impact design is a practice of creating solutions with the intention of positively impacting people and communities that have historically been marginalized.”

Academic Excellence Baked In

Higher education faculty have been teaching and applying instructional design to their courses for decades, but the field gained increased global visibility when the pandemic drove all learning from in-person to online seemingly overnight. Schools switched to virtual and online learning using video communication and other technologies.

Technology-mediated instruction offered new possibilities, but many questioned its effectiveness. Did the virtual and online environment reflect academic excellence throughout the pandemic? In all likelihood, it was probably inconsistent at best. Colleges, universities, and K-12 schools with little to no online curriculum development experience or instructional design expertise fell far short of those who had these capabilities already in place.

Institutions like Georgetown’s School of Continuing Studies weathered the transition to all virtual and online learning relatively well because of years of investment in instructional design and faculty development. The majority of the School’s programs were already offered in two modalities: online and in-person. So rather than turning the ship 180 degrees, SCS looked to existing online courses as a model for in-person classes that were transitioning to virtual learning for the first time.

“Given the School’s commitment to and emphasis on academic excellence, it is embedded in all of the online courses we develop,” says Ray. “We have a multidisciplinary team of instructional designers, graphic artists, and videographers who collaborate with experts to design academically rigorous applied online programs.”

Prior to the pandemic, Ray and her team developed processes to continuously improve hundreds of online courses. For instance, before every course is offered online, the instructional design team works through a 28-step update process. By developing this “course maintenance and revision” process, they meet the high standards for academic excellence of the School, faculty, students, and employers.

“Having the dexterity to transition in and out of modalities, given shifts in local, national, and global contexts is a feature of resilience,” says Ray. “But in an academic setting, what is resilience without excellence? It must be woven throughout the instructional design process as a natural feature of how learning environments are developed, across all modalities.”

Changing Minds with Heart

According to Ray, instructional designers are on the front lines of transforming higher education. They inspire faculty to reexamine long-held beliefs about teaching. They embrace data as a tool to continuously improve teaching, learning, and course design. They spend hundreds of hours over several months coaching, collaborating, and encouraging faculty, usually one-on-one, to explore new and unfamiliar pedagogical strategies. They expose faculty to research-based teaching and learning theories and strategies, learning science, backward design, Bloom’s taxonomy, authentic assessments, engagement, presence, multi-media strategies, and creative ways to encourage learners to become self-directed.

“Instructional designers’ work with faculty not only has the ability to transform teaching and learning,” says Ray, “but also faculty members' perspective of themselves as educators.”

And that’s an often overlooked and hidden outcome of instructional design. The designers are an organization's internal change agents as they embody the characteristics required to reconstruct and improve education.

“Their work is transformative not because they use cutting-edge technology to deliver content,” explains Ray, “rather it is that step-by-step, day-by-day, they challenge assumptions of what constitutes quality learning, teaching, and student support and, at the same time, they help to implement effective models to take its place. Their efforts are not only revolutionizing teaching and learning, but they are also changing hearts and minds, the most critical elements for sustainable change.”

As the world looks to emerge from this pandemic and adapt to whatever the new normal looks like, instructional designers will play a crucial role in creating it. By addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion in instruction; improving organizational resilience; and inspiring teachers and students to look for answers beyond the questions being asked, instructional design will objectively make a brighter tomorrow.

“Instructional design, if done correctly,” explains Ray, “creates a platform to imagine a better world, build a learning environment aligned with our highest ideals of what teaching and learning should be, and facilitate a transformative impact on learners that a quality education seeks.”

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