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How Instructional Designers Work and Think in Online Higher Education
A Review of The Learner-Centered Instructional Designer: Purposes, Processes, and Practicalities edited by Jerod Quinn

By Les Howles / October 2021

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The Learner-Centered Instructional Designer (Stylus Publishing, 2021) is a book written by experienced instructional designers from colleges and universities across the country. The book consists of 19 short essay-like chapters where 20 contributing authors share practical strategies and best practices about working with instructors to create online courses.  The numerous perspectives provide a comprehensive mosaic revealing the dominant mental models and practices of instructional designers in higher education.

The book’s introduction, written by Jerod Quinn, gives a crisp and concise synopsis of the guiding principles, assumptions, and professional values of instructional designers in academia. A central theme articulated by Quinn and echoed throughout the book is encapsulated in the statement “Everything we do during course design and implementation is founded on always being research-based and learner-centered” (p.9). After several decades of working in higher education and leading instructional design teams, I can’t help regarding such a claim as more aspirational than factual. Nonetheless, it serves as an inspiring mantra and worthy goal for all instructional designers to work toward achieving.

Book Chapters Summary

The book chapters are organized around four thematic parts or sections. Part 1, consisting of two chapters, describes common models for providing instructional design services in academic contexts—the concierge or full-service model and the consultation model.  The authors delineate the roles and responsibilities of instructional designers and instructors within each model.  Readers who work in institutions that provide faculty support services for online course development should be able to recognize these models and become more precise in articulating and fine-tuning their own instructional design services.

The second part of the book, comprising Chapters 3–6, addresses one of the biggest challenges instructional designers confront in higher education—gaining faculty trust and buy-in.  In one chapter, a faculty author who writes candidly to instructional designers emphasizes “relationships, not technology or pedagogy, are your biggest challenge” (p. 65).  Chapters 3–5 present numerous strategies and tips for building more trusting and collaborative partnerships with faculty.  Championing the ideals expressed earlier, Chapter 6 entitled “Grounded in Research,” offers strategies and resources for instructional designers to become more evidence-based when working with instructors. The author convincingly makes the case that if instructional designers want to be perceived as pedagogical experts, they need to invest more professional development time in how to incorporate learning science research into their course design consulting and faculty training. The key takeaway from this set of chapters is that building trust and credibility with instructors involves a blend of technical knowledge, people-centered relationship skills, and pedagogical expertise. Together, these cornerstones lay the foundation for building collaborative partnerships with instructors to create quality online learning experiences.

Part 3 of the book is comprised of seven chapters focusing on “frameworks” that guide the design of online courses and learning activities.  A few of these chapters seemed to drift from this main theme.  For example, Chapter 7, entitled “Learning Online” presents a variety of loosely connected learning science concepts and theories as well as an analysis of asynchronous learning environments along with other miscellaneous course design considerations. Chapter 9 discusses decentralizing “white privilege” in education which seems to focus more heavily on social justice than it does in offering a solid evidence-based and learner-centered framework for enhancing online course design. Although these chapters present some interesting ideas and a few useful strategies, it would be more beneficial to provide unified and practical frameworks that instructional designers can readily apply in their course design work with faculty.

However, several chapters in this section do offer applicable frameworks for creating more pedagogically impactful online learning activities.  Chapter 8 on Universal Design for Learning (UDL), despite a lengthy preamble on the philosophical, historical, and social rationale for UDL, provides some excellent strategies for making online learning activities more engaging and meaningful for diverse learners.  Chapter 10 addresses learner motivation drawing upon current learning theory and research. The author presents several evidence-based frameworks, such as Expectancy Value Theory, Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TILT), and other approaches that address the emotional dimension of learning. This is also the only chapter that offers a few substantial techniques for evaluating the quality of learning experiences using student feedback regarding aspects of course design. Chapter 11 follows up by providing frameworks to help learners solidify newly acquired knowledge through metacognitive and reflection-oriented learning activities.

The final eight chapters comprising the fourth part of the book cover an assorted mix of topics under the broad theme “Components of Online Courses.”  Topics include LMS course structural frameworks and video-based multimedia, group learning, synchronous learning design, and enhancing online social interactions.  For the most part, these chapters don’t present many new or innovative ideas but do a good job recommending strategies for fine-tuning the design of conventional online course components. Chapter 17, however, pushes the envelope a bit to rejuvenate the overused post-and-reply discussion forum. The author offers a few creative ways of reframing discussion forums as interactive engagement spaces and infusing group learning activities with multimedia elements.  The final few chapters reflect on lessons learned from the disruptive COVID-19 pandemic along with a call for instructional designers to become more resilient in all aspects of their work.  Readers are also encouraged to adopt a “critical instructional design” mindset. This shift necessitates becoming more people-centered and willing to challenge old assumptions and conventional practices in online course design. 

Evaluation and Recommendations

This book can be a valuable professional development resource especially for newcomers to instructional design in higher education.  It could also benefit technology and media support staff who assist faculty with online course development in institutions where instructional design services are unavailable.  And of course, many seasoned instructional designers will find interest in learning how their peers approach faculty consulting and online course design. For me, this book provided insights into how the collective community of instructional designers in higher education work and think.  It revealed areas of practice where I believe instructional designers in higher education have raised the bar and advanced the profession. It also revealed a few shortcomings.

It was impressive to see how instructional designers have embraced evidence-based practice in learning design, a long-overdue professional necessity in academia. Almost all the authors walked their talk throughout the book in prescribing design strategies and principles that were grounded in solid educational theory and learning science.  But let's get more serious about “learner centeredness.”  What initially attracted me to this book is its title and main theme.  We hear echoes throughout the chapters that instructional designers pride themselves on being better equipped than instructors in designing learner-centered online learning experiences. This is true when it comes to guiding technical and pedagogical choices within online learning environments. But there is a bit of a blind spot here.  Evaluation and feedback are crucial for understanding what learners actually experience in their online course journeys which is out of sight to instructors and designers. How does one know if prescribed learning science principles underlying design decisions are playing out as expected?  The topic of evaluating design elements of online courses from a learner’s perspective was only discussed in one small portion of one chapter. Also, using LMS analytics aimed at understanding learner behaviors throughout a course was barely covered. These are a few areas where the book’s main theme of “learner centeredness” could have been strengthened. You can’t boast about being learner-centered without understanding what your learners are thinking, feeling, behaving, and how they interact with content and each other behind the scenes of an online course. The fact is most instructional designers rarely interact with and get feedback from learners for whom they design learning experiences.

It is worth noting that newly emerging instructional design frameworks based on Design Thinking and Learning Experience Design (LXD) are inherently learner-centered from the ground up. These approaches, now adopted by a growing number of instructional designers, involve listening to and getting feedback from learners about their experiences throughout their course journey and making design adjustments based on feedback.  Understanding and having empathy for learners is a cornerstone of LXD, design thinking, and learner-centered design. It’s demonstrated through design evaluation and simple learner feedback strategies that employ techniques such as a “small group instructional diagnosis” as was briefly mentioned in Chapter 10.  All this is not so much criticism against this book as it is pointing out a gap in conventional instructional design practices, especially in higher education. A less catchy sounding but perhaps a more accurate title and theme for this book might have been “The Learning-Centered Instructional Designer.”

In all fairness, a book like this cannot encompass all aspects of instructional design practice, but it does cover a lot of ground. It’s organized into small chapters comprising nearly twenty different topics, so readers can easily select material of interest to them. Keep in mind that this is not a book for those inclined toward educational innovation. However, it does an admirable job providing numerous evidence-based and practical strategies that will surely help learning designers improve the pedagogical quality of most online courses in higher education.

About the Author

Lew Howles is an emeritus faculty associate and former director of distance education professional development from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  He has more than 30 years of experience working in higher education, health care, corporate training, and the public sector as a learning design consultant, instructor, and multimedia learning designer. His current interests focus on helping education and training professionals make the shift from conventional instructional design to learning experience design (LXD). He also studies media ecology related to technology environments and eLearning. He lives with his wife and daughter in the Madison, Wisconsin area.

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