How Teaching Online Changed My Instructional Design Practice

Ann Fandrey
Mar 31, 2018 · 5 min read

Incredible! As of 2016 I’d been doing academic technology in higher ed for 7 years without actually ever having taught a course.

(Academic technology work in higher ed is an umbrella term: most of us in the profession do some combination of project management, consulting, and instructional design.)

Instructional design (ID) once was my favorite thing, the thing I loved to tell instructors about. I had formulas, templates, heuristics and advice…and then I taught a course.

The whole thing. I wrote the syllabus, I defined the late work policy, I set up the Canvas site, the course schedule.

(Canvas is a “learning management system”, essentially an institutionally supported web host for courses — it’s nice for giving grades and pushing out readings and resources).

I had 2 weeks’ lead time following my first teaching job offer. I watched my enrollments come in: the drops and adds and withdrawals that happen in the first 3–4 weeks of a semester.

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Enrollments are a roller coaster for online instructors, especially when your syllabus is packed with paired group work.

(Please please please let me end up with an even number…)

And teaching an online course, where I would not actually get to meet these students in 3D, I had to remind myself: these Enrollments were not just data populating my class roster page, but People. Real people whose worries I have not felt personally since the late 1990s. According to Michael Wesch, those worries are:

  • Who am I?
  • What am I going to do?
  • Am I going to make it?

I remember this feeling! I remember wondering if I was ever going to find my stride, find a career that would allow me to use my gifts, find another person to partner with, to make more humans with. I needed to channel that place that reminded me of how it felt to simply not know, and to be struggling to relate to Ophelia, calculus and dorm bathroom etiquette at the same time.

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Suddenly I was closer to the humanity that, previously, I’d been able to imagine but not actually Understand. Thank goodness it pushed me off my pedestal.

Here are 4 ways my instructional design practice changed as a result:

  1. Advocacy. I learned I’d been doing a disservice to instructors every time I bombarded them with the newest and greatest. Instructors are trying to fit teaching — and often also research and outreach — into their lives. They often also are the great project managers called Parents in their off-time. They don’t have bandwidth to figure out how to click here > here > here > and here just to provide feedback on students’ writing assignments. They need it to be as easy as email, and often it isn’t.
    In fact, they resent educational technologies for the fact that educational technologies often have failed to account for the lived experiences of instructors, the very people that educational technology companies purport to serve. I couch my consultations now in new empathy, and I now am more fervent in my interactions with developers. I need them to understand all they ways their product does not meet my instructors’ and their students’ needs.
  2. Accessibility. I won’t stop recommending accessibility best practices — I believe that anything we do in the name of accessibility in online environments also improves usability — but I’ve reoriented my discussion of accessibility best practices (there are 6 core skills of digital accessibility: do you know them?) in terms of workflow and how to realistically incorporate new habits. Despite they were the first thing to go in my own workflow, I’ve added them back, and I have a new respect for the effort it takes to build accessibility best practices in where you hadn’t known them in the first place.
  3. Agenda. My priorities as an ID were changed — rightly, I believe, but differently, I also believe. I fervently wanted instructors to adhere to a Template. A Template would provide continuity, pattern, learnability for students. It would help create a predictable experience. It would help them learn the course content and the course organization.
    But: as IRL, sometimes you need to deviate from the norm. You need to be responsive to your students and to your instructional goals. I can’t explain this other than that in online instruction, one of the most critical tools I have is the ability to switch up the order of things. I don’t see them physically in class everyday, and I want to be novel — I need to be novel — in order to maintain their attention. I resist becoming one of those dull-as-rocks Quality Matters-types. Our students are more vibrant than that!

4. As. Who cares if they get an A? I’m not trying to prevent them from it. An A means they jumped through your hoops, nothing more. I don’t yet know how to make students care about the subject more than the grade, but I understand the transaction and I’m not cynical about it. I, too, have exchanged dollars for the chance at a better life, and I will try and make sure that the dollars they spend on my course (and the courses I support in my role as an instructional designer) are worth the time, effort, and money. I’ll continue to use and recommend OER every chance I get, besides.

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I’m probably doing it all wrong. My students probably still view my class as a task list of things to do in order to get through their week, through their semester, through their degree. I’ve been complicit in doing this to them.

But I also hope that at the very least, in my online course they’ve touched down, touched in, on an environment where they experienced care for their Self apart from the fact that they are enrolled in my class (as client, student, or customer).

I hope I’ve been able to communicate to them that they are valuable and interesting. As you are, who are reading this.

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