As Education Grows Beyond the Classroom, How Will the Role of Instructional Designers Evolve?

September 4, 2014

online-education-instructional-designer-evolutionWhile educators and researchers began to consider how personal computers could be used in educational environments as far back as the 1980s, it still took the Internet two decades to become a popular tool for online learning. By pushing for more computers and software-based learning in classrooms during these years, instructional designers were ahead of the curve.

However, as the influence of online learning platforms and other tools grows, a huge population of students feels encouraged to partake in informal learning over the course of their lifetimes. How will instructional designers keep up with the ever-changing nature of online education?

Connecting Lifelong Students Directly to Experts

Technology places the subject matter expert (SME) on a pedestal. Thanks to the Internet, would-be students have direct access to SMEs, unsullied by unnecessary instructors with pre-crafted curricula acting as middlemen.

Less instructors, however, can mean less instructional designers being called upon to mold raw subject matter expertise into something more digestible for students.

In other words, we're living through a pivotal moment in the young history of lifelong education. The United States's economic future requires a more skilled and educated workforce - Georgetown University's Center for Education and the Workforce (CEW) projects that jobs demanding some sort of postsecondary education will jump to 62% by 2018.

With over 7.1 million college students taking online courses as of Fall 2012 (Source: Babson Survey Research Group), online schools and organizations with educational needs will function with fewer instructors, seeing as we can give thousands of students easy, direct access to experts.

Three Trends for Instructional Designers to Watch

The modern instructional designer’s woes are often exaggerated. While online education can present challenges, the role of the instructional designer is inherently flexible and reactive.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of instructional designers is projected to grow 13% from 2012 to 2022, about as fast as the average for all occupations. In addition,'s job trends graphs show a steady stream of openings for instructional designers since 2006.

Still, it's hard to deny that any paradigm shifts for instructional designers aren't part of a larger movement. The way we learn is evolving in tandem with the Internet. Out of the forces driving this change, three distinct trends have emerged on the radars of instructional designers.

Greater connectivity in education. The greater connectivity the Internet offers education is producing self-determined learners, changing the role of the online instructor to that of mentor or coach. Southern Cross University professor Stewart Hase predicted this with his concept of heutagogy, or the study of self-determined learning.

Hase emphasized 'learning how to learn,' or meta-learning, and the rise of a non-linear learning process in all learning processes and environments. With regards to online learning, this kind of self-determination creates a need for immediacy and flexibility the modern instructional designer needs to be aware of.

The role of instructional designers here is not to discover how to efficiently transmit educational content, but to help students discover the content they need when they need it.

The global classroom. Online education is also driven by peer-based learning, where a group of students learns together and teaches itself. This ‘co-learning’ process isn’t new – we’ve learned together as a species since we developed cognition – but it does signify a change in the function of instructional design.

One tip for instructional designers working in-house at education technology companies or training businesses is to think of and facilitate the ways information will be shared and expanded upon among students.

Data visualization and consumption. As technology becomes more efficient, learners will benefit from more interactive ways of obtaining and perceiving information. As interactive data visualization and consumption becomes more efficient, processes normally carried out by instructors become increasingly automated.

In this scenario, instructional designers can play a consultative role for software engineers in the education technology space. Looking at these developments meta-educationally, instructional designers will see the importance of encouraging learner engagement and enablement in an online environment, innovating ways for learners to be behaviorally, emotionally and cognitively involved in the virtual learning environment.

What do you think instructional design will look like in the next decade or two? Leave us a note in the comments section!



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