Educational Designers: A sure hope and anchor amid a global pandemic

By Amanda Bellaby (Queensland University of Technology) and Michael Sankey (Griffith University)

Prior to COVID-19, the higher education sector had long recognised educational design as an area of professional expertise across diverse areas such as course design, academic mentorship and collaboration, project management and educational research (Brown, et al., 2020). Not surprising then, during this crisis Educational Designers* (EDs) have experienced an increased demand for their expertise, particularly in online learning.

Whilst the sector is acutely aware of the increased workload and added stresses experienced by academic staff struggling to move online (Houlden & Veletsianos 2020), and the challenges faced by many discipline-based teachers who may lack of deep knowledge of the pedagogical practices required for online learning (Rapanta  et al., 2020), less understood is how EDs are currently being impacted. Where previously, EDs reported difficulties in partnering with academics, they are now enjoying more meaningful collaborative relationships by contributing systematic knowledge and intellectual capital in moving courses online, while at the same time, upskilling academic staff and providing much needed pastoral support. Although the current crisis has delivered devastating effects for the sector, it has also curiously delivered a much-needed moral boost to EDs, as their roles are now being recognised as high-level professionals.

To quantify this in some way, we (the authors) conducted a semi-structured qualitative study of those working in the field of educational design, to consider how COVID-19 has impacted the ways EDs complete their work, the types of issues they are facing, and the solutions they are contributing. The study used a single, open-ended question, asking participants to reflect on their real-life experiences in dealing with their day-to-day work implications, through the following question:

Q: What is your role title and in what ways has your role changed in response to COVID-19? What do you feel you have been able to contribute? Please provide examples where possible.

Although appearing as one question, within was nested three questions, asking participants to identify their role and then two sub question designed to elicit fuller responses.  The survey elicited 90 responses of an average length of 180 words. This allowed us to identify a broader range of activities being undertaken.

32 respondents (36%) used the word ‘Designer’ in the role title; 6 more had the word ‘Design’; 16 respondents (18%) were ‘Learning Designers’ (or have that phrase in the role title) and 12 respondents identified as Educational Designer (Figure 1). 27 (30%) of respondents’ role title show that they had management or coordinating responsibilities.

Figure 1. How participants identified their roles

64 (71%) respondents claimed that changes to their roles had been very or quite significant (Figure 2). A recent recruit even declared that their role was drastically different to what they had been employed to do. 25 (28%) respondents explained they were now performing duties that were previously only a small part of their work. Some even reported they had actually been redeployed or reassigned.

Figure 2. Level and type of change experienced

EDs identified their most significant contribution was helping academics successfully transition and migrate their learning and teaching activities to online (Figure 3). Whilst some reported this has manifested into providing rudimentary technical support, checking units for copyright compliance and fixing broken links, others spoke of novel opportunities to flex creative muscles that had otherwise remained dormant.

Figure 3. Main tasks

Many deemed the transition to online as positive, offering new opportunities to academic staff to take a closer look at their assessments and teaching practices, necessary to replace practical on-campus assessments, laboratory work and invigilated examinations. Essentially, EDs helped to redesign assessment, scaffold learning activities toward assessment and learning outcomes, and determined how online learning activities can be facilitated in an engaging manner. Such work has involved educational designers ensuring that the focus remain on the quality of learning and teaching.

Given the need to migrate courses online, many academic and fellow professional staff have come to recognise the value of educational designers and their ability to contribute to the ongoing need to deliver online learning and teaching. By contributing to this body of work, EDs have discovered a renewed sense of purpose and increased recognition.

Participants also expressed a range of emotions. 14 (16%) conveyed negative sentiments (Figure 4). It was apparent that the process of rushing to convert teaching to online had led a few to feel professionally and personally abused by unreasonable demands and perceived deficient institutional processes. In particular, they felt at the mercy of academics’ emotional responses to technical difficulties and changing priorities, some bearing the brunt of academics’ frustrations and anxiety.

Figure 4. Emotional response

Considering they were predominantly working on providing solutions, one respondent felt they were a lifeline for academics who felt crushed by the enormity of their workloads and the tsunami of information being sent to them by universities. Thus, they described feeling like they were in an emergency room performing triage. Similarly, others discussed the necessity of virtual handholding when working with academics. This has caused some to become particularly resentful at academics’ perceived lack of technical skills or unwillingness to develop those skills.

On the upside, many gained professional satisfaction from listening to, reassuring and guiding academic staff. By doing so, EDs have been able to increase their professional network. Thus, in supporting academics to transition to online learning, there have been opportunities to mentor and coach staff leading to more meaningful impact, providing much needed pastoral care to academic staff. Several exhibited a sense of pride in recounting the ways in which they’ve been able to contribute to academics’ well-being, arguing that this had strengthened their relationships and increased their credibility amongst academics.

There is clearly an evolving need for those with expertise in digital and student-centred pedagogies. EDs may find greater agency and professional standing that goes beyond a mere technical one. It is envisioned they will occupy spaces to challenge and shape institutional discourses as to what online learning means and collaborate to develop more robust and resilient digital strategy before disaster strikes again.

*Educational Designers (EDs) is used as a term to cover similarly named position, such as learning designers, learning and teaching consultants, instructional designers, etc.

References

Brown, M., McCormack, M., Reeves, J., Brooks, C., Grajek, S., Alexander, B., Bali, M., Bulger, S., Dark, S., Engelbert, N., Gannon, K., Gauthier, A., Gibson, D., Gibson, R., Lundin, B., Veletsianos, G., & Weber, N. (2020). EDUCAUSE Horizon Report, Teaching and Learning Edition. EDUCAUSE, Louisville, CO.

Houlden, S., & Veletsianos, G. (2019). A posthumanist critique of flexible online learning and its “anytime anyplace” claims. British Journal of Educational Technology, 50(3), 1005-1018.

Rapanta, C., Botturi, L., Goodyear, P., Guardia, L., & Koole, M. (2020). Online university teaching during and after the COVID-19 crisis: Refocusing teacher presence and learning activity. Postdigital Science and Education, 1(1), 1-23.

Authors

Amanda Bellaby, Learning Designer, Learning and Teaching Unit, QUT

Professor Michael Sankey, Director, Learning Transformations, Griffith University