Intentional Futures recently published Instructional Designers in Higher Education , a report based on interviews and surveys of people involved in this new and interesting field. I asked one of our survey respondents, Rhiannon Pollard, to expand on her daily experience. How did she get there? What does she think is next for the evolving role of instructional designers? What advice does she have for people who haven’t worked with an instructional designer before? Rhiannon is the Manager of Academic Support Services at the School of Forest Resources & Conservation, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Her experiences are representative of the varied background, self-made work trajectory, and struggles with institutional hierarchy that instructional designers across the US are experiencing. You can hear her and a panel of other instructional design experts speak in a free three-part webinar series starting June 2nd, 1p EST. It will be hosted by the Online Learning Consortium, EdSurge, Acrobatiq, and Intentional Futures.
iF: How long have you been at the University of Florida? Can you describe your various titles and roles as well as how they’ve changed over the years?
Rhiannon: I have been at UF since 2005 and I didn’t start in academics, though, oddly enough, I did start in Training and Development. Back then I was a general office assistant and would never have guessed I’d be doing the kinds of things that my team was so good at, in a different setting. I spent most of my years at UF as an academic program coordinator/advisor. When I took over online programs, my title didn’t really change though I was doing almost entirely instructional design for a while. Now, I manage people and budgets in addition to instructional designer work.
iF: When I was an instructional designer, I was always coming up with inventive answers to describe what I do. When people ask you what do you do for a living, how do you answer them?
Rhiannon: Ha! This is the hardest question to answer – my mom still has no idea what I do, after 5+ years in this specific job. I usually say something like, “I help professors be better teachers, especially in online courses. I don’t teach, but I help them teach.” Which probably sounds like I’m a teaching assistant, but the average person asking doesn’t catch these subtleties so it doesn’t usually matter. If they do, I get to really tell them what I do.
iF: Something that resonated with me in the survey was the diverse backgrounds and high number of degrees that instructional designers have. I know you also have a varied history, can you talk a little about that and how unexpected skills come into play in your instructional designer work?
Rhiannon: My background is so random! I was always a tech nerd, to the point of being an online gamer back when it meant calling my friend’s computer with Hyperterminal to play PVP Doom 2 late at night. My undergrad degrees (two of them) were in medieval English literature and psychology. I fell into working at UF, started getting interested in, and good at, web design, and that skill grew while I worked with academic advising. I’ve always been interested in teaching and learning but knew I wasn’t meant for teaching. It never occurred to me that there was a career path in there until the job of “Distance Education Coordinator” came up in my department. They hired me, and suddenly the convergence of all these personal preferences and acquired skills had a discernable shape.
iF: Many instructional designers talked about creating their own position and helping the institution see the gaps that existed in learning technologies. Who defines the job and the responsibilities you have?
Rhiannon: In my case, I was very lucky to literally have created my own job, and I’ve revised it over the years as things have changed. That is not the case for most university employees (bureaucracy dominates). Likewise, I’ve been able to help my department grow and adapt along with myself, and I’m plugged-in to the university-level administration on things like our LMS, so that has been a great avenue for positive adaptation in both directions. I think the fact that UF has risen in the world of online learning is thanks to the IDs who inform the administration about what we need to do our jobs well, and also thanks to the administration providing access to tools and pushing the opportunity to use them. Roles are defined by need, in large part, but creative individuals can help redefine those needs.
iF: What do you do more of now versus when you started?
Rhiannon: As my job has morphed, I’m now primarily overseeing the instructional design efforts of my team and consulting with faculty, though I definitely still participate in the process. My role tends towards brainstorming and creative solutions rather than production nowadays.
iF: What do you do less of now versus when you started?
Rhiannon: Tech support! I was heavily into tech support and troubleshooting, as well as day-to-day production. My team now handles that for the most part.
iF: What do you spend the most time doing on a given day?
Rhiannon: Email. Email. Email. Just like everyone!
iF: What do you wish you had more time for (professionally speaking)?
Rhiannon: I wish I had more time to explore new technologies and engage with faculty on training and professional development. I’d like to innovate more in both literal and virtual spaces. I’m working on an initiative for providing in-depth training to our teaching assistants, which will include some instructional designer basics as well as LMS (learning management system) experience. It’s hard to find time for bigger-picture efforts.
iF: Looking at our Day in the Life Chart how did we do?
Rhiannon: I think it’s pretty close, but you are missing the amount of tech support and customer service we do for all courses that are in progress. It’s just a constant thing. The idea that you’d actually work an hour solid on something is ridiculous, because people need lots of help with little things all day long– 10 minutes here and 20 minutes there. My job, as administrative as it is, ultimately is still customer service 24/7. We [university IDs and employees in general] work as customer service to the students and faculty non-stop.
iF: In our survey, instructional designers were very vocal about the difficulty of getting faculty buy-in. How are your relationships with faculty?
Rhiannon: To my great relief, people usually like me. If that was not the case, my job would be a heck of a lot harder! My department is in natural resources, so there’s a long-standing tradition of field work and attendant skepticism for online learning, which was challenging at first. I had to earn their trust not just for myself but for what I was trying to do as well. It took about 2 years before the hold-outs decided that online learning isn’t a sham – the quality of our students was a big factor in that change. My experience has been that you just have to show them that it works. Faculty believe in data, so if you can show them the research and the evidence, they will start to warm up.
iF: Do you have any happy success stories of working with faculty or administration?
Rhiannon: I was at an advisory board meeting for my department, and was giving them updates on our online program enrollment, success, etc, and after I was finished speaking one of our faculty took the floor. He was one of the folks I hadn’t yet convinced that online learning was comparable and valid, so I was totally shocked when he spoke up about how impressed he was with our students, our courses, and what we had done in these programs. He actually brought tears to my eyes because I didn’t expect such support from someone who had been so skeptical.
iF: How do you promote instructional designer services in your university?
Rhiannon: I’m on a couple of committees that keep the instructional design mission visible, and one of the things we do is organize an annual conference called Interface on campus to recognize outstanding online courses and to share ideas and network. It’s been a huge success for the past 6 years and we’re trying to make it a bi-annual event. Various ID groups also have some informal seminars and “brown bags” to get people together which include both faculty and staff.
iF: What recommendations would you give administrators and faculty who haven’t worked with instructional designers?
Rhiannon: Talk to them! Find out who they are, who they work for, and how their roles affect the mission of your university. I assure you, they are critical to the flourishing of teaching programs both online and on campus – you will be amazed what they know and how they can enhance your faculty teaching efforts.