The last role shift for faculty

I wrote last year about my concerns that instructional design (with all its newly-minted PhDs) is taking over teaching, even to the extent that teachers doubt themselves. In 2013, I worried that market forces were undermining the independence of faculty to choose tools for their pedagogies. Way back in 2008, I said I would look into how faculty are becoming content experts and having design taken away from them. In the current iterations of large schemes to standardize online education through “best practices” and “instructional quality improvement”, I am watching it all come home to roost as our roles are forcibly shifted.

Roles shifts for teachers, of course, are not new. For some time, research has indicated that instructors should consider shifting roles from “sages” to “guides”, using the affordances of the web. I have various concerns about this, and tend to prefer an approach which balances instructivism with constructivism. So far I’ve had that freedom. But this current role shift is more insidious, because it assumes that we do not have the knowledge to teach at all. rubrica1As our courses are assessed for “quality” by outside teams of instructional designers and instructional administrators, the rubrics they apply enforce self-referential norms developed by those fields. If their research indicates that collaboration among students is good, then collaboration should be part of every class. If the presentation of course objectives are seen as being important, they must be clearly articulated and appear, preferably with specific “outcomes”, at the beginning of the class. If it is determined that “content” should be “chunked” in manageable segments, then all classes must do that.

What if an instructor decides, however, based on his own experience, that these rules are not right for his pedagogy? I know an instructor who has designed her skills-based courses in such a way that collaboration is useful only to share basic ideas or final products, but not for working together on projects. I know another who reveals course objectives in a “just-in-time” way, as the students are working on particular tasks, not at the beginning in a list. I know a wonderful lecturer who puts his long, written, narrative lectures online, with no chunking involved. All of these instructors have students who do well, and some who do badly, but whether they do well or badly they tend to learn a lot.

But the “best practices”, applied as mandates, will not allow any of them to teach in these ways, ways that reflect the strengths of their own practice and their own pedagogy. They will not be respected as professionals, but rather treated as cogs of a larger machine, as mere “content experts”.

QualityControlIn other words, the role of teachers as instructional designers, as developers of the students’ learning experience, is being taken away. That crucial aspect of our role, the reason many of us became teachers in the first place, is being outsourced to others. And we are told that is in the interest of quality, not standardization. We are told that it is to help us become better teachers. We are told that what they want is “student success”.

We are not told that the goal is to create easy-to-administer McClasses, or to support the rise of a plutocracy, or to micromanage “course delivery“. We are not told that “student success” means passing students through the system as quickly and easily as possible, and that faculty who teach creatively are basically just in the way of the goals of administrators and students alike.

The separation of “course design” from teaching is false. Will we be fooled as this lack of respect for our profession is couched as trying to “help” us do better?

2 thoughts on “The last role shift for faculty

  1. I do think there is room for both but I agree completely with the issue of blindly applying quality control standards. I see the same argument made about accessibility requirements in online courses or with online content – being told that everything must always be “full accessible” is just another “quality” standard tick box that doesn’t allow room for any contextual decision making on the part of the faculty who is at least in theory “the expert” in the field. I’m a bit in the middle here because I’m both faculty and I teach instructional designers – so I’m helping to grow the next generation of instructional designers. I’m hoping that they are much better critical thinkers than you are giving them credit for being. To be a good instructional designer you need to have too people skills. You need to be able to work with the instructors to help make them better. Your job isn’t to take over or take design away, it is to help elevate instructors … but also there is this assumption about what “online learning” is or should be and that is part the bigger problem. I think that design needs to take into consideration not just the content but also who is doing the instruction and who is doing the learning. The standards provide checklists to make sure you didn’t accidentally forget something, but they should not be so rigid as to sterilize the course to the point of production rather than learning.


    1. Hi Rebecca – yes, indeed, I know wonderful instructional designers who use their knowledge every day to help faculty who have questions and concerns. But the field as a whole seems no longer geared in this direction.


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