Instructional Designers in Higher Education

There is continued growth in the need for instructional designers within colleges and universities, in part because of increased enrollment in online courses and need to use technology within courses. Colleges are also hiring instructional designers to improve course and teaching quality.

What does instructional design look like in higher education?

Buckets of work often include course design, managing projects, training faculty on new technology, and providing support to faculty. This can include:

  • Course design: Design new courses or revise existing courses. Larger universities often have dedicated teams that do this work. In smaller schools, this may be a portion of the instructional designer’s job.
  • Course development: Build courses in the school learning management system and build media assets for those courses (images, video, audio, etc.). Often this role is bundled with other instructional technology tasks. Some schools will use tools like Articulate Storyline or Adobe Captivate to create self-paced e-learning modules used within courses.
  • Professional and faculty development: In higher ed, most instructional designers spend a part of their time providing faculty development. At a minimum, it may mean leading workshops and/or coaching on using technology tools such as creating videos in Camtasia or creating and packaging lectures for online courses. It may mean providing training on tools. In some schools, instructional designers also provide professional development on designing rubrics, active teaching, or other pedagogical techniques. At many schools, the role of faculty development (especially topics related to excellent teaching and pedagogy) is separate from instructional design and is filled by former or current faculty who hold doctoral degrees, while the more instructional technology topics fall under all of the instructional designers.
  • Instructional technology: Model and teach faculty how to use technology in the face-to-face and online classroom. If the role is pure instructional technology (and less instructional design), you will be making and editing videos, helping to record lectures, trying out new tools, and just spending a lot of time with the technology.
  • LMS Administration and/or Support: Support the learning management system and work with the LMS vendor and campus IT teams to keep the system running well. Sometimes you may see instructional design positions that are nested within the IT team. These tend to be focused on the LMS or other instructional technology tools.
  • Project management: Manage and coordinate projects within departments or across the institution. More seasoned instructional designers will often find themselves coordinating projects like evaluating or transitioning to a new LMS or video hosting system, creating a new set of courses or programs with a team of faculty, converting face-to-face courses to online or blended delivery, and more. Having a baseline understanding and experience managing projects is a valuable skill at any point in your career.

What’s needed in a career in higher education instructional design?

There is no specific formula for becoming an instructional designer in higher ed, and instructional designers come from many different paths. Most do have masters or doctoral degrees and having your masters in a related area (instructional design, instructional technology, education, adult learning, etc.) may be required in many places. In my current position, a master’s degree is preferred. I had a number of years of experience as an instructional designer, especially in creating online e-learning modules, so I was hired and am currently working on a master’s degree in instructional design.

See the Resource Links at the end of this post for more details.

Where can I find these positions?

Geography can really limit you, so map out all the colleges and universities (including community colleges) within a reasonable commuting distance. Then set up a way to monitor open position listings and watch for them.

If you are open to a remote position, they will tend to be focused on course design and development (and may require more education or experience).

Higher ed jobs are often posted on

How will I know what I will be doing?

Position descriptions can be really helpful to discern what the role actually focuses on. Look for the primary buckets of work. Think about your skills and passions and look for positions that focus in those areas. When you are starting out, you may be limited in your choices (geography can also really affect this, unless you find a remote position).

If you are coming with a doctorate and teaching experience (or librarian experience) but no actual experience in instructional design, you will want to get experience in ADDIE and other instructional design models. Consider getting a certificate or even completing modules in the basics of instructional design. Read books about online teaching best practices (see my Online Teaching Reading List for ideas). It would be worthwhile to see the processes that some of the bigger schools use to create courses. Penn State and more Penn State are helpful. Once you feel like you have a base, you may want to build a portfolio of courses where you have been instrumental in the design. Recreate them in Canvas or Blackboard if you don’t have access to them on a live LMS. Then look at positions creating online courses, which are often listed as Instructional Designer or Content Expert or Course Designer.

If you are coming with instructional design experience but are new to higher education, definitely read up on online teaching best practices (if you haven’t seen it, go to Online Teaching Reading List for ideas). Look closely at position listings and start building your portfolio and learning the tools you see.

What tech tools do you need to know?

Technology is constantly changing, so being able to quickly learn new technology is a critical skill for instructional designers in higher ed. While you do need to come in with a base of tools, it’s even more important to be able to learn quickly.

You will need to know Microsoft Word and PowerPoint at an expert or almost-expert level, and probably need to know Google Docs and Slides at the same level. You need to have a basic familiarity with video editing for most positions, although some require a more expert level. At minimum, learn how to use Camtasia or similar tools.

You need to know how to use an LMS. Some schools will ask for specific experience in their LMS, but at minimum get acquainted with the big tools. Both Canvas and Blackboard offer free accounts where you can set up a demo course. Get in and build one so that you can do common course-building tasks (and if you don’t know what they are, find out).

Some of the higher ed ID positions will want candidates who know how to use Articulate Storyline or Captivate (Storyline is easier to learn). These tools take a decent amount of time to learn, but it could be worthwhile to play with the trial versions and create some artifacts to share. Many higher ed positions do not need them, so you’d need to weight the return on your time.

Instructional Technologist positions will generally require that you know all the tools and be heavy tech-focused. Some positions listed as Instructional Designer will really be closer to Instructional Technologist, so keep that in mind when looking.

Are there any cavets?

Yes, of course there are!

The business of higher education is changing for a lot of reasons. While instructional design positions overall are increasing, some schools are struggling financially and really having to rethink the way they operate. Some schools are closing or reorganizing on a large scale. So be cautious when looking. Research any school that you are considering. Look at news. Talk to anyone who you know who is connected to the school. See if you can discern how they are doing and what the culture is.

Like any area of instructional design, the challenges that come from working with subject matter experts and creating effective learning are here too. Faculty can resist having someone step into their work in courses. In addition, instructional designers sometimes talk about lack of time and lack of resources being an issue.

Instructional designers work alongside faculty and administration, but there can be a tension in the roles. At most institutions, instructional designers are salaried and not tenured. In some cases, they feel the challenges of being in an “Alt-Academic” role, which can carry a bunch of issues (mostly centered around lack of respect for the academic practice and theory).

Resource Links

These are all really helpful if you are considering becoming an instructional designer in higher education (or are one and want to learn what others in the role think).

  • Instructional Designers in Higher Ed: Changing the Course of Next-Generation Learning report from The Chronicle of Higher Education – available for download here

Photo by Amy Hirschi on Unsplash

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