Under Construction: Building a Foundation for the Future of Instructional Design Through Professional Development

Concurrent Session 7

Brief Abstract

How do you build a foundation for a field that is constantly evolving? Instructional designers are increasingly being recognized as change agents in higher education. This session shares professional development approaches for instructional designers underway at Southern New Hampshire University and provides participants with an opportunity to exchange ideas.


Cat Flynn is the Assistant Director of Instructional Design Quality and Continuous Improvement at Southern New Hampshire University. In her role, Cat manages SNHU's instructional design framework and quality assurance processes as well as analyzes data from course performance to support the development of professional learning opportunities for the instructional design team. Cat holds a Master of Education degree in Mind, Brain, and Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education where she studied the applications of educational neuroscience to learning design.

Extended Abstract

Occupying the intersection of neuroscience, psychology, user experience design, education, learning data analytics, and educational technology, IDs build bridges between academic disciplines, distilling approaches and insights from each to enhance the design of learning experiences. Just as civil engineers use physics to build bridges and software engineers use computer science to build programs, instructional designers use approaches and insights from these intersecting disciplines to engineer the design of online courses that help students succeed in learning. As higher education gravitates toward personalized learning experiences and more research reveals insight into how the brain learns, it grows more imperative to provide standardized training and development opportunities for instructional designers to empower them to lead the forward charge on this new educational paradigm.

There’s never been a more exciting (or more important) time to be an instructional designer (ID). Currently, the profession faces a paradigm shift as ID models of the past give way to models of the future. Multiple reports from sources such as MIT’s Online Education Policy Initiative, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Inside Higher Education have described the need for IDs to act as change agents for the field, uniting previously siloed disciplines through their day-to-day practice engaging faculty and Subject Matter Experts in the design of online courses.

At Southern New Hampshire University’s College of Online and Continuing Education (SNHU COCE), our ID team is currently engaged in a series of professional learning opportunities designed to guide them through this paradigm shift and empower them as leaders in learning design as they navigate an ever-evolving field. Our professional learning series draws from established sets of competencies within the profession such as the competency model established by the International Board of Standards for Training, Performance, and Instruction (IBSTPI) as well as the results of a survey distributed to the SNHU COCE ID team to assess their personal interests in various ID competencies including learner experience design, instructional design theory, learning science research, communication skills, assessment design, and learning analytics. These efforts have allowed us to explore our individual passions within learning design as well as learn from one another collaboratively.

Through monthly professional learning opportunities, our team focuses on essential questions drawn from established ID competencies. At the beginning of each month, team members are prompted to explore related resources in preparation for a facilitated session later in the month that includes hands-on application activities. So far, IDs have created empathy maps for learner personas in course-based scenarios and spearheaded their own collaborative research projects on topics such as data-informed learning design and learner experience design. Future topics in this professional learning series include exploration of out-of-the-box course design solutions and the cognitive science behind reading and writing in an online learning environment. These learning opportunities have not only allowed us to further strengthen our connections with one another but also with other units across the university.

During this discovery session, I’ll share lessons learned from facilitating this professional learning series and elicit ideas from session participants for improving the experience. My presentation will showcase examples of monthly professional learning newsletters used to tie together resources and sessions as well as artifacts created by IDs who have participated in these activities. ID professionals from different institutions will be invited to exchange ideas about what topics and techniques are critical to building a foundation for the future of instructional design as well as discuss current professional learning efforts underway at their institutions for IDs. Through facilitating this conversation, this session extends an opportunity for conference participants to consider the practical applications of innovations in online learning discussed in other sessions for the field of instructional design.


Nicklin Rubley, J. (2016). Instructional designers in higher education. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from: www.chronicle.com/instructionaldesigners

Tate, E. (April 12, 2017). Instructing instructional designers. Inside Higher Education. Retrieved from: https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/article/2017/04/12/training-evolving-instructional-designers

Willcox, K., Sarma, S., & Lippel, P. (2016). Online education: A catalyst for higher education reform. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT. Retrieved from: https://oepi.mit.edu/files/2016/09/MIT-Online-Education-Policy-Initiative-April-2016.pdf