The Disruption to the Practice of Instructional Design During COVID-19

Concurrent Session 1

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

A thematic analysis of interviews conducted with 33 instructional designers revealed impacts to instructional design practice during COVID-19 including: differentiating emergency remote teaching from well-designed instruction, the increasing visibility of the ID role, challenges with social connections, increasing workloads, and additional challenges related to time, access, resources, and remote learning.


Dr. Donna T. Petherbridge is the Vice Provost for DELTA (Digital Education and Learning Technology Applications), having previously served as the Interim Vice Provost from April 2021 – December 2021, the Associate Vice Provost for Academic Technology Innovation from July 2017 – April 2021, and in a DELTA associate vice provost role since 2007. Donna has been part of DELTA since its formation in 2000. In her current role, Donna provides strategic leadership for the DELTA organization. She is actively involved with NC State University Task Forces and IT Strategic Planning endeavors and works closely with IT leaders across campus, where she facilitates strategic conversations about academic technology planning and governance. She is a member of EDUCAUSE, regularly serving as a program proposal reviewer, and has served on the conference planning committee. She is a previous chair of the NC State Council on the Status of Women and currently remains active with this group in planning the annual NC State sisterhood dinner, and she is a co-founder of NC State’s Women in Technology interest group. Donna is also an Adjunct Teaching Assistant Professor in the Educational Leadership, Policy & Human Development in the College of Education at NC State University, where she teaches online courses, mentors graduate students, and serves on dissertation committees. She has been an associate member of the graduate faculty since 2008. Donna has more than 20 years of experience in supporting higher education faculty members in leveraging technology to support their instructional goals, and experience teaching at the middle, high school and college level. Donna regularly gives presentations on the future of teaching with technology, using emerging technologies and building communities in online courses, with recent presentations given at the University Global Partnership Network virtual conference, Duke University, Elon University, the Raleigh chapter of the Association for Talent Development, UNC CAUSE, and the EDUCAUSE conference. Donna was awarded the NC State University 2011–2012 Workforce & Human Resource Education Alumni Award for Outstanding Professional Service, has been recognized previously as an NC State Pride of the Wolfpack recipient, and was a 2019 NC State IT Community recipient of an Extraordinary Project Team Impact Award. She is also regularly recognized as an outstanding instructor via the NC State University 'Thank a Teacher' program. Donna holds a B.A. in English (Elon University), a master’s degree in Information Science (North Carolina Central University), an Ed.D. in Adult & Community College Education (North Carolina State University), and an Executive Women in Leadership Certificate from Cornell University.
Jessica is a Senior Instructional Designer working with Digital Education and Learning Technology Applications (DELTA) and the Department of Food, Bioprocessing, and Nutrition Sciences (FBNS) at NC State University. In both departments, she provides instructional design and project management knowledge to create and provide solutions to instructional challenges. She works with faculty members and the new media team at DELTA to design, develop, and evaluate innovative online and face-to-face courses. In FBNS, she manages the Distance Education (DE) Grants & Instructional Design Assistance Program that she established in Fall 2017. This program supports departmental faculty members who desire to create or revise existing courses into blended, hybrid, flipped, or fully online courses. Her work in FBNS creates opportunities to collaborate with faculty, undergraduate and graduate students, and the distance education coordinator to develop engaging and informative courses. Before joining DELTA, Jessica taught at a private college for several years before working for a non-profit organization and as a government contractor. In her prior roles, she developed a multitude of courses, taught adults various business-related topics such as professional development, business communications, and designed training programs. Jessica holds an Ed.S. in Instructional Design and Technology and a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership. She also teaches as an adjunct Teaching Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, Policy, and Human Development at NC State University.

Extended Abstract

With the vast changes the pandemic has had on the role and practice of Instructional Designers, it is important to examine the perspectives of instructional designers working in the field. The presentation explores Instructional Designers’ perceptions of the impacts to and changes in the practice of instructional design in a time where practitioners found themselves rapidly moving content online in suddenly very visible roles in their organizations.

Practicing instructional designers were asked to reflect on the following question related to their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic:
How do instructional designers perceive the instructional design process has been disrupted by COVID-19?

The 33 instructional designers interviewed, selected through a convenience sampling method, worked in many types of organizations, including higher education, K-12, private industry, military, healthcare, and software companies. Interviewees consent to the interview with the understanding that a meta-analysis of themes from these interviews may be used for research purposes, and as part of the interview process, interviewees sign an interview consent form acknowledging that their responses may be used for research purposes. The 33 instructional designers interviewed represent multiple sectors of practice.  While the majority (56%) are practicing in educational settings (higher education public, private, and community colleges), another 28% work in private industry in settings ranging from manufacturing to consulting firms, with representation from the healthcare industry and the military as well.

As this research is grounded in interview data, we applied a qualitative research approach to analyze the interviewees’ experiences as instructional designers practicing in a pandemic and used inductive reasoning from the interview components. We specifically examined the interviewees’ responses to the pandemic-related questions.  Dividing into two teams, the authors read through the interview components relevant to pandemic-related questions to ensure we had a shared understanding of the themes and observations emerging from the interview data and developed our codes collectively. An analysis template was created in Google Sheets, with participant types and data coded during a first pass of analyzing the data with each author primarily responsible for part of one semester’s dataset, and all authors responsible for double-checking themes and codes that emerged.

In analyzing the responses, clear impacts were noted for the ID profession, challenges were documented that arose during the crisis, and opportunities were also observed.

The interviews revealed a number of immediate impacts to the way training and instruction were designed, delivered, and supported in an emergency remote instructional situation, the role of the ID, disruptions to social connections, and the workload of instructional designers during the pandemic.

  • The most obvious instructional impact during the pandemic was the rapid and unexpected shift in modalities from in-person to fully online instruction, both synchronously and asynchronously, in both educational and business/training environments.  

  •  Instructional designers mentioned there was a large shift in their role during COVID-19. They had to approach their role differently under challenging time constraints, with a sudden and vast shift in the amount of ID work needing to be completed.

  • Some negative impacts to social connections were mentioned around the lack of being able to read body language and interpret tone of voice, both in designing and delivering instruction. 

  • As with social connections, workload was discussed by participants in both a positive and negative light. Some participants mentioned using the time they would have taken traveling back and forth to work each day as extra time they could dedicate to getting work done. With travel halted, they “actually had more time to focus on instructional design work.” Some negative things mentioned were around increased workload such as helping with increased training needs. 

The interviews revealed a number of challenges faced by instructional designers that flowed from the impacts of instructional delivery changes under extreme time pressures and increasing workloads.  Instructional designers found themselves overwhelmed with support requests with a lack of time to design instruction carefully, challenges for both themselves and their learners in accessing technology, resource and staffing challenges, and the challenges of both IDs and SMEs and instructors and students only being able to meet from a distance.

  • Clearly, the instructional design professionals in this study saw challenges around time to be some of the most impactful, with one participant noting that “my time would be the thing most disrupted by the pandemic, meeting the needs quickly to get online."

  • Instructional designers, especially those involved in education, often had frustrating issues with access and instructional equity for their learners. 

  • During the pandemic, access to adequate resources came up as a challenge with instructional designers.  Some institutions and businesses were ready when the crisis hit and had all of the technological tools needed in place for employees to do their jobs even with the pandemic shifting instruction online.  Others had to acquire tools (software and hardware) and sometimes knowledge (requiring financial resources for training) to do their work at a distance, often competing with other needs. 

  • The needs brought on by the pandemic were so swift that there wasn't enough time to get people in place to do the work.  

  • Businesses that continued work during the pandemic saw massive increases in training needs. 

The findings of this study suggested that COVID-19 significantly impacted the current work of instructional designers. During the pandemic, interviews with IDs revealed a number of immediate impacts to the way training and instruction was designed, delivered and supported while recognizing the increasingly visible role of the instructional designer.  Challenges such as increasing workloads, the need to leverage more technology and the need to design at scale for flexible and online instruction were recognized during the pandemic. The pandemic also presented IDs with opportunities that can positively shape the future of this now very visible profession; opportunities to collaborate with stakeholders to design truly engaging instruction in a variety of settings, from higher education to corporate environments. 


Implications for Practice 1:  

  • Considering the Flexibility of Instructional Design Models

  • The Increasing Visibility of the Instructional Design Profession

  •  Clearly Differentiating Emergency Remote Teaching (ERT) from Online Instruction

Recommendations for Future Research:

  • Reworking Instructional Design Models

  • Creating Standardized Intake Forms for ID Assistance for Instructors

  • Understanding and Creating Resilience Ready IDs

While what instructional designers do each day may not have been understood pre-pandemic, those interviewed for this study agreed that the rapid shift to online teaching and training during the pandemic made the importance of good instructional design very visible which aligns with extant research (Pilbeam, 2020; Prusko & Kilgore, 2020). Moving forward, interviewees believed that more job opportunities will exist for instructional designers across many different organizations as the value of well-designed education and training became increasingly understood during the pandemic. Clearly, the rapid shift to online learning made the importance of carefully designed instruction visible and the role of the instructional designer valued.