Designing Online Courses for Higher Education: An Exploratory Case-study of The Roles of Instructional Designers in Supporting Faculty Members

Concurrent Session 5

Session Materials

Add to My Schedule

Brief Abstract

A case-study exploring the design process instructional designers apply collaboratively with faculty to design online courses for higher education. The limited findings are based on directed content analysis and open-coding of semi-structured interviews with three instructional designers and two faculty as well as analysis of observation field notes.   


PhD student in Learning Technologies Design Research program under the College of Education and Human Development at George Mason University, U.S.

Additional Authors

Brenda Bannan is an Associate Professor in the Instructional Technology/Learning Technologies Design Research programs at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, USA. Her research interests primarily revolve around the articulation of integrated design and research processes in learning technology design and development. She is the author of numerous articles and book chapters on the emerging method of design research in education related to areas such as mobile learning, augmented reality, inquiry-based instruction, language learning and cognition, motivation and special education.

Extended Abstract

The relationship between research in instructional system design (ISD) and instructional designers’ application of their practice has been of interest to many studies (Thompson-Sellers & Calandra, 2012; Williams, South, Yanchar, Wilson, & Allen, 2011; McDonald, 2011; Bliton, Norwood & Herlig, 2010; Yanchar & Hawkley, 2014). Researchers in field of ISD are concerned with instructional designers’ actual utilization of instructional design theories, instructional strategies, and learning theories when designing learning environments (Thompson-Sellers & Calandra 2012; Bliton, Norwood & Herlig, 2010; Roytek, 2010). There is a disconnection between research in ISD and instructional designers’ practical application of the process, in which instructional designers might have disparaging views pertaining to research in ISD. It is important to understand how research informs instructional design practical application considering various content and context challenges that instructional designers encounter to design effective learning products.

Hence, this is an exploratory qualitative case study aims to understand the design process that instructional designers implement to design online courses for higher education settings. To gain in-depth understanding of the design process, the researcher conducted semi-structured interviews with three instructional designers at a research university in the mid-Atlantic East Coast region of the U.S. Interestingly, these instructional designers directly cooperated with faculty members to design their online courses. Thus, to attempt to achieve a more holistic view of the phenomenon, the researcher conducted additional semi-interviews with two faculty members going through the design process and observed two consultation sessions, in which instructional designers used to collaborate with faculty members.  

There are multiple propositions from theories and previous research that informed the study’s design. These propositions are related to the roles of instructional design (ID) experience and informal training in guiding the design process; peer communication is number one strategy informing deign decisions; minimal focus on learning theories during the design process; and implementing ID theories implicitly and intuitively in learning design projects. Accordingly, the research questions are: (1) What is the design process that faculty members and instructional designers implement to design online courses in higher education setting, (2) What challenges face faculty members and instructional designers during the design process and how do they address them, (3) To what extent do faculty members and instructional designers incorporate creativity in developing lesson plans for online courses, (4) What are the instructional design strategies that instructional designers applied to design the online courses, and (5) What type of relationship exists between faculty members and instructional designers during the design process?

This exploratory study was based on a limited number of participants and two data sources to collect data. However, I increased the credibility and rigor of findings by collecting rich-data through the semi-interviews (Maxwell, 2013) and using observation notes to test assumptions resulted from the interviews (Flyubjerg, 2006). Through the process of triangulating the data sources and the constructivist qualitative approach used, I gained in depth-understanding of participants constructed perspectives within the context of the design process. Interviews were audio-taped and transcribed verbatim. The researcher analyzed the data through two methods, (1) open-coding to identify emic emerging categories (Maxwell, 2013), and (2) directed content analysis to identify etic excerpts that answer each research question as well as test and expand existing theories (Hsieh & Shannon, 2005). I analyzed the observation sessions’ notes to support and test data findings from the interviews.

Exploratory findings showed that the instructional designers who participated in this study applied the ADDIE model (Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and evaluation) in the design process, even though they were not required to implement its phases formally. This finding aligns with previous studies that indicated the utilization of the ADDIE model in design phases (Thompson-Sellers & Calandra, 2012; Christensen & Osguthorpe, 2004; Roytek, 2010). The instructional design culture at the university limited collaboration amongst instructional designers as they worked separately on design projects. However, the instructional designers collaborated with faculty to design the online courses. This type of collaboration established the inter-disciplinary action and relationship suggested by McDonald (2011) through the immersion of different minds and fields. Instructional designers and faculty had a partnership working in a team-based environment to elicit creative ideas and solutions. Nevertheless, the instructional designers reported number of factors preventing them from implementing authentic and constructivist online activities such as project-based learning. These factors pertain to faculty members as they had (a) strict personalities, (b) tight schedule, (c) limited technology skills, (d) reluctance applying new learning approaches, and (e) clear guidelines from their programs determining types of accepted course activities.

Instructional designers did not report a disconnection between research and practice in ISD. In fact, they reported the use of research to back up their suggestions to faculty members. However, they avoided the use of “jargon” in instructional design research and learning theories to ensure clear communication with faculty members. Despite that all three instructional designers had formal education in instructional design, they did not emphasize its role in informing their applied practices. Rather, they primarily highlighted the roles of informal training and experiences in guiding their collaboration with faculty members. It is suggested that the formal education generated instructional designers’ actions and intuition when internally deliberating about instructional design strategies and learning theories, while post-academic training and other experiences explicitly guided their practices and communication with faculty.

The findings showed number of challenges faculty members faced during the design process from their perspectives as well as from instructional designers’ perspectives. On the one hand, the challenges or concerns reported by the faculty members were (a) conducting a challenging task – designing online courses- in an unfamiliar environment; (b) spending a large amount of time to accomplish the design; (c) feeling confined to a specific design structure and model; (d) designing optimal online activities for course content that requires rigorous reflections and discussions; (e) tracking students’ posts and discussions as well as responding to their questions in a timely manner; (f) ensuring clear directions to online activities and assignments; and (g) lacking collaboration with other faculty members to develop content for the online course.