How Do Instructional Designers Spend Their Time? A Case Study from A Public Graduate School in Texas

Concurrent Session 4
Research Leadership

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

This study intends to describe what instructional designers (IDs) do by analyzing how a group of IDs spent their time on key responsibilities and how their time allocation keeps changing during the pandemic. The findings and implications of this study would help IDs working in similar higher education contexts recognize the benefits of time tracking and help faculty and administrators better understand the evolving roles of IDs.


Jiaqi Yu is an instructional designer with a demonstrated history of working in higher education and e-learning. She received her B.A. from Beijing Normal University, M.Ed. from the University of Toronto, and currently works on her Ph.D. in Instructional Technology and Human-Computer Interaction. As a QM coordinator and peer reviewer, she enjoys collaborating with faculty to improve course design and advocate for a high-quality learning experience.
Honor is a former secondary teacher turned Instructional Designer specializing in pedagogy, assessment, academic technology, curriculum design, faculty development, creative instruction, and student-centered engagement. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Business Management and a master’s degree in Professional Development. She serves as one of the campus’ Quality Matters Coordinator. Helping others succeed is her biggest passion.

Extended Abstract

How Do Instructional Designers Spend Their Time? A Case Study from A Public Graduate School in Texas


With COVID-19 upending traditional classrooms, there has been an accelerated need to convert on-campus courses to a hybrid or online format and create more fully online programs in higher education (Decherney & Levander, 2020). Faculty in higher education have been facing increased pressure to provide more hybrid and online courses. At the same time, university administrators continue to recognize that faculty need more support and training on online teaching (Beirne & Romanoski, 2018). The urgent need for supporting faculty and building online learning capacity led to a fast-growing demand for instructional designers (IDs) in higher education institutions (Reiser, 2001). To understand how IDs became pivotal players in the context of higher education, it is imperative to explore what IDs in higher education actually do by examining how they spend their time and how their time allocation by task category have been evolving during the pandemic.


Context of the Study


This study is situated in a public graduate medical school in Texas which only offers graduate degrees and certificates. Both presenters work as full-time IDs within a professional team supporting the entire institution for academic innovation (e.g., course design, technology integration, faculty development, and multimedia production). Currently, this team consists of twenty-one full-time staff members, including seven IDs supporting for-credit and non-credit courses, continuing education, and micro-credentials. The ID team serves all members of the institution that includes approximately 300 faculty and 1,000 staff members. 


In April 2019, this team started using Freshdesk (one of the leading cloud-based customer support software) to organize support tickets and track individual time spent on customer-facing projects. All the current and former IDs have been using Freshdesk to track specific time spent on each project or support ticket. On average, each individual was able to record approximately 20-30 hours per week. The need for instructional designers at the institution significantly increased as schools and programs quickly transitioned to a blended and online environment. The Freshdesk data provided proof for the increase in ID staff. Since March 2020, the team has grown from 3 to 7 IDs (with an additional ID in the recruiting phase). Before the pandemic, the institution had only a few programs offering online courses, certifications, and degrees. Currently, 80% of our schools are offering online courses, certificates, and degrees. 


Research Questions


The literature pertaining to Instructional Designers (IDs) has primarily focused on what essential competencies and skillsets are needed for IDs in their professional practice (Kenny et al., 2005; Koszalka, Russ-Eft, & Reiser, 2013; Kumar & Ritzhaupt, 2017). Only a few studies provided empirical evidence on the activities of IDs based on self-reported data.


Over a decade ago, Wedman and Tessmer (1993) conducted a survey to explore the design practice of 73 instructional designers developing training for business and industry. When IDs were asked to divide their time by category, they found IDs actually spent more time on administrative tasks (instead of traditional design work) such as project management (28%), professional meetings (24%), supervising personnel (17%), and academic research (13%) (Wedman & Tessmer, 1993). More recently, Cox and Osguthorpe (2003) carried out a survey and received 147 responses from IDs in academic and corporate settings. They found that participants spent most of their time in original design work (23%), project management (22%), followed by meetings (14%), and research (12%). 


These studies pointed out the need for more empirical research into the practice of IDs. To truly understand what IDs do, it is critical to examine how IDs spent their time by task category, which would help them fully understand the roles they play in the context of higher education. This study intends to unfold what the life of a group of IDs looks like in a public graduate medical school by addressing the following research questions:

  1. How did IDs at a public graduate medical school spend their time?

  2. How was ID’s time allocation by task category evolving during the pandemic?


Research Plan


For data collection, we plan to download the time reports of all current and former IDs from Freshdesk between January 2020 and December 2021. Each time report will be filtered by ID’s name and sorted by project title with detailed time entry by date. A pre-determined codebook will be generated based on the literature on IDs’ competencies (Koszalka, Russ-Eft, & Reiser, 2013) to outline the major categories and sub-categories. To ensure intercoder reliability, both researchers will code one report together to discuss any disagreements and finalize the codebook. Then both researchers will code the remaining time reports independently and cross-check any items that need further discussion. 


To answer the first research question, we plan to utilize the data from all the IDs in our team and calculate the total hours on each major and sub-category. We plan to visualize our results in a pie chart during the presentation to demonstrate specific time allocation on each major and sub-category. Regarding the second research question, we plan to compare the percentage of time allocation of each month and compare the yearly trends between 2020 and 2021. The hours spent on each major category will be organized by month in a clustered bar chart, which will allow the audience to compare the trend over the past two years. 


Plan for Interactivity


To improve the interaction between the presenters and the audience, we plan to adopt one interactive presentation tool (e.g., NearPod, Mentimeter) and integrated polls and questions throughout the presentation. We plan to add a few polls at the beginning of the presentation to help us get to know our audience quickly. Besides visualizing our data, we will add dynamic multimedia to enhance participant engagement and a broader understanding of the ID role. Infographics and handouts based on the presentation and ID role will be provided to participants to facilitate the Q&A section. Also, additional resources will be provided at the end of our session to allow the audience to delve deeper into the topic if interested.


Takeaways for Attendees


The following three key takeaways were identified for our potential attendees:

  • Identify essential or emerging tasks that require significant time allocation from IDs

  • Explain the impact of COVID-19 on the evolving roles and responsibilities of IDs

  • Recognize the benefits of time tracking for IDs to make informed decisions


Instructional Designers have been and will continue to be key players and change agents in the higher education realm. With the ever-changing demands of the return-to-work plans during and post-pandemic, IDs need to be more flexible, knowledgeable, and adaptive to new demands. As IDs continue to track their time spent on essential or emerging tasks, it would help identify the gap of services, balance the workload within the team, and inform the needs for future recruitment. We believe the findings and implications of this study would help IDs working in similar higher education contexts recognize the benefits of time tracking and help faculty and administrators better understand the evolving roles of IDs. 



Beirne, E., & Romanoski, M. P. (2018). Instructional design in higher education: Defining an evolving field. OLC Outlook: An environmental scan of the digital learning landscape.

Cox, S., & Osguthorpe, R.T. (2003). How do instructional design professionals spend their time? TechTrends, 47(3), 45-47.

Decherney , P., & Levander, C. (2020, April 24). The hottest job in higher education: Instructional designer. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from

Koszalka, T. A., Russ-Eft, D. F., & Reiser, R. (2013). Instructional designer competencies: The standards. IAP-Information Age Publishing, Inc.

Kenny, R., Zhang, Z., Schwier, R., & Campbell, K. (2005). A review of what instructional designers do: Questions answered and questions not asked. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology/La revue canadienne de l’apprentissage et de la technologie, 31(1).

Kumar, S., & Ritzhaupt, A. (2017). What do instructional designers in higher education really do?. International Journal on E-Learning, 16(4), 371-393.

Reiser, R.A. (2001). A History of Instructional Design and Technology: Part II: A History of Instructional Design. Educational Technology Research and Development, 49(2), 57-67.

Wedman, J., & Tessmer, M. (1993). Instructional designers’ decisions and priorities: A survey of design practice. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 6(2), 43-57.