As an undergraduate- and graduate-level business instructor, I’ve had numerous opportunities to partner with an instructional designer (ID) to create online courses. Each time, my role was to provide subject area expertise, valuable experience teaching our institution’s student population, and knowledge of institutional and programmatic values, policies, and priorities. When asked to serve in this role, instructors who already have online teaching experience may wonder “why should we collaborate—what else can an ID provide?” As Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), we certainly know a lot and it’s our job to set the vision for course content—we’ll always own that aspect of collaborative course design. That said, IDs have much to offer, often helping in ways we may not initially realize. There are also a few things we can do to empower them.

Great Project Management Enables Great Design

Creating a course on a tight timeline is difficult, and rushing may lead to shortcuts and mistakes that impact course quality and the student experience. IDs are strong project managers and help us focus on the content. A good instructional designer has flexibility in her schedule and plans ahead. She explains the design process and available resources, helps set a timeline, determines milestones that can be negotiated, and considers any potential obstacles at the beginning of a project. When working with an ID to establish a timeline, it’s helpful to realize that unexpected things will happen. Invariably, people will get jury duty, or get sick, or something else may derail progress. If you build some ‘buffer time’ into the schedule, such obstacles become non-issues. I’ve had an exceptionally good relationship with my ID and we work in a manner where if I get too busy we still have enough time built into our schedules so that it does not derail us.

Support Beyond the Course

In terms of course design, IDs are your sounding board. They help ensure each module is aligned to measurable learning outcomes and provide guidance on how to present concepts in a way that is interesting and accessible to students in an online environment. But their assistance extends beyond simply advising on course content: They often share resources and tools and help train and support faculty to use them effectively. This knowledge can be used when the project is complete and it’s time to teach the course as well as when you teach other courses. My ID was instrumental in teaching me about industry resources like the Online Learning Consortium. Now, I am actively pursuing professional development opportunities that I would have never learned about if not for her.

Work Iteratively and Reflexively

Writing a course, especially collaboratively, is an iterative and reflexive process. Typically, SMEs work on a module, then hand it off to the ID who reviews the content and provides feedback on how to make the module better. We then discuss and come to an agreement as to what works and what needs additional discussion. This back and forth sharing of ideas is critical to designing the best possible module. As faculty SMEs, we can help IDs by submitting content iteratively and by giving them enough time to do their job. Submitting a draft a day or two ahead of a call in which you plan to discuss a module gives your ID an opportunity to review, consider alternatives, and make beneficial suggestions.

Help the ID Know Your Students

It’s always important to understand who your target audience is. Good communication is not only about putting a message out there but also about making sure the audience understands that message. IDs help us align the conceptual information we know so well into a course that is targeted towards our audience—the students. However, IDs do not know students as well as we do and therefore rely on us to give them a sense of who the students are, what inspires them, what bores them, the level of rigor they can handle, and so on. Share your experience teaching and communicating with students at the beginning of the project and throughout the design process, especially if you feel a particular module or assignment may be too complex, too simple, or not well understood by your target audience.

Relationships and Communication

How do you build this important relationship with the ID? The same way you build any good relationship. Start with good communication. It is helpful if people can work together face-to-face for at least one meeting, but sometimes that’s not possible in today’s distributed workplace. I work online and I didn’t meet my ID in person until after having built many classes together. However, through weekly web conferences and phone conversations, we spent quite a bit of time getting to know each other as a people. I know her as a human being and understand what her concerns are. Likewise, my ID understands my situation and a bit about me. Once you’ve established a good working relationship, building a course becomes much more fun. It is wonderful having a partner and not working in a vacuum. Your instructional designer is your teammate who helps you create a successful course.


About the Author: Stacey Knapper

Stacey Knapper is a business subject matter expert whose interest lies in the intersection of financial literacy and leadership. She has an MBA from California State University and a BS in Business Administration from the University of Delaware.