Leadership Role of Instructional Designers

Throughout my career, I’ve perceived instructional design to be a position of influence and leadership, but never as true owners of courses. At RSM, we have course owners who are ultimately responsible for their course’s effectiveness; the instructional designer’s job is to advise, inspire, and then execute against the wishes of the course owner once he or she has chosen a path. Likewise, at PLATO, the product manager ultimately chose from the options presented by the instructional designers.

In his book, Michael Allen suggests the role of the instructional designer is greater than that. When talking about the critical importance of including authentic practice in courses, he notes:

It is the responsibility of the instructional designer to make this happen. (p. 158)

In my world, if a course owner chooses an instructionally underwhelming path, but does so understanding the implications of the decision, then I’ve succeeded because I’ve helped a course owner make an informed choice, even if I recommended a different path.

In Michael Allen’s world, it would be failure. If an instructional designer cannot persuade a course owner to take an instructional path warranted by the business (or academic) need, then the instructional designer has failed to do his or her job.

I like it!

As a practical matter, though, I see instructional success as a complex interplay of many factors–complex enough that it’s hard for me to see instructional decisions as being unambiguously right or wrong. Instead, I see them as raising or lowering the odds of meeting a business goal. Further, business goals are often in competition with each other (in ways that may not be apparent to the designer). Thus, I’ll have opinions, and I need to express them in ways that show their value, but once the course owner reaches a decision, it’s my job to execute against it.

I also sometimes have to play the long game, where I build trust over time by helping the course owner incrementally increase course effectiveness. As course owners see the effects that an instructional designer can have, they become more receptive to bigger changes.

The key to all of this is the ability to build the case for investing (often scarce) resources to create better instruction which generates significant return through better efficiency and quality throughout the organization. This skill–building the persuasive case–is not, I think, one typically taught in graduate programs.


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