18 July 2010

The tribe of the invisible mender

What is it that educational designers (or educational developers or instructional designers) do, exactly? When I am asked, I say that I assist my academic colleagues when they are designing curriculum or preparing to teach – and most people seem to be happy with that answer. Whether they picture me doing the tasks I actually do or not is another matter.

In the abstract for a paper that explores Canadian "instructional designers' stories of practice ... using four lenses: reflexivity, voice, strong objectivity, and power / authority", Campbell et al, wrote "Instructional designers regularly engage in a process of professional and personal transformation that has the potential to transform the culture of institutions through faculty-client relationships. Instructional designers promote new ideas and understandings in social contexts that include other designers and clients, among others". They frame educational design as "an active practice based on community, practical reasoning, personal perspective, and semantic innovation involving memory and leading to action" (Campbell et al, 2006, pp 1-2, 15).

This picture of the work of the tribe resonates with me (fluffy in wording as the description is), because it is difficult to identify exactly the contribution made by the tribe. The skills, knowledge and expertise brought to the task by my colleagues are amazingly varied.

Figure 1: Finding a place as an educational designer

Most of us have expertise in both educational technologies and theories of curriculum design and teaching in higher education. I sit about where the orange cross is in Figure 1, but I would be surprised if anyone else working in my institution as an educational designer would put themselves in precisely the same spot. If I were to cast the net wider and include more of the tribe from around the world, the diversity of practice would be even more obvious.

There is, however, another important dimension to this discussion. The educational designer, as a member of a team designing curriculum, must participate fully; he or she generally brings to the task a body of knowledge unknown to, or at least less-well known by, the academic teachers in the team. However, it is essential that the academic manager of the course (the lecturer in charge or the course convenor) never loses any of his or her sense of ownership of the curriculum.

You could say that we are like book editors. Pam Peters, of Macquarie University, once said in an address to the Canberra Society of Editors that a good editor is like an invisible mender: the better the editor is at the job, the less obvious the editor's contribution to the project. No one ever expects the editor's name to go on a book cover. For the same reasons, educational designers should remain in the background. Students don't need to know which courses have been influenced by the contributions of educational designers.

That model works beautifully so long as someone senior in the system knows the value of the contributions by educational designers and editors. Sometimes writers and lecturers do realise that the work with their name on it is much better because of the contributions of these people, but they can't be counted on to remember it. Ideally, the work of my tribe will be championed by someone quite senior who builds a consultation session into the approvals process, so that it becomes accepted university practice.

It would be even better if there were opportunities to match the strengths of individual educational designers to particular curriculum design / enhancement projects. Often the professional goals and the approaches and practices of particular educational designers diverge dramatically from those of the academics with whom they are working. Educational designers themselves are varied in background, approach, inclination, temperament and any number of other attributes. However, in this institution at least, the educational designers are "embedded" in selected academic organizational units. Academics in those units get one type of assistance only. It would be much better if we had an arrangement where the pairing of academic and educational designer were more considered.

On the other hand, academics are like novelists in other ways too: they will accept advice only from those they trust. They are more likely to accept advice from their local educational designer than from an unfamiliar person. It would be difficult for each educational designer to know as much as the group about every aspect of the work in a particular institution – for example, as much about graphic and web design as they do about models of curriculum, as much about social networking tools as they do about Learning Management Systems, or as much about the characteristics of undergraduate students in science as they do about graduate coursework students in philosophy.

Perhaps the best we can hope for is that each institution builds an educational design team that includes people with a range of interests and expertise, and makes sure that they know each other's strengths. That way, at least we can call on each other for help. That, combined with an institutional policy that every academic curriculum designer is expected to have consulted his or her local educational designer, might do it.

Or would it?

Campbell, K, Schwier, R. A. & Kenny, R. F. (2006). Conversation as inquiry: a conversation with instructional designers. Journal of Learning Design, 1(3), 1-18.

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