Demystifying Instructional Design

Karen Bellnier - What instructional designers do

September 20, 2021 Rebecca J. Hogue Season 1 Episode 4
Demystifying Instructional Design
Karen Bellnier - What instructional designers do
Show Notes Transcript

Karen has over 20 years of experience in the learning field. She led the process of creating a formal online learning program at the Community College of Rhode Island. At Johnson & Wales University, she created training faculty for online course development and delivery and worked closely with faculty developing online courses and managed a team of instructional designers and technologists. She has served as a reviewer for Blackboard's Exemplary Course Program, OLC Innovate & Accelerate conferences. She is an alum of the OLC Institute for Emerging Leaders in Online Learning and have presented at OLC's Accelerate, NEAAN, and the Distance Learning and Teaching Conference. Previous to joining higher education, Karen was a content developer for a museum exhibit design firm and the peer review manager for the American Alliance of Museums. 

Currently, Karen is a doctoral student in the URI-RIC Education program. Her interests are in faculty support and development, digital teaching, and equitable teaching and learning practices, particularly in digital learning environments. She holds a M.A. in Educational Technology Leadership from The George Washington University, a M.S. in Developmental Psychology from the University of California, Santa Cruz and B.A., Psychology & Anthropology, Washington University in St. Louis.

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REBECCA:
Welcome to Demystifying Instructional Design, a podcast where I interview various instructional designers to figure out what instructional designers do. I'm Rebecca Hogue, your podcast host.

REBECCA:
Welcome to demystifying instructional design, a podcast about instructional design and trying to figure out exactly what is it that instructional designers do. My first question, Karen, to introduce yourself.

KAREN:
So my name is Karen Bellnier. I've been doing instructional design within the field of higher education for about 15 years, and before that I worked in the museum field in education and exhibit development, which has a lot of very similar strategies and practices. Up until COVID, I was doing a lot of that within an institution, and more recently, I've been doing a lot of that work as a contractor with a couple of different organizations. I have a master's degree in educational technology and leadership from the George Washington University, as well as a background in psychology before that.

REBECCA:
It's interesting to hear the backgrounds that people have that brought them into the field. Can you describe a little bit about what you do as an instructional designer?

KAREN:
I try to think about how I describe it to friends that know nothing, right? So the way I've described what instructional design to neighbors is that it's really working with a subject matter expert or a faculty member to achieve their teaching goals that using the backgrounds that I have in learning and in design of learning, I want to help them achieve what they're trying to do. So there's very much a partnership component in the way I think about instructional design that often starts with really intensive work to make whatever those goals are really explicit. And then collaborating with them to create a pathway that supports learners in achieving those goals. To me, that work is largely subject agnostic, meaning I don't really care. It doesn't really make a lot of impact to me on the work I do. Whether that topic is information heavy, content heavy, whether it's skill based, whether it's attitudinal, whether it's for whatever age, the process kind of remains relatively the same. The work is very similar. So I don't have, I tell them, I don't have to be an expert in whatever you're the expert in. That's the part you're bringing to the party. For the time that you have spent becoming an expert to becoming knowledgeable in whatever area you're working in, whether chemistry or literature or art. I've spent that same kind of time thinking about learning, and that's what we're bringing together for this process.

REBECCA:
I love the way you said that, the positioning with the subject matter expert that you, as the instructional designer, have spent that time. And that's what your focus is because I always find that challenge of trying to get them to appreciate that. No, my expertize is in pedagogy, right? My expertize is in that. What are your typical tasks?

KAREN:
I'm sure this will be an answer. You get a lot. There really isn't a typical day, and that's one of the things that I really love about this kind of work as a contract instructional designer. I have a lot of different projects on my plate. So often my day or week begins with a quick review of those projects to figure out which, what their needs are for their next steps and when those are needed so that I can really appropriately use my time in one of those projects. I'm working with a subject matter expert who is not familiar with teaching or online. So I'm spending a lot of time really guiding and coaching him through that full design process. And that's also with a larger company. So I also am spending time coordinating timeline, budget in the use of my time, coordinating with other team members like that, particular company has quality reviewers and technologies and technologists and managers. So there's that kind of project management coordination role in a different project. I'm really kind of going it alone. I'm working both as the subject matter expert and the designer of the course. They call it a design sprint, so it's a really tight deadline. They have a basic template that I'm using, and it's just kind of me going at it and putting the whole thing together and checking in occasionally with a project coordinator on a third project, which is still in its formative stages. I'm collaborating with someone I've known for years on the beginning part on creating a scope of work and a project structure so that it can then become something that is people can submit for. So there's a lot of different stages of projects, and they're happening at the same time across different spaces. So spending a little bit of time to kind of get my thoughts in order at the beginning. OK, today. Today of this day or this morning is of this morning and and that kind of thing is really important in my prior role when I was within higher education. The work of the day was really dictated by the time of the year, right, that if it was close to the beginning of a term, a lot of the time was spent contacting and supporting faculty, getting ready to teach online. And a lot of that was really making sure the courses were curtain ready, right when the term began, student ready when the term began. And then at other times, I was often balancing somewhere between four and six different course design processes from from beginning to end. And those might be at slightly different stages, but they really happened across a term. So there was a lot of bouncing back and forth with topics, but the process was fairly consistent, and that often required weekly meetings really to coach faculty on the process and guide them from that kind of initial brainstorming and vision to the whole backwards design process until we had something that was ready to be built.

REBECCA:
What other professionals do you work with in your role as instructional designer?

KAREN:
Again, it really depends on the project. The one that has the biggest team right now has several different areas of specialty, so they have technologists who will build the courses. They have creative staff who will help with graphic design and media elements. If that contract involves those, they have a particular team of quality reviewers that check at each milestone stage to make sure that objectives are measurable, that things are in place. They've got client coordinators, right, who work with making sure that the project is staying on scope and in that kind of thing at an institution, it really varies. Right at one place I worked, I managed a team of half a dozen instructional designers and technologists, and that place just before I left, they were really in that transitional phase from allowing or expecting faculty to build their courses to bringing that course building in-house. And that was really a product of scale that the scale of that of the school had gotten to the point where they felt that having more consistency in the approach to just the small aspects of building. So obviously not the content that was the part that we worked out with the designers, but how the headers look. Being able to create a nice little task lists graphically that we could use in all courses. That kind of touch was able to be managed when we had the building on our team versus having faculty, figuring that out and doing it on their own. But other places, it's just you or just you and another person. And in some ways there's a lot of flexibility and freedom with that. But obviously you end up doing the whole project soup to nuts.

REBECCA:
What types of projects do you find fun?

KAREN:
I love the challenging ones and the really weird ones. I'm a puzzle solver at heart. That's really what engages me. I like finding ways to make things possible, particularly in digital environments that others have said. You can't possibly do that online and really kind of pushing the boundaries I love when I have a chance to work with a subject matter partner who is willing to kind of go out on a little bit of a limb with me and explore some new ideas, whether it's a different tool or a different approach to something like collaboration. Those are the parts that I really, really enjoy. I like figuring out new and different things when I was in museum education exhibit design. You know, our topics ranged all over the map, right? We had a we had an exhibit on silk fashion. We had classes on criminal justice or on the history of electrification. I remember one day in the morning I was doing research on lunch box design and in the afternoon on Mississippian artists. That variety and the uniqueness of those challenges is really what I find it engaging.

REBECCA:
I want to pick up on something that you said because you used a term that I really like subject matter partner.

KAREN:
Mm-Hmm.

SPEAKER

REBECCA:
Instead of subject matter expert, I really like that. I think that describes better the position.

KAREN:
I mean, I think the collaborative partnership is really important. I've used a number of analogies. Some are better than others. I used to early on in my career, I used to compare it to songwriters and singers Elton John and Bernie Taupin, right? Bernie Taupin was a songwriter who wrote pretty much all of Elton John's music. And that was a partnership. It was a collaborative give and take who was on stage. Elton was on stage. He got the glory right. He got to do all the engagement with the audience. But he couldn't do that without having a songwriter as a partner with him to make that performance work. Architects and contractors. I don't know. There's a lot of different kind of partnership oriented analogies that I found really useful in trying to explain how an instructional designer can really be a partner to someone trying to teach something.

REBECCA:
Mm hmm. And I just really like the partner aspect that language, because it speaks better to what our goal is anyway.

KAREN:
Right, right?

REBECCA:
So what what would you consider your niche to be

KAREN:
I thought about that for a while And I think for me, my strongest area is maybe the way I would think about it. It lies in that subject matter partner and instructional designer interview that I really enjoyed processing the almost interviewing nature of getting to that initial vision for a course, really getting to dig three levels deep and get to that those goals and working with somebody to help scaffold those activities. And that's a skill. And that's a process that I've used not only in the course level, but also at our program programing curricular level that kind of unearthing of the real genuine passion and purpose of the course. I have this process that I took with me from the museum field called the big idea. And if that's something you've ever seen, come up before. But in the exhibit world, the big idea is this is a one sentence or even less than a sentence phrase that captures the essence of whatever the purpose of the exhibit is about. And it's really critical because it's so easy to end up scope creeping in lots of different directions. Exhibits take tons of time and lots of people. And if there isn't really that shared point that everyone can connect to that the ultimate goal of a big idea like that is that every word, every piece that goes into the exhibit, every activity is aligned with that vision. Right. So it's kind of distilling the ideas, of course objectives into a do a little nugget. And I found when I use that with, particularly with faculty in an education environment and particularly in a space where they're maybe thinking about the difference between a course tablet or a master course and an individual course is that the difference between the vision and the course objectives is them right? It really gives them a chance to say, Here's why I love this course. Here's the thing that I really want my students to get out of this course. Whereas often, of course, objectives might be something that's navigated at a committee level right there. They can be, particularly if they're kind of running through the process. A little bit soulless is maybe a way to say that, whereas big idea or a vision statement for a class can really, really drive some creativity and of course, design.

REBECCA:
I really like that idea. I like the way you've put that because I look at that as the course goal. But for me, when I'm setting that goal, what is that big idea? What do I want my students when they leave? What's the one thing that I want them to have? And in some cases, it's a portfolio? In some cases that's a project, you know, it's a piece or a creation or something. And that's sort of. An interesting way to help, especially to help non designers focus. And bring them back to the focus, right, but this was your idea.

KAREN:
And I also think it helped them feel really personal personal connection to their course, right, that it's now part of their mission to make this happen. I mean, some of the best examples I had were things like I worked with. So on an abnormal psychology course whose vision for that course was that students coming out of the course would see mental illness as something that is a lived experience for many people. Likely people that they know to really humanize the experience of mental illness or mental health. So that really changed how we approach this course, right? So it was no longer a course with I mean, it still had a chapter on different diagnoses and their symptoms. I mean, that clearly had to be kind of part of the content, but it meant we had an opportunity to really layer in. On top of that, things like videos from people who lived with different diagnoses, activities where they went and spoke to people who worked in roles that had a lot of interaction with people who had mental health issues, whether it be first responders or in community service or religious environments. And those are activities I don't think we would have thought of if we didn't have that kind of underlying or overarching vision of trying to add this human experience to the course. I have found them to be extremely powerful and I will get on my soapbox for this process because it takes time. It takes two or three weeks. And when you have a 13 week development, that's a lot of time. But if you've got that piece, it really makes the rest of the process much smoother because now you can hold it up, right? You can say, does this new reading I found this new technology that seems so exciting. Does that fit this vision? And if not, I can throw it away. I don't have to entertain it. And so it really keeps the process focused, and I really think that students end up feeling it right. They feel that cohesion, that underlying passion. And so it makes for a better experience on their end as well. Have I done research on that yet? No, I have not. But that is my belief.

REBECCA:
You know, and I totally see it because that again brings out the passion and the instructor, which then brings out the course. The way you explain, then I can see. Yeah, suddenly that course isn't about different diseases. It's about the lived experience. And so it totally changes the focus of what it's about. And I, yeah, I think I totally see that as being a great way to sort of position things. What are your biggest challenges as an instructional designer?

KAREN:
One of the pieces that I think is the biggest challenge operationally is timing and by which I mean that folks often reach out to include instructional design perspective after a good chunk of the planning and discussion has already happened. And for me, anyway, I find I'm most effective when I have a broad picture of the context for any piece of learning that I've really had a chance to hear about, who's going to be the learner, what are they expecting out of the class or learning? What are they bringing into it? What's the organization expecting? What's bracketing it right? What came before and what comes after it? For me, anyway, that bigger picture is really important for me to kind of appropriately place activities and materials along a bigger spectrum. And I find it to be a little disorienting when I jump into a conversation that already has that past history and relationships and sometimes asking people to go back and refresh that for you doesn't always go over that. Awesome to me. That's one of the bigger challenges if you're not trying to guess at the context in which you're trying to fit this piece.

REBECCA:
Yeah, I agree with you there or when people are fixated on a solution, but they can't articulate the problem.

KAREN:
Yes, that too is it's sort of like that.

REBECCA:
If you've jumped to the solution, you know you want to teach it this way, but you don't actually know what you want to teach yet.

KAREN:
Yeah, no one's made the T-shirt for me yet, but the what is your goal is definitely something that every time every person I've worked with has heard me say multiple times.

REBECCA:
What skills do you find most useful in the work that you do?

KAREN:
So the first word that popped into my head when you said that is honesty. And I think that comes in a couple of different flavors. I think the ability to clearly and kindly articulate your analysis of information or the needs of the project or ideas from colleagues in furtherance of the goal, but also maintaining everybody's trust is really important. If you don't have that right, if you don't have the trust and integrity of the process, the whole thing falls apart. Often collaborating or trusting you to do right by ideas and information that they are really important to them that they cherish. And so they are trusting you to take care of that and be do right by it. But there's often. Times were an honest examination of those ideas and the assumptions underlying them and how they relate to those learning goals becomes really important. And so being able to honestly have that kind of let's let's kind of open that up a little bit and look at what's there is important. And at least for me, for the part that I'm talking about, my niche, as you said, is really about relationships as a business based on relationship. I would also say that in the role as contract designer, that ability to do time and task management becomes really critical. Being able to compartmentalize a little bit to be able to focus on a particular problem and give it your full attention. But while also being mindful of that project's deadlines, the demands from other projects and to be completely candid, your own fair compensation all become really important. If you're doing work at a single place under a general salary, it's less visible to you. Whereas when you know that you're tracking your hours, it becomes really apparent when you're letting yourself get sucked down rabbit holes that are probably not really part of the problem. And then the third skill that I think is really important is the ability to be comfortable with ambiguity, particularly in the beginning of the process. There's going to be uncertainty and it's OK to kind of let some stuff sit out there have thought as you kind of guide the process paired with that is the ability to kind of separate the project from your own personal pride, by which I mean, if you're take one of those directions you're exploring and you follow it for a while and maybe it's got something you like, you've always wanted to try this thing and you're really excited about it. And then you have to come to the reality that, you know, it's just not working out, that it's OK to just drop it. Go back to where you were and try a new direction. So that kind of ability to kind of float a little bit in the cloud of ambiguity and to allow the process to kind of demonstrate work for itself and then be OK if ultimately an idea gets kiboshed, not

REBECCA:
everything works. And that's OK. What do you wish you had learned sooner or wished that you knew sooner instructional design?

KAREN:
I think the way I want to approach this is more what am I still wrestling with? Which maybe I think comes to the same idea? One is something we talked about earlier, which is that most people, even colleagues and peers that are not instructional designers, don't have a good understanding of what instructional designers do, and it can be really difficult and frustrating to find what you perceive as your areas of expertize being kind of really reduced down to operational roles, like whether it's a technical support or come help show me how to do this one thing. Well, have you thought about why you're doing this thing? I mean, those can be really great entry points to good conversations, but it is a field that we haven't defined ourselves phenomenally well, which is, I'm sure, part of the reason for this podcast. But it's also true that there's a lot of difference and people don't really know what it is that we can bring to a conversation. The other thing that I wrestle with and I've been wrestling with for years is the balancing act between trying to figure out how much of the process of design is reasonable to expect your subject matter partner to engage with you in. And part of that is recognizing what we said before that you've spent time. I've spent time building up my knowledge base in a space that has value. And so sometimes it's hard to forget that other people don't know that because it's just natural to you. It's, you know, I've been doing it for a long time. What pieces make sense to ask them to partner with you, on which pieces are OK to just do and present in which things do you want them to learn how to do? And that becomes maybe more important when you have ongoing relationships like a faculty member you might be working with over several years. But I think it's true because there is ownership over the project and ownership over the content that I suspect and there's identity issues, right? The feeling of I'm a teacher, I know what I'm doing. So there's a lot of kind of delicate identities and expectations that are wrapped into this. How do you balance what you do, how much they can do, how much they should do? I don't think that maybe there's just an answer. It's not a global answer, for sure.

REBECCA:
Yeah, that's a good gray area. And in sort of like the yeah, very, very much a gray area. What advice would you give to new instructional designers?

KAREN:
You're getting all my abstract thoughts today. So I recently had a good conversation with someone who's thinking about going into instructional design. And one of the things that I spoke with her about is that there's a real spectrum in the field about what instructional designers can and should be doing. And I'm really on one end and I'm a lot on the faculty coaching pedagogy, curricular side of things. And there's a range that also includes or moves towards the technical and the creative. The graphic in the media and positions can include some all or any of that. And I think when people are hiring designers, if they're not steeped in that, if they haven't been doing that for a while, they're not always sure what they're asking for. They'll include everything on the laundry list because that's what their next neighbor did or something. I encourage new designers or people who are interested in getting into instructional design to really reflect on of that wide spectrum. One of the things you really want to do and to make sure that you end up in a position or a role that is capitalizing on the places that you are passionate about, because this kind of work can be really energizing and exciting, and it can be frustrating and draining. And if it's not on the space that you want to become better in, it can be a tough road. I also say that depending on the environment you're working in, can be informed by whether or not you want to be the one making the decision or the one guiding the process. If you're OK kind of being the navigator on the side and someone else is making the final decision. Higher education can be a great place to work if that bothers the heck out of you. You might want to look for other areas of work. The third area of recommendation that I would make for folks is that like lots of areas of skill, certainly teaching, cooking, I don't know, gardening, whatever. All these situations are unique. Every circumstance is going to be different. And so one way to become awesome. One way to really become great is to just be exposed, to look at as many examples of great design you can find in your field or not. And to listen to the people who really think deeply about design and learning. And those will fill your tank with ideas for how to respond to those situations. The process, right, the interviewing and the backwards design and all that stuff can be taught. But the application of that process to these unique situations really comes from reflective practice.

REBECCA:
I like the way you link that to reflective practice. The last question I like to ask everybody is what's your prediction for the future of instructional design?

KAREN:
I am, by nature, an optimist, but I have also been known to enjoy some dystopian futures. So I have two visions, and I'm going to start with the premise that the learning industry, particularly in higher education, but not certainly not only is facing a variety of influences that are really challenging the status quo for what happens. And you know, I'm not going to spend time right now to go through all of them. I'm certainly happy to share some recent articles that I think captures some of the key pieces. There's some great work out there on this right now. I've also seen a resurgence in interest generally into the research and science around learning, which I think is a good thing. So if we can agree that the not so distant future of teaching and learning might look profoundly different than it currently does? Here's where I think things might go in the more dour view I have seen, particularly in response to things like the pandemic discussions and position postings, particularly contract ones around instructional designers that really reflect a more operational and technical view of the road. And maybe not reflect a conceptual understanding of that larger value that instructional designers can bring. And if that trend continues, if that pathway continues, then instructional design could end up as a fairly formulaic and technical role that is brought in for specific tasks for short amounts of time. And similar to that overall trend we've seen in adjunctification of the professoriate, there could be a similar trend for things like instructional, design and technologies. And I think that would be a real disservice. But I think that's a possibility. If the people who are making decisions about resources and the value of teaching and learning at their various organizations are not familiar with what we can do. On the positive view and one I think we can all help create in our own areas of influence through sharing more transparently the things that we think about the things that we do and can do. I see a future where instructional designers can really become key components in lots of organizations and reflect that importance in increasing numbers. I think particularly if we end up down a path where there's a lot of different models of credentialing, someone's going to need to think about what the goals of those different credentials are, how to structure instruction in micro nano long term, those different side lengths and depth. And I really also see a blurring of boundaries between teaching and learning that happens in institutions of higher education within corporations, within communities, independent places. And as those get blurry, I think there's some opportunity there for kind of again, I think this process of really defining what you want to do, what it looks like and how do we get there? That's a powerful skill to bring to the table, and it's applicable really broadly. I have genuine hope that we will transcend the digital space. I have spoken and I'm sure you have as well with tons of faculty. What I worked with in spaces that were online only that are like, I use this stuff in my day to day class, or I wish I could talk to you about my ongoing class. The boundaries to learning through technology was created out of history. It's not a limitation for the applicability of instructional design. I can imagine a future where instructional designers of that perspective become expected on things like curriculum committees and strategic planning teams. And we're part of the career development of faculty includes coaching and support by instructional designers along their path. Is this a turning point? I think in some places for some institutions to think about, are we about teaching and learning or are we about something else? And the ones that decide they're about teaching and learning can really benefit from incorporating instructional design perspective at all levels of the institution? And I think that is not only true in higher education, I think it's true in adult education and community groups, corporations where they need to figure out how to train and adapt to changing environments. So I think there's there's definitely a possibility, and I think we can help create that through broadening awareness of what this skill set and perspective is.

REBECCA:
Thank you very much. This has been very enlightening, and I think that the listeners will be very happy to hear your perspectives on this. So I really appreciate the time you've taken to share with us.

KAREN:
It's been a pleasure.

REBECCA:
You've been listening to Demystifying Instructional Design, a podcast where I interview instructional designers about what they do for show notes, go to DemystifyingInstructionalDesign.com. If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe. T