Demystifying Instructional Design

Paula Thorsland - Being as effective and efficient as possible

November 24, 2021 Rebecca J. Hogue / Paula Thorsland Season 1 Episode 9
Demystifying Instructional Design
Paula Thorsland - Being as effective and efficient as possible
Show Notes Transcript

Paula Thorsland holds a BA in English and education, and an MEd in instructional design. She has worked in the education field for 25 years as an instructor and more recently as an senior instructional designer and Manager of the eLearning and Instructional Design Team at UMass Boston. Her focus is to help faculty learn to use technology successfully in their online and face-to-face courses, while ensuring that course objectives are being met. In her free time, Paula is an avid sailor and mother of two daughters.


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REBECCA:

Welcome to Demystifying Instructional Design, a podcast where I interview various instructional designers to figure out what it is instructional designers do. I'm Rebecca Hogue, your podcast host. First of all, can I ask you to introduce yourself?

 

PAULA:

Sure. My name is Paula Thorsland. I'm the manager of the e-learning and instructional design team at UMass Boston. I've been manager for a little over a year now. Before that, I was a senior instructional designer at UMass Boston and before that, an instructional designer at UMass Boston. So basically cut my teeth as an instructional designer at UMass Boston over the past 10 years.

 

REBECCA:

How did you get into instructional design?

 

PAULA:

It's an interesting story. I guess I was a teacher for near 20 years. I taught K through 12 during that time. I had two children and spent time at home with them and then came back to teaching after they started going to school. And during that time away, stuff changed in education that I found to be really interesting. And one of those big changes was the use of some technology in the classroom. My first job back was in Pueblo, Colorado, and they had implemented very prescriptive curriculum. Part of that curriculum had a math course that allowed students to spend 20 minutes a day doing math problems, adding measurement was in fifth grade and when they got things correct, they got little badges and those badges added up to create that image over time. So they slowly put together a puzzle on top of an image. There was a little motivation factor game gamification of that process. They only spent 20 minutes on it per day, and it was supposed to provide them with a year's worth of growth in math on top of the year that would typically get in the classroom. The school district had implemented that in order to improve math scoring across the district. What I discovered was that I could go in and tweak the program, and when I tweaked the program, I could say for Susie, I could give her more multiplication practice. And for Joe, I could give him more measurement practice. And when I did that, their program would then force them to do more of the skill that they needed practice on. And then those students who were really struggling with the skill during that time, I could do one on one with them and spend time helping them understand that skill in small groups, while the rest of them were totally engaged with headphones and looking at the program and getting their little badges and their awards and whatnot, which of course, they all also told me every time, Oh, I got so with so many badges and I got so and so many awards or whatever it at the end of each session and my class ended up showing over a year's worth of growth. In that time, it was the highest growing class in the whole district. And so I got some recognition around that. And what I connected with was that this use of technology to individualize learning was the forefront of education. And so when I moved to Massachusetts, I was teaching in Boston Public Schools and they were looking for somebody, a computer specialist in our labs. And I volunteered to do it because I wasn't afraid of computers and had done some technical work in Pueblo, but also had a real desire to use more technology in the classroom. And so when I was in the computer lab as a specialist, I started really spending time learning and finding all of these really cool programs that were out there, making use of some of the tools that were available and finding ways to tweak individual learning within that space. And I got super excited about it. Long story short, the Boston Public Schools was trying to force me to just do teaching of English, wasn't giving me any access to technology, and I just was really frustrated by the lack of technology available for students for learning and threw up my hands at the end of three years of teaching and said I need to do something different because I'm not making the kind of impact that I want. And so I searched up technology, educational technology, instructional technology and the program at UMass Boston came up and I went to them and I told them I was interested and they said, Oh, take a course. And I did. It's interesting because that was 10 years ago, a little more than 10 years ago in 2010. And the program at the time was like, Oh, this isn't probably the right program for you because you're a teacher, you're in education. We do more corporate, and the instructional design program during that period was really leaned towards corporate training. But I, being an educator, could see the value of it in the education world, and I said, No, this is definitely OK. It's the same. Teaching kids is the same as teaching adults. In my mind, there's some differences in how you might approach your learner, your audience, but at the end of the day, we all learn the same way, just a different maturity level. And I just stuck with it, and I got really fortunate because I got hired by the instructional design team at UMass Boston as a GA. And that allowed me to see that I was going to be able to help faculty do some of the things that I had seen as really important in education. And that's using technology to individualize instruction to hone in on what you're trying to accomplish and to be creative in the way in which we provide education. And then it just exploded from there, and I became super excited that instructional design was this really cutting edge, in my mind, field because when you went in to go do research, there really wasn't that much there and there hadn't been too many studies. It was just blossoming in a way. And I just kept on and I kept diving into more and more stuff. And that's how I get to where I am now.

 

REBECCA:

I just wanted to clarify a term that you use because you said GA.

 

PAULA:

Oh yes, a graduate assistant, the university offers graduate assistants an opportunity to help out get paid, but also get some of your courses paid for. So it was a really good solution for my situation.

 

REBECCA:

I think it's a great solution for a bunch of students in the program because it parallels too, so they come out of it with some real work experience, which I think is a real benefit.

 

PAULA:

Huge.

 

REBECCA:

How do you describe what you do when someone says, Oh, you're an instructional designer, what does that mean?

 

PAULA:

That's a hard one. I think it's a jack of all trades when it comes to technology and education. Right. So you really you have to be in my mind, very flexible and agile around technology, and you have to be creative in thinking around education and you need to help educators improve the work that they're doing with those pieces or those components. So I usually just start off by saying I help faculty build online courses and use the technology to be as effective and efficient as possible.

 

REBECCA:

I like a couple of words that you use, they're effective, but also efficient.

 

PAULA:

Yes, it's really important efficiency. For an example, we have a program right now called Grade Scope, which allows, I would have killed for this program back when I was teaching English because it allows you to create a rubric on the fly, which as you're grading papers, if you've ever graded a stack of 100 papers you get, I don't know, 20 30 pages in and you realize that you've been taking off too many points for some component of the rubric that you're grading it against. Then you have to go back and re-grade those 20, 30, 50 pages and do the math over. And I used to have papers with first grade was like this grade. And then you go back and you scratch that out. You put the next grade like, Oh, darn it, you go back. You have to scratch it out with the grade again. And it's like, that takes so much time. But Gradescope allows you to fix that as you go and it re-grades retroactively re-grades all those pages. And then so you end up with one grade at the end based on a rubric that you might have come across over the process of grading. Because when you're grading, it really sometimes helps to see what students are doing before you can actually get good point values to things or fair point values to things, right? You might have a plan that you're going to give them these point values, but then as you're grading, you realize, wait a minute, that's not going to work.

 

REBECCA:

Yeah, I like that. And really that the rubric is a grading tool.

 

PAULA:

Yes, absolutely. 100 percent grading tool. But yeah, efficiency is important as a teacher.

 

REBECCA:

What are your typical tasks in a day? 

 

PAULA:

That's changed over the years? When I first started out as an instructional designer, I did a lot of just one on one helping with faculty. I did a lot of research. I spent a lot of time playing and testing out ideas because it's something I teach in my course, too, is that you need to you need to go through the whole cycle, right? You need to create the thing that you want. You need to test it out. You have to be the student. You have to go through the student experience, then you have to come back to it as a teacher and you have to constantly do this cyclical look at what you're trying to accomplish and ask yourself am I my meeting my outcomes, my goal. That's a testing process. And when you're using a tool, a new tool, when you're learning new tools, technology tools, you have to go through that process over and over again to say, Is this going to actually work for what I want to do? And so I used to do that a lot until I get to understand a lot of different tools. And then as a senior instructional designer, I started honing in more on big concepts that I was working on. Like for accessibility, I became the accessibility lead and I worked a lot with people in the campus who had disabilities and worked with the vendors and worked with trying to bring all of those components together. I also worked on our knowledge base and I also worked on a training program, so I had big projects that I was running as a senior instructional designer and making sure that accessibility was working and making sure that the knowledge base was getting built out when it needed to be, and also creating this training course for onboarding new faculty, mostly big projects as a senior instructional designer and working with other instructional designers. And then now that I'm a manager, my day to day has changed again dramatically. I work far less directly with faculty, which is a little bit sad to me because I really enjoy the process of teaching and helping people learn. Now my job is a little bit more about thinking about our team, the strategy and making sure that they're working on the projects that need to be furthered along and thinking about what those projects are and getting input. And so my day to day, I feel like I still haven't gotten wrangled. Actually, my full good day-to-day work, I'm still learning a lot about that as a manager and actually Covid helped me a lot because when I was first manager, I was still doing upwards to three to four consults a day with faculty and I had no headspace time to think about the team because your spending all your time training it is really hard to separate out. So now I'm focusing on what it means to be the manager of instructional designers. That's evolving.

 

REBECCA:

What kind of projects do you find fun?

 

PAULA:

Oh, projects that I find fun. I think all the projects that I did to becoming a manager were really fun. The accessibility when we brought in Ally, which is a product that I brought in to uMass-Boston to try to help faculty to identify their inaccessible materials and have them learn about how to make their materials accessible. And when you're talking about accessibility, you're talking about people with disabilities, if they are blind being able to read document or if they're deaf, being able to hear a video or have the closed captioning in place. Working on that was really exciting because we brought in a product. We did a lot of training. We stood up a small testing environment where we had students working on helping to improve their documents and what that meant and where the problems were finding the problems. I think anytime that you're doing a project that, you're like, one that you're interested in or something that you would like to see happen and then two where you get to do some almost like it's research based, right? Because there's no real answers out there. There wasn't like I could look and say, Oh, how is this other university doing this? Because this has been done for 20 years. It's not like that. It's all new. Everything that we work on every five years or so. It's new, everything's new because technology change is so rapid. So you're constantly re finding new tools and saying, how could this best affect us? Another project I did where I was building a training course where I imagined the course from a different perspective, trying to change the paradigm of being a student in a Blackboard course and actually being a teacher in the Blackboard course. Learning while doing. That was like a whole shift in building that idea was really exciting and fun. I think had we been able to continue it and follow along with it, it would have continued to be a really good thing. But sometimes that stuff just we have to say, OK, this isn't really working the way we'd hoped or whatever, and you move on.

 

REBECCA:

What are your biggest challenges as an instructional designer?

 

PAULA:

I think the biggest challenge I feel has been the administration, and I think that's true in education too. It's weird because you would think that education would be administered by people who were educators and therefore know the things that are important. And you would think that a university would recognize the instructional design, the need for that and the types of support that we could offer and then make use of us in an efficient and effective way. Instead, what I experienced not only in public schools but in UMass Boston, is that the administration is so far removed from education sometimes that they don't make really good decisions or hold accountability across the board in a way that can help us be the best support systems that we could be. And I think that has more than anything has frustrated me throughout my years as instructional designer is dealing with red tape, but also as a k through 12 teacher dealing with the administrative side of teaching, as well as being instructional design. Money, not having access to the things that you need and people not willing to do the work to learn. Those things are really frustrating when people aren't willing to come in and say, I want to learn how to do this and I'm going to do it and I'm going to put my energies in when they do. It's just like any learner when they really are there to learn and they put their energies. It's amazing.

 

REBECCA:

I love watching the transformation.

 

PAULA:

It's great. You get those great big light bulbs and they're like, Wow, oh, I wish I knew how to do this sooner. When you get those, it's wow, this is so great. But when you get, I don't need to learn anything or I don't need to know anything, I find that to be really frustrating.

 

REBECCA:

I think one of the best courses I started teaching was the design and instruction of online courses. So midway through the course, because I teach it online, of course, it's very meta. But about midway through the course, the students have this great aha moment and then they have this sudden appreciation for the work of all of their prior instructors, of just how much goes into making the courses worth it. And that aha moment is very rewarding to see and to watch that happen. What skills do you find most useful in the work that you do?

 

PAULA:

I think for me, I feel like my creativity is super important. I think that knowing what tools can do so there are a ton of tools out there and you can get overwhelmed. But understanding that at the end of the day that they fall into categories of what they can accomplish. I say this to my students a lot, too. Most of these all rolled back to some of the basic so low tech versus high tech, low tech. What do you want to accomplish without any technology? When to turn and talk to your neighbor, or you want to do a brainstorm or you want to do a survey? You have a poll. Ask kids, What do you think? All of these tools that you might do low tech in the classroom have a high tech version out on the internet apps, and there are brainstorms, let's say, for one example, they're like, I don't know. I venture to guess more than 30 brainstorming tools out there. Mind mapping tools. I'm sure you have to say I'm looking to mind map. What could the technology bring? That's different. Knowing these sort of categories of things that tools do, but then to honing in on what you might find it more useful and easier for the user. Some of my skills revolve around recognizing those differences and being able to hone in and remember that there's lots of them and lots of solutions. And there's not just one answer to any of this. There's lots of ways to get at your goal. So I'd say communication, creativity and thinking a lot about categories and tools that are out there. And that means putting the effort in and the time in to learn those things. If you're just going to go to become an instructional designer and just know how to tell people to click this or that and blackboard, you're an instructional technologist for that one tool and a designer thinks about what the outcome is and then works it backwards and says, how can I get there the most efficient and effective way? And what tool do I need to do that or do I need a tool at all?

 

REBECCA:

What do you wish you knew sooner as an instructional designer?

 

PAULA:

So I don't know if I wish I knew it sooner, but it's definitely one of the things that I, I don't know when I honed in on it. But it was definitely after I finished school and I was working with faculty and team. It was the communication class or the communication class at the time I was taking it. I remember thinking I didn't really see how it mapped in 100 percent, like I understood communication was important. Yeah, yeah. But the course that I took and the teacher and what he was teaching, I was like, I was a little unsure about it. But it's the one course, probably of all of the courses that I reference the most in my work that I do today. And it really revolves around the fact that communication is key to being a good instructional designer. And I spend a lot of time saying this to my staff, and I say it to the GAs that we have, the graduate assistants and anybody who will listen. My thing with communication that I discovered, or I felt like I discovered my aha moment was, wow, nobody knows what they're talking about. They're just talking about what, from their perspective, what they think they know. And you, as instructional designer, have to really listen to what they're saying and not make judgments based on the words that they use. So they might say, I'm trying to do this assignment. And at the end of day, the whole thing, they're not even trying to do an assignment at all. They're trying to set up a place to turn in an assignment, or they're trying to figure out what a student knows based on something. Their words can get in the way of you helping them. Because teachers come to us without the deep technology, technological knowledge that we build over time and we have to be ever vigilant not to assume that they know the same things we know, speak the same way we speak. So it's there's a lot of jargon and words and ideas in there that it's really important that you don't assume. You have to say, OK, what I hear that you're saying is that you want to do this and that, and then have them come back at you and say, Oh, no, that's not really what I want at all. And so you, or that is exactly what I want. And then because they don't know all the time when they come to you what they want to do or how they want to, they might think they know and they might come at you with some very specific. I want to do this and this and you're like, and if you just listen to that, you would turn around and create that for them. Then they'd say, This isn't what I asked for. This isn't what I want. And then you have, you're back at square one. But if you listen to that first and then check with them and be sure that you understand what they're trying to do, you can find places really where you can help them do it better.

 

REBECCA:

Mm-Hmm.

 

PAULA:

That's I think the job of a designer is to sort of, break apart what it is that they think that they want to do. Help them see what they want for their outcome and then map it back for them, get in there and really? Find the best and quickest way to that solution for them, and sometimes we forget as people that communication is super important and definitely as instructional designers, and I think that is the one thing that I don't know if I wanted to know it sooner. I wish everybody would spend more time learning about that part because I think it really makes a huge difference.

 

REBECCA:

That's interesting. I think back to my masters and we didn't do a communications course in my master's program, but I know that there is one in the UMass Boston program and students love it. So I think, yeah, it's really important.

 

PAULA:

Yeah, it's super important.

 

REBECCA:

What advice would you give to new instructional designers or what advice do you give to new instructional designers since you hired a lot of them?

 

PAULA:

So that one I just used with the one I just talked about with communications, that's definitely one of my big things and around communication. A lot of the advice that I give people is around making sure that you communicate effectively, but also understanding one of the things that I would suggest to any instructional designer is that you spend time teaching. So if you haven't taught students in any way or form, if you're going to be an instructional designer, you have to have been in the teacher's shoes, so you have to put yourself in the teaching position. It's really hard to design instruction if you haven't been an instructor because you don't know what it feels like. So I think it's important to take time, try to be the instructor, too. So that means, I don't know, going and teaching people how to do some hobby of yours. One of my staff does photography, and she's now teaching in the alley program, teaching people how to do photography. And yeah, so I think since she started teaching, her instructional design process has been better. I think that I would suggest that people who, the whole idea is right, that you're designing instruction. So understanding what it is to be an instructor and it goes along with your aha moment there that you were talking about in your class. What does it take to build a course takes a lot. And what is it like to deal with learners who can't understand something or need help? And it's one thing to just be like, you know, how to do technology, it's another thing to make sure that the ideas that you're giving them would be something that would really improve their situation. And I think sometimes people come to instructional design from a technology background and being able to explain things in many different ways without just repeating it in the same way over and over again is what makes a better teacher, right? So finding the metaphors or finding a way to do something hands-on or finding another direction to come out to help a learner along is part of what makes a really good instructional designer. Because it's about differentiating for all of our learners and finding the way and make sure that our learners meet the outcome. So being an instructor can really make a difference on that.

 

REBECCA:

I think the other thing that being an instructor does is it helps students understand the importance of efficiency. Yes, right? Like, it's the one thing that if you don't understand, that may sound like the greatest tool ever from a learner perspective, but it's a nightmare from an instructor perspective, and you need to think about both.

 

PAULA:

Yeah, when you're in instructional design, you're helping with both. Absolutely. You can't through one out without the other. You definitely need both.

 

REBECCA:

The last question I like to ask everybody is what's your prediction for the future of instructional design?

 

PAULA:

There's going to be huge growth, I think, in instructional design over, I'd say, the next 20 years because I feel like, like I said before 2010, we were on the cutting edge. There's tons of opportunity for research in this field. One of the things that I've even thought about doing more of and there's going to be more and more. I think over time we've seen with COVID, this need to pull back from community and work through the internet and be online to teach. I think we're going to see more of that in the future because we put instructional continuity in place about five years before all of this happened because of big snowstorm that kept students off campus. These major storms that we're starting to see will also continue to be a problem. I think you would probably have more of a health issue stuff I don't think we're ever going to go back to quote unquote normal. Everybody goes to school and learns the same way that we were, which I think is great. But by the way, I think it's important that education does shift. But I think with that shift, we're going to see a need for people who have practiced and study in the idea of instructional design because it's important to map all of this together in a way that makes sense and improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the way we do. This new frontier of education's other way of sometimes students can't be on campus, but does that mean they have to stop learning now, maybe even in the K through 12 world? Maybe they will also forever be sometimes at home and sometimes in school. And there needs to be. It's one of actually Educause just came out with it, the top 10 things of it, problems or whatever. And one of those was about digital faculty and faculty being capable, digital people. And I think that's what we're going to see in the future, student centric, making sure that we have people in place that understand technology and can be educators. So those two pieces together, and that's what instructional designers are right now. That possibility for growth is huge.

 

REBECCA:

Mm hmm. Thank you very much. You've provided a lot of insight that I think will be particularly valuable for the listeners of this podcast. You've been listening to Demystifying Instructional Design, a podcast where I interview instructional designers about what they do. I'm Rebecca Hogue, your podcast host. If you or someone you know would like to be a guest on demystifying instructional design, please complete the Be My guest form available on demystifying instructional design dot com. Show notes are posted as a blog post on demystifying instructional design dot com. If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe or leave a comment on the show notes blog post. Thank you.