How to Close the Gap Between Faculty and Instructional Designers

Written by: Jaci Smith

Instructional designers can serve as valuable partners to implement new courses. Yet in many higher education institutions, the collaboration between faculty and instructional designers is not prioritized. Instructional designers are often treated as the “tech support desk” for courseware and other new digital learning technologies instead of as an integral part of course planning.

According to a survey conducted by Intentional Futures, instructional designers report that lack of faculty buy-in to a collaborative relationship is the number-one obstacle to their success. This survey and many other resources point to basic interpersonal and communication skills as necessary for improving collaboration among faculty and instructional designers. 

Improving those collaborations is becoming more important as colleges and universities rely on courseware and other emerging technologies to serve students in large-enrollment gateway courses.

The Role of an Instructional Designer

A common misconception about instructional designers is that they are tech-focused service personnel. But the theories, methodologies, and practices of the instructional design field pre-date today’s digital learning tools and are focused broadly on learning science and curriculum design. 

With the emergence of digital learning technologies, the range of tasks instructional designers may work on includes transitioning face-to-face courses to an online modality, training faculty in the pedagogies of online instruction, and creating new program designs and implementation. But the perception that instructional designers’ contributions are primarily around tech support severely underestimates their scholarship and professionalism. 

The Intentional Futures survey also revealed that instructional designers want to collaborate with faculty more often and earlier in their course planning — so much so that some instructional designers admitted to “using the LMS [learning management system] as a Trojan Horse to get into a conversation with [faculty] around their pedagogy.”

Tips for Collaborating

Communication is the key to a successful partnership between faculty and instructional design professionals, according to the book A Practitioner's Guide to Instructional Design in Higher Education by Sheri Conklin, Beth Oyarzun, Rebecca M. Reese, and Jill E. Stefaniak.

That communication can take many forms. Instructional designers should become involved in faculty learning communities or peer learning networks and request referrals to other faculty who may want to collaborate. Instructional designers can also work with the learning communities to help plan or run workshops where the goal is to showcase how instructional designers can help faculty learn and implement a new digital tool.

The authors suggest that as faculty understand the instructional designer’s role better, the instructional designer can introduce a course design tool like those used at the University of Maryland Baltimore Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning or this table-style course design template.

As collaboration between faculty and instructional designers grows, so does the potential for tension and the need to manage it constructively. In a Journal of Applied Instructional Design report, Purdue University researchers Chad M. Mueller, Jennifer C. Richardson, Sunnie Lee Watson, and William R. Watson interviewed 14 instructional designers to unearth the strategies they used when they encountered conflict with faculty. 

The instructional designers suggest that their role includes skill sets that could provide a starting point for approaching the inherent conflict between instructional designers and faculty in the course design process.

Interpersonal communication skills such as using active listening, asking open questions, and giving feedback through summarizing can keep the design process on track while encouraging constructive discussion. Instructional designers can use their adaptability to work with technologically inexperienced faculty or with an instructor who is skilled in the use of digital learning tools and wants to learn about the latest learning management system. Their problem-solving skills can be utilized to suggest win-win conflict resolutions.

Managing conflict is essential to the success of the courses that faculty and instructional designers work on together.


A variety of resources can guide faculty and instructional designers interested in fostering a collaborative relationship while implementing digital learning tools.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has reported on the growing role of instructional designers in colleges and universities and on faculty and tech collaboration in liberal arts.

The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE)’s WCET offers newsletters, blogs, and podcasts. A good example of the resources on offer is this piece from Ryan Faulker, Dean of Online Learning at the College of Eastern Idaho, who created an online program from scratch for the institution.

The Ohio State University Teaching and Learning Resource Center has research-based articles on topics related to collaborating with instructional designers, and the Michael V. Drake Institute for Teaching and Learning Course Design Institute provides a template for administrators looking to implement an incentive-based approach to evidence-based teaching practices. 

Collaboration vs. Service

Reviewing those resources reveals a common theme: it’s counterproductive when faculty take a client and service provider approach to their institution’s instructional designers and don’t make themselves available for regular communication.

Trust, patience, professional respect, and openness to experimentation are at the heart of successful collaboration among faculty and instructional designers.


Browse our courseware evaluation tool!