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Project Management Process Groups: Defined for Instructional Designers in Higher Education

Project management techniques and best practices could significantly benefit higher ed instructional designers, who have tended to eschew corporate approaches in the past.

Higher education has been slow to acknowledge project management ideas and practices in digital learning rollouts. Project management spawned from the corporate setting—construction management, informational technology, and finance industries. For instance, the well-recognized Manifesto for Agile Software Development in the project management profession was created by a group of software engineers. Even instructional designers working in a corporate setting are often encouraged or supervised by those with project management backgrounds, but this is not typical in a higher education setting. Whether slow to adopt or unwittingly adopted, project management professional practices are growing in popularity among instructional design in higher education working on professional development, realizing the value of the Project Management Institute (PMI) Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK, 2017) and agile practices (PMI & Agile Alliance, 2017), for project guidance.

Instructional design professionals tell their project management stories (ID in the field tells their story)

Much of instructional designers’ work involves collaborating with faculty to create quality courses and facilitating faculty development. This role often involves collaborating with support teams to assist with course deliverables. Instructional designers in higher education should use project management to make their efforts more effective. An example of this is the creation of an advanced faculty development program offered at the University of Central Florida for online design and delivery called IDL7000. 

Two instructional designers (IDs) began coordinating this professional development course project. Both were veterans to instructional design and had grand ideas for the program. To keep the project in scope, one instructional designer created  templates to guide the initiation, planning of the design, and development of the advanced training. Through monitoring and controlling, they collected data from participants and demonstrated evidence with that data to make key decisions about the modality of faculty development. Project management strategies guided the instructional designers’ management of stakeholders to keep faculty, staff, students, and supervisors informed and engaged. The coordinators kept in mind the project management processes to close the project and roll it into operational efforts. Without applying basic PM strategies, both IDs agreed that the project would not have been completed as efficiently nor to the defined outcomes expected from internal and external stakeholders.

Professionals in digital learning incorporate project management strategies into faculty development and instructional design practices for a variety of projects:

  • Application or instructional technology development or adoption
  • Faculty development and training initiatives
  • Course or faculty development program re-design
  • Course production with teams of video producers and graphic designers and faculty
  • Website development
  • Quality course review initiatives
  • Open educational resource program initiatives

As instructional designers, we find value in determining what project management approach and competencies to employ for executing a project. Sometimes taking an agile approach (by defining the activities for the project as it unfolds) makes sense for cases in which the project is vaguely defined or the institutional unit has rapidly changing and varying environments. Sometimes a more step-by-step (or waterfall) approach, like ADDIE or backwards design, makes sense if the project is well-defined and the institutional unit has a relatively stable environment. We have discovered that defining and categorizing our efforts according to project management principles not only legitimizes them but also opens up a plethora of resources and tools from industry or others across sectors who carry out similar processes of initiating, planning, executing, monitoring and controlling, and closing. 

The why and how of starting a project

During the Initiating Process Group of project management, the need for a project is identified by key stakeholders, like supervisors or a state mandate by gathering data that reveals a skills gap or to introduces a need for a project. The data supporting the need for the project could have been gathered from end-of-course student evaluations, DFW (drop, fail, withdrawal) rates of actual courses, or interviews with faculty or program chairs to determine what competencies faculty members need to enhance their skills or what products they need to create an exceptional course. Gaps in digital learning efforts could also be uncovered by comparing results or efforts across other institutions in a process known as benchmarking, such as identifying the need for affordable content due to the high cost of textbooks and purchasing patterns of students, and strategically aligning efforts.  

The results of any mandate, data collection, benchmarking, or strategic goal effort could serve as rationale for beginning a new project. An individual, perhaps an instructional designer, is either appointed or gains the proper authority to begin and manage the project. A need for the project is defined, and a general set of activities and timelines are established. Using project initiation documents, like the one used by Chloe DeShong at Cornell University, helps outline the entire project clearly and concisely from the start. Outlining the project allows her to revisit the initial ideas and plan even after the project kick-off. 

  • Story/Resource: ID Share story and resource
    • Michelle Whitehead – Cengage Learning
      • Content Sourcing Plan
      • This spreadsheet should help the PM accurately outline Scope of Work, project team members, project timelines, and budgets by outlining all necessary requirements of the project from inception. The spreadsheet was created by my company Cengage to help in the development of hard print and digital products across the board.
      • Source: OLC Institute Project Management for Instructional Designers Capstone Activity

Planning a project 

Kickstarting the project planning is one of the most exciting project endeavors. It’s time to identify the team players and begin laying the foundation. During the Planning Process Group of Project Management, we can look at how instructional designers acting as project leads form teams and begin organizing activities to meet the project goal. Rose Tirotta, from Hofstra University uses a Project Integration Management template file to address and guide the planning and project knowledge areas of the process group. At the Center for Distributed Learning at UCF, Sue Bauer led the effort to create the project planning guide tailored for instructional design projects. Now, team members leading projects use this guide to organize project scope and logistics, benefiting from the additional structure of planning and executing. Stakeholders expressed more satisfaction with the faculty development deliverables.

Running a project

As you execute the project, you offer services or build physical project deliverables and present them to your stakeholders for approval/sign off or implementation. In the case of executing a course development project, approving and implementing the course build involves coordinating the stakeholders and team’s efforts. Teresa Valais from American University in Washington D.C. utilizes a curriculum map to document the relationship between curriculum components: learning outcomes, assessments, and instructional events. She reviews the curriculum map with her faculty member to approve the build prior to implementation. During the build, she follows the map to coordinate multimedia efforts and the content authored or compiled by the faculty member for the course, managing key stakeholders.  

  • Artifact – Curriculum Mapping Template

Keeping a project on track

Tracking and checking on project activities are essential in the Monitoring and Controlling Process Group. The project lead may use internal or external benchmarks to gauge the success of the project and motivate their team in the direction needed. Keeping stakeholders up to date ensures ongoing support. Teri Wright from Florida SouthWestern State College uses an Internal Review Instructional Designer Self-check for quality control purposes. The checklist was developed for instructional designers to complete before the course goes through a formal internal review by faculty and the department. The checklist ensures the course provides an organized framework, aligns components of the learning experience, and offers engaging assessments for students. 

Keeping stakeholders, including the team, informed of the project status is a functional courtesy. Bernadette Summers from Humber College uses Asana project management integration tool and the unit breakdown page to ensure that all required components of a course are completed in a timely manner, facilitating checks and balances for quality. Asana as an integration tool helps Bernadette plan, organize, and manage her team’s work. This monitoring of the scope of activities could trigger the change process for activities that need to be completed outside the original plan for course development. 

Project closeout

During the Closing Process Group, the project documents are organized and archived for later retrieval. Lessons learned are reviewed for final closeout. The team celebrates just before they are disbanded to work on other projects. Kristyn Rose from Old Dominion University implements a checklist to close the project. The worksheet, consulted after quality reviews and faculty approvals, reflects the final course review completed by both the instructional designer and the developer at the conclusion of the course production. The final checklist in the online ID Project Manager system is the last step before the course production project can be officially closed.

Current trends

We are digital learning project management enthusiasts and have seen faculty development and instructional designers in higher education take to heart the principles of project management over the years, as demonstrated in the examples provided. Project management was uncovered as one of the top relevant competencies for leading and managing instructional design in higher education (Gardner, Chongwony, Washington, 2018). The work of Gardner, Bennett, Hyatt, & Stoker (2017) demonstrates how to employ project management to streamline course development efforts, for instance. The Online Learning Consortium now offers a workshop titled Project Management for Instructional Designers that we enjoy facilitating. It yields a plethora of applicable guidance and resources for participants. We additionally created this free TOPkit Ask ADDIE advice column response for those interested in adopting a project management toolkit. 

We have clearly observed a move to agile project management methodologies with the recent pandemic efforts to transition to online learning and the recent revisions of the PMI PMP certification examination to incorporate agile strategies and practices effective January 2021. Dr. Clark Shah-Nelson, assistant dean of instructional design and technology at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, offers this insight into the longer-term, likely enduring trend, 

“Instructional design (ID) project management (PM) has been shifting toward agile methodologies and design-thinking oriented practices over the past decade, and this has been expedited during the 2020 global pandemic. We now need open, transparent, emergent, collaborative, evidence-based, diverse, inclusive, incremental and iterative design with frequent testing and continuous improvement via feedback loops supported by mature and robust project management software. Our team uses Atlassian Jira and Microsoft Teams to facilitate agile PM and transparent communication for our collaborations.”

We say to that, “Iterate on!” In times of turmoil or innovation, the most efficient, client-satisfying deliverables emerge from the self-organized, iterative releases, and agile team approaches. Project management is too natural of a fit not to notice the need and alignment with instructional designers in higher education. It is necessary for IDs in higher education to learn and implement project management groups into their daily workflow. 



Gardner, J., Bennett, P. A., Hyatt, N., & Stoker, K. (2017). Applying project management strategies in a large curriculum conversion project in higher education. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 20(3).

Gardner, J., Chongwony, L., & Washington, T. (2018). Investigating instructional design management and leadership Competencies–A Delphi study. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 21(1).

Project Management Institute (PMI). (2017). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK Guide) (6th ed.). Project Management Institute, Inc.

Project Management Institute (PMI) and Agile Alliance. (2017). Agile practical guide. Project Management Institute, Inc.

Stellman, A., & Greene, J. (2015). Learning agile: Understanding Scrum, XP, Lean, and KanbanO’Reilly Media Inc.

UCF Blueprint Activity

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