The EvoLLLution | Agents of an Untelevised Revolution in Higher Education
Market forces are driving colleges and universities of all descriptions to evolve to meet the needs of today’s students, and change agents are required to move these transformations forward. Luckily for most postsecondary institutions, their team of instructional designers likely fits the bill.

Visible and invisible forces are demanding that traditional postsecondary institutions change to accommodate a brand new world, a new reality, a different playing field in which the present and future contexts are dynamic and unknowable. What we do know is that higher education is being persuaded to transform from a caterpillar into an improvisational jazz quartet in order to serve multiple constituents, with varying values and conflicting purposes. Some of the unfamiliar and dizzying array of new responsibilities higher education is asked to bear include serving learners who will need to continually reinvent themselves throughout their lifetimes in order to succeed in a global landscape. Post-secondary institutions are asked to develop new approaches to better serve the new traditional learners, non-traditional students, and to develop new services and process that reflect and anticipate their needs. They are directed to discover how to support an increasingly racially, socioeconomically and academically diverse student population. Higher education is not just being told to make education more affordable but to make a quality education affordable, scalable and global. They are asked to contemplate unbundling, to develop innovative and profitable business models to overcome the constraints on public funding and to compete with the diversity of profit- and non-profit-driven higher education providers. On the one hand, they must learn how to leverage new technology for academic and administrative purposes. On the other, they are asked to think differently about faculty roles; on the third hand, to focus less on credit hours and more on competency, mastery, and assessment; and on the fourth hand, to educate more Americans with 21st-century skills.

Who is actually leading and implementing real and enduring change in higher education? Often when we think of driving change, we imagine that our savior is the one lone reform-minded chancellor or president who takes the reigns of an organization and tries to transform it by persuasive speeches, reorganizations, adopting a series of new programs, implementing a research-based technology, or partnering with international entities. Indeed, these tactics can bring about a measure of change, however, sustainable, cultural, mindset-shifting and tangible change is more likely to come from “on the ground” change agents working at the senior, mid, and support levels, throughout the entire organization.

While position descriptions do not define their role as change agents, the individuals on the front lines of transforming higher education are instructional designers. They are the organization’s internal change agents as they embody the characteristics required to reconstruct and improve it. Instructional designers inspire faculty to reexamine long-held beliefs and practices. They have the ability to sympathize with others’ sense of loss and stress that often accompanies change while simultaneously leveraging the trusting relationships they have built to repeatedly articulate the reasons why change is necessary. Instructional designers embrace data as a tool to continuously improve teaching, learning, and course design. They spend hundreds of hours over several months coaching, collaborating, and encouraging faculty, usually one-on-one, to explore new and unfamiliar pedagogical territory. They expose faculty to research-based teaching and learning theories and strategies, learning science, backward design, Bloom’s taxonomy, authentic assessments, engagement, presence, and creative ways to encourage learners to become self-directed. Instructional designers’ on-the-ground work with faculty not only influences teaching and learning, but also faculty members’ perspective of themselves as educators.

Their work is transformative not because they use cutting-edge technology to deliver content; rather, it is that, step-by-step, they deconstruct traditional assumptions of what constitutes quality learning, teaching and student support and, at the same time, they help to implement effective models to take their place. They provide hands-on support to help faculty build a new portfolio of knowledge and skills that can improve student learning, first in online environments and, later, transferring those skills to on-campus courses. Instructional designers stand at the forefront of the core business of the university’s rewritten mission and vision—learner-centered education. Their efforts are not only revolutionizing teaching and learning in higher education, but they are also changing hearts and minds, the most critical elements in sustaining change.

To proactively implement effective strategies in response to seen and unseen forces demanding that higher education re-conceptualize itself, colleges and universities must be equipped with an internal infrastructure of change agents throughout all levels and segments of the organization. To build a profile reflective of the characteristics change agents should possess, higher education leaders may need to look no further than the instructional designers who are already engaged in an untelevised revolution.

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