Prior to COVID-19, the higher education sector had long recognised educational design as an area of professional expertise across areas such as course design, academic mentorship, project management and educational research. Not surprising then, during this crisis educational designers (EDs), and those with similar titles, have experienced an increased demand, particularly in transitioning to online learning.

Although the sector is acutely aware of the increased workload and stress experienced by academics struggling to move on-line, less understood is how EDs are impacted. However, a recent study of 90 ED’s across the sector found that, although this crisis has delivered devastating effects for the sector, it has also curiously delivered a morale boost to EDs.

To quantify this, 64 (71 per cent) claimed that changes to their roles had been very or quite significant. A recent recruit even declared that their role was drastically different to what they had been employed to do.Over a quarter explained they were now performing duties that were previously only a small part of their work.

Not surprising, EDs’ most significant contribution was helping academics successfully transition their activities on-line. Many deemed this transitioning as positive, offering new opportunities to academic staff to look more closely at their assessments and teaching practices, necessary to replace practical on-campus assessments, laboratory work and invigilated examinations. All done while ensuring that the focus remained on the quality of learning and teaching.

They also expressed a range of emotions Some 14 (16%) conveyed negative sentiments, in that, through this process of rushing to convert to online, some had been left feeling professionally and personally abused by unreasonable demands and perceived deficient institutional processes. In particular, they felt at the mercy of academics’ emotional responses to technical difficulties and changing priorities, some bearing the brunt of academics’ frustrations and anxiety.

On the upside, many EDs gained professional satisfaction from listening to, reassuring and guiding academic staff. By doing so, EDs have been able to increase their professional network. Thus, by supporting academics to transition to on-line, there were opportunities to mentor and coach staff, leading to more meaningful impact and providing much needed pastoral care. Several exhibited a sense of pride in recounting the ways in which they have been able to contribute to academics’ well-being, stating this had strengthened their relationships and increased their credibility.

There is clearly an evolving need for those with expertise in digital and student-centred pedagogies. EDs may find greater agency and professional standing that goes beyond a mere technical one. It is envisioned they will occupy spaces to challenge and shape institutional discourses as to what online learning means and collaborate to develop more robust and resilient digital strategy before disaster strikes again.

Professor Michael Sankey, Director, Learning Transformations, Griffith University and President of the Australasian Council on Open, Distance and eLearning

Amanda Bellaby is a learning designer at QUT


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