The role of the learning designer has been misunderstood until recently. The need for digital transformation of curriculum caused by the pandemic has highlighted the importance of learning designers in higher education and their situation. It has also shed light on what was accepted as business as usual prior to the pandemic. Learning designers come from a wide range of backgrounds, lived experiences, and family statuses. They bring a variety of skill sets to the field of teaching and learning, including project management, creativity, design thinking, knowledge of pedagogy and educational technology, content creation, caregiving, and—most recently—in loco therapy. Learning designers face a number of barriers in their roles—related to power dynamics, a lack of understanding of the effort required to do their work, low job security, and unrealistic expectations—that have previously led to burnout, and which marginalise both the work and the role of identity designer within institutions. By better understanding the tasks involved in learning design and the demands a learning designer balances to create online courses and digital learning materials, university leadership can learn to create the roles and seek out the skill sets that form the best teams.
We, the authors, are both cisgender white women who were born and raised in the United States. We share a small window into our identities, and the fact that our educational and professional lives have been shaped by the Global North, as a way to give context to our lived experiences and how it informs our work. This chapter explores the interconnectedness between identity, learning design as a practice, burnout and compassion fatigue, and personal and professional selves. Specifically, we examine the role of the learning designer, how learning designer burnout manifested pre-pandemic, and the experiences of learning designers during the pandemic. In addition to reviewing relevant literature, we discuss key findings from a phenomenological inquiry conducted with a group of learning designers based in the United States (US). We discuss the research methodology and key findings, and conclude with an argument for greater awareness of the need for an ethic of care (Gilligan, 2011) in the profession.
Distance learning began in the early 1700s as a shorthand correspondence course that was advertised in the Boston Gazette. It evolved into lectures on vinyl records and came to adopt mass-communication technologies: The Open University in both the UK. and China were well-known for their early use of radio and TV to distribute learning. The contemporary version of distance learning emerged when Penn State offered the first course delivered over the web (Pappas, 2013). This movement toward online delivery of education created the need for instructional designers to support faculty in the development of their curriculum. Instructional design as a profession was born out of a need to scale training for soldiers during WWII in the 1940s (Instructional Design Central, n.d.). Interest in instructional design models grew in the 1970s, with over 40 models being developed. The 1990s saw an increase in the use of technology to deliver online courses and a complementary interest in constructivism.
As online learning, educational technology, and digital pedagogy became more mainstream over the last 25–30 years, there has been an increase in demand for and prominence of the learning designer role. The digital transformation required during the COVID-19 pandemic led to heightened understanding of the role of a learning designer and how important these individuals would be to the digitisation of higher education. As of fall 2021, the US distance education enrollments saw a 93% increase. A McKinsey study of the learner journeys of 29 learners in the US and Brazil illuminated the importance of student-centred design, which a learning designer supports (Child et al., 2021). Research conducted by Quality Matters and Eduventures in the CHLOE 3 report (Legon, Garrett & Fredericksen, 2019) found that institutions that added learning designers to support faculty in the design of online offerings had a higher student performance and an overall improved student experience.
The title and role have gone through many changes, including instructional designer, learning designer, learning experience designer, and—most recently—learning engineer (Kilgore et al., 2019). No matter the title, learning designers must analyse, design, align, and evaluate what is taught, all while creating trusting relationships with subject matter experts, navigating power dynamics and politics, and being a solution partner. As the next section shows, the role of the learning designer is multifaceted and requires deep expertise in learning theory, design models, learning technologies, systems thinking, and much more. Frequently, the leaders of learning designers misunderstand the work required, have unclear expectations of the time and effort that it takes to do the work, and the leaders misunderstand the importance of job security for the learning designer, who is often in a temporary role.
The conversation has expanded around the questions of what work a learning designer does and how one defines what it means to be a learning designer. As Bozarth (2019) explains, the term instructional designer “... [E]ncompassed an ever-expanding, soup-to-nuts array of tasks. The title has become a catch-all for anything related to creating, launching, delivering, or even facilitating instruction in any capacity, and at any level of complexity.” A review of the role of learning designers (Altena et al., 2019; Bozarth, 2019; Intentional Futures, 2016) illuminates the wide range of knowledge they are expected to have and tasks they are expected to do:
Instructional design theory
Training and professional development
10. Graphic design
11. Videography and editing
13. HTML/CSS coding
14. Accessibility expertise
15. Copyright expertise
16. Content writing and editing
17. Quality assurance expertise
18. Research and data mining/analysis
In a recent Inside Higher Ed article, learning designers are referred to as the “... sherpas of online learning teams, experts in how to teach and design a course” (Decherney & Levander, 2020). The lack of understanding of the online course design and development process has led to an expansion of the role of learning designers, with the learning designer commonly taking on any work that needs to be done across a variety of specialised skills/roles; this increases the likelihood of unrealistic expectations. Additionally, many learning designers are concerned about saying no or pushing back, because of the temporary status of many of their roles (Kolomitro et al., 2019).
Learning designers experience a number of barriers in their roles related to power dynamics, misunderstandings of the effort required to do their work, a lack of job security, and unrealistic expectations. One learning designer interviewed about their experiences shared that there are “days when I feel overwhelmed to tears. Days where I feel nothing we do makes a difference because the more we do to help, the more that level of support is expected regularly.” Throughout the pandemic, support and care for students rightly took centre stage; the people designing and supporting the students, however, were often overlooked.
Previous research shows that learning designers were burning out pre-pandemic (Cohn, 2018). Learning designers were dubbed “Swiss Army Knives” pre-pandemic: expected to be experts at everything, combined with the expectation that they will help with any and all tasks needing to be completed (Kilgore et al., 2019; Prusko, 2020; Prusko & Kilgore, 2020). The goals for this study were to gain deeper insights into the lived experiences of learning designers in higher education, to illuminate how they made meaning of those experiences, to better understand how they are faring now, and to determine what they would need to persist and thrive. For context, we provide a brief overview of the participants and research methodology before sharing the stories and experiences of the participants in the study.
A community of learning designers in the US participated in this study. Since they were journaling anonymously in a Google Doc, we could not attribute specific identities to the quotes or document exact job titles. We asked participants to reflect on their lived experiences as a learning designer before, and during the pandemic, as well as what they hoped for in the future. They had 20 minutes for silent reflection, followed by a full-group discussion. We asked approximately 80 participants to answer the following questions:
We adopted phenomenology as the qualitative research methodology for this study. This methodology is well-suited to gain insight into the lived experiences of participants, and to understand how they experienced a specific phenomenon (Van Manen, 1990; Smith, 2013). Phenomenology illuminates how context and the unique lived experience of each participant influenced how they experienced the pandemic, while also allowing themes to emerge. As suggested by Sohn et al. (2017), our journal prompts had been piloted prior to this session. This study made use of journaling instead of interviewing, and the prompts were designed to elicit specific stories by asking participants to “think back to and tell me a specific story.” Phenomenology requires that all participants have experienced the given phenomenon: All participants in this study had experienced being in a learning designer role during the pandemic. Three major themes emerged from this study, each illuminating the experiences of learning designers as they supported higher education teaching and learning during the pandemic.
Analysis of the journal reflections of the participants revealed the following three themes: a toxic work environment, life-work balance, care, and fatigue. Within the context of this study, a toxic work environment refers to one where the learning designers were under constant stress, felt unsupported, and experienced high turnover. Life-work balance refers to the inability to separate work from life or to take time off. Care and fatigue refers to how the broad range of ways they provided care left them emotionally and physically exhausted. These themes illuminated some of the issues and barriers that learning designers faced when supporting the higher education enterprise during the pandemic.
“We are surviving, not thriving,” said participants as they discussed the issues that influenced their ability to do their jobs. Many individuals shared that, although they had time available to take off, they were unable to due to either expectations of leadership or the “hidden academic expectations”— the feeling that even though they were given the time, it would be looked down upon to actually take it. For example, one participant shared, “Our university did give us two additional days of break so the facilities people could do a deep clean and I am grateful, but there is so much to do, it won’t feel like a break.” Other participants voiced frustration that there was a disproportionate focus on “just getting the work done,” detracting from recognition of their expertise, knowledge, and focus on quality.
Learning designers have been dubbed “Swiss Army Knives” before the COVID-19 pandemic, referring to the expectation that they be experts at everything and that they will help with whatever task needs to be completed (Prusko, 2020). Any work related to design, updating, or technical support when running courses frequently falls to the learning designer. Several participants communicated the challenge of attempting to meet faculty and leadership expectations, having limited resources, and being asked to meet unreasonable timelines. These experiences align with research on toxic work environments. While bullying, sexual harassment, and discrimination are widely understood to create toxic environments, unrealistic workload expectations, lack of empathy or appreciation, high turnover, and little opportunity to grow can create similarly toxic effects (Cleveland Clinic, 2022; Rasool et al., 2021). This combination of factors was burning out learning designers before the COVID-19 pandemic, which has since exacerbated the physical, emotional, and psychological drain on these talented individuals.
Learning designers are often the go-to people to ask questions about how to use educational technologies. One study participant described the situation:
The online academic programs we design are “owned” by us, so instructional designers are responsible for the entire lifecycle of a course including development, design, support, evaluation, re-design, LMS administration, managing the integration of interoperability tools, professional development for our instructors, and intercession when things aren’t working or the instructor needs specialised help (or a kick in the butt). We do it all.
This is not an uncommon situation, but the skillsets of learning designers are often misunderstood, as is their workload and availability to take on other tasks outside of their role. One learning designer shared that her full-time position included supporting the learning management system administration, training of faculty and staff, and designing online courses and programs, and she was asked to take on more. Because she was bilingual she was recently asked to translate all of the text on the university’s COVID-19 contact-tracing app. As mentioned previously, it is not uncommon for a learning designer to feel as if institutional leadership does not understand learning designers’ roles within the organisation—translation is clearly not a learning design responsibility. However, when she asked if someone else could do it, she was told “our administration wants you to take this on as priority.” She is now considering leaving her job.
Many of the participants felt the work they were being asked to do was disposable, expecting that their universities would go back to traditional residential teaching. In the US, in 2019, 63% of the 20 million enrolled students did not take a single online course (Lederman, 2021). Some faculty would say that they “needed support urgently but that they were glad they would be back on campus next semester so that they wouldn't have to teach online ever again.” The essence of what participants experienced can be heard here: “I am back to feeling powerless to make real lasting change other than being an emergency responder. [This has] really caused me amazing frustration with my university and its lack of focus on quality online teaching.” And, while this is not the case at every institution during the pandemic, it is a pervasive theme among those who took part in this study.
We found a strong connection between the desire to do the job (learning design) in a caring way and feelings of fatigue. Many of those who described a commitment to providing care and compassion for faculty, students, and colleagues also expressed feelings of exhaustion. The essence of participants' experience can be found in the following statement:
I am a learning designer and also a faculty member. I have been assisting students through the transition to virtual learning. I try to teach and lead with compassion but this sometimes takes a bite out of my mental and emotional health. I really try to keep my stress/tiredness from showing or talking about it so as to not add stress to our faculty.
From their perspective, this participant’s approach to their work was motivated by a deep desire to prioritise care and compassion for faculty and students. However, it can be difficult to provide care without taking on the stress of others while doing so. One designer shared how the pandemic and supporting faculty have added “therapist” to the list of job responsibilities:
I take on the emotions/stress/anxiety of the professors I’m helping and consulting with. I’m their one contact as a lead instructional designer for their dept, I’m their person. I have their back. I need to have communication strategies to help them de-stress and feel better with remote teaching and learning. It’s tough to not feel “responsible” for helping to de-stress them—and I had to look up strategies for how therapists deal with taking on their clients’ emotional states.
Learning designers in this study described how emotional labour was fundamental to their experience of what it meant to do this work. However, there were differences in how they approached it and how successful they were in creating boundaries. Although the majority indicated it was difficult, if not impossible, to create boundaries, others described some success in doing so. Many participants described a desire for an environment where they felt seen and understood. Specifically, they described a lack of understanding by leadership of the resources it actually takes to do their work. The pandemic caused significant financial stress to universities, in many cases requiring budget cuts and decreased government support in the US. Several participants described how the lack of budget to scale up to meet demand or to replace staff who left has negatively affected them. One participant explained it this way:
I have lost two team members due to retirement and change of positions. With the current dismal budget situation, we are not allowed to replace lines. So there you have it, supporting more students and faculty with so many less staff to do so. I am helping everyone with their jobs; I have not taken any full days off since March (2020)!
For supportive learning designers who are committed to an ethic of care, stretching themselves to ensure the work is done becomes prioritised over self-care. Several participants maintained that providing support in their role related to an openness in being available, whether during regular hours or not. By historically having a tendency to “jump in and do whatever needs to be done,” these participants described increasing levels of exhaustion. Setting clear expectations on when learning designers are available may be one useful way of helping establish some sense of work-life balance. As one participant remarked, “There is a feeling that we are expected to be available at any time. That may be self-imposed by our team because we are so customer-focused and internally motivated.” Although many participants felt exhausted, they displayed strength and composure, because that is what the job and the situation required of them. Several participants described the need to hide their true feelings to get the job done and best support faculty. These experiences illuminate the performative demands of this role and the impact on their well-being. To evolve toward an ethic of care for Learning Designers, a structural shift is required. There is an expectation of a caring approach in the learning design process, however, there is not enough care being given to learning designers who need to know that they too are cared for by leadership.
Analysis of the data illuminated how the lack of life-work balance negatively affected the lived experience of most participants. For example, some participants described how the workload resulted in an ever-present need to be working. One participant wrote, “Yesterday, I spent another all-day workday (7 a.m. to 1 a.m.) with a quick break for dinner and lunch.” Several participants wrote about how high turnover and limited resources increased workloads; one participant explained:
… [W]e have just been dealing with the ongoing aftermath of a few pivotal members of our very-small team leaving for new jobs. There is no choice but to pick up the slack and try and juggle all the rest, which equates to a LOT of overtime.
In some cases, the learning designer was the only person with their skillset on campus. One participant describes the turmoil of turnover that they were dealing with:
Not a year after I started in my department, my boss left for another job (which meant those of us remaining took on his work) and the only other full-time learning designer just put in his notice (we’re now taking on that work too). We’re a very small department, and I’m the only full-time instructional designer left.
These stories, which were not unique among participants, illustrate a common issue in higher education: A staff member leaves, but the position is not filled. This is sometimes a budget-related decision, while other times the hiring process is extremely slow. This affects how a learning designer perceives both their chances of meeting leadership and faculty expectations as well as their ability to take time off.
Participants also described how other demands can create an internal dissonance between learned practices and most participants' perception of control over the support they need to provide. Several participants described how, because they believed they could not say “no,” their personal lives suffered. One described this state of mind this way:
I have been staying up until the wee hours of the morning nearly every day to finish all the work that has piled up on our short-staffed department. I get a few hours of shut eye and then wake up to start all over again. Rinse, wash, repeat. This, plus helping my kids manage their virtual school work (which requires a lot of tech help and re-teaching) = me living in a constant state of Zombieland and really feeling like a cog in a machine … I’m ready to “unblend” my work from my life.
A question that needs to be addressed is, how learning designers can more clearly communicate to leadership a picture of what it takes to do their work, thus strengthening their positions and protecting their time when they are often in roles where they have limited social capital and feel powerless. The study participants clearly had difficulty maintaining work-life balance: less than 10% expressed the ability to reinforce boundaries around their personal time. Learning designers currently approach their work prioritising both the work that needs to be done, and developing a thoughtful relationship with the faculty they work alongside. In many cases, this results in learning designers being taken advantage of and treated more like a personal assistant rather than an equal thought partner. There is no easy solution to this problem, however steps required to shift the story include: truly listening to learning designers and taking the time to have a deep understanding of the barriers they face, ensuring their voices are part of the solutioning, taking the time to really understand what it takes to do this work, and focusing on creating relationships of trust and care.
The need for learning designers is expected to increase. According to one study, in three years the global online education market will reach $350 billion US dollars (Research and Markets, 2019). In the US, learning designers are highly sought after, with a 20% increase in demand since 2004 (Decherney & Levander, 2020) and expected continued job growth of 10% in 2020–2030 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021). Anticipating such growth, the educational field would benefit from an intentional analysis of the power and challenges of the learning designer role. In this chapter, we presented ideas that illuminate the need for intentional change, rather than simply adding another wellness program or suggesting self-care. Many learning designers have burned out in this role because of a lack of understanding by leadership of what it really takes to do the work and their own ethic of care. Several ideas and strategies emerged from our conversations, such as communicating to leadership what it takes to do the work of a learning designer: Few in leadership, for example, realize that a 25-minute module takes 35–85 hours to design and build (Defelice, 2021). Additionally, Kolomitro et al. (2019) found that issues stemmed from a lack of job security. Many of these individuals are in temporary roles, leaving them afraid to push back against unreasonable timelines and expectations. Other strategies mentioned included being your own advocate, setting boundaries in order to achieve work-life balance, and creating a culture of care to overcome fatigue.
One participant mentioned trying “to remember that not only are your faculty and students stressed that your professional staff and student support professionals are as stressed and burned out as they are.” Another pointed to the problems that arise from learning designers’ advice being sought and then ignored:
When our team is asked for advice on how best to move forward or make adjustments to improve the current situation, take the advice. Asking for it and then doing the opposite is crushing, especially when what the team predicted happens.
This idea of learning designers taking on the role of caretaker and providing emotional support has certainly been more evident as a result of the pandemic, and likely a result of learning designers taking on whatever task needs to be done. This may be due to the gendered nature of the role, with 70% of learning designers being female (Bond et al., 2021). This is particularly concerning, and one more example of the emotional labour of women (Erickson & Ritter, 2001).
Listening to the experiences of learning designers in higher education gives insights into the interconnectedness between identity, care, and life-work balance. Specifically, we argue for an ethic of care for learning designers. In order for there to be a shift in this direction, leadership would need to give voice to learning designers, truly listen to what they are saying, respect their knowledge and expertise, and have empathy for their experiences (Gilligan, 2011). Further research needs to explore evolving leadership toward a more feminist approach that prioritises caring for others, accountable collaboration, equity and inclusion, and a focus on increasing the number of women in leadership. Such an approach is embodied in ActionAid’s “Ten Principles of Feminist Leadership”. Before and during the pandemic, learning designers have led with an ethic of care; now we, the broader educational community, need to care for them. Some steps that we can all begin to work on today include: time-blocking calendars, communicating clearly to supervisors what the current workload is, and educating leadership so that they better understand the work.
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Harvard Graduate School of Education
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