Zen and the Art of Instructional Design

By author profile photo Jeff Gerlach

Stacked rocks along the shore

I’ve learned a lot about instructional design since I joined the MV staff. My recent experience in the classroom, coupled with working with seasoned instructional designers, has given me an interesting perspective on how to approach building blended learning environments.

As a true instructional designer, my skill set is still very raw. I rely heavily on my experiences as a classroom teacher to guide decision making. So like the youngest child of the family, I try to get my nose into everything that the more senior members of my team are doing. I hope I’m not annoying with all the questions I ask because I appreciate all the little lessons I’m learning along the way.

The Michigan Virtual course development process has been fascinating to observe from the inside. When it’s decided that a new course should be offered through MV, it’s first mapped out. Content standards serve as the initial framework, which helps to establish learning objectives that serve as a rough outline of a course.

This is where the design process picks up. An instructional designer works alongside a course content specialist to develop the course, fleshing out the learning objectives to create a whole online course. I first imagined the content person focusing strictly on the content and the designer concentrating on the technological pedagogical aspects. But after participating in a few of these projects I discovered that there is serious overlap, especially in the pedagogical decision making.

Once a course is completed it is taught by instructors who, in most cases, were not involved in the course creation process. Before actually seeing the relationships that our teachers are able to build with students, I was really hesitant about this aspect of online courses. I really thought that a teacher who didn’t have control over the course content and pedagogy, was nothing more than a warm-bodied puppet.

I found that this isn’t true. It’s not uncommon for the content specialist to be an instructor of a course. In addition, instructors are solicited for feedback before, during and after the development of the course. So while they may not be directly involved, their feedback does contribute to the creation of the course. Additionally, the actual teaching of a course is a full-time job itself. This is true in both the online and face-to-face settings. Providing meaningful feedback, assessing performance, troubleshooting, learning and utilizing what motivates students or just being an equal partner in the learning process for them are absolutely critical functions of an educator. If courses are designed in a way that content delivery and activities are engaging and performance tracking is sophisticated enough to cut down on grade/data entry, teachers can focus on teaching.

This division of labor is revolutionary to me. It stands in stark contrast to my own teaching experience, where I essentially functioned as curriculum mapper, course content expert, instructional designer and instructor— all wrapped into one. I took great pride in being able to take on all of these responsibilities but trying to be a jack of all these trades rendered me master of none.

Ironically, this sense of pride isn’t isolated to my experience. While collaboration is strongly encouraged amongst teachers, there’s not a lot of shared responsibility. Teachers are largely measured individually on all of the collective responsibilities I detailed above.

The traditional culture of education itself might be the biggest contributing ingredient to the silo approach to teaching. Teachers are just used to being a one person show, it’s been that way forever.

But I feel like doing it all stretches teachers thin. I wonder if it’s because pedagogy and content resources have grown so much in the last 50 years, causing the responsibilities to expand? Personalized learning strategies take much more time and energy to implement effectively than lecture, class work, home work, rinse and repeat models. Curating the internet and couching active learning activities around carefully vetted resources is a much more complex job than assigning chapter 12 review questions, odds only. Teachers do extraordinary work. Superhuman feats in fact. But are they able to reach their full potential with this model? I would say absolutely not.

So why the dissection of how MV does business versus the traditional public school system? Because I’m trying to live in both worlds as part of my role. One of the awesome components of the program is the Teacher’s Workbench. Teachers submit a lesson or unit framework and I get to work with them to flesh it out into a blended learning design. We’ve likened it to the educational coach role in that the instructional designer helps to teach and reinforce good design principles as the teacher creates the blended lesson/unit.

I’ve tried to take the course development approach of my colleagues and adapt it to the Workbench setting. But I realize that the “one person show” culture will necessitate a different kind of relationship with teachers. I’m respectful of the fact that these are their courses, their students and, ultimately, their careers. I want them to be able to utilize this coaching service in a way that meets their specific needs.

So keeping these things in mind, I started off just listening to what teachers told me they needed and tried my best to help out. This served well enough to get the conversation started, but it led to technology specific questions like, “do you recommend using Moodle, Google Classroom or another LMS?” or statements like, “I’d like to flip my classroom this year and also have my students engage with more interactive learning activities online.”

While I believe these are certainly important considerations they are peripheral to the design of a course, unit or lesson. I began to narrow my questioning a little bit more by starting with, “what do you expect students to learn in this lesson?” and having them write an outline of the course with the learning objectives as a guide.

With the outline in place, we work through fleshing out what teaching and learning should look like. Content informs pedagogical need, which in turn informs which environment, the online or face-to-face, best serves each component of a lesson. We’ve been calling this aspect of our design process, Blending Holistically. Asking teachers to think about the interplay of content, pedagogy and technology rather than tech integration as an afterthought to lesson design.

I’m still in the feeling out the process of defining what an instructional design-coaching partnership looks like. I’d be interested to know how other educational coaches (regardless of your content or pedagogical focus) are able to position themselves at the center of teaching and learning decision making. Please share with me and others what you’ve learned along the way!

About the Author

Jeff Gerlach is passionate about helping teachers enhance learning for students by way of strategic technology integration. This fuels his work as an instructional design coach. Prior to his time at Michigan Virtual, Jeff was a social studies teacher for six school years and he earned a master’s degree from Michigan State University in educational technology. Away from the education world he enjoys spending time at the ice rink, at home with his young family and head nodding to hip-hop music.

Follow Jeff

You might also be interested in

Sign up to keep up with the latest MV has to offer