Working with an Instructional Designer: How to Prepare for Success

Developing a new online course with the help of an instructional designer is an exciting prospect for an association. You’re investing time and money into a relationship with an educational partner who’s skilled at designing engaging and effective learning experiences. You’ll get the best results from this partnership if you know how to best prepare for working with an instructional designer.

Clarify the instructional designer’s scope of work.

Before either of you signed the contract, you and your instructional designer (ID) should have ironed out all aspects of the course development process including who’s responsible for each task. It’s better to find out you need to line up additional resources early on in the project rather than the last minute.

Not all IDs have the same skillset nor do they all choose to offer the same services. Make sure you’re both clear on what the ID is going to do for you so you can include those responsibilities in their scope of work at contract negotiation time.

  • Is the new course based on an existing program or is the content being developed from scratch?
  • Are you relying on the ID to come up with the course content? Or, are you relying on subject matter experts (SMEs) for content? Who’s coordinating that exchange? The ID or the staff project lead?
  • Who’s responsible for graphic/visual design, copy editing, uploading content to the LMS, and testing LMS content?
  • Do you want the ID to train and coach team members so they can improve their ID skills?
  • What’s the plan for course updates? Can you make them on your own? Will you need the ID’s assistance? Have you made arrangements for that?

Don’t make any assumptions based on past experience with IDs. Go over every aspect of the design and development process with your ID before you sign the dotted line.

Have realistic expectations when working with an instructional designer.

Remember, your ID is not an employee. They’re most likely working for more than one client at a time so they won’t be able to devote all their work hours to your project. And, they may not always be available for last-minute calls or meetings.

Another touchy point: your existing best practices may not really be best practices. Your ID will be up to speed on the latest research and effective instructional practices. Listen to the expert.

working with an instructional designer

Appoint project leads.

The project lead or manager is the association staff member who coordinates and organizes the project. You need one project lead on the association side and, if you’re working with an ID firm and not an individual consultant, one project lead from their side too.

The project leads are the primary points of contact on each side. They monitor project progress and keep it in on track. The association project lead monitors the ID’s progress and also your team’s contributions. They are responsible for making sure the SMEs and others on your team (staff and/or members) are holding up their end of the deal: making decisions on time, fulfilling their responsibilities, and meeting deadlines and expectations.

Both project leads should decide on the best way to keep in touch with each other and schedule regular meetings to review progress and handle issues.

Agree upon responsibilities of project team members.

The instructional designer will translate information into an engaging learning experience. Who has that information? Identify the subject matter experts (SMEs)—staff, members, or other professionals—who have the content expertise needed by the ID to develop the course.

Identify the other members of your project team—the people who will do the tasks not assigned to the ID. For example, you need to identify the person who will answer the ID’s questions about your LMS and upload and/or test course content in the LMS.

As each person is brought onto the team, the project lead must define and discuss the team member’s responsibilities. The team member and, if appropriate, their supervisor, must agree to these responsibilities—what you will need from them and when—especially if you are adding to their existing workload.

Pay attention to calendars and potential schedule conflicts. Make sure you’re aware of vacations, holidays, association events, and any other issues that will affect the availability of staff, SMEs, and your ID. Don’t forget to allow time for internal reviews by staff and stakeholders.

Onboard your instructional designer.

Your instructional designer will let you know what type of background materials they’ll need. Their request may include:

  • Your association’s strategic plan and/or learning strategy
  • Educational marketing plan and materials
  • Accreditation standards
  • Audience research
  • Feedback/evaluations
  • LMS reports
  • Lessons from similar past projects—what went well and what didn’t

The ID will also want to review related existing course content, for example online and face-to–face materials (handouts and PowerPoints), webinars, and session recordings. If they’re not familiar with your LMS, they may also want a demonstration to learn about its features and functionality.

working with an instructional designer

Plan a project kickoff meeting.

Even if your instructional designer is doing most of the heavy-lifting, they are part of a project team. Before getting to work, host a project kickoff meeting either in-person or using a web conference service so your ID can meet their fellow team members, both staff and SMEs.

During this meeting, discuss the following topics, if possible:

  • Course format
  • Learning objectives
  • Target audience
  • Process used by the ID to develop the course
  • Timeline, including constraints and milestone delivery dates
  • Communication plan
  • Roles and responsibilities
  • Expectations – get them all out on the table so no misunderstandings and tension result

Communicate regularly when working with an instructional designer.

The project lead and the ID (or the project lead from the ID side) must communicate on a regular schedule so issues are addressed in a timely manner. The project lead also provides regular updates to stakeholders and team members.

Decide how team members will communicate and provide progress reports: a collaboration channel like Slack or Office 365 Teams, an online community, or whatever platform your office uses.

When meetings are head, make sure they are purposeful. Remember, this project may be stretching some staff to the limit. Don’t make them come to a meeting unless it’s absolutely necessary. Use other communication channels when appropriate.

Explain how to escalate issues.

What if the instructional designer is not getting what they need from a staff member? What if one staff member is not responding to the request of another staff member?

Things can get ugly quick unless you have an established procedure for how issues are reported to and handled by the project lead. In some cases, the project lead may need to ask an association executive to step in to set things right.

What if a SME is not agreeing with the ID’s approach to a topic? If your SMEs are used to developing courses, they might feel slighted by an ID taking over “their” job. The project lead is the mediator in these cases. You need to acknowledge the strengths brought by each team member—the SME is the content expert and the ID is the process expert.

Review and celebrate as you go.

Most associations these days are taking an agile approach to course development: they review, provide feedback, and adjust modules as they’re developed instead of waiting until the entire course is done.

As milestones (interim deadlines) are met, celebrate that progress with the entire project team. These get-togethers will help team members bond and provide a little extra motivation when the going gets tough.

Look back before moving on.

After your new course is uploaded, tested, and accepted, you have a few more project meetings to schedule. Besides setting aside some time for a team celebration, you also need to schedule a project retrospective meeting with your instructional designer and the same meeting with the rest of your project team.

In these retrospectives, discuss what worked well and what could be improved the next time a new course is developed. Go over background materials, kickoff and other meetings, roles and responsibilities, timeline, communication, challenges, and the entire project process.

Document these lessons as well as any other helpful project resources (timelines, roles and responsibilities matrix, etc.) so they’re available for project teams in the future.

course development
instructional designer
program development
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