Meet the Instructional Design ‘First Responders’ Helping Faculty Teach in an Emergency

Mar 19, 2020

As coronavirus pushed campuses across the country to close, and college after college issued orders to resuscitate courses online, it became clear that faculty needed help, stat.

Diann Maurer answered the call. An instructional designer in Texas who weathered Hurricane Harvey, she knew firsthand what it’s like to try to keep education alive during a crisis. So she whipped up a few online forms, messaged colleagues on Twitter and together they created the Instructional Design Emergency Response Network.

It’s a simple system that matches instructors who need help teaching online with instructional designers willing to assist. So far, the network has 300 volunteers and counting.

In this interview with EdSurge, Maurer explains her goals for the project and emphasizes the importance of comptent online course design. But she also advises faculty teaching remotely for the first time not to worry about perfection.

The conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

EdSurge: How and why did you start this effort?

Maurer: When Hurricane Harvey passed through and hit hard, a colleague mentioned it would be so great if we had a network of instructional design “first responders” to deal with these kinds of crises that can really disrupt student learning. I think that it maybe was too localized of a disaster to really pick up a lot of interest. She kind of left it on the table.

About eight days ago, I messaged her and said, “Would you mind if I took a crack at it now?” She gave me her blessing and said go run like a young boy in a field.

I’m doing this on my own time with my own resources. I got the technologies that were available to me for free; created a couple of Google forms, one to offer help and one to get help; created a Twitter account to promote it; put them up on a Google site; and went from there.

What has the response been like?

Within the first 48 hours, I had a hundred people volunteer, and almost all of them said they would do it on their own time and didn’t need to be paid for it—instructional designers, technologists and people who have many years of online teaching. PhD students in instructional technology. I was expecting people in K-12 and higher ed, but I also got a lot of people from corporate instructional design.

It’s reaching people that I didn’t expect it to reach. A couple of days ago I had to go in and edit my form so I could allow people who are in time zones outside of the U.S.

It’s been just over a week. I have 300 people who are available to help. Some are available just a couple of hours a week. Some are available 20 hours or more; some are retired online learning professionals who are coming on and volunteering to help.

It’s been a really good experience, just because it warms my tiny, concrete heart to see people willing to donate their time to people who teach at other institutions just to get each other through this.

What kinds of requests for help have you received?

They have not picked up as quickly as I expected or as quickly as the offers, and I think I have an outreach problem. I think the people who really need the help are maybe not on Twitter. I’m asking people in the network to do outreach to centers for teaching and learning.

I was contacted by the director for the Caltech Center for Teaching, Learning, and Outreach. They have a scope of work drafted, and they need a few more instructional designers to supplement what they were already doing.

I was also reached out to by the vice president for academic affairs for Miami Dade College, which is enormous. I heard back from her today that she thinks they’re probably fine but she’ll let me know. She can send faculty directly to us.

We have more people than we have requests, which I think is good. At this point, I’d like to get the word out a little bit more that we’re available to the people who really need to help.

Most of the requests I get, I get after midnight.

As faculty scramble to move their in-person classes online, why do we need instructional design expertise?

The relationship that an instructor builds with an instructional designer is really, really important. The way I would typically describe it to an instructor is to say, “You’re the subject matter expert in biology, I’m the subject matter expert in quality course design,” and to recognize those are both skills that are equally important.

This is a partnership we develop. They can have their imagination of what they’d really like to do in a course, and then I help them figure out how to do that. I can help them figure out how to make a course speak for them when they are not in the room, how to have their personality present in their course when they’re not in the room.

Instructional designers will have specialized knowledge in digital accessibility, copyright and technology skills. We have a bank of third-party tools that will accomplish different things and solve different problems.

If you've written something in your native language and need to translate it to another language that you don't know, you can use a web-based machine translation tool. But how good is that translation going to be compared to a translation performed with the help of a human who speaks that second language fluently? That’s the difference between having to “pivot to online” on your own, versus working with an online learning professional, such as instructional designers and technologists.

Online teaching is a skill and should be done thoughtfully. That is something that we don’t have the benefit of right now. The more help you can get from people who have a lot of experience doing it already, the stronger your teaching is going to be and the more successful your students are going to be.

So there’s a sense of professional responsibility at work here. What else is motivating you?

Don’t be too hard on yourself and don’t be too hard on your students. Technology is going to fail."

The reason I am trying to reach out to faculty in my spare time [to support] other instructors who have never taught online is because I know the people who ultimately are going to suffer are the students. I wonder how much students are going to be able to learn and retain this semester. I worry for them so much.

For schools that have canceled class and early grades, where they’re not doing remote instruction, are those students going to be left back? Are we going to have a whole year of students who don’t graduate because they didn’t finish their classes? What is going to happen to these kids? These are the things I think about at two in the morning.

Some educators have been aghast at the idea of pushing faculty to teach online without training, while others have embraced it as an opportunity to experiment, or believe it’s better than nothing. What do you think?

I think it depends on the instructor. I spoke to an instructor the other day who herself was high-risk, so she had a compromised respiratory system. She’s older, probably in her 70s. She’s taught face-to-face and she said, “My students take my class face-to-face for a reason, and I teach face-to-face for a reason.” She has minimal technology skills. Part of doing this is to give her a plan she has ownership of, that she can follow by herself with the skills she already has.

I very much follow the idea of meeting someone where they are, developing a strong relationship with them, and continuing under a model of continuous improvement. The place she’s going to start with her course next week may not look like week 16 of the course. She’s going to learn and grow as she goes along.

We’re just operating a MASH unit right now. We’re trying to keep people together, stop the bleeding, get you to a place where you are at least functional. Not to relate it to a war zone, but some of the faculty I’m talking to are feeling very overwhelmed by the whole thing.

This really isn’t “online learning,” this is “remote teaching.” I think that is more accurate as a term, but we need to stop arguing about language and just help each other.

What are the big pieces of advice you’d offer an instructor trying this for the first time, right now?

Call your instructional designer and use the resources being offered by your university.

Me and all the instructional designers I know, we are nerds who love our jobs and we just love it when someone wants to come play with us. When I meet someone for the first time, they’re self-conscious of their technology skills or their online teaching strategies. Now is not the time to feel self-conscious about that. I’m never going to judge someone because they don’t have the same skills I do.

Don’t be too hard on yourself and don’t be too hard on your students. Technology is going to fail. It’s important to model to students resiliency and be able to say, “Well I didn’t do that right, that didn’t work but that’s OK, we will get through it.”

Try to roll with it and don’t be too hard on yourself. Don’t worry about whether you’re doing something exactly right. The thing you should be looking for is your best strategy and your best path forward from where you are right now, as opposed to whatever some famous teacher is doing. You don’t have to be them right now.

Final thoughts?

I want to emphasize that I sign my emails with “network administrator” instead of my name because this really isn’t about me. It’s about the 300 people who are so invested in doing this work that they've come to create this network together. They deserve so much recognition for the sacrifice they're making. A lot of instructional designers already feel underpaid, underutilized and underappreciated.

I never expected to be in a situation where there’s so much to do, where we are working overtime and working weekends, and volunteering time on top of that to [help] other institutions and other faculty. It makes me feel so warm and fuzzy on the inside, that when some people go to the grocery store and buy all the toilet paper, there’s also this swell of generosity, too. It’s important to see that. I want to thank all those people for submitting a form, it really means a lot to me.


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