Leading Design

What’s the role of leadership in an instructional design setting? And how does it change from project-to-project?

While the skillsets of instructional designer are often varied—encompassing everything from storyboarding to project management—one little discussed aspect of instructional design (ID) might be leadership.

To get a better idea of what leadership looks like in an ID setting, I recently talked with Kristina McElroy, Senior Learning Technologies Designer for Lesley University’s Department of eLearning and Instructional Support.

Kristina discussed how leadership—much like the role of instructional designer itself—hugely varies from project to project.

Leadership in an ID context

Many “top-down,” hierarchical leadership philosophies just do not apply in an ID setting, where tasks are disperse and organizational structures flat.

A better framework ought to be more diffuse. In his 2002 book, Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances, noted leadership guru, Richard Hackman, talks of leadership as a shared activity.

“Leadership can be—and, at its best, often is—a shared activity. Anyone and everyone who clarifies a team’s direction, improves its strategy, secures organizational support for it, or provides coaching that improves its performance is providing leadership.”

Given the varied tasks of designers, Hackman’s idea succinctly captures the role of leadership in this field, where different projects dictate not who the leader is, but the direction in which leadership flows.

Leading from the center

At Lesley University, Kristina often takes the lead on projects that entail a great deal of departmental overlap.

For instance, Kristina is currently leading a team of people working to integrate an updated version of VoiceThread, a popular media-based collaboration tool, with Lesley University’s learning management system (LMS), Blackboard. In this capacity, Kristina works with faculty to gauge their familiarity with the technology and ameliorate their concerns. She gleans technical implementation details from the IT department staff. And she uses all of these and other experiences to coordinate the work of her staff, which is writing technical support documentation and providing trainings, workshops, and one-to-one consultations for Lesley faculty. Kristina’s staff is also publicizing VoiceThread’s new features to those faculty whom may not be aware of its expanded functionality.

Leading to the center

While leadership in an instructional design context often emanates from the center, leadership can flow the opposite way, too.

Lesley University’s Graduate School of Education (GSE) is currently restructuring its ePortfolio tool, which measures students’ learning and progress against a set of well-defined competencies.

Kristina explains that one of the major challenges of the new system has been the standardization of professors’ evaluations of student work. As a result, the way in which Kristina provided leadership on this project changed.

“What determined leadership was the fact that the project hinged upon inter-grader reliability,” Kristina says. To fill such a leadership role, the GSE hired a professional whose expertise was rooted in formative assessment.

With assessment concerns at the center of this particular project, Kristina provided supplementary consulting support to the project coordinators tasked with restructuring the ePortfolio templates. When asked by these coordinators, Kristina provided guidance for integrating the ePortfolio templates with Lesley’s LMS. She and her colleagues also configured the new ePortfolio tool on a test server so faculty could experiment with it. They helped integrate the tool with the university’s grade book. And they provided technical support to students and faculty who needed assistance with navigation and usability.


As Kristina’s work illustrates, leadership in an ID context can be just as varied as the underlying technologies and systems on which instructional designers rely. And though their tasks may be varied, instructional design leaders need not be experts of it all: they need only to know how and when to lead.

Improving Public Health through Instructional Design

The role of instructional design in improving public health outcomes.

In many settings, an instructional designer’s assumptions are probably not all that different from the colleagues with whom he/she most frequently collaborates.

Consider the role of an instructional designer in a university setting. The designer’s assumptions about, say, good pedagogy, are probably not all that dissimilar from those of the professors with whom he/she most closely works.

But what happens when instructional design is applied in other domains—especially those fields with fairly high-stakes implications, such as public health?

I recently spoke to Karina Lin, an HGSE alumna and Instructional Designer at Education Development Center (EDC), an educational nonprofit that collaborates with public and private partners to design, implement, and evaluate educational programs.

Karina shared her experiences working with an EDC team tasked with assisting the New York City Department of Health and Center for Disease Control (CDC) with their efforts in creating an online platform to help community organizations build their capacity in working with HIV/AIDS patients.

The clear and not so clear role of instructional design.

Given the importance of this project, Karina and her EDC team were fortunate to have a proven and reliable model from which to work: New York City Department of Health’s 2013 Care Coordination Workbook, which provides HIV/AIDs patients with an overview of the disease, and also discusses treatment regimens in an accessible, easy-to-understand way.

With NYC supplying the content expertise, EDC would then provide instructional design support to translate the model into an online format.  The CDC would be engaged to oversee the project and spearhead the dissemination of all of this work to a much broader audience.

The roles were clear. And that was the challenge.

Understanding content experts from other fields

One challenge Karina and her team experienced was sharing their ID process with public health professionals.

Steeped in a very different sort of professional training, public health practitioners were initially a little confused by things like mock-ups and wireframes.

“When we first gave them the wireframes, they were confused by the design. They said, ‘Where’s the color?’ and couldn’t focus on the content because they were looking for a well-polished website.”

Karina’s team realized they needed to bring more clarity to their ID process and give the public health experts an overview of their workflow, discussing how wireframes could enable the health experts to focus more on providing valuable feedback on content.

This made the process much more fluid. The content experts not only gained a better understanding of the design process, but also developed a sense of trust in the instructional designers’ choices.

Understanding the end-user: community organizations.

Another challenge Karina and her team experienced was ensuring that their portions of the project were as useful to community organizations as possible.

“We stayed true to the audience we were trying to serve by bringing in people from the field to consult with us on specific tools. For example, we created an online tool on how to supervise staff in an HIV clinic, where staff turnaround is really high from burnout, and we brought in two amazing program directors to tell us what they do.”

Karina said EDC also conducted a thorough ethnographic assessment of the project’s audience. “We interviewed them, assessed their needs, and asked them what they really wanted out of the potential resources they could be provided.”

While an instructional designer might feel right at home producing, say, a massive open online course, his/her professional training may present certain challenges when working with experts from other fields. And though navigating these relationships can be tricky, the upside potential is enormous, particularly when instructional design goes beyond the university’s gates into fields such as public health.

ID for OPD

Instructional design for online professional development.

There are certain potentials and challenges inherent in any expressive medium. Take vinyl records, for instance. While you’ll find no substitute for their warmth, vinyl records also have a lower dynamic range and cannot match the convenience of iPods or smart phones.

But debating whether vinyl is better than digital (or vice versa) is really beside the point, because each technology has a unique set of affordances with different types of potentials and challenges.

Many of the debates surrounding online versus face-to-face instruction follow a similar pattern: Partisans of either persuasion advocate that their side is “better” rather than having a more nuanced discussion over how these things are fundamentally different.

Hoping to understand the unique advantages of online learning—particularly as they relate to professional development—I recently spoke with Liz Farmer, a Project Director with the Education Development Center and Ed Tech Leaders Online (ETLO). ETLO works with state departments of education, schools and school districts, and other educational organizations to help build capacity for implementing high-quality online professional development.

Liz helped me understand some of the ways online learning is different from face-to-face learning in a professional development setting.

Understand the “what.” Then the “how.”

When working with clients in the initial stages of a project, Liz says that many clients express their desire for ETLO to create a faithful, “one-to-one” reproduction of their popular in-person trainings.

That’s perhaps not an unreasonable request. After all, the client likely has considerable experience in their field and knows how to effectively deliver professional development in a face-to-face setting.

“But the client does not always know what it does not know,” Liz explains. That is, having conducting trainings in a face-to-face setting, the client may not be aware of all of the exciting online tools it has at its disposable, nor of the subtleties of online instruction that may stifle attempts to replicate face-to-face exercises.

So rather than working from a client’s bevy of face-to-face lesson plans, Liz instead urges the client to first express what it is they seek to teach or convey to their trainees. From this vantage point, any number of online tools and technologies can be used to achieve the desired end.

“It really is more art than science,” Liz says.

Recognize that potential abounds online—and that might be a challenge.

After Liz has helped a client understand the many potentials of online professional development, Liz explains that another challenge often arises: informing a client as to what’s possible given the client’s unique parameters.

“The real work that happens is around negotiating the scope,” Liz says. ETLO clients “sometimes need support in understanding how much work it actually takes to do various things – for example, creating multimedia from scratch, or designing a custom web site.”

Because many of ETLO’s client projects are grant-funded, some clients come to ETLO with fairly fixed budgets and timeframes. And while ETLO possesses the skills and know-how to leverage a wide range of digital tools, some instructional choices may be more feasible than others.

So to ensure that ETLO staff and ETLO clients are on the same page, Liz says that she and her team write detailed specifications for proposals submitted to the client. Not only do the specifications give ETLO’s clients a sense of how much work is involved in producing online training materials, but they also provide a written document from which ETLO staff and ETLO clients can plan for future iterations of a project.

Learn how the role of facilitator is changing.

From the perspective of the trainee, online professional development changes everything: when the training commences, where the training occurs, and the manner in which the training is received.

In addition to the trainee, Liz reminds us that online professional development is also changing the role of the facilitator.

“In online professional development, the facilitator becomes much more central in the process of learning,” Liz says. One unique advantage is that, compared to face-to-face instruction, facilitators in asynchronous online settings need not immediately reply to students’ questions, but instead, can conduct additional research or identify new resources of use to the student and class.

This provides for a great deal of flexibility and customization not generally possible in face-to-face trainings. Whereas as a good question might lead to an “I don’t know” or “I’ll get back to you” in face-to-face settings, facilitators can play a more proactive role in online settings.


Given the sharp rise in online learning, one need not look very hard to find its fervent supporters and detractors. But rather than attempting to answer whether online learning is better or worse than its face-to-face counterparts, we ought to look instead at the unique potential of online learning.

Designing Time

A conversation with Harvard Business School Lead Instructional Designer, Andy Hyde.

If you were to ask 100 instructional designers what they perceive their key strength to be, you’d probably walk away with nearly as many different answers.

Some may tell you that they have backgrounds in documentary filmmaking and are especially strong at shooting and editing high-quality instructional videos.

Others may tell you that they have backgrounds in IT and are strongest at navigating the myriad hardware/software concerns inherent in online learning.

And still others may tell you that they possess little technological know-how, but instead are best on the pedagogical side, helping content experts express their ideas effectively in an online format.

Whatever an instructional designer’s strengths may be, there is nevertheless one common skill shared by most instructional designers: project management.

I recently spoke to Andy Hyde, a recent HGSE alum (TIE program) and Instructional Designer for Harvard Business School. Andy and his department provide instructional support to the entire school, including HBS’s MBA, Doctoral, and Executive Education programs. For these programs, Andy is largely responsible for the development, implementation, and analysis of the various learning technologies these programs utilize.

Having recently finished a tutorial on macroeconomics, Andy took a few moments to share his experiences as an HGSE student and to discuss the extent to which he relies on his project management skills in his day-to-day work.

Designing a course? Start by designing your time.

When making the transition from HGSE to HBS, Andy was surprised by the extent to which he had to balance competing priorities and tasks.

“Instructional design work is mostly project management,” Andy says.

Andy explains that HGSE gave him but a small glimpse of this fact. “As a student at HGSE, you mostly work on your own projects. You’re doing the design work. You’re doing the implementation. You’re pushing the project online.”

But in the “real world,” most instructional designers have to work with multiple team members, numerous departments, and balance their projects between competing organizational priorities.

“You really have to be next-level organized.”

To Andy’s aid were a number of project management software tools, including an internal tool, ServiceNow, as well as OmniFocus, which he acquired on his own in order to more closely track each project’s phases and deadlines. (Relatedly, several other instructional designers with whom I recently spoke mentioned the followings apps as worthy project management tools: Basecamp, Zoho, and Wrike.)

Andy also said that faithfully documenting progress was especially helpful given that he would frequently have to switch back-and-forth between many different projects. “Staying mindful of key considerations and committing them to paper [rather than memory] provides you with a way back into projects once you have set them aside for days or weeks.”


A major part of project management involves communication. That is, when interfacing with different departments, how do you phrase your concerns in such a way that they become a priority to all.

“I have to write a lot of project proposals and I have found that applying principles of UDL helps.”

Developed by HGSE Professor David H. Rose, UDL (or universal design for learning,) is an educational framework that helps teachers accommodate individual learning styles and variations. UDL does this by encouraging curriculum developers to present information in different ways, to differentiate the way in which students can demonstrate knowledge, and to stimulate interest in and motivation for learning.
Andy says that incorporating UDL into his proposals ensures that his projects accommodate a wide range of individual learning differences—something that those reading his proposals have been sure to take note of.


As a part of managing projects, Andy also finds himself delegating tasks to fellow colleagues, as well as interns from the greater Boston area. Given that those doing course development often come from vary different backgrounds and have very different skillsets, Andy has found that the task of delegation is not always an easy one.

Andy says delegation is difficult because it often requires a lot of his time up-front. “It takes a lot of initial meetings and conversations and often feels like you could do the task faster yourself,” Andy says. But those willing to make this initial investiture usually see the payoff in the end. “Teaching others about your work almost always pays off in the long run.”

Andy also explains that delegation is an ongoing process. “ Just because I have done the initial handoff doesn’t mean I am finished. I need to constantly check in with my co-workers, interns and stakeholders to make sure that everything is on track, and correct early if it looks like we are going to miss a deadline.”

Instructional design is many different things to many different people. But as straightforward or as varied as an instructional designer’s tasks may be, Andy Hyde helps to remind the budding instructional designer that much of his/her job is project management. Managing your time, communicating with peers, and delegating tasks are essential instructional design skills.

“And making Gantt charts,” Andy jokes. “There are a lot of Gannt charts.”