State of Instructional Design

for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

With the help of 780 instructional designers, we set out to understand the role, and impact instructional designers could have on student success in higher education institutions.


As full-time question-wrestlers, we enjoy drawing back the curtains on spaces rarely seen. At the beginning of this year, we were presented with the task of telling a story taking place nationwide. The setting: higher education institutions in the US. The main characters: Instructional Designers. If you’re unfamiliar with that title, don’t fret, we once were too.

As digital tools evolve and become more prominent in higher education, instructional designers, learning designers, instructional technologists, and folks with a dozen other related titles are assuming a more integral role in the learning process. But who are these mysterious designers of instruction, and what do they do? We also asked:

  • What is the typical background and training of instructional designers in Higher Ed?
  • What are their biggest barriers, and what skills are most important for success?
  • What tools do they use and what does their workflow look like?
  • How are instructional designers distributed across institutions, and how do their teams operate?

Under the funding and encouragement of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we began an investigation into the role, workflow, and experience of instructional designers in higher education. The result was a 15-page report which became our first publicly published research document.


Process, Research, Analysis

We began our investigation by researching available scholarship about instructional designers. We dove into white papers, articles, forums, blogs, and listservs. Wherever conversations pertaining to the work of instructional designers were being had, we were there. Because of the profession’s rich history – dating back to WWII – we found many sources of information pertaining to instructional designers in the corporate sector, but very little in higher education.
With the help of Courseware providers and partners, we identified practitioners in the field of instructional design and conducted interviews to better understand the nuances of their roles. We also fielded a survey which we posted to listservs, social media accounts, and IT departments across Higher Ed. The response was fantastic. 780 responded that they both worked for a ‘Higher education institution’ and in ‘Instructional design, instructional technology, course design, or a related field’. 586 of whom were based in the US. We had respondents from New Zealand, Ireland, Mexico, Canada, Australia, the UK, Spain, Paraguay, South Africa, Greece, and other countries. Although our immediate interest was the US, the presence and voice of international instructional designers sparked interest for future inquiry into global practitioners.

How many instructional designers are there?

The sector did not have an understanding of instructional designers and how many exist. We wanted to use this survey to create an estimate of the instructional designer population in US higher education.
The estimate is based on two pieces of information:

  1. The National Center for Education Statistics database, which tracks the number of institutions within each of the NCES institutional categories.
  2. The survey data, which reveals the median and range for ID’s within each institutional category.

This leads us to a population estimate for each institution type. When summed, it creates a total population estimate for instructional designers in the US: roughly 13,000. It is important to emphasize that this is a conservative estimate, meaning that the actual population could be higher.

A breakdown of our conservative estimate of 13,000 instructional designers in the US by 5 classifications of institution type (Research/Doctoral, Master’s, Baccalaureate, Associate’s, and Special Focus). section-image

Telling the Story of Instructional Designers

In the planning stages of the report, we made a point to be design-minded. The field is full of long, difficult white papers. We wanted to create an informative, easily digestible, and enjoyable read. Before the actual writing of the report, we began planning what we wanted our end product to look like based on a simple table of contents. Once we had that conceptual vision, we began to write — keeping in mind that the graphs and visuals would carry the paper.

We wove data and anecdotes together into our final report, giving voice to how instructional designers in higher education want to be seen, heard, and trusted.

“I just wanted to add my voice to the praise of what seems to be the most useful document in the field I’ve seen in a long time.” Erin DeSilva, Instructional Designer at Dartmouth College

“It’s good to see a report regarding the role of instructional designers in higher education, it’s pretty spot-on. I think it’s a first!” Xavier Gomez, Instructional Designer at University of San Francisco California


Work in Action


After we published the report, we received inquiries for further research from faculty and instructional designers. With the support of several partner organizations – Online Learning Consortium, Edsurge, and Acrobatiq – we ran a series of free webinars with instructional design panelists to further explore issues and success stories. The response was overwhelming. Over the course of three webinars, we had nearly 1800 participants – in some cases including entire school departments.

Spike after first webinar

The webinars allowed us to amplify the voices of instructional designers. Shining awareness on the struggles and work they do has brought us into a national conversation on how to leverage their skills on campuses everywhere. We’re currently working with OLC (Online Learning Consortium) to build out another span of work that will include a workshop, a website with forums, and a guide to how instructional designers can impact the success and accessibility of low-income, minority, and first generation students.


From the beginning, the goal of this report was to start a conversation about instructional design; their challenges, potential impact, processes, methods, wins and failures. In the development of this report, we partnered with several industry-leading organizations focused on higher education who were instrumental in facilitating these conversations through forums, articles, dissemination, and coverage of the report.


Taking the Work Forward


With this work, we tapped into a deep vein of excitement and enthusiasm from folks who want to share their voice and make a difference for students. Our work is just beginning in this sector, and we’re excited to stand beside instructional designers and hear what they have to say. We hope to continue this type of work in other areas by finding people who are making an impact and learning how to help them scale that impact.

To read our report, you can find it here.