Instructional Design: A Collaboration or A Consultation?

An Example of the Working Relationships Between Instructional Designers and Instructors
Instructional DesignHigher EducationFaculty and Instructional Designer Collaboration
Although 29 studies of the relationship between instructional designers and faculty in higher education characterized it as collaborative, none defined collaboration (Chen & Carliner, 2021). That’s where this position paper begins, addressing these questions: What is collaboration in an educational services context? and To what extent does “collaboration” effectively characterize the relationship between instructional designers and faculty in a higher education context? This paper starts by defining collaboration in the context of educational support services. Then it describes the services offered by instructional designers in higher education and makes the case, at a conceptual level, that collaboration does not fully characterize the nature of the relationship between most instructional designers and instructors, and suggests, instead, the term "consultative" better characterizes this relationship. Next this paper summarizes evidence from an empirical study of three different instructional design services, which supports the concept. This paper closes by suggesting implications to practice, teaching, and research and theory.


Although 29 studies of the relationship between instructional designers and faculty in higher education characterized it as collaborative, none defined collaboration (Chen & Carliner, 2021). That’s where this design position paper begins. Specifically, it addresses these questions:

This paper starts by defining collaboration in the context of educational support services. Then it describes services offered by instructional designers in higher education to determine, at a conceptual level, the extent to which the term collaboration characterizes the relationship between instructional designers and instructors and, if the relationship is not collaborative, provide an alternate characterization. Afterwards, this position paper provides a real-world example of these concepts from one study of three different instructional design services. This example is intended to provide some empirical support for the conceptual model. This position paper closes by describing the implications of our findings to practice, teaching, research, and theory.

Note: This position paper uses the general term instructors rather than faculty to refer to those who teach. That’s because faculty is a term reserved in some institutions for tenure- track faculty. Many others work in instructional roles, including full-time permanent faculty who are not tenure track (called lecturers in some institutions and clinical instructors in others), part-time faculty, and graduate students who, in some institutions, have the opportunity to teach courses.

Collaboration in the Context of Educational Support Services

This section explores collaboration in the context of educational support services and contrasts it with two other types of relationships: consulting and contracting. Before considering collaboration, however, this section first defines educational support services and contrasts it with educational services.

About Educational Support Services

According to the Government of Canada (2023a), educational services “comprises establishments primarily engaged in:[sic] providing instruction and training in a wide variety of subjects. This instruction and training is provided by specialized establishments, such as schools, colleges, universities, and training centres” (para. 1). Assisting these educational service providers in achieving their missions are groups providing educational services.

By contrast educational services “comprise . . . establishments primarily engaged in providing non-instructional services that support educational processes or systems” (Government of Canada, 2023b, para.1). When writing about instructional design services, Lieberman (2018) characterizes them as support, noting that as a support team, instructional designers do not “have any direct line authority or supervision” (para. 25) and have no means of motivating faculty to strengthen their teaching. Educational support does seem to characterize the general nature of much of the work instructional designers perform in higher education. Although some instructional designers design and develop self-study online courses, most do so under the guidance of subject matter experts (McCurry & Mullinix, 2017; Liu et al., 2007). As will be noted later in this position paper, other instructional designers engage in activities that support instructors but nearly none of those activities involve teaching the credit-bearing or continuing education courses taken by tuition-paying students.

About Collaboration in an Educational Context

In terms of collaboration in an educational context, Goulet et al. (2003) define it as “more than simply dividing up labor”(p. 325); it involves “bringing people and group together for a common purpose” resulting in “some kind of transformation in the participants” (p.325) Characteristics of collaborative work in education include:

These characteristics align with the factors that Chen and Carliner (2021) found facilitated collaborative relationships among instructional designers “communication, attitude, trust, commitment, flexibility, empowerment, and a healthy workplace culture" - (p.483) and with those that hindered those relationships “lack of clarity on the role…ineffective communication, heavy workload, concern for academic autonomy, and ambiguity of status” (p.486).

Goulet et al. (2003) also suggest collaborative relationships are consultative, which involves the giving of information and advice, and involves listening. But that view of consulting might be limited to education. In other service fields, notably management, consulting refers to a particular work arrangement. Rather than a collaborative relationship, in management, consultation refers to a situation in which one party (the client) arranges for the other party (the consultant) to perform specific tasks. According to Turner (1982), traditional consulting involves 

“1. Providing information to a client. 2. Solving a client’s problems. 3. Making a diagnosis, which may necessitate redefinition of the problem. 4. Making recommendations based on the diagnosis. 5. Assisting with implementation of recommended solutions”. More advanced goals of consulting include “6. Building a consensus and commitment around corrective action.7. Facilitating client learning—that is, teaching clients how to resolve similar problems in the future. And 8. Permanently improving organizational effectiveness”  (para. 6)

One could argue instructional designers involved in course design and development certainly engage in traditional consulting tasks, but the consulting is merely a means to an ends: designing and developing a course based on the expertise of the instructor (Subject Matter Expert). In other situations, these traditional tasks are the ends of instructional design services; instructors primarily seek an assessment of a particular problem and suggestions on how to address it, such as a problem with teaching, assistance with integrating technology into an existing course, or support for preparing a proposal for a new or substantially revised curriculum. The next section contains further elaboration on this point. The extent of the relationship between instructor and instructional designer is limited to this consultation; corrective action is the primary responsibility of the instructor, who might engage in that action without further involvement of the instructional designer.

Another relationship exists between instructional designers and instructors: contracting. Contracting is an arrangement in which instructional designers develop a “contract” or agreement with an instructor to perform a specifically defined task or series of tasks over a period of time (Carliner et al., 2021). This is an admittedly transactional relationship. Although instructors and institutions can establish contracts with external service providers, they can also establish such agreements with internal groups. In addition, some contracts might cover the entire course design and development process but other contracts might only address certain specific tasks, such as producing audiovisual components or assisting with conformance to accessibility standards. The next section contains further elaboration on this point.

A collaboration implies instructional designers work with instructors through the lives of projects and the two parties mutually support one another. As just noted, two other possible work arrangements also exist. One is consulting, in which instructional designers advise instructors on how to address a particular situation and provide support and guidance in doing so. Although the problem could be a broad one, it is also likely to be discrete and well-defined: one that can be addressed relatively quickly. The other possible work arrangement is contracting, in which an instructional designer agrees to perform a discretely defined and agreed-upon task. The scope of the work arrangement is limited to the terms of the contract. In both arrangements, the relationship between instructors and instructional designers only exists for part of a project and limits the role and influence of instructional designers.

In other words, collaboration could characterize the relationship between instructional designers and instructors; consultation and contracting might also characterize the relationship.

The Conceptual Nature of Work Relationships Between Instructional Designers and Instructors 

This section explores in more conceptual depth the actual nature of work relationships between instructors and instructional designers, and the likelihood that collaboration or one of the other two work arrangements might characterize the relationship. An entire body of research on instructional designers in higher education exists, and it focuses on various aspects of instructional designers’ roles in the design of online courses (Bawa & Watson, 2017; Campbell et al., 2009; Gibby et al., 2002; Liu et al., 2007; McCurry & Mullinix, 2017) while working within departments or units focused on e-learning and distance education and in which the primary service instructional designers provide is the design and development of online courses. However, a 2016 study of instructional designers in higher education reported that only 25% of instructional designers work in such situations, suggesting the research provides an incomplete picture (Intentional Futures, 2016).

According to that Intentional Futures (2016) study, instructional designers also work within libraries, Information Technology groups, research centers, individual academic departments and colleges, and within Centers for Teaching and Learning. These other instructional designers work in units with missions other than the design, development, and implementation of online courses and provide services other than the design and development of entire courses. Indeed, many of these units do not provide design and development (much less implementation) services. These services, in turn, define the nature of the working relationship between instructional designers and instructors, and that, in turn, determines the extent to which collaboration is feasible.

Consider the services offered by Centers for Teaching and Learning. A review of a convenience sample of ten teaching and learning centers at universities in the United States and Canada (chosen from the first results of a search on the keywords “teaching and learning centers”) suggests that the most common services include:

Nearly all centers for teaching and learning offer these services. In addition, many centers for teaching and learning offer some of these services:

Table 1 summarizes the services offered by the Centers for Teaching and Learning in this convenience sample.

Table 1

Services offered by Centers for Teaching and Learning

InstitutionLocationCenter Name Consulta-tions with faculty on course design and facilitationConsul-tations with faculty on educa-tional techno-logySupport for inclusive teachingReview of Teach-ing port-folioSupport for curricu-lum devel-opment and revi-sionSup-port for SOTLWork-shops on teaching and course design for facultyTeach-ing evalua-tionsTeach-ing Work-shops for Grad StudentsConferences and events on teaching and course designWeb Re-sourcesBook Club / CoPTeac-hing Fellows ProgramAwardsOther services
Boise State UniversityBoise, Idaho USACenter for Teaching and Learning X X   XXXX XXX (travel) 
Northern Michigan UniversityMarquette, Michigan USACenter for Teaching and Learning XXX   XX XXX X 
Queen’s UniversityKingston, Ontario, CanadaCentre for Teaching and Learning XXX XXX XXX    
Simon Fraser UniversityVancouver, British Columbia CanadaCentre for Educational Excellence XXX XXXXXXX   Support for course production
University of AlbertaEdmonton, Alberta, CanadaCentre for Teaching and Learning XXX X X  XX    
University of California at BerkleyBerkley, California USACenter for Teaching and Learning XXX X  X XX XX (teaching) 
University of Colorado at BoulderBoulder, Colorado USACenter for Teaching and Learning X (individual or group consultations) X  XXXXXXXX  
University of Maryland College Park, Maryland, USATeaching and Learning Transformation Center XXXXX XXX X    
University of Wisconsin-- MadisonMadison, Wisconsin USACenter for Teaching, Learning, and Mentoring XX    X X    X 
Washington UniversitySt. Louis, Missouri, USACenter for Teaching and Learning XXX  XXXX XXXX 

These services differ in length from the design and development of entire e-learning courses. Design and development can take several months or years. By contrast, some of these services can involve as little as a one-hour working relationship between the instructional designer and the instructor.

The services also differ in the nature of the relationship between the instructional designer and the instructor. In most of these services, the instructional designer advises the instructor: a consultative relationship. In other cases, the instructional designer performs work under the direction of the instructor as a service provider (a contracting relationship). Neither of these types of relationships is collaborative by definition.

Table 2 summarizes both the length of the engagement with each of these services and the nature of the working relationship. Note that, in most of these services, the instructional designer plays a consultative role rather than a collaborative role. That is, the instructional designer advises the instructor; the instructional designer plays a limited if any role in the associated project.

Table 2

Length of the engagement and nature of working relationship in specific instructional design services

  ServiceLength of the interaction
between instructional
designers and instructors
Nature of the working relationship of the instructional designer to the instructor
More common services
Consultations with instructors on course design and facilitation2 to 4 sessionsConsultative
Consultations with instructors on educational technology1 to 5 sessionsConsultative
Support for inclusive teaching1 to 2 sessionsWorkshop instructor (instructional designer) and student
Review of Teaching portfolio1 to 2 sessionsConsultative

Support for curriculum development


and revision

10 to 100 hours (varies
depending on the complexity
of the situation)

Instructional designer

works under the guidance of the instructor 

Support for SOTL1 to 10 sessions (varies depending on the exact nature
of the request)

Workshops on teaching and course
 design for instructors

1 to 2 sessions eachWorkshop instructor  (consultative)
Teaching evaluations  

·    Observations: 1 to 5 sessions

·   Student evaluations of teaching:        No direct interaction

Student evaluations of teaching: Service provider 

Teaching workshops for graduate students3 to 100 hoursInstructor
Conferences and events on teaching and
course design    


·  Event planning: 10-40 hours

·   Event participants: 1 to 10                hours 


·   Event planning team                        Collaborator on a team
·   Event participants: Service              provider

Web resourcesAsynchronous onlineAuthor (no direct relationship)
Less common services
Book Club / CoPVariesFacilitator (consultative)
Teaching Fellows Program8 to 40 hoursInstructional designer acts as an instructor, mentor, and coach as well as beneficiary of the advocacy
Awards2 to 10 hoursInstructional designer oversees an adjudication process; might not interact with individual instructors except for those on the adjudication panel
Support for course production4 to 50 hoursService provider.
Instructional designer performs work as guided by the instructor

The services offered by the Centers for Teaching and Learning admittedly differ from those offered by other groups within the university that employ instructional designers. However, those instructional designers working in academic units like Colleges (or Faculties in the British system) often perform a mix of tasks, some involving course design and development and some similar to Centers for Teaching and Learning. Similarly, instructional designers working in Information Technology groups perform services more similar to those of a Center for Teaching and Learning than an e-learning unit because Information Technology groups have responsibilities to train staff in the use of technologies and assist them with integrating that technology into their courses (Carliner & Driscoll, 2019). 

In other words, on a conceptual level and based on the evidence provided, the nature of many instructional services in higher education groups do not lend themselves to collaboration. They do not involve working together at all phases of the process (Tikunoff & Ward, 1983). The work might not involve an effort to build and maintain a work relationship, especially if the relationship only lasts the length of a 2-hour workshop or similar short-term, tightly focused service (Goulet et al., 2003). That, in turn, limits the invested in the working relationship and development of mutual respect for one another, ensuring that all participants working on the project have the opportunity to be heard (Goulet et al., 2003) and addressing issues of status and power in the relationship (Stewart, 1997). These might not happen because people are trying to be uncollaborative; but the nature of the service results in a more transactional rather than collaborative relationship.  

An Example of the Working Relationships Between Instructional Designers and Instructors

To move beyond a conceptual view of the working relationship between instructional designers and instructors, the second author of this position paper study conducted a case study analysis of three instructional design services offered by universities (Chen, 2023), which we present as an example to illustrate the relationship. The three services studied include:

Studies of the first two services were conducted at one comprehensive university in central Canada and the study of the third service was conducted at a different comprehensive university in central Canada. Comprehensive university is a term used in Canadian higher education for universities that offer a full selection of majors but do not include medical and law schools. For each of the three services studied, the co-author conducted semi-structured qualitative interviews with several instructors who used that service (six for the first and third service, three for the second). Interviews explored the specific assistance instructors sought and why, the process followed to support this request from beginning to end, and their reflections on the process. When possible, participants provided documentation of the design effort including design plans and draft materials, which illustrated issues arising in the interviews.

All participants were instructors. No instructional designers were included among the participants. Almost none of the prior studies on the relationships between instructional designers and instructors on online course design projects in higher education include instructors (Chen & Carliner, 2021).  This study included eight tenured or tenure-track instructors, two teaching faculty, and five part-time instructors.

The results provide many insights into the relationship between instructional designers and instructors. First, the descriptions of the ways different services affected the design and development of courses suggest the extent of involvement and influence of instructional designers varies substantially based on the type of service in which instructors engaged. For example, an instructional designer working on the complete design and development of an e-learning course would engage with needs assessment and could provide specific suggestions on pedagogical techniques for the entire course. By contrast, an instructional designer working through the express service only worked on those issues on which instructors sought assistance, such as activities to increase interactivity within class sessions or the design and implementation of online quizzes and exams. Instructors who engaged with workshops still benefitted from the ideas and insights offered by instructional designers, but they were left on their own to interpret what the ideas meant and determine how to implement those ideas in their courses.

In addition, an analysis suggests instructors primarily value the expertise provided by instructional designers in helping instructors achieve their goals for the course (Chen, 2023). In the case of all three services, instructors continue to see themselves as the primary creators of the courses (Chen, 2023). This is true even for instructors who worked with instructional designers to design and develop entire online courses. Even though the work relationship is close and lasts for months, even these instructors see instructional designers serving a supporting role to their own as subject matter experts and course owners, bringing expertise the instructors do not have. This finding supports the idea that instructors consult with instructional designers and contrasts with prior literature, in which instructional designers characterize their relationship with instructors as collaborative (Chen & Carliner, 2021). Although this is just one qualitative study conducted at two Canadian universities and the results might not transfer to other institutions, they do provide initial empirical support for the conceptual description of the ways in which instructional designers work with instructors. This description is presented in the last section and challenges the rest of the literature.

Implications of these services for relationships between instructional designers and instructors

The ways instructional designers and instructors view instructional designers’ roles on projects do not align. Part of this is that many instructional designers engage in shorter-term and more tightly-defined services than the development of a complete online course, from which the recommendation emerges the relationship between the two parties be collaborative. Prior literature is based on research that is almost exclusively conducted with instructional designers and omits the voices of instructors (Chen & Carliner, 2021). When instructors were asked in the study by Chen (2023), they viewed the relationship differently than instructional designers.

If the relationship is not seen by both instructors and instructional designers as a collaboration, then instructional designers might need to seek an alternate term to describe their relationship with instructors. One possible term is a consultation. At the least, it is the term that characterizes the relationship between instructors and instructional designers in the majority of services described earlier in this position paper. But it is also rooted in a competency model for instructional design professionals who specialize in a different educational sector: workplace learning. The Canadian-based Institute for Performance Learning (I4PL) characterizes the working relationship between learning and development professionals (as they call people working in the field) and instructors and other stakeholders as Partnering with Clients, and identifies it as the central competency area for the work. According to this competency model, Partnering with Clients entails:

Although it describes the competencies needed to consult, the concept of Partnering with Clients embodies many of the sought-after characteristics of a collaborative work relationship. More fundamentally, by characterizing the relationship between instructional designers and instructors as a consultation, the expectations of the parties might be better aligned with the realities of the relationship. It is also noteworthy that the Canadian Association of Instructional Designers, many of whose members work in higher education, has adopted the Institute for Performance and Learning competency model. 


If the relationship between instructional designers and instructors is a consultation rather than a collaboration, there are significant potential implications for the field.

In terms of practice, the consultative relationship affirms the client-professional relationship that exists between many instructional designers and their stakeholders in workplace learning might also characterize the relationship between instructional designers and instructors in higher education. Instructors only work with instructional designers when they have a specific need, such as the need for assistance with designing and developing a course, coaching to strengthen one’s classroom teaching, and research assistance with a curriculum proposal for a new program. The exact support instructors need therefore varies depending on the nature of assistance sought and where instructors are in their course design, development, and implementation effort when they seek assistance. Rather than starting engagements with a needs assessment of the instructional program, instructional designers might instead begin engagements by clarifying the request, determining the type of support instructor needs, identifying sought-after outcomes, and clarifying the relationship with instructors. 

This client-service provider relationship also has implications for its power dynamics. This consultative approach acknowledges the reality that instructors often have the final authority to make decisions. Admittedly,  some instructional designers like Kim (2017) argue instructional designers should have faculty status, partly because they engage in activities like scholarship but also to provide more decision-making authority. But even in instances in which instructional designers have faculty status, subject matter faculty retain the final authority on their courses because they are the instructors of record and instructional designers are not. Shifting the stated role of instructors from partners and collaborators to clients affects the stated dynamic of the relationship but could also bring it more in line with the emerging perception of the relationship from instructors’ viewpoints (Chen, 2023) and the short-term nature of the services offered by instructional designers. Shifting the characterization to consultation or client-based work could also strengthen the expectations of all parties regarding the relationship.

This position paper also has several implications for teaching. At the most basic is the characterization of the role and relationship between instructional designers and other stakeholders, especially in higher education. Much of the instruction presents the role of instructional designers as leading the entire process of designing and developing a course from beginning to end. Although that might be true for some instructional designers in some institutions and on some projects, it is not necessarily the case for most instructional designers in most organizations. Although many instructional designers have a trusting relationship with instructors, in many of those instances, instructors still have final approval rights for the courses. Some instructional designers only work on part of a course—either working from beginning to end on one segment of a course or only working with certain tasks on a course. Some instructional designers do not design or develop courses at all. They support faculty in integrating technology and strengthening their teaching or support curriculum development efforts. In most of these situations, the instructor is a client. At the least, educational programs should prepare students for all of these types of assignments. At the most, educational programs should prepare students for consultative work. The Partnering with Clients competency area in the Institute for Performance and Learning competency model provides a framework for guiding such educational preparation.

In addition to implications for practice and teaching, this position paper has implications for research and theory. Although a body of literature focuses on the competencies needed across instructional design positions (Kenny et al. (2005); Klein & Kelly, 2018; Ritzhaupt, & Kumar, 2015; Sims & Koszalka, 2008; Wang et al., 2021), most of that research focuses on common competencies needed by all instructional designers. These studies do not provide insights into the different types of work assignments instructional designers hold nor the different types of contexts in which they work, and how those differences might align with—or deviate from—common perceptions of the work. This broader picture of the work of instructional designers might, in turn, be used to adjust the key theories and practices driving the field, starting with instructional design models. Such studies assume instructional designers are involved with the process from beginning to end and few account for differences by educational sector (schools, higher education, workplace training), scope of work required by the assignment (curriculum plan, brand new course, completely revised course, revisions to parts of the course), and whether the instructional designer is working on a course or similar program, rather than working in an advisory or consultative role on one or more aspects of instruction. Even the somewhat newer Successive Approximation Model (Allen & Sites, 2012), which brings a more flexible agile approach to instructional design, makes many of the same assumptions as its predecessors such as ADDIE (Molenda, 2003), Dick, Carey, and Carey (2014), and Smith and Ragan (2004).

Although collaboration is ideal for certain types of instructional design projects, a combination of characteristics, including the exact nature of the work assignment and power dynamics in the workplace, often limits the potential for collaboration as defined earlier in this article. Characterizing the relationship as consultative might align better with the actual nature of the relationship and can help better manage expectations in engagements between instructional designers and instructors.


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Teaching and Learning Websites Consulted in the Analysis

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Queen’s University. (2023). Centre for Teaching and Learning. Retrieved March 30, 2023 from

Simon Fraser University. (2023). Centre for Educational Excellence. Retrieved March 30, 2023 from

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