Prominent education reformer and scholar John Dewey once wrote, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” My belief in this idea motivated me to enter the field of K–12 education as a teacher and eventually transition into higher education as an instructional designer. I believe learning is an essential pursuit in the discovery of one’s passions, goals, and purpose. As a classroom teacher, I thoroughly enjoyed the process of designing instruction for my students, as it often felt like solving a beautifully complex puzzle. I was also passionate about sharing my knowledge and experience of the curriculum design process with others. I mentored new teachers in my school’s induction program and provided curriculum coaching to colleagues of neighboring schools. I also worked part-time as an online lecturer for a local university where I taught education majors strategies to support their future instructional practices using technology.
I was inspired by the notion that helping other teachers improve their instruction could facilitate broader effects than within the confines of my own classroom. After earning my master’s degree in organizational performance and workplace learning (OPWL) from Boise State University in 2016, I felt more equipped with the knowledge and practical application skills to transition from my job as a classroom teacher to an instructional designer role in a higher education setting. I now work as an e-learning specialist and instructional designer at a top-ranked public university. My department consists of more than 30 faculty members whom I assist with course design and development strategies and provide training in digital media integration, online course accessibility, and the Quality Matters course certification process. I’m also responsible for building self-contained online certificate courses that our department offers to the general public. My coursework in the WELPS (Workplace E-Learning and Performance Support) graduate certificate area within the OPWL program was essential in preparing me for the facets of this new position.
My career transition felt relatively seamless, as I consistently apply the knowledge, skills, and experience I gained from my 12 years as a high school teacher. I assist faculty in familiar areas for K–12 teachers such as curriculum mapping, writing measurable learning objectives, developing authentic means of student assessment, creating accessible content, and effectively integrating technology. I also put these concepts into practice when designing our certificate courses. The collaborative environment I’d experienced with my teaching colleagues is mirrored in the partnerships I’ve made with faculty motivated to improve their teaching. While professors are experts in their fields, many lack formal teacher training and experience, and they rely on an instructional designer’s expertise to develop meaningful and engaging instruction. By supporting these efforts, I’m helping ensure that their students have positive learning experiences.
A key component of my job is managing our department’s online learning needs. More than 6 million students in the United States take at least one distance education course annually, a number that will continue to rise. To keep up with the growing demand for online instruction, universities are encouraging (and often requiring) faculty to migrate their courses from a traditional classroom format to an online or blended format. Instructional designers are essential in bridging the gap between the faculty’s lack of online teaching aptitude and their students’ desires for positive e-learning experiences. Most K–12 teachers have used a learning management system (LMS) in some capacity to manage their classrooms (for example, Canvas, Blackboard, or Google Classroom) and have also integrated technology into their coursework. Thus, K–12 teachers have a unique knowledge base that’s valued by institutions of higher learning looking to capitalize on the distance learning revolution.
My career transition was not without its challenges. Instructional designers’ workdays tend to be unstructured, which felt jarring at first to a career high school teacher who worked in a heavily scheduled and micromanaged environment. And every institution has its unique set of resources, guidelines, and procedures to learn. But eventually, I became proficient in the required areas and the freedom to be more self-directed felt liberating. My schedule also allows me the flexibility to work remotely while still being able to access necessary resources through my institution’s cloud-based platform.
Working in higher education as an instructional designer has provided me with unique professional opportunities I may not have access to in the private sector. I’m collaborating with faculty on an IRB-approved research study exploring obstacles to online teaching self-efficacy. I’m teaching in a part-time adjunct lecturer role in the university’s teacher education program. I’ve also decided to continue my own doctoral studies by taking courses through our institution’s full-tuition reimbursement program for employees. Even though I left the K–12 classroom environment and the students that I cherished so dearly, I have not been forced to leave teaching behind entirely.
While I loved many aspects of my job as a K–12 teacher, I was ready for a new adventure. Transitioning into an instructional designer role at a university provided me with opportunities to grow professionally while giving back to the field of education. I still wholeheartedly agree with John Dewey that, “Education is life itself,” and I will continue to live by that principle throughout my career.