Culturally Responsive Strategies Implemented by “Instructional Designers-by-Assignment” (IDBA) in Higher Education Student Services

This is a continuation of my exploration of topics for my dissertation to complete the doctorate program at Florida State University in the Instructional Systems and Learning Technologies (ISLT) unit of the Department of Educational Psychology and Learning Systems. The program focuses on studying Learning Design and Performance Technologies, and my focus is in higher education.

For this specific proposal topic, less time was spent on reviewing the literature, and more time was spent on constructing a critical argument or reason to explore the topic I chose. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) dissertation topics, usually topics focus on a problem of practice within the field, rather than building upon theory. However, Ed.D. dissertation topics could very well be experimental and/or aid in building theories for practice; you will probably just find less of these options if you start searching for CPED dissertations.

The problem of practice I identify in this work includes Merrill’s (2007) term “Designer-by-Assignment“, which basically means whoever is closest to the information (content or technology) needing to be communicated becomes the trainer or instructional designer by default. I found that during the COVID-19 pandemic many services offered by higher education offices (like student/academic affairs departments) were challenged by their students automatically becoming new remote learners. When higher ed staff translates their services into online/remote resources for newly-made “distance” learners, equity is at stake. Of course, this has always been true, but as the article pointed out, COVID-19 just magnified the disparities of access to these resources. This was my motivation to identify the research topic in this mini-proposal.

Wealthier students may be able to take a gap year and return to college when they like, and they may have easier access to the technology and resources to stick with remote learning. “What we see from the research on low-income students and students of color, if they don’t enroll, they’re not coming back, or it’s very challenging to come back” Del Pilar says. 

The Chronicle of Higher Education

I have copied the Introduction and Problem Statement here to help bring light to this phenomenon and also see if anyone else has found themselves in the same situation and having the same concerns of equity. If you have, drop a comment below so we can learn from each other’s experiences.

Culturally Responsive Strategies Implemented by “Instructional Designers-by-Assignment” (IDBA) in Higher Education Student Services


Today’s college students find and engage with online and in-person student services to succeed in higher education. Due to the influx of online student enrollment higher education staff struggle to support the increasing number of students. The difficulty comprises providing quality support for students after business hours, when and how diverse learners are most likely to engage with services provided by the university (Bailey & Brown, 2016; Calhoun et al., 2017). It is paramount to the success of underrepresented, first-generation, and low-income students (UFGLI) for higher education professionals to support diverse learners through culturally responsive strategies in online learning environments.

Research studies have found that historically underrepresented ethnicities engaged more in online coursework than Caucasian students, students of color worked less on courses during the daytime, first-generation college students attempted quizzes more often, and non-traditional students accessed discussion forums less often than their peers (Athens, 2018; Bosch et al., 2018). There is an observable gap between the needs of UFGLI students seeking online support services, and the practical knowledge and ability of higher education staff to design and implement an effective and inclusive online learning environment (Bailey & Brown, 2016).  Merrill (2007) identifies the impromptu instructional designer as a, “designer-by-assignment,” (DBA). Despite the lack of knowledge and experience in the application of instructional systems design, many higher education staff are assigned to design and implement online learning environments for diverse populations of students as a DBA. This concern of practice can result in UFGLI students not receiving the resources, opportunities, and connections available to aid in their success at the university. This study will explore online instructional strategies that student services staff, who are “Designers-by-Assignment,” implement to aid in the success of UFGLI students in higher education. 

Problem Statement

Higher education professionals’ mission is to help college students develop holistically, retain at the institution, and graduate on time (Cooper et al., 2016). Even with higher education online course enrollment increasing, the retention and graduation gap of diverse students stays relatively stagnant (Gómez-Rey et al., 2016; Green & Wright, 2017; Stitch & Reeves, 2017). As the online student population grows, higher education professionals should be prepared to offer adequate and inclusive services for all students, including UFGLI students (Calhoun et al., 2017). However, online instruction for student services are rarely developed, or developed with intentionality, for the diverse online student population (Stone et al., 2016). Historically, education technologies are not culturally neutral, and it is paramount to be aware of your own biases when designing and implementing inclusive online learning environments (Qayyum, 2016). 

Re-envisioning culturally responsive success strategies for an online learning environment, takes the combined knowledge and practice of instructional design theory, culturally responsive pedagogy, and student development theory. Baldwin (2019) found that instructors in higher education without formal training in instructional systems design attempt to mimic face-to-face strategies while designing online instruction. While the gap in knowledge and proper application of  instructional design exists, research has shown that higher education professional preparation programs do not intend to change curriculum to formally include instruction on supporting diverse online learners (Calhoun et al., 2017). 

This phenomenon contributes to higher education professionals becoming “Designers by Assignment” (DBA) with little-to-no formal knowledge on the subject of designing and implementing inclusive online student services. Further, research has found that online instructors have limited training in cross-cultural instructional strategies and experience difficulty in designing effective online strategies (Kumi-Yeboah, 2018). There is little evidence that showcases which culturally responsive strategies are utilized by professionals in higher education who are “Designers-by-Assignment” and why these strategies are used to support UFGLI students. This study intends to explore how higher education staff, who are DBAs, promote inclusivity for UFGLI students through culturally responsive instructional strategies in online learning environments.


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