The State of Instructional Design

A comprehensive report for the Gates Foundation that shines a light on essential educators
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
"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


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? Under the funding and encouragement of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we investigated 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. 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: 780 people responded that they both worked for a ‘Higher education institution’ and in ‘Instructional design, instructional technology, course design, or a related field’.

Instructional designers come from diverse backgrounds and work across a wide variety of schools.

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:

  • The National Center for Education Statistics database, which tracks the number of institutions within each of the NCES institutional categories.
  • 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.

We developed surveys to identify instructional designers and learn more about their roles.

Work in action


After we published the report and 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. Over the course of three webinars, we had nearly 1800 participants – in some cases including entire school departments.


The goal of this report was to start a conversation about instructional designers; their challenges, potential impact, processes, methods, wins, and failures. We’re thankful to our partners, who were instrumental in facilitating these conversations through forums, articles, and report dissemination.




Campus Technology

Learning Ecosystems by Daniel Christian

No Faculty Left Behind

Designing for Success

A glimpse at the instructional design final report.
The report has been downloaded thousands of times by instructional designers and educators.

Taking the Work Forward

With this work, we tapped into a deep vein of enthusiasm from folks who want to share their voice and make a difference for students. We’re excited to continue standing beside instructional designers and hearing what they have to say.

Read the report here.

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