Episode # 35

Instructional Design with Sarah Schroeder

April 27, 2023

About This Episode

Sarah Schroeder is an associate professor at the University of Cincinnati, where she coordinates the Digital Learning Design certificate program for undergraduate students and connects UC learners with community partners. She also teaches courses related to educational technology and media literacy, specifically focused on applying Universal Design for Learning using technology. Sarah is an ISTE certified educator, a certified Quality Matters facilitator and master reviewer, a graduate of the Educause Educational Technology Leadership Institute, and has supported grant-funded development of blended learning solutions for K-12 districts. In this episode, Sarah talks about her work in instructional design, her philosophy on using technology in the classroom and ways educators can support the students of tomorrow.


Sarah Schroeder

Sarah Schroeder is an Associate Professor, Educator in the University of Cincinnati School of Education.  An ISTE certified educator and lover of practical ed tech, Sarah focuses on teaching students to do more with technology to create inclusive, supportive learning environments where all students are heard and seen. Sarah’s work focuses on the use of Universal Design for Learning, equitable media literacy practices, and Learner Centered Design. She is the creator and coordinator of the Digital Learning Design certificate for undergraduate education students and is the coordinator of the Foundations in Education program for the School of Education.


[00:00:40] Kara: Joining us today is Sarah Schroeder, who is a professor at the University of Cincinnati, and also we have a guest co-host today who is Deb Tschirhart who works with me at SOITA.

So hey, to both of you.

[00:00:57] Sarah: Hey kara.

[00:00:59] Deb: Hey, excited to be here.

[00:01:01] Sarah: Thanks for having me.

[00:01:02] Kara: Yeah, no problem. We’re excited to talk to you. All your work in education and instructional design, so I think it’ll be a good conversation.

But first I wanna

know. Your journey into

education and how you ended up where

[00:01:19] Sarah: you are? Sure. So my journey into education and educational technology in particular was a little bit roundabout. Um, I wanted to be on Broadway, so, but my, my parents. Said you need a practical degree. When I went to college and I just fell in love with teaching and education, um, with my education degree at Indiana University, go iu.

And uh, I got my license to teach theater as well. So I was a theater teacher and an English teacher at a high school in Cincinnati and also, uh, did quite a bit of work at a high school in Ellisville, Indiana, Edgewood High School, and. Um, you know, then I. I started to want to just kind of think through, you know, when you’re a 22 year old going into teaching and you’re teaching 18 year old seniors.

Yeah. Um, that’s a tough place to be. That’s a hard start to your education career. Um, so I moved to Los Angeles in an early midlife crisis and, um, just sold everything I had and hopped in my car. Oh my gosh. The Hollywood Dream. Uh, yeah. And worked in the television and film industry in Los Angeles for about three years.

Got really interested in, in media, especially media for social justice and media with a purpose. And so I, I went back to school after that and got my master’s. In communication. So I have an undergraduate degree in education and a master’s degree in communication. And this was before there were master’s degrees in instructional design.

Um, you know, when I was an undergrad, the technology class we had to take taught us how to hyperlink slides on PowerPoint. And that was mm-hmm. Huge. That was

[00:03:12] Deb: Wow. Yeah.

[00:03:14] Sarah: Huge. So I always joke that to my, well, I don’t joke. I tell my students that they probably don’t even know yet what they’re going to do in the end, in their career because that job may not exist.

And that’s kind of how instructional design happened for me. It didn’t exist when I was, um, in school, but as I went through my master’s degree and was learning more about representation in the media and technology in that capacity. Which was my focus was representation in the media in my master’s degree.

Um, I went from there to working in higher education, um, as a freshman advisor and teaching public speaking at Northern Kentucky University. So my office just happened to be in one of those places, right inside the main office door of the communication department at N K U where people would go, Hey, you’re pretty good with black.

Do you think you could help me with this? Right? You’re pretty good at this. Do you think you could help me with this? So I fell into educational technology by being right inside the main door of the department and in my office a lot because I was an academic advisor. So I started to really enjoy helping faculty.

Solve problems in their classes and find solutions for things they wanted to do. And I, I started going to every workshop I could at N K U and, uh, when they hired their first round of full-time instructional designers, I was the first one hired. And, Just taught myself how to do instructional design.

Um, and then I transitioned to University of Cincinnati where I coordinate all of our educational technology courses for our undergrads and our digital learning design certificate. And I also coordinate all of our foundations courses for our incoming students in the school of Education. So it was a roundabout way to get to educational technology, very self-taught.

But it was worth it. I, I always say if I hadn’t done everything I wanted to do in my life before I landed here, I wouldn’t love my job as much as I do. So that is my journey to ed tech. That’s and instructional design. That’s really cool.

[00:05:24] Kara: I’m curious what you’ve seen, like how instructional design, I guess, has evolved

[00:05:30] Sarah: So I think initially instructional designers were really, um, You know, just get it into the l m s kind of people. Okay. Right. Like figure out how to

[00:05:39] Kara: take their in-person and just get it into a digital format.

[00:05:44] Sarah: Yeah, absolutely. Okay. So when I first became an instructional designer, one of the things I did, which I found out later, was fairly unique and not a lot of people were doing it, but my method was go watch the instructor teach.

So if I was assigned a course, cuz I, I designed courses from, oh my goodness, neuroscience to business. And I didn’t know the content clearly. Mm-hmm. Um, I was an English teacher, like neuroscience not in my wheelhouse. And so I would go if they taught a face-to-face class and I would physically sit in their classroom.

You know, for a week or two and take notes on their teaching style and what was going well, and what were the students responding to. And then I would sit down with them and ask them about, you know, their course evaluations and what challenges were they seeing in their class that they wanted to solve when they moved into the online environment.

And then when we started working in Blackboard in those early days, it was really about just helping the instructor convert from a face-to-face to an online class and keep it organized. So keep it organized, keep it simple. I think one of the things that I saw really evolve over time was instructional designers becoming, Also graphic designers and becoming multimedia designers and becoming.

Coaches and becoming teachers and becoming problem solvers. You know, where when the systems were really simple, it was a lot easier. Now we have so many more tools available to us that it’s right a lot about choosing the right tool and advising the IT department on what teachers and students need, um, with quality matters coming out, which if you’re familiar with quality matters, it.

Yes, national organization based on research, uh, with kind of a gold standard in instructional design. And there’s a, there’s a K-12 QM and there’s higher ed qm, but it’s just a rubric you can use to see if you’re doing what your students need. When that first came out. And people started getting QM certified.

Then we really saw kind of the quality assurance model being applied to instructional design and instructional designers being advocates for the students and saying, Hey, you’re not the end user of this. Faculty member or teacher, like, sorry, the student is the end user, so we have to design it for them, not for you, which caused some challenges.

Right. But, , I love that about instructional design. I love that I’m an advocate for the students. I love that it takes a lot of my strengths, which I think my story is really important because it also. That you don’t have to have a master’s degree in instructional design or a master’s degree in education.

You have to have creativity and flexibility, and you have to be able to design backwards, you know, really understand what it is you want your student to doing at the end. I think right now it’s a tough time in instructional. Because there are so many tools and technologies, there is so much you have to stay updated on, and you have to be an expert in so many things.

Mm-hmm. To really do it well that it’s, it’s a challenging time for instructional designers. I think it’s just their skills keep having to be upped.

[00:09:09] Deb: So do you think that, it’s hard for people to let go of the fact that they don’t, all of those skills? You said they have to be really good at this and that and the other.

Do you think it’s hard for instructional designers to accept the fact that they don’t have to be the content expert, they are just assisting the content expert? Or do you think those are completely integrated?

[00:09:31] Sarah: Yeah, I don’t think so. I, I think instructional designers expect to not be the content expert most of the time, they really see themselves as a facilitator of the learning, you know, of a coach. And that’s one of the best parts of instructional design is being able to see a project go from start to finish and then fix it, you know, cause it’s iterative. So you have to have this attitude of continuous improvement.

You can’t get so attached to your stuff that you get your feelings hurt when somebody wants to change it or when it doesn’t work. Um, right. Like a good teacher.

[00:10:02] Deb: Teacher. Right. So you should be evaluating every year and you have to adjust your curriculum and what you’re doing for the group of, of students that you have that.

[00:10:13] Sarah: Yeah, absolutely. Um, I’ve just found to be a good instructional designer, you really have to be a good listener. Mm-hmm. Probably a lot like an instructional coach or a technology coach in a K-12 building. Like you have to be a really good listener and, um, and hear the person you’re working with and their needs, but then also put the students’ needs, you know, at the front.

And it, it can be challenging, but I love instructional design for that reason. It keeps you on your. And every day looks different.


[00:10:41] Kara: probably should have asked this to begin with, but I’m curious how you would define instructional design.

[00:10:47] Sarah: Yeah, that’s a great question because I still consider myself an instructional designer, but I am no longer a full-time instructional designer at the University of Cincinnati.

It used to be years ago, you would have one instructional designer for an entire university. And now like every program has their own instructional design team cuz they’ve realized how important that is and how it improves the instruction. Um, but I, even though I don’t do full-time instructional design anymore, I think every teacher needs to be an instructional designer as well and have that mindset.

So all of our pre-service teachers right now are learning instructional design as well before they go. Into the field. So they’re learning backward design, they’re learning to evaluate their materials for readability and accessibility and engagement and all of that is part of instructional design. Like are you considering Universal design for learning?

Are you designing for variable learner? Um, are you thinking about digital divide? You know, all of these different considerations. And I think an instructional designer is really someone. That takes the curriculum and considers how we’re going to design the experience. So you even see some language changing in terms of job titles, where people are now called learning experience designers, you know, which it’s still instructional design.

It’s just instruction focuses on the teacher as a word versus learning which focuses on the student. So you’ll see learning design. Instructional designers, learner, learner, experience, designers, and it’s, it’s all instructional design, basically. Okay. Do

[00:12:32] Deb: you find that the professors now are more open to taking their courses, teaching online?

I mean, everybody was pushed into it, you know, a couple of years ago, but I was thinking about when you first started and people started pulling you in. You were the first instructional designer hired at N k. Were these teachers or professors you were working with, were they ones who were interested in doing that or were they struggling because that was what the direction was and they were doing the best they could?

[00:13:07] Sarah: I think more often than not, back in those early days, it was, that was the direction things were going and so we all have to step in line. Um, and faculty struggled a. With that. Um, we also didn’t have quite the same resources available to us that we have now to encourage that engagement with students online.

So it was challenging cuz they felt like they were talking to a void, you know, they were losing the relationships with their students. So it was a challenge. Um, now I think C O V I D has completely, I mean, that was 20 years ago, right? So that was a long time ago. Mm-hmm. Now, since Covid. I don’t, not all faculty like to teach online, and some faculty love to teach online.

Some teachers love to teach online. My daughter was in online school for three years, so when Covid hit, she was already in an online school, so it didn’t take any adjustment for us. Um mm-hmm. And her teachers loved. You know, because they had the right resources, they had the right support, they had the time to put into it, and, and they had the skills that were needed to be successful in that environment.

And so, like I love teaching face-to-face personally, and I think instructional design impacts face-to-face classes just as much as online. But I also don’t mind teaching online. Like it’s not difficult for me, but my personality is I prefer to see my students face to face, but for some instructors, they feel much more comfortable teaching behind a camera.

And so I do think we need to consider the comfort level of the teachers with the technology, with their lifestyle, with their needs, um, their confidence level with all of it. When we’re deciding if a class needs to go online, just forcing a teacher who doesn’t work well in that space to teach fully online, we saw what happened.

Mm-hmm. Yeah. With Covid, um, But I think, Deb, to answer your question, yeah, there’s resistance sometimes, but one thing that’s really been found over the years is that you find those teachers who want to do it, and you’re going to have much better success. Absolutely. You’re gonna have better Absolutely.

Student experiences. You’re gonna have better student satisfaction, better instructor satisfaction, um, than if we’re forcing people. To go online. Yeah, for

[00:15:38] Kara: sure. And considering their situation, I like that. Or like their personality and

[00:15:45] Sarah: their skill level, their comfort, all of it.


[00:16:00] Kara: I’m curious to hear from you, since you work with pre-service teachers and you’ve seen a lot of different classrooms from K through 12, uh, what, um, should people, or I guess, teachers be considering when they’re creating digital?

Learning activities or just digital content that their students are gonna engage with, what do you think is the most important thing for them to

[00:16:31] Sarah: consider? This probably isn’t a super innovative or new answer. Mm-hmm. Um, but I think they really need to consider why they’re making the choices they are.

Yeah. Um, that’s always one of my first questions when I work with a teacher in a school building and they say, um, I remember working with a principal one time who said, such and such school has smart tables. We need smart tables. Well, smart tables are very expensive, number one. They take a lot of upkeep.

Um, and I said, why do you want smart table. And he said, well, because such and such school has smart tables, so we need smart tables. I said, that’s not really why you want, like, that’s not a good enough reason to spend the money. What do you want students to do with the smart tables? How is this going to enhance their learning?

How is this going to enhance, like help them achieve the outcomes? What is this doing? And I think a lot of times we see teachers pressed to incorporate technology. Mm-hmm. For technology’s sake. I call it clicky. Clicky bling bling. That’s what I call it with the students. I’m like, we’re not gonna do clicky clicky bling bling.

Right. We’re gonna do. Purposeful, and you know what I mean by that, like how you say that? And everyone goes, I know exactly what you mean. Mm-hmm. Clicky clicky, bling, bling, shiny things. Mm-hmm. Right? Um, and so instead of incorporating it because it’s shiny and it’s new, and the administration said you need to do it, and we spent all this money on this tool, so use it right instead.

First, start with your lesson. Start with your student outcomes. Figure out why you want to use this. Is it because you wanna give the students greater choice? Is it because your culture in your classroom is, your students love social media. They talk about social media all the time, so let’s incorporate social media into this assignment.

You know, let’s give it real world application. Like what is the reason why? And if you can’t come up with a a good why, then don’t incorporate it. You don’t need technology there. my mentor teacher for my entire four years, I was in a very great program at IU, where I was in a school in the same school with the same mentor teacher, almost like an apprenticeship for three of my four years.

And he was the Indiana State Teacher of the year a couple years ago. You know, he’s just a phenomenal English teacher, and when I went back to visit him a few years, He just didn’t use technology much and he was still an excellent teacher. Sure. You know, but that, but that same question was asked, you know, well, this student wants to podcast instead of writing a paper, should I do that?

my answer was, well, why does the student want a podcast? And he said, well, they think they can go deeper into the content if they podcast. It’s like, can you still measure what you wanted to measure with the assignment if they podcast. And he said, yeah, but I worry that it’s gonna impact their writing skills that they’re not writing.

I said, well, I’m pretty sure they have to write to do a podcast, so how can you incorporate the writing into that? Right? And they ended up letting the student do a podcast. But you gotta have that why? And our students struggle with the why, because for so long they’ve seen technology being used mostly Tradi in traditional ways, like to take traditional assignments and just plop ’em into Google Classroom or without a lot of enhancement. Mm-hmm. So they struggle with that quite a bit, but they, they get outside of their experiences a little bit and then they start being really creative.

[00:20:00] Kara: Yeah, that’s cool.

[00:20:01] Deb: That’s interesting. The smart table. I remember when those came out and I had the same exact conversations. They wanted them, and I would say the same things. You know what? I agree with you. They are so cool the way they operate and the kids can manipulate things. But is it really, let’s talk about what you wanna get out of it and the cost of these table.

Is, yeah, I totally agree with you. And the mandated technology also, we’ve experienced that over the years because a school or district will say, here, we bought these for you and we wanna see you incorporate this into your classroom. But it might not coincide with the teacher’s style or their classroom experience that they create.

[00:20:43] Sarah: years ago, , the district where my kids are, were rolling out, , Smartboards. It wasn’t smart, but it was an interactive whiteboard, um, system, and they were so smart. And I will give kudos to Christian Long, who’s now the tech director at Sycamore School District in Cincinnati for the brilliant rollout, um, by looking at those early adopters first.

Mm-hmm. And instead of rolling out a smartboard into every classroom or a interactive whiteboard into every classroom, They started with the early adopters, they let them, cuz they wanted to take the equipment into their classroom, learn how to use it, demonstrate it, right, and then they could go show their colleagues.

Yes, they could become the leaders in their building for using it. And then colleagues would get interested, okay, I’m ready for an interactive whiteboard now. So instead of having a closet full of technology that’s just sitting there. I mean, I’ve seen schools with entire iPad cards that haven’t been updated in a year, and so no one can use them.

And so before we start spending the money on technology, we have to know if teachers even want it. And we have to know if teachers will use it. And we have to know if it will actually improve the learning. Right? Mm-hmm.

[00:21:53] Kara: Yeah. And including them in the conversation. Cuz I feel like sometimes that happens as well.

You know, where it’s. Between people who aren’t going to be using it on a daily basis. The that conversation of what to get or what to spend the money on or whatever, teachers sometimes aren’t included in those conversations

[00:22:16] Sarah: and the students aren’t included in the conversation. Conversation. Yeah.

[00:22:19] Kara: I’m also curious, do you have any tips. That you would share with people on how to engage learners or the best ways to engage learners or meet the needs of the most learners, because we know that, especially when you’ve got a classroom full of kids, they don’t all learn the same, but you’re trying to meet the needs of each of.

Do you have any insider or wisdom on that one?

[00:22:48] Sarah: You know, I can talk a really good game in the higher education classroom mm-hmm. About that. And then when you get into the field, I mean, I have two teenagers right now. Mm-hmm. I’m a mother of two teenagers and I actually designed some health curriculum, uh, for my son’s school district and he’s in that online health class now.

And I think he forgot that I had designed it. And in the car the other day was like, it is so boring. So, you know, you can think that you are doing everything right, but the, the biggest thing is just listening to your students and what they need and what they want. It’s, it’s not about entertainment, it’s not about keeping them happy all the time.

But when you look at Universal Design for Learning, one of the most important things you can do when it comes to engagement, when we’re really talking about engagement, right? We’re really talking about, um, persistence and getting them to the goal. We forget about checklists so often, and checklists are such an.

Easy tool for the classroom every, I’ve never met a student that doesn’t benefit from a checklist. Checklist, just so they don’t get lost in the process so they can persist. , I think making students aware of how the content connects to the world and to their other classes, to their future, you know, those are the things that we need to be paying attention to because you can use any technology tool really, really well.

Mm-hmm. Or really, really, And it could be the best tool. And if it’s only used to deliver a quiz in the classroom, it’s probably not improving engagement. Audience response systems are one of my favorite tools and one of my least favorite tools all at one time because they can produce discussion.

They can produce critical thinking group work. All of the things that, you know, when you’re looking at udl, say, Ooh, this is gonna increase engagement. But then, and fun, right? We know fun increases engagement. Um, my son and his girlfriend were using Bookit just for fun, fun last night at a distance, like doing booklets together.

I was like, okay. But it can also be used for nothing but wrote memorization and repeat. And the students can get really distracted by the competition part of it by, so they’re not focused on the learning, they’re just focused on the task. Right. It’s like, I’m task focused, I’m gonna get it done, versus I’m learning focused and I’m gonna, you know, I’m gonna pay attention to this.

So I think it’s, it’s definitely not about the tool or about the technology you choose. It’s about how you use it. Mm-hmm. And Universal Design for Learning is still my favorite resource. When you’re thinking about usability in a classroom of anything. And. It makes you rethink engagement so that you’re thinking about engagement from the why Again, perspective.

I mean, you can tell why is one of my favorite words all the time. It’s one of my favorite questions is why? Because when you’re looking at the definition of engagement from a universal design perspective, you’re not looking at engagement. Like are they sitting up straight? Are they looking at the front of the room?

Are they raising their hands? You can’t see engagement. We’re talking about cognitive engagement. Do I care about this? Why do I care about this? How is it relevant to me? Do I know what I’m supposed to be doing? Do I know how to complete it successfully? , all of those things are really important when you’re talking about engagement.

[00:26:16] Kara: For sure. And I think some of those get lost. Mm-hmm. Or it’s easy to get lost, especially when you’re trying to survive.

[00:26:23] Sarah: And the fun is, the fun is important too. I mean, yeah. You learn more when you’re having fun. Like I totally get that. Yeah. Um, but then at the same time, keep it as simple as you can.

Mm-hmm. Because the, the more complexity you add, sometimes there’s the more confusion and the more work for everyone and it’s not necessarily more beneficial. So stream lining. Can also be really helpful. Beautiful.

[00:26:47] Kara: Yeah, for sure. And I think depending on the age of the kid, you know, that streamlining and consistency also can be beneficial in the engagement piece because they know what’s expected and that’s, you know, been established.

Yeah. Which sometimes people don’t maybe think that that’s helpful, but depending on the age of the student, You know, it really is beneficial to their learning, I think. So

[00:27:15] Deb: when you work with your student, Sarah, , I think one of the things that teachers struggle with when they’re using technology is they feel like they need to be a master of that tool or that technique before they can ask their students to use it.

Because they wanna be able to troubleshoot and have all of the answers. And that’s hard for teachers not to have all those answers. So how do you guide your Students in instructional design to help teachers get past that.

[00:27:44] Sarah: I mean, you definitely have to know how to use it. Right. I mean that you can’t put a tool in your classroom.

You don’t know how to use, you haven’t played with, you haven’t tried it yourself, you haven’t had your own kids. , be Guinea pigs, which I use my own kids all the time. Hey, log into this Seesaw. Tell me what you see. Tell me what you think. Try it, record on it. You know?

I don’t think you have to be an expert. And I think that’s, you know, we fall into that comparison trap. My daughter calls it the comparison trap. You know, where she’s I like that.

Yeah. She’s looking at other people and going, ah, I’m not as good as they at, at that as they are. So I’m not even gonna try. And I think we have to stop worrying about that because no classroom is the same. We’re all gonna use tools differently to some extent. But so between not comparing yourself to the people around you and telling your students, Hey, we’re gonna be trying this new tool together.

Mm-hmm. And it may work and it may not, but we’re gonna learn from it no matter what. So I want you to help me. And I think when you look at the is t e standards for educators, one of the top standards is learner. Mm-hmm. Right? So, and part of that standard for educators is you are learning technology with your.

And so if, I don’t know, I’m not a social media user, like I’m just not. And I know as an educational technologist, I should know social media well, but I just, I don’t like it. I don’t use it. Um, but I had students that wanted to use it for a project and I said, well, you’re gonna have to help me learn it.

You know, we’re gonna have to learn it together. , you’ll show me what you’re doing, you know, if you can justify that this is gonna enhance your projects, then bring it in. We’ll, we’ll work on it together. We’ll use it together. I have a group of students, green screening in an elementary school right now with, first graders.

They’re actually doing like creative writing prompts and then they’re turning them into green screen videos, uh, at the elementary school. Oh, nice. They didn’t know how to use the green screens. So they took some time, you know, individually to go sit with the technology and play with it. Take it home, try it with.

Roommates, you know, play around with it. But they also were very aware that they needed a flexible mindset with it, and that things were not gonna work the first time. Like, you will run into roadblocks. Things will not always work. You just have to be flexible, have to have a plan B, have to have a backup plan.

Admit to your students when it’s the first time you’re using a tool so they know that everything might not be perfect too. I saw one of the best technology. First grade classrooms I’ve ever seen in my life. And the students went to use Flipgrid on their iPads and the flip didn’t work. And this is a teacher who’s been a technology coach in very large districts who is, you know, nationally recognized for her skill and flips didn’t work.

It happens. Yeah, it happens. You go on, you, you. She said, all right, put your iPads down. We’re just gonna leave them for now. You know, let’s go do this other thing. We’ll come back to this tomorrow. We’ll figure it out. Right. And the students learn to be flexible, and I think that’s important for the students to see us as teachers, be flexible for us as teachers, to not quit on things.

Mm-hmm. You know, for us as teachers to say, Hey, I still need to learn this. And that’s. I like that.

[00:30:57] Kara: That’s good advice.

Well thank you so much for talking with

[00:31:01] Sarah: us today. Yes, thank, thank you so much for having me. It’s always fun to talk about the things we’re passionate about, so I appreciated the conversation

[00:31:11] Kara: For sure.

Thank you.