Undergraduate Degree Programs in Instructional Design and Technology: Do They Make Sense?

Kent L. Gustafson
The University of Georgia


Instructional technology and its predecessor degree programs in educational media and related fields have been in existence since the early fifties. Even before that time, professionals could receive formal training in media, but usually in a University Department of Curriculum or Instruction or Educational Psychology. In the United States, degree programs in instructional technology have generally been confined to the graduate level. The few attempts to establish undergraduate programs in the U.S. have not achieved prominence or attracted large numbers of students. Recently undergraduate programs have been established in other countries, most notably Australia, Korea, Taiwan, and in Europe. Reports from these countries, and the author's personal contact with some of these programs indicates they are achieving a high degree of acceptance and rapid growth.

Reasons for the lack of undergraduate programs in the U.S. range from there being no certification available for working in schools, to a general preference for graduate degree instructional designers by business and industry employers. Inertia and the inherent slowness of change by universities also have been labeled as reasons for the lack of undergraduate degree programs.

Despite these conditions, there is some evidence that the climate may be right for establishing undergraduate programs in major U.S. universities. First, as already noted, such programs already are prospering in other countries. In a global technological culture and economy it seems unrealistic to think the U.S. will not join this trend. Second, detailed analysis of the content of Masters degree programs in the U.S. reveals that all of the content could be taught at the undergraduate level. There is virtually nothing in existing Masters programs that requires knowledge and skill that could not be accommodated in a coherent and carefully constructed undergraduate curriculum. Third, the current and projected future demand by business and industry for skilled instructional designers far exceeds the current and projected supply. Employers are increasingly hiring people with little or no competence in this area simply because no other options exist. Some large corporations have created internal programs to prepare instructional designers so as to meet their needs. Under these conditions it seems likely that the historic preference for graduates would quickly crumble when presented with highly qualified holders of undergraduate degrees. Employers also would quickly learn that it is less expensive to hire holders of undergraduate rather than graduate degrees to do the same work.

An interesting parallel development is the rush by some colleges and universities to create undergraduate degree programs with titles such as "Information Technology," "Information Management," or "Information Science." See for example the new College of Information Science and Technology established at Penn State University. While the focus of these programs often is heavily based in computer science, elements of instructional design are also present. The same can be said for programs with their roots in Schools of Communication that are now branching out to website design, interface design for information kiosks, and others forms of information packages. It does not take a great deal of imagination to envision how these programs could quickly adopt basic instructional design processes and their underlying theory and knowledge to become serious competitors to existing Instructional Technology programs.


Given these conditions, the researcher has been collecting data on how other major Instructional Technology programs in the U.S. feel about establishing undergraduate degrees. Data were collected via a discussion group at a national conference of professors in the field (PIDT), site visits to three institutions, and phone conversations with program faculty at several other institutions. Interestingly, faculty response to the idea of establishing an undergraduate degree at their institution was almost universally negative. Among the reasons faculty gave for lack of desire to establish undergraduate programs were:

lack of resources (faculty, space, and equipment) belief that it would result in extra work (planning, advising, larger classes, etc.) the fact undergraduate student credit hours are worth less than graduate student credit hours in the accounting systems at many universities no incentives from the university belief that no undergraduates would enroll in such a major belief that there would be no jobs for program graduates concern for possible negative impact on existing graduate programs risk of failure and its institutional consequences

Never expressed, but sensed by the author during many conversations, was that faculty also were "comfortable" with what they were doing in their existing situations and not eager to alter present known conditions to change. "Better the devil you know than the devil you don't" seemed to capture my sense of their feeling about undergraduate degrees in IT. If this perception is correct it may be because those contacted were all associated with successful programs that were recognized locally and nationally as being of high quality. Significant external pressure to change did not appear evident. Thus, it may be that one of the most influential sources of the lack of interest is the well-known human phenomenon of resistance to change; a factor not unique to college faculty in Instructional Technology.

Each of the above bulleted points is discussed below.

Lack of resources to expand programs is certainly an issue at UGA as at most institutions. Implementing a completely new degree would require additional faculty, office space, equipment, operating supplies and classroom/laboratory space. Although some economies might be achieved by using graduate students as teaching assistants, creating cross-level courses, and employing instructional models that reduce laboratory requirements, nonetheless, additional resources would be needed. The real questions become, how much and what type of resources are needed for any given size program and would they really be available if such a program where designed and implemented? Availability of new resources remains an open question at UGA.

The extra work issue is an interesting one. There is a strong belief by some faculty who were interviewed that undergraduates are more labor intensive than graduate students since careful coordination with other departments and very detailed advising are essential to assure students meet all requirements for graduation in a timely manner. Although undergraduates are notorious for proceeding at an unpredictable rate, this problem does not seem unsolvable with careful scheduling of course rotations, standardized advising forms, and trained advisors. The class size question interacts with the issue of how the institution "counts" undergraduate versus graduate student credit hours. For budget purposes at UGA, graduate student credit hours are valued at approximately four times that of undergraduate hours. If this translates into needing to have three to four times as many students in a class to create the same "value," clearly undergraduates become more work. Just how important credit hour production will become in the next few years is a critical question for anyone at UGA contemplating a new undergraduate degree.

Lack of incentives from the university has different meanings to different faculty. To some it was a question of salary. "I want to get paid better if I have to teach undergraduates" seemed to imply that it was seen as a negative work assignment. To others incentive seemed to mean recognition. "If I were to become involved with an undergraduate program I would not receive any visible psychological reinforcement. In fact, my status might decline since graduate education is often seen as being more prestigious." There is clear evidence of this at UGA; a fact not lost on the IT faculty. Program identity and prestige are almost universally associated with graduate degree programs.

The belief that undergraduates would not enroll in an IT degree is not easy to address. Since there are no programs around the country and hence no supply, there is no demand. This is a classic marketing problem of creating demand for a non-existent program. While a market analysis might shed light on this question, experience in other countries suggests students would find such a program attractive. The high interest in media and technology that is generally present among undergraduates further suggests they would want to enroll in an IT program. Also, at UGA there is some shortage of available majors for students who have completed the first two years of core course that would likely create some student demand.

The belief that there would be no jobs for graduates is another legitimate concern. This is another example of the supply and demand conundrum. If there is no supply of graduates, and no attempt to generate either supply or demand, employers are unlikely to create a demand for something they no nothing about. Market surveys might be done to assess potential interest from those who hire advanced degree instructional designers since they would be the most likely initial employers of undergraduates. Again, evidence from other countries suggests that demand would emerge as supply developed, but that is a risk both the department and its students would need to be aware of when initiating a program. The other way to consider employment is that virtually all baccalaureate graduates do obtain some form of employment in today's economy. Liberal Arts majors with virtually no technical skills find jobs as do computer science majors; albeit not for the same salaries. It seems reasonable to assume that graduates of an IT program who possess instructional design skills along with specific technical skills, and experience in team work and problem solving would find some reasonable form of employment. Ethics would demand however that they be informed of the lack of an employment track record for the new program before they were admitted.

Concern about risk of failure seemed to be related to several of the above issues. Failure was associated with the concern about lack of student interest, lack of jobs for graduates, and lack of resources that would prevent preparing quality students. Although the concern was expressed in terms of institutional consequences (reduction in resources, bad publicity for the program, student grievances, etc.) the researcher got the feeling the fear was much more personalized. That is, the concern had more to do with the internal factors of losing face and status and coping with failure than with institutional consequences. Creating an environment that encourages a reasonable level of risk taking and rewarding those who are willing to try, even if they are not successful, has been used in industry for years. Such conditions would be needed before faculty at UGA or the other institutions contacted would willingly launch such and experiment.

How to establish a climate to encourage faculty support for a new degree program is unclear. The author sensed that the resistance was not based solely on their expressed concerns, but also on their being well-satisfied with current conditions and not wanting to expend the effort and assume any risks associated with launching such a radically different degree.

A point not brought up by any faculty during discussions, but described to them by the author was how a new undergraduate degree program would likely affect existing graduate programs. If the knowledge and skills currently taught at the Masters level were moved to the undergraduate level, the content and entry requirements of the Masters degree would need to be changed. Similarly, doctoral programs might also change in recognition of changes in the Masters curriculum. Quite possibly doctoral study could then become more like the European model wherein little or no course work is required with candidates spending most of their time doing research. When the prospect or dramatically changing Masters and doctoral programs was described to faculty, the uniform response was, "that's an interesting idea," but no one chose to follow up on it and changed the subject.


Based on the data collected from this admittedly non-random sample of faculty from around the U.S., it seems clear that none of them will be voluntarily introducing an undergraduate degree in Instructional Technology any time soon unless conditions change dramatically. The lack of interest in creating undergraduate degrees is quite understandable given their current success with graduate degrees, coupled with the risk and uncertainty associated with being the first to launch a new degree. Although most instructional technology faculty pride themselves on being change agents, it appears this does not apply to their own area of practice.

Having said that however, I believe it is quite likely there will be undergraduate degrees established in the United States within the next few years. Three scenarios appear to be most likely. One is that, even well-established programs, will come under great pressure to increase credit hour and implement undergraduate programs as a form of job protection. A second possibility is that institutions not having graduate programs, or having only very small ones, will create undergraduate programs as a means of program expansion and institutional growth. The third possibility is gradual encroachment into the field by related areas such as computer science, communications, human resources, and adult education. This latter scenario would likely result in instructional technology being co-opted and eventually face the prospect of withering away by having defined itself too narrowly and being unwilling to change. Of course a combination of all three scenarios is possible, but I believe that there will be several undergraduate programs established in the U.S. that contain a significant instructional technology component, if not being a complete major field of study within five years.