Communicating “What You Do” to eLearning Stakeholders

Sometimes, the technical and skilled nature of instructional design makes it difficult to explain our work to key stakeholders. Shakespeare might have said a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but the collective (mis)understanding of words can sometimes muddy how our external audience sees our work.

Recently, our eLearning team found a simple change of terminology helped our stakeholders grasp one of our fundamental tasks: getting courses ready to run.

Communicating an In-depth Process

At our university, we ensure the quality of a course by building in master shells, which include all of the course content. When it’s time to for the course to run, we put the content into the course shell for the instructors to teach students.

Blackboard, our friendly neighborhood learning management system (LMS), includes a function to “Course Copy,” so we named the process course copying.

When online enrollments increased, the number of course sections rose. Yet the sheer amount of time we spent copying courses puzzled our stakeholders.

“Can’t you just have someone else copy the course for you?”

The term “course copy” sounds so easy a caveman can do it. While copying a course takes the click of a mouse, setting up the course takes the knowledge of a skilled instructional designer (ID).

Analyzing the Communication Gap

Our team discussed the process of getting a course ready to run. Even though we delegate tasks, it takes an ID knowledgeable about the course to do large portions of the work.

Sure, I can use Blackboard’s course copy feature to copy another ID’s course, but I might need to ask the other ID if I need to update a resource, integrate outside tools, or add special settings to an instructor’s specifications.

The term course copy doesn’t reflect the depth of these tasks—we needed a better term to describe the process.

A Common Language Builds a Common Understanding

The word “copy” evokes the simple process of copy and paste. We needed a term to address the knowledge work involved—a word that showed the effort we put into preparing the course shell. In this elaborate process, we take time to address broken links or missing content, add content that doesn’t naturally copy in Blackboard, and integrate outside tools.

In short, we verify the student will have the optimal experience—a course verification.

The change in naming helped. When we detailed our “course verification” process in our next meeting, our stakeholders understood that the process requires the time and work of a skilled ID.

All it took was a shared language and common understanding of the tasks involved.

Communicating Your Work to Stakeholders

If you’re having issues communicating what you do to your stakeholder, take a moment to:

  1. Analyze the problem: Was the information about the process clearly communicated? Are assumptions being made (by either party)?
  2. Define your terms: You can’t communicate with your stakeholders without a shared understanding of the terms. Like other skilled industries, instructional design uses jargon—so make sure to define any words that could be confusing.
  3. Know your audience: As instructional designers, we’re used to putting ourselves in our learner’s shoes; we should show the same empathy when we work with our stakeholders (on a similar topic, read how Gwen prepares our instructors through student-centered faculty training). Our stakeholder’s time is valuable, so make sure to be clear and direct when communicating your work.

Remember, it’s easy for others to misunderstand what we do if they don’t share our lexicon. Open and clear communication—and a shared understanding of a word or phrase—makes it easier to explain what it is that we do.

Do you have a hard time explaining what you do to key stakeholders? What terms did you have to define (or redefine) for your audience? Let us know in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.






Author: Jessica Bishop, Instructional Designer

Jessica is a designer and writer focused on learnability, storytelling, sensemaking, wayfinding, and removing barriers to learning. A Michigan native, she likes crafting, reading, walking, and spending way too much time in the distant corners of the internet. You can also find her at

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