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Getting to know John Robertson

Instructional designer, Oregon State Ecampus

John Robertson stands with his arms crossed in the Student Experience Center at OSU, leaning against a waist-high railing and surrounded by orange decorative panels.

By Tyler Hansen
Dec. 6, 2016

After a childhood spent in Northern Ireland and a university student experience in Scotland – with two more international stops along the way – John Robertson eventually landed in the United States and made his way to Oregon State University in 2014. His journey to working as an instructional designer for Oregon State Ecampus was similarly circuitous: He initially majored in physics at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland before switching to theology, and his graduate studies focused on library studies (in Scotland) and church history (in British Columbia, Canada). The majority of John’s professional work has focused on online and digital education, and with more than 10 years of experience in higher education, he now assists the Oregon State teaching community in developing online courses and learning opportunities.


Newtownards, Northern Ireland

When did you start working at Oregon State?

August 2014

How does higher education in the United Kingdom differ from that in the United States?

“Education is slightly different in different parts of the U.K. but the big picture is that as a learner you specialize much earlier. In the last two years of high school you typically only take three subjects for those two years. So when you go to university you are often already specialized and you take a degree in more or less in one subject. The idea of a liberal arts degree or a bacc core as well as your major doesn’t occur often.

“Degree progression is fairly fixed (in terms of course choices and credits per term), and most programs have a fixed length, typically three or four years. There’s part-time study but it’s more common at the graduate level (or at least when I studied). At this point in time there are only a few online or distance course providers.”

What excited you about working for OSU Ecampus?

“The opportunity to work with people more, to work across a range of disciplines, the chance to work out how to do interesting education at scale and online, working somewhere that does OER (open educational resources), the chance to live in Corvallis, and, on some level, the chance to work somewhere with Ecampus’ reputation.”

What do you like most about your position as an instructional designer?

“The challenges and opportunity of helping to make interesting courses happen. The chance to work with faculty and appreciate how different disciplines interact with the world. The opportunity to help instructors realize their plans for their online course and advocate for students in that process (which also means that the instructor gets fewer emails).”

What do you wish others knew about your job?

“There’s not one right way to design for online or help instructors teach. There are good principles and practices to help create courses that work, but the best part is when you get to help an instructor figure out how to build on those and flourish online – collaborating to create a course design that suits their personality, how they teach and what they want their students to experience.”

“The best part is when you get to help an instructor figure out how to build on those and flourish online – collaborating to create a course design that suits their personality, how they teach and what they want their students to experience.”

Most of your career work has been in online, open and digital education, which all share some similarities. Why are you most interested in the virtual education realm?

“There’s two main reasons. The easy one is that I like higher education and technology, and as a field there are interesting conversations, challenges, opportunities and jobs. The harder reason is that I believe online/open/digital holds the potential to change the world.

“Although it’s not a panacea, open/online/digital – and particularly open – has the potential to increase access to education, helping people change their world and circumstances. It has the potential to give learners more agency and ownership of their learning, to engage in richer learning experiences (for example in working with primary sources, virtual labs and real data), and to keep costs manageable.”

What has been your greatest accomplishment working for Ecampus?

“I love helping instructors try something new in their courses, even a small thing, to see them reflect on how it worked, and the impact that can have on their teaching. Something like having students try a video discussion board or journal, or using video for their own announcements.

“I’ll also admit, though, that it was really satisfying to develop and teach a module for the Ecampus Redeveloping an Online Course workshop. It helps instructors explore the shape of their discipline, how students learn the discipline in their course and what it looks like to teach that discipline online.”

What’s your best piece of advice for Ecampus instructors who are designing a course for online delivery?

“Always step back and begin with big picture of what you’re trying to do. Work from that point rather than focusing on, ‘How do I recreate my on-campus course activities?’

“Be imaginative. Sometimes that involves working with us to make something, sometimes that involves asking yourself how you’d do this if you weren’t tied to a classroom, and sometimes that might involve asking yourself what you could learn from of all the different circumstances and contexts that your students are engaged with.

“Learning to teach online is like learning to teach in a classroom; it takes time and is a new skill. Learn the basic tools, explore how to take you teaching further, design for online, keep it manageable, and learn how to be yourself in your online course so that you can flourish.”

Tell us something surprising thing about you that people don’t know.

“I’ve lived in five countries and nine cities and once lived in an apartment building in which the stairwell was held up by telegraph poles. I went to university to study physics, but after my first year I switched to theology. Along the way I thought about becoming a pastor but eventually (after also doing a master’s in church history) realized that wasn’t my vocation. Then I trained as a librarian and ended up in e-learning instead.”

What are your favorite activities outside of work?

“In no particular order: Cooking, learning to brew beer, reading, wrangling my children, playing board games, getting involved in my local church, and eating with friends.”

Moment of truth: Which country do you like best, Scotland or the United States?

“I’m not a citizen. Can I still take the fifth?”

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