Toward a new instructional design

Railroad tracks
Should this be the end of the line for the old cookie-cutter ways of doing things?

If online education is front and center now, and institutions like ours are moving forward with new enthusiasm, then I think we have reached a good moment to re-examine what online learning can be or should be.

From University of Phoenix to Harvard, institutions of every stripe are offering things online—and with a fair amount of homogeneity in terms of design and student experience. Instructional design has arrived in mainstream higher education, and online classes are no longer a novelty or a peripheral option. I think we now have an obligation to grow and mature as a discipline, to leave no assumption unexamined.

One of my blogging projects for the next year will be to explore the standard practices of instructional design through a critical lens, especially through self-reflection. Here are some of the topics I’m eager to think about:

  • How people learn: How do we break out of the mindset of behaviorism, which gives us the comforting illusion that learning is easily broken down into components and can be laid out in a line? How do we create and assess meaningful learning outcomes while respecting learning as a complex system?
  • Mindfulness: How do we get ourselves and our students out of the habit of thinking things are clear cut, consistent, and knowable? How can we create student experiences that are ill defined, realistic, and meaningful? How do we bring serendipity, nuance, and doubt to an online course?
  • Experimentation and play: Related to mindfulness, how do we make ourselves comfortable with experimenting, with taking risks to find potentially better ways of doing things? How do we keep play, enthusiasm, and passion in our work, and how do we balance that with the need for consistent ways of doing things?
  • Pedagogical traditions: Although few would argue that traditional classroom experiences can’t stand to be improved, shouldn’t we give more deference and consideration to the ways people have learned in various disciplines? Instead of pulling all online courses into a consistent (bland) model, why don’t we do more to improve on each discipline’s pedagogical strengths?
  • Faculty- and student-centered course design: How do we make sure online learning is still human—computer mediated but not computerized? How can we empower instructors to work in this new space with a sense of confidence, ownership, and freedom? And how student-centered can a course be when it was designed and constructed from top to bottom before they even enrolled?
  • Technology serving learning: How do we separate valuable uses of technology from the flashy sales pitches of the many industries that push all these devices, apps, gadgets, and services? How can we use real-life technology instead of spending time and money teaching students to use “education technology” that they won’t use after college? How do we teach digital literacy in our online courses?

I’m hoping to explore these topics with fresh eyes and with healthy skepticism. I hope we can throw out some of our preconceptions and build up a more nuanced, fluid, thoughtful approach to instructional design.

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