Design Forward: An Introduction

This past January, a number of ideas and experiences came together that set me down an interesting path. On Monday (June 7), the work I’ve done along that path will enter a new phase, as a group of 13 faculty and staff at PSU come together for Design Forward, an emergent exploration of critical instructional design. I’ve been anxious to introduce the idea of this program to a wider audience, but first I’d like to share what came together to bring me to this place.

First, there is the question and challenge of online teaching. For schools like PSU, it’s always seemed to me that online teaching represents a kind of brass ring: a shining ideal, just beyond our grasp, that, if we could reach far enough to grasp it, might bring riches and rewards. The reality, of course, is that transforming the culture of a traditional, public, face-to-face, residential university (that is, like every other public these days, woefully underfunded by its legislature), so that it can tackle the challenge of developing an approach to online teaching that honors its values and mission is. . .daunting. And, yet. The mystique and promise of online haunts schools like ours in a particular, fascinating rhythm. Sometimes that rhythm is driven by the arrival on campus of new administrators with new ideas of where we should be investing; sometimes it is driven by turnover on the board of trustees leading to conversations about “why can’t we be just like the University of Phoenix?”; sometimes it is driven by a wave of financial cuts as we scramble to find “new models” or “innovative approaches” that can lessen the blow; sometimes it is driven by a wave of academic restructuring that seems to demand we design new pedagogies; and sometimes…it is driven by a global pandemic. Here at PSU, we adjusted as best we could when COVID19 hit last spring. The ensuing months, bringing not only the impact of the pandemic but a wave of financial cuts and faculty retirements, cracked open, once again, conversations about the promise of online courses.

The second thing that happened was more personal. Like everyone working in higher education for the past year, I was exhausted by January. I wasn’t sure how we could weather another semester. I was terrified that the good luck we had enjoyed so far on our campus with regards to COVID might be running out. I was heartbroken for the faculty and students I talked to every day who seemed so sad and lost. It felt like we were all wandering, alone, in an endless labyrinth of Zoom rooms. But, I also knew that in all my years working in faculty support, digital pedagogy, and instructional design, I had never witnessed so many people talking so much with such great urgency about teaching. To be clear: that conversation was frenetic and, sometimes, demoralizing — even frightening. What was worrying, in particular, was how many schools were opting to invest precious dollars in expensive technologies that, while they might provide a quick and easy bandaid to get through the current crisis, would ultimately set us up to spend years and years proving the “return on investment.” It felt like the future of higher education was being written, one purchase at a time, and with every dollar we spent we were selling a bit of our institutional soul.

At the same time, on the ground, I witnessed so many amazing people working in higher education (from teachers to technologists to librarians to advisors to designers) thinking more deeply than ever before about centering people in our work and about caring for each other and ourselves as we struggled to just get through. one. more. day. It seemed to me, back in January, that the iron was very, very hot. And that to not grab it and do something with it might be missing an important opportunity.

The third thing that happened is that the director of the CoLab, Robin DeRosa, told me in a meeting that my big project for the semester was to figure out what our next faculty development program should look like, paying particular attention to instructional design for online courses (see: above). She hoped that by summer we could launch something new. I’ve never worked for anyone who seems able to see what needs to happen next quite like Robin can. When she suggested this was where I needed to be putting my energy, I listened.

And the fourth thing that happened was that my former UMW colleague Jesse Stommel and I scheduled a meeting to catch up over Zoom. At one point, the conversation turned to this project I was going to work on and this sense of urgency around our work in higher education. To be clear, our work has always felt urgent to me, but, as I mentioned above, right now, the moment felt particularly fraught. The institutional stakes felt very high at so many schools, but, more importantly, the human stakes felt tremendous. If those of us who care deeply about teaching and learning don’t come together to figure out what’s next, who will be left to continue this work? And what will this work even be? And how many students, particularly our most vulnerable students, will be left behind?

I asked Jesse during that conversation whether he felt like the work we do, the small work and the big work, the one-on-one work with faculty and the workshops and the conferences, the redesigning of courses and rethinking of assessment, the work of teaching and the work of instructional design could ever hope to be enough to save our schools. And he replied, “Yes. Otherwise I wouldn’t continue to do it.” Then he said that he thought what we were talking about was critical instructional design, a phrase coined by Sean Michael Morris years ago that imagines what instructional design would look like if it was emergent, intentional, personal, and uncertain:

If there is any best practice in Critical Instructional Design, it’s questioning. Because generally, best practices distance us from the work we do. They distance us from students, but they also distance us from our own instincts. The best way for instructional designers to lead—the best way for teachers to lead—is to listen.

Because teaching is fundamentally a matter of instinct. It’s something we understand in our bones or in our hearts before we understand it in lines of sentences describing it. So, to try to list the best practices of Critical Instructional Design is deeply similar to listing the best practices of hugging.

Critical Instructional Design also resists traditional approaches to instructional design that rigidly define design processes and outcomes — and which find their roots in military training methods. Instead, Critical Instructional Design relishes uncertainty.

Sean Michael Morris, “Critical Instructional Design and Acts of Resistance,” 2016

I’m embarrassed to say that I had only a passing recollection that Sean had talked and written about critical instructional design before, but in that conversation with Jesse I decided that learning what it was and figuring out how we could infuse it into our work in the CoLab was the path I wanted to explore. As it turned out, Hybrid Pedagogy had already begun planning for an edited volume about critical instructional design, which Sean announced earlier this spring.

So as these four strands have emerged and become braided over the last few months, I’ve been working on a program at Plymouth State, and what has emerged is Design Forward. This summer, the third season of the Cluster Pedagogy Learning Community is launching, and one track of it consists of the participants in DF. We will meet each Monday in June to talk about things we’ve read and to answer questions that emerge from those readings; to explore what it means to intentionally bind our design to our pedagogy (and vice versa); to consider the contexts (local, national, global) that underpin our work and shape us and our students; and to examine, in particular, what happens when we think critically about the systems, technologies, and designs that bridle our teaching.

Putting together this program has been difficult and joyful. Difficult because I believe that, fundamentally, critical instructional design must be emergent and personal. It pushes against all the existing models that prescribe, predict, and neatly connect. That means whatever “program” I put together has to honor the inherent emergent nature of the approach that we’re exploring together. (I could hardly start with learning objectives and work backwards from there.) As a result, the whole thing feels a bit recursive. . .or a bit like a ouroboros. But it has also been joyful because I get to spend the next four weeks not only talking with an amazing group of colleagues at PSU about the things I love most, but also asking them to help me imagine what Design Forward could become for our community in the future. I’m grateful for their willingness to explore this together. Over the month of June, I plan to share how things are going with DF here on the CoLab website; if any of this sounds interesting to you, please feel free to join in the conversation at Twitter using #designforward.

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