This article is part of a series of provocations on, about, and toward a more critical instructional design. Our hope is that these provocations will stir writers from across academia to contribute to a new reader which will explore critical instructional design—a humanizing and problem-posing digital design approach grounded in the critical pedagogy of Paulo Freire, bell hooks, and Maxine Greene. See the call for contributors for more information.

If you had asked us in early 2020 about the state of instructional design within higher education, we would have told you it was suffering; much of the field, with its roots in military training, had evolved into a landscape of prescriptive models based on a poor understanding of human learning. Private companies were capitalizing on administrative fears in colleges and universities about declining enrollments, increased competition, “academic integrity,” and the always-looming existential threat of online education (existential because it rewrote the “rules” of higher education, including the importance of the face-to-face and residential experience). As a result, more and more schools were paying external (usually for-profit) companies to do everything from certifying faculty in a particular ID model to delivering, whole-cloth, courses and degree programs for online or hybrid delivery.

Meanwhile, at the start of 2020, we would have also bemoaned the state of preparing college faculty for the work of college teaching; in the centuries since the emergence of modern higher education, little has changed to formally prepare faculty during their graduate studies. The state of on-campus faculty development has also been uneven, governed by the willingness of any school to recognize a need for pedagogical expertise among faculty―and to devote resources to the development of that expertise.

Finally, we would have warned about the precarity of our students’ lives and just how many are struggling with basic needs, working long hours to pay for their education, and facing enormous debt to pay for their degrees. All of this was certainly contributing to more students either not graduating on-time―or at all. A concern for students’ basic needs is a policy concern but also a pedagogical one. Our material circumstances, students and teachers alike, directly influence the work we do together in classrooms.

As people who have worked in and around the support of higher education for our whole careers, we’ve been worried for quite some time about these tensions around instructional design, faculty training and support, and student struggles. How do we support our schools in the creation of authentic, well-designed, and human-centered education in the face of such challenges? That was our work. What we couldn’t having predicted was the looming threat of COVID-19, or the perfect storm that would emerge as the pandemic swept across our institutions and we discovered that all these pre-existing challenges were not only heightened by the crisis, but, in some cases, our responses to them had been exactly the opposite of what was needed. The crisis has brought into stark focus the many weaknesses in our system: the models we’d depended upon were less resilient than we expected, our staff was spread thinner than we thought, our faculty were less-prepared than we’d hoped, and our students were more vulnerable than we knew. While it might be tempting to dust ourselves off, chalk this up to “experience,” and continue on our institutional way, this is a critical moment to take stock and consider what we could have been doing all along that would have helped prepare us better to respond to crisis (this one, the ones we ignored before the pandemic, and the next ones).

The Mire of Instructional Design

The neater and tidier the instructional design solution, the more likely it seems to be broadly adopted by an institution: Learning Styles, Bloom’s Taxonomy, ADDIE, Scaffolding, Design Thinking, Quality Matters, Andragogy, HyFlex. Lists, frameworks, Venn diagrams, rubrics, templates. Six principles of Andragogy, five stages of the ADDIE development process, six levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, forty-two review standards of the Quality Matters Rubric. And, even when these models are thoroughly debunked, they continue to retain traction. According to the Association for Psychological Science, “No less than 71 different models of learning styles have been proposed over the years … But psychological research has not found that people learn differently, at least not in the ways learning-styles proponents claim.” And, yet, the American Psychological Association found, “in two online experiments with 668 participants, more than 90 percent of them believed people learn better if they are taught in their predominant learning style.” In higher education, too many of us cling to other people’s models, because we have rarely been taught, encouraged, or given the support we need to create our own.

Some of the more insidious Instructional Design models are fashioned as needlessly complex in order to create a mystique of intellectual rigor. Even when these models aren’t based in research, they are made to seem as though they are. And the worst of these models have strange backgrounds, feed the motivations of for-profit companies, or aim to (or simply do) create edu-celebrities.

Many faculty are first introduced to teaching practices through the lens of Bloom’s Taxonomy. There is a certain comfort in the architecture of Bloom’s, usually represented as a rainbow-colored pyramid of verbs: remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, create. These are six of the least vibrant verbs we could imagine applying to learning, but this is what learning outcomes so often call for in their pursuit of being measurable.

Dull verbs aside, our biggest issue with Bloom’s taxonomy is that it’s hierarchical. Each level of the pyramid is supposedly built upon the level below. So, you can’t “create” or “evaluate” until you first “remember” and “understand.” The whole thing feels less like a method to encourage or inspire learning and more a way to police students (and also teachers), laying out a series of hoops for them to jump through with a built-in defense of their existence, what Jeffrey Moro calls “cop shit,” or as Jesse has come to call it, “the student agency military industrial complex." In addition, it can feel much easier, especially for inexperienced teachers, to simply map a syllabus to Bloom’s than to carefully consider what is fundamentally a messier process.

Many of these approaches to instructional design reinforce and rely on systems that oppress students. On the ground at our institutions, the people who are tasked with promoting and supporting these models have little space or authority to push back on oppressive systems. Too often, the schools they work at have consistently devalued their labor and humanity. Instructional designers have long been sidelined. They are alternately given too much power to drive course development, often put into a role of policing the design work of teachers, or they are given far too little power, just as often (and simultaneously) reduced to “service” staff, working precariously and stripped of autonomy. Both structures do incredible damage to the relationship between instructional designers and teaching faculty, pitting them against one another in ways that may benefit an assembly line approach to the production of courses, but only if those courses are stock, standardized, and student-phobic.

Most institutions were either not prepared or prepared in exactly the wrong ways for the crisis of the last year. Stock approaches to online learning can’t address the complexities of students and faculty experiencing acute trauma. Standardized course designs don’t adapt easily for moments we couldn’t possibly have planned for. And fear of students, or a patronizing desire to “help,” doesn’t create the necessary space for them to find meaning, critically consider their circumstances, or contribute to the building of their education. We aren’t aware of a single institution that adequately worked to actively involve students in their COVID response.

Doubling Down on Bad Design

In the wake of the pandemic, institutions are hiring instructional designers at a furious clip, but they are hiring almost entirely for a very specific kind of instructional designer, the ones who can help deliver on the promise of cookie-cutter, supposedly evidence-based, models for instructional design, the same models that already failed to meet the challenges of the pandemic “pivot.” Institutions are, quite sadly, doubling down on a cafeteria model, in which online courses and faculty development can be served up in small, portable, pre-packaged portions. Three years ago, job ads across the U.S. included dozens and dozens of positions (still not enough) for digital pedagogues, new directors of centers for teaching and learning, and hybrid faculty/ID positions. The options look far more bleak at the moment.

From the job ad for a “Director of Online Learning” at a regional college of art and design: “Reporting directly to the college Provost, this position works closely with our proprietary LMS provider and the college IT department to provide a quality LMS experience for students and faculty.” As though teaching and learning with technology can be reduced to a “quality LMS experience.” This is one of the grossest phrases we’ve seen in a job ad. One of the “essential duties” of the job is to “develop and manage the college's online ready-to-run protocols for course checks prior to the start of each term to ensure that course links and videos work, gradebooks are active, assignments are loaded, due dates identified, syllabi and class schedule loaded, etc.” This is online learning and course design reduced to its lowest possible common denominator. The word “pedagogy” appears exactly twice in the job ad, in reference to the development of “instructional pedagogy workshops and LMS technical skills training cycles” and “online best practices in pedagogy.” There is no recognition or acknowledgement that higher education pedagogy is a field, or that digital pedagogy exists as a robust theoretical and practical set of dialogues and conversations. The idea that pedagogy is purely instrumental, sitting tidily alongside “LMS technical skills,” is par for the course.

The complex, brilliant, and diverse human beings with training and preparation in the work of course design, active learning, higher education pedagogy, digital pedagogy, and instructional design are clearly ignored in the creation of a job ad like this one. And these kinds of jobs are increasingly common as institutions scramble to build for and in the wake of the pandemic, while ignoring the collective expertise of their own communities. An instructional design model or quality assurance process is useless (and worse than useless) if an institution fails to listen to and learn from the experiences of its own faculty, staff, and students.

In addition to hiring new positions with uninspired job descriptions, we’ve also witnessed schools trying to “solve” their current predicament through investment in technology. There is no neat and tidy solution to the challenges we presently face in education. And technological solutionism is the worst possible direction for us to turn. Frankly, it's insulting when institutions throw money at corporate edtech when so many of their most marginalized students are struggling, faculty/staff have been furloughed, public funding has been decimated, and the work of teaching has been made altogether precarious.

If your institution just spent $500,000 on a proctoring solution (a figure recently reported by The Washington Post), or $200,000, or even $30,000, put that number next to these:

  1. how many students at your school are food or housing insecure?
  2. how many faculty or staff have been furloughed, fired, or forced into early retirement?
  3. how many positions are currently frozen?
  4. how many faculty or staff have part-time or contingent positions?

Then, add up all the money your institution spends on extraneous (often pedagogically suspect) edtech—like cameras in classrooms, plagiarism detection software, the LMS, proctoring solutions—and compare that number to the total budget for the center for teaching and learning.

Teaching by Accident

Sadly, institutional structures are not designed to cultivate (and sometimes undermine) pedagogical expertise in both instructional designers and faculty. We are excellent at valuing other kinds of expertise, “disciplinary” expertise in particular, but the majority of higher education faculty have little preparation for the work of teaching. After many years completing PhDs in their field, they are expected to enter the classroom and simply embody the role of teacher with little effort or support. It’s difficult to pinpoint just how many teaching faculty have had any pedagogical training, because the research on this is quite limited; in 2017, an informal Twitter poll of 2200 respondents by Jennifer Polk, a Canadian academic career coach, unearthed that only 18% of respondents had received pedagogical training in graduate school that they considered at least “decent.” In another informal Twitter poll of 2800 respondents (conducted by Jesse), nearly 60% of higher education faculty said they got a week or less preparation before entering a classroom. A 2013 survey of faculty in the State University System of Florida revealed that only 22% had received any teaching training as graduate students.

How faculty then go about becoming teachers rests on a variety of informal and often unpredictable factors: their own experience as students; how their own teachers taught them; their access and ability to take advantage of faculty development programs at their teaching institution; their availability (and willingness) to engage in a process of examining and iteratively improving their pedagogies.

Meanwhile, at many institutions, when faculty begin teaching online, the landscape shifts. Suddenly, they are required to participate in training to learn the fundamentals of effective online teaching. They may not even be allowed to teach online without getting themselves or their courses certified first. At some schools, they may be assigned a professional instructional designer who will take their existing course content and mold it into a predefined or prescriptive template for online courses. Or they may be required to complete an instructional design training program developed by an external consultant, for which the school pays.

How do we explain this dramatically different approach to preparing faculty for online teaching versus “traditional” teaching? How have we ended up in a place where we expect faculty to osmose good pedagogy and transform themselves into excellent teachers from whole cloth when occupying a physical classroom, yet when faced with a switch to a new modality we scramble towards the other extreme, now requiring experienced faculty to undergo certifications, reviews, and even administrative oversight in their online courses? Why do we so often demean or misrecognize the teaching work done by instructional designers, librarians, advisors, student support staff, etc.?

The answer likely lies in a number of assumptions about teaching that have been baked into our institutions:

  1. Good college teaching derives from emulation; faculty can become good teachers because they can (and will) emulate how they were taught. We assume college faculty were taught “well” because they ended up with the terminal degree in their field.
  2. Good college teaching derives from good college learning; faculty can become good teachers (again by osmosis) because they understand what it means to be a “good learner.” They can translate their own experiences into courses that turn students into “good learners.”
  3. Since faculty were, by and large, taught mostly in traditional face-to-face contexts, we assume they can only emulate and translate within that modality.
  4. Online and hybrid learning are “other” and unfamiliar because they’re not how most faculty learned; its presumed faculty need to learn a new language of teaching or have it translated for them.

At this point, these assumptions have become so institutionalized that most are no longer questioned or critiqued. We have expected faculty to magically transform themselves into good teachers for so long, it does not even occur to us that this is an expectation worth examining. Online learning, on the other hand, is still perceived as new enough (though much less new than most believe) that we continue to hold it at arm’s length, treating it as something “other” than our original mission and primary history. Imagine, though, how different your school’s response to Covid-19 might have felt if, prior to the crisis, the majority of your faculty had ample support to develop their individual pedagogy (from their first day on campus), had their autonomy and expertise in the classroom been respected and supported, and had abundant and existing meaningful partnerships with instructional designers, librarians, advisors, and other academic-adjacent staff. (We prefer to also call these people teachers.) If this kind of community had existed at your school, would your response have felt less frenetic and would your institution have needed to turn to external solutions?

At the End of All Things

There is a dystopic end point to this fundamental disrespect and lack of imagination, which is already playing out at many institutions. It looks like stock courses, over-architectured right to the edge of oblivion, outsourcing the work of instructional design and online program administration to for-profit corporations, the utter lack of training and preparation in pedagogy for instructional faculty, the increasing precarity of nearly everyone working at institutions of higher education, obligatory use of proprietary systems like learning management systems, increasingly rigid “default configurations” that leave little room for pedagogical creativity, and the proliferation of surveillance tech like plagiarism detection software and remote proctoring. On this last, the CEOs of remote proctoring software have brazenly bragged at the increased adoption of their products, which do fundamental harm to the relationship between students and faculty, as well as the already precarious relationship between faculty and instructional designers.

Over the last 10 months, we’ve been disturbed to watch many institutions actually cut faculty development budgets and educational technology units while massively increasing spending on LMS contracts, proctoring solutions, plagiarism detection software, cameras in classrooms, and videoconferencing tools. The remote proctoring industry alone “is expected to grow from a $4 billion market in 2019 to a nearly $21 billion market in 2023” (Vox). This is the end point of traditional models of instructional design. This is the corner that crude adherence to rigid course design standards backs us into. This is what happens when we don’t support nuanced, complex conversations about pedagogy and design, when we don’t valorize the collaborative (and sometimes messy) work of teachers and designers, when we don’t design for and with the students who actually show up to our physical and virtual classrooms. In this dystopic future, widespread suspicion of students is the standard and trust for teachers is eroded. Many institutions are already living in this future.

In “Technology is Not Pedagogy,” Sean Michael Morris writes, “I’m often thought of as the ‘tech’ guy, but what I actually do is very intentionally human. So as I’m approached with questions about what technologies might help build community online, what platform I might recommend for ensuring students don’t cheat, or what digital solution I know of that will enable meaningful discussion, I’ve found myself answering: teach through the screen, not to the screen. Find out where your students are, and make your classroom there, in a multiplicity of places.” This is the job all of our institutions need to be hiring for. This is the kind of person all of our institutions and administrators need to be seeking out. In far too many cases, they’re already a member of our communities, and currently being ignored.

Moving forward, we need a new approach to instructional design, a critical instructional design, not just in terms of what we value (flexible and adaptive, stochastic and dynamic, equitable and just) but also in how we work, the collaboration that faculty and instructional designers should be doing, together. Faculty need to be given the opportunity to learn they are capable of designing across a spectrum of modalities, not just in traditional classrooms and not just for fully online classes. Their need for support, however, doesn’t signal that they must also be policed (or erased) from the work of designing and developing courses. Instructional designers are teachers and need to be partners and champions in this work, researching and introducing new models and techniques, co-teaching, peer-reviewing, and engaging in non-hierarchical dialogue throughout. Our teaching mission needs to be understood holistically, playing out across a spectrum of modalities, each of which demand nuanced consideration but none of which are wholly unrelated to any other. Our investment in technology must be critical, careful, cautious; the code inscribed in our tools must be in conversation with our mission. We have to move away from learning objectives, course templates, and technological infrastructures, and instead build community. We need to center people in this work.