11 Building from Our Sensitive Edges

Transgressive strategies for dialogic online course design

Meryl Krieger and Clayton D. Colmon

I wonder what our sensitive edges have to teach us. What do our mortality and openness mean to the ecology we could surrender to together?

– Alexis Pauline Gumbs


This collaborative work centers marginalized, “non-traditional,” adult learners within a thick discussion of teaching and learning. While preparing to launch an online certificate program, we noticed the discursive energy that’s often spent identifying the needs of “traditional” student populations.[1] In response, we’ve decided to redirect this energy through practices that open us up to a broader range of needs for growing digital learning communities and that embrace our sensitive edges. What do we mean by “sensitive edges”? We are most aware of the need for adaptability and openness to how students are engaging with materials, how they are creating community in a class space, and ways that good teaching can guide them towards ownership of their own learning. We use Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ shorthand of “sensitive edges” to reference these three goals (Gumbs, 2020). Teaching with your sensitive edges allows students to make their own connections to materials. bell hooks and Paulo Freire help us to articulate a theoretical praxis that we can use in a systematic and reflective way to grapple with large and thorny concepts.

Our efforts speak to some of the possibilities and challenges within instructional design praxis while offering a path for change in online course design through a manifesto that offers strategies for transgressive work. A manifesto in its most essential form is defined as “a public declaration of objectives, opinions, statements or motives” (Dictionary.com). Building on that definition, we see this chapter as a collaboratively written collection of questions and responses that creates space for larger conversations. In this chapter, we begin by framing the theories and concepts that formed the framework for the collaboration which created the Digital Strategies and Culture certificate (DIGC) within the Penn Liberal and Professional Studies Online (PLPSO) program, followed by a deeper case study analysis of the certificate program itself.

Co-Conception: Manifesto and Metalogue

In framing his work Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto, Kevin Gannon notes “It’s easy to critique but harder to build. Yet we owe it to ourselves and our students not only to point out the vast array of problematic areas in the higher educational landscape but also to offer tangible and meaningful alternatives.” (Gannon, 2020, p.12) As a complement to this, Gregory Bateson gives us the framework of a metalogue which he describes as a type of conversation about an idea or subject. For Bateson, “[t]his conversation should be such that not only do the participants discuss the problem but the structure of the conversation as a whole is also relevant to the same subject.” (Bateson, 1987, p.12) We combine these two approaches in this chapter. We use the concept of a manifesto to create a call to action that recognizes the needs and agency of adult learners through critical instructional design methods.

Both the writing process for this chapter and our approach to designing DIGC have followed Bateson’s idea of the metalogue. This complements the goals we have for the online certificate program and the discussion of that program we present here. We see it necessary to distinguish online learning as a space for transformational education that’s accessible, open, and ultimately adaptable to student needs; we affirm the modularity and flexibility that’s built into our courses as one example of an approach that honors the value and concerns of adult learners; we ground the larger degree program in the complex realities that non-traditional/adult learners face in higher education—which helps us humanize learners and their experiences;[2] and we, ultimately, affirm mutualistic spaces for shared learning online that disrupts older, traditional models that don’t privilege learners’ needs.

What does it mean to support mutual accountability between instructors and learners?

Mutual accountability is an outgrowth of meaningful learning. It involves creating spaces for learners and instructors to share the role of authority and expert. It can also mean questioning what authority and expertise look like in core course readings and materials as well as in knowledge-building work outside formal course spaces. Traditional pedagogical learning environments cede this role primarily to the instructor. In contrast, andragogical methods recognize the importance of sharing that authority with adult learners whose experiences, concerns, and wisdom can support contextualized knowledge-building. This approach honors the practical realities that our students shape in each course.[3]

Building on Gannon, the DIGC certificate program establishes transgressively hopeful critical instructional design practices in “elite” academic spaces—to which many non-traditional students have had unequal access. He notes, ”if higher education is indeed the social and political good we believe it is, then we should be doing our level best to ensure as many students as possible are able to access the opportunity to pursue it” (Gannon, 2020, pp. 73). This involves all areas of higher education—even within institutions whose history of prestige and power are built on exclusivity, fixedness, and inequality. Gannon shows us how to frame access and flexibility as components of radical hope. Both he and hooks affirm the many ways non-traditional learners contextualize their presence and participation in learning environments. We argue that this extends to the critical instructional design work that informs these environments. In the DIGC certificate, we build on the explicit goals of inclusion and equity in the University of Pennsylvania Liberal & Professional Studies Online Bachelor’s in Applied Arts and Sciences degree program[4] and, with the DIGC certificate’s focus on critical thinking and literacy in the context of contemporary digital culture, privilege the voices of our learners.

How do we frame forms of inclusion and equity for non-traditional student populations who embody and demand different pedagogical narratives?

Historically there has been less diversity and inclusion for non-traditional student populations in elite, undergraduate programs. For some, a shift away from this model requires rethinking what exactly “elite” means and how it impacts higher education as a public good. Community colleges, city colleges, regional colleges and commuter-focused institutions have specialized in addressing the needs of nontraditional student populations for generations. Breaking from the traditional perspective of an Ivy League American university, PLPSO ultimately takes critical steps toward creating an adult learner-focused community that reflects the changing demographics of student populations, and the shifting needs of the learners themselves.

Friere notes that through the use of dialogue, or, in his terms, dialogic pedagogy, teachers and students “become jointly responsible” (Freire & Macedo, 2021, p.74) through what Freire calls “problem-posing education,” where “people develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation” (Freire & Macedo, 2021, p.77). Freire emphasizes what he called “praxis” which holds that action and reflection on the world is necessary to change it (hooks, 1994, p.14).

Access and inclusion in our virtual classrooms leads us to think about the importance of traditional and human-centered learning design. Traditional learning design approaches often center preordained outcomes, prefabricated rubrics, and prescriptive visions of human possibility in educational spaces. We see examples in methodological mainstays like Bloom’s Taxonomy, the ADDIE model, the SAMR Model, and others that encourage designers to manage learning through tidy and efficient practices that privilege replicability over contextualized care. While efficiency can save time, it’s too often weaponized to devalue and flatten the labor of teaching and learning in service of capitalist economies of scale that rely on rigid, extractive temporalities.[5] This fact is particularly consequential for folks whose devalued labor requires them to teach too many courses—rostered with too many students—in too many places. But what would it look like to build practices that move us closer toward transformative humanization while speaking to the realities of precarious, time-sensitive, labor and de-agencied learning? As Kevin Gannon notes, “if we want to restore the idea of higher education as a space for transformation, of emancipatory learning, then we need to start with the ways in which we talk about its purpose and value” (Gannon, 2020, pp. 110).

When we began designing the DIGC certificate, we started with the question: what if we purposefully designed this transformative space to center and care for human learners in ways that exposed the dehumanizing limits of learning management systems? For our purposes, at its best, human-centered design (HCD) invites us to think critically about choices that affect how we build and maintain learning spaces for folks. It also creates room for us to reflect on the design choices we make for learners within those spaces. Recent iterations of HCD have responded to calls for contextual, inclusive, and equitable design by embracing practices that help ensure equity and social justice for historically marginalized learners. This includes intersectional considerations of race, gender, sexuality, disability, and neurodivergence. Still, some HCD work continues to perpetuate narrow visions of which humans should be centered, what aspects of their humanity should be affirmed, and how much room their sociopolitical presence should occupy in learning design.

bell hooks models a transgressive approach to mutualistic participation in transformative teaching and learning that combats undemocratic exclusion perpetuated in some human-centered design work. She writes, “[m]aking the classroom a democratic setting where everyone feels a responsibility to contribute is a central goal of transformative pedagogy” (hooks, 1994, p. 39). For her, transformation includes forms of solidarity, liberatory care, and freedom that demand capacious definitions of humanity. All help constitutes transgressive pedagogy that, in Freire’s words, embraces all humans as “beings of praxis” who are “capable of changing the world” even as we work to “give it meaning” (hooks, 1994, p. 48).[6] Indeed, she notes that “[t]o have work that promotes one’s liberation is such a powerful gift that it does not matter so much if the gift is flawed” (hooks, 1994, p. 50). Liberation can take many possible forms in education. We see critical instructional design as one of those forms and have centered it in the DIGC certificate’s focus on critical digital literacy.

We frame critical digital literacy not only as a theoretical concept, but as an actionable lens from which all course participants co-create knowledge. Working with, and through, Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ concept of “sensitive edges” also helps us understand critical digital literacy as a site for careful reflexivity, interdependent presence, and democratic participation—each of which shape the ecology of all DIGC courses. For Gumbs, and for us, literacy includes a version of vulnerability that makes room for the needs, perspectives, and desires of each being in a co-created space—regardless of their role. While Gumbs’ explores the liquid environments of marine mammals to locate Black feminist lessons about life, love, and literacy, we turn to digital spaces in which these interwoven lessons can inform the ways we listen and build language for our critical instruction design work. Building from our sensitive edges invites us to ask: “[w]hat could it mean to be present with each other across time and space and difference” (Gumbs, 2020, p. 67) while considering the layers of literacy and communicative care such interpersonal presence requires in digital spaces.

Communication scholar Paul H. Arnston contributes to this conversation through his articulation of agency available to all participants in any community of discourse through distinctions of the levels to which participants are enculturated to engage. Arnston presents three roles through which people can engage in interpersonal communication with others—that of the citizen, where “individuals assume responsibility for their well-being and expect to participate non hierarchically in decision-making groups…” (Arnston, 1989, p. 32) who “evaluates the professional-client encounter based on the accomplishments of [relevant] tasks” (Arnston, 1989, p.33); the client role, where compliance with someone else’s instructions or guidance is the primary relationship; or the consumer role, where the individual seeks out specific amenities in the context that determines their satisfaction with the service they are purchasing. We argue that Arnston identification of the choice of agency—what Arnston identifies as the role of the citizen—supports mutual accountability and democratic participation in the critical teaching and learning praxis (Arnston, 1989). Arnston’s concept of the citizen also enables us to address issues of liberation and ameliorate the problem of exclusionary practices in traditional learning design. This idea of citizenship merged with our focus on digital literacy and competence as a pedagogical goal of the DIGC certificate program. This idea of citizenship is a node of connection—with it, faculty and students can co-create, partner, and set expectations for a class environment for how knowledge is built in a course, on a specific topic.

Faculty and students are allies, not adversaries, in the collaborative creation of knowledge. What does it mean to set expectations collaboratively, and why should we do this? Can we as educators remove limitations around student learning by simply asking them what helps them to learn—and how might this question advance education as a practice of freedom?

We often talk about education as a place to prepare for the workforce, but it’s also important to consider how the skills needed here also apply in broader public spaces. The goal isn’t to make learning spaces that are only self-contained, but to be a microcosm of what could and—we hope—will be in the larger world. Freire tells us that working collaboratively with learners helps them take ownership of their learning. Identifying obstacles and removing them from the learning environment makes the online course accessible and adaptable. This is especially important for adult learners who primarily come to the educational setting to address real life problems and goals rather than focusing on the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake. Arnston gives us a positionality of citizenship from which we can take ownership of our roles of educator and learner. It can also be helpful to grapple with challenges together because it gives educators and learners alike perspective on what the challenges are and how we can solve them. We can all see pieces of a solution independently, but it can take the village to put the puzzle together. All get to practice the kinds of interdependence that they will take to settings outside the learning environment.

As we approached the development of a fully online, primarily asynchronous certificate program on digital culture for a non-traditional learning population, we confronted yet other elements that seem important to unpack: traditional learning design is focused on the learning needs and strategies of traditional-aged students, using pedagogical approaches grounded in developmental psychology. Indeed, fundamental to the application of hooks and Freire to adult, non-traditional education requires problematizing basic ideas about the term pedagogy itself. Pedagogy is one of those terms educators use that comes with a vast assortment of baggage—mostly because the definition explains very little about what pedagogy, in a word, is. The Oxford Languages Dictionary, for example, begins by defining pedagogy as “the method and practice of teaching” and then qualifying this with a focus on “academic subject or theoretical concept.” This definition leaves assumptions about who is being taught, and what kinds of learning structures are being used, but we can draw from lived experience that the learner population are traditional-aged students, and the model being applied is face-to-face classroom instruction.

Malcolm Knowles’ two distinctions help us bridge this shift from traditional learners to adult, non-traditional learners. First, pedagogy assumes that teachers take responsibility for—and direct—learning. Second, pedagogy is focused on the education of children (Knowles, 1970). He makes the further point that pedagogy holds that knowledge is a constant. Citing Alfred North Whitehead, Knowles definition also suggests that, “…what a person learns will remain valid for the rest of his life.” However, Knowles points out that major cultural changes have accelerated since the early 20th century, ensuring that knowledge gained in childhood is often no longer relevant by mid-adulthood. He concludes that lifelong learning must consequently become a focus for educators. From this concern, the term andragogy has evolved, to focus on the art and science of helping adults learn.

Finally, Knowles’ understanding of andragogy posits four assumptions about adult learners and their characteristics that are distinct from ones educators might hold about child learners. These assumptions become fundamental to our ideas about how knowledge can be co-created by educators and learners and what boundaries we can reasonably set on the work expected of both partners in the learning process:

  • As a person matures, their self-concept moves from dependence on others towards self-direction
  • As they grow they accumulate a reservoir of experiences that become an increasing resource for their learning
  • As individuals, their readiness to learn becomes oriented increasingly towards the developmental task of their social roles
  • Their temporal perspective changes from learning about a subject to focusing on solving problems (Knowles, 1970, p.55)

Andragogy as a method thus becomes foundational for our work as educators and in the DIGC and LPSO program in particular. It also gives us strategies for engaging in our work as educators—that we can build on these needs and interests as mechanisms for integrating, synthesizing, and applying new knowledge.

One other element we have found continually important to center in our exploration of teaching non-traditional adults in the DIGC program is the role and impact of trauma on both learners and educators within the classroom. While this concern is relevant for all populations, it is particularly crucial to consider in the creation of learning spaces for non-traditional learners. Trauma-informed care has been defined by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA):

TIC [trauma-informed care] views trauma through an ecological and cultural lens and recognizes that context plays a significant role in how individuals perceive and process traumatic events, whether acute or chronic. TIC involves vigilance in anticipating and avoiding institutional processes and individual practices that are likely to retraumatize individuals who already have histories of trauma (SAMHSA, 2015, p.1).

Indeed, in her 2021 article on trauma-informed andragogy, Jennifer Davidson makes the point that “a trauma-informed andragogy for the graduate theological classroom must recognize the pervasiveness of trauma and the likelihood that our students (and our colleagues, and we, ourselves) bring the experience of trauma with us into the classroom”(Davidson, 2021, p.12). Davidson’s point—that we must assume trauma as a consideration in adult, non-traditional learning has always been a reality—is important to include in our praxis.

The idea of trauma-aware, or trauma-informed, teaching practices has gained in attention and popularity since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While this is important as a step in addressing the social justice concerns around traumatic events, what is more important from our perspective is to recognize that according to the National Council for Behavioral Health, 70% of adults in the United States have experienced some type of traumatic event at least once in their lives. This makes trauma-aware teaching practices even more essential, since pedagogical approaches operate on the assumption that students operate at a baseline level that is not traumatized. Indeed, it takes Wartenweiler’s points that “acknowledging the impact of trauma on learning is of great importance if we want to create more socially just education systems and not disadvantage traumatized learners” (Wartenweiler, 2017, p.96). Additionally, it helps us see that it is the majority of students, particularly when they are adults, who have experienced trauma, meaning that the sensitivity that trauma-aware practices bring is no longer just a good idea, but a necessary component of effective education.

With all these tools in mind, we come to the essential framework of critical instructional design as the praxis where the DIGC certificate is situated. For us, critical instructional design is a practice and process of freedom that relies on intimacy, vulnerability, interdependence, democratic participation, iteration, and hope; it pushes us to lead with and through our sensitive edges;[7] It is messy at times because it centers the humans that give it shape and meaning; it is rooted in reflexivity; it neither has nor espouses best practices because all bests are contextual; it exists outside and, at times, counter to learning management systems; it is educational care work that operationalizes love; it is what Adrienne Maree Brown might describe as an “emergent strategy;” and it is change (Brown, 2017). This contrasts traditional instructional design practices which often center a different, systems-thinking approach to teaching and learning.

Instructional Design’s reliance on systems-thinking speaks to its early uses in military and technical training.[8] This history continues to shape some of the language Instructional Designers use to describe and imagine learning environments (by “assessing learning targets,” “codifying effective objectives,” etc). We also see influences of this reality in instructional design models that privilege replicable systems—no matter how “agile” the utilization.[9] While these models offer important context for traditional ways of communicating prevailing approaches to instructional design praxis, critical instructional design asks us to imagine students outside of homogenizing traditions by:

  • Centering Accessibility as an iterative, action-oriented process
  • Interrogating assumed hierarchies between instructors and students
  • Questioning implicit and explicit biases that are encoded in tools and systems
  • Situating design practices within discussions of social and transformative justice
  • Decentering white, male, heteronormative voices within shared materials
  • Developing a teaching and learning infrastructure that’s built on care
  • Fostering critical play and curiosity, even when it pushes us to and through unexpected places

These practices form the basis for the expectations and values we identify both in the original proposal for the DIGC certificate, and in the formative questions we bring to organize the DIGC courses.

Educators like Ruja Benjamin[10], Sasha Costanza-Chock[11], Bryan Keith Alexander[12], and others invite us to engage with marginalized learners whose presence and histories can problematize assumptions about which human experiences matter in teaching and learning. Alexander’s work, for example, helps us explore how intersecting racial and sexual identities can queer human-centered design praxis. He writes “when speaking about social issues in the classroom, I must address the political potency, the psychic disturbance, and the potential physical impact of those issues on my black gay body.” He goes on to reflect that: “the classroom is a space in which the personal is magnified, not diminished.” (Alexander, 2005, p.251) But what happens when the personal is universalized in this magnification—via design decisions that overdetermine white, male, cis-hetero, hierarchical ideals as the default setting within teaching and learning spaces? How do we de-center this form of privileged humanity without diminishing the power of personalized/personal teaching and learning within digital learning communities?

What are the distinctions between face-to-face and online learning, and why are these important?

A traditional learning environment is, by common definition, a face-to-face classroom space in which a co-present teacher or teaching team organizes and directs student learning. This environment assumes that students are often more engaged and successful in classes, and in their student role overall, when they occupy co-located learning spaces. The environment also assumes that physical proximity between students in face-to-face communities translates to closer, more positive, relationships with their classmates and with other students (West & Williams, 2017). These assumptions shape communal attitudes toward online, digital pedagogy and mark it as a more detached—less meaningful—form of teaching and learning.

Some digital learning spaces are organized almost exclusively around aspects of traditional face-to-face classrooms. Such spaces often offer similar structures for synchronous lecture and discussion time, in addition to assessments and feedback that are directly analogous in form and purpose. They may also maintain depersonalized policies guided by generalizable models within face-to-face environments. Here the digital medium has only a superficial effect on the pedagogical method. In this instance, the transition to online teaching represents enough change to justify pedagogical stasis.

Online learning is its own pedagogical form and not a derivative of face-to-face learning. These differences make room for new possibilities in teaching and learning practices that encourage us to rethink relationships between materials, reconceptualize the meaning and modality of interaction, create different pathways for community building, and adapt the learning process to foster transformative connections to/through work and ideas in each course. There are limitations to both approaches, but these are things to celebrate, not criticize. Critical instructional design invites us to consider exactly which contexts for managed contact we assume and replicate in this form of duplicative praxis—starting with ubiquitous learning management systems.

Ubiquity, in the case of learning management systems, is more a marker of successful management—of data, content, assessments, and connected tools, than it is of successful online placemaking or learning. Indeed, Sean Michael Morris asks “[w]hat if we were to theorize that the learning management system (LMS) is designed, not for learning or teaching, but for the gathering of data? And what if we were to further theorize that the gathering of data, as messaged and marketed through the LMS, has become conflated with teaching and learning?” (Morris, 2018, para. 1). Pushing this line of questioning further, we ask: what if we dissociated LMS data—or managed contact—from critical connection—or meaningful contact? How would this shape our vision of subjectivity, placemaking, or community-building when teaching and learning is online?

In The Manifesto for Teaching Online, Bayne et. al argue that “[t]eaching online reshapes its subjects in all senses of the word” and that this reshaping allows us to engage in digital place-making practices that are more accessible, inclusive, and—quite frankly—imaginative (Bayne et al., 2020, p.150-151). We see analogs to this in perennial conversations about infrastructure. For some, the term assumes a fundamental physicality that’s expressed in roads, bridges, buildings, and rooms that make up our built environment. This assumption often supports a binaried view of physical and non-physical relations that shortchanges the non-fixed, iterative nature of digital pedagogy and its constitutive spaces. For digital forms of teaching and learning “[w]hat it means to be ‘on the course’ or to be ‘at’ college is never one thing; it is always multiple, enacted differently for every student almost at every moment” (Bayne et al., 2020, p.150-151). It does not hold the LMS as a fixed home base that simulates infrastructure(s) of physical proximity and relation. On the contrary, it assumes that place itself is a fluid co-construction that’s differently important in digital learning (Bayne et al., 2020). This paradigm shift presents a challenge for models that are buoyed by forms of fixedness (ie: tradition, geographical prestige, physical borders/boundaries, etc.) where placemaking equals power. But what would it mean to frame this challenge as a chance for critical play through which transformative examples of placemaking and relation can surface? How might we imagine critical responses to traditional instructional design models through transgressive, hope-filled placemaking practices? How might this make learning more meaningful for teachers, students, and critical instructional designers? Our DIGC work speaks to how we have responded to these questions and offers a case study for digital teaching that supports meaningful learning.

Collaboration: DIGC in Context

How do we build critical instructional design practice into the infrastructural reality of an educational institution in the US?

The University of Pennsylvania School of Liberal and Professional Studies (PLPS) launched the Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences (BAAS) degree in the fall of 2019 as a model for emergent approaches to higher education. As Vice Dean Nora Lewis notes “[t]he goal of this new platform is to make an Arts and Sciences education more accessible, flexible, and affordable for working adults.” This includes redefining “…who can get an Ivy League education by making it accessible to anyone who demonstrates the ambition and potential to earn it, without sacrificing the quality of the education offered” (Penn LPS Online, 2014). The degree program was designed to connect liberal arts education with professional and career goals through—mostly asynchronous—courses that followed a condensed eight-week schedule. The asynchronous nature of the courses made room for learners to choose the time and form of engagement that worked for them. It also shifted power to learners by giving them agency over the shape, pace, and place of their work.

These curricular design choices were developed through conversations with a faculty advisory board, administrative and technical support staff, and management executives from regional, national, and global employers. The program was also focused on affirming non-traditional student voices and needs in the development process. To that end, PLPSO conducted its own research with feedback from students and businesses who were ultimately interested in developing critical thinking, leadership, and communication skills. The degree program evolved accordingly, blending a liberal arts and sciences foundation with this applied focus. As part of this program, for-credit certificates were designed to provide learners with the opportunity to develop smaller credentials that could be earned either separately from the BAAS degree, or combined in pursuit of the full bachelor’s degree.

The dual focus on an applied bachelor’s degree program and a liberal arts education makes the Penn PLPSO program unique. This balance, integrating liberal arts as a necessary foundation for the curriculum, is not prevalent in other BAAS degree programs around the US and is specific to the Penn environment.[13] It’s also an essential component of the DIGC certificate program. We could not have created DIGC without the support and active encouragement of LPS administration and faculty, who saw the potential for it to contribute an important element of the larger PLPSO program, including meeting foundational degree requirements.

The idea for the DIGC certificate program grew from an individual course focused on digital literacy and cultural change. Our early discussions explored building a suite of courses within the BAAS that extended concepts of digital culture to discussions of technology from social sciences and humanities perspectives. The first step towards this involved developing a foundational course that invited students to explore digital literacy as a concept and practice that enabled them to shape present and future change. It picked up on humanist conversations about algorithmic bias, digital redlining, critical consumption, emergent strategies, and other concepts that worked to broaden the ways we think about, use, and repurpose technology.

After designing the first digital literacy course, we chose to complement it by building on the skills that students would need to understand the context of digital tools, and the culture changes that accompanied them. Rather than focusing on the theoretical and technological shifts themselves, the second course centered case studies that highlighted the different ways technological shifts affect people and their societies. Other course materials also supported this approach, including guest lecturers from folks who were invited to discuss the real world experiences of those technological shifts. The implications of these changes on the needs of contemporary digital culture were ever present in the course’s historical narrative. The course unpacks how patterns of technological change from the past are reflected in the present, and speaks to the ways that students’ own experiences color and shape their understanding of contemporary digital life. Like the digital literacy course before it, the design encourages learners to build community and relationships outside of the learning management system, disrupting norms of traditional course engagement.

Our conversation around a suite of classes developed fairly intuitively from there, as our interests also met a need in the structure of the growing degree program. In our proposal, we laid out our key concerns: to help students become critical consumers, designers, and creators (Colmon & Krieger, 2020). With these concerns as a foundation, we laid out visions for technological fluency that could create pathways to digital citizenship—and forms of critical liberation—that helped students shape change in the larger world. Since launch, learners have come with a range of needs—including folks who want to meet career and/or personal goals by completing an undergraduate degree, folks who seek particular credentials to advance their personal and professional interests, and folks who simply want to take classes on specific topics in digital culture.

What does it mean to be a teacher, and what is meaningful learning?

This question gets at the heart of our work and the work of critical instructional design which both seek to support meaningful learning. We see it as something that includes processes of co-creation that privileges interdependence between students and instructors. In other words, it’s not something that an educator can define or decide in a vacuum. It requires meaningful relationships. This assumes trust that’s affirmed through dialogue about course materials, the methods/means of engagement in courses, and what it means to teach and care for each other. After all, teaching is, perhaps first and foremost, communal care work that demands hope for the possible in pedagogical spaces—which affirm interdependent practices that support critical reflexivity and change.

Critical instructional design as praxis

When we sat down to plan the DIGC Certificate, we were highly aware of:

  • Our mutual concern for digital literacy, and the intersections between humanities and social science perspectives. We felt strongly that students would benefit from a hands-on, engaged, contextual approach to thinking about and using technology.
  • The benefit of inviting learners to work with code. We chose to include learning fundamental concepts for at least one programming language for digital culture, which at the time of this writing is Python.
  • The need to make room for students to apply work to their lives in ways that encourage agency inside and outside of course spaces..

We developed a set of guiding questions for the certificate and for each course, which stems from a problem and question informed approach, including:

  • How does culture affect our understanding of a technology and how we use it?
  • What are our ethical responsibilities as consumer-citizens in using (digital) technologies?
  • How can we locate queer space(s) and time(s) within work the embraces liberatory imagination?
  • How does data influence what and for whom we code?
  • What does it mean to study within a mutualistic community that challenges the ways we imagine sociocultural change?
  • How might we explore the intersecting roles of race, class, gender, and sexuality in technology and culture to develop practices for engaging in equitable, inclusive, work across projects?

We quickly found that this inquiry-based framework fit the concerns we have for digital and cultural literacy and their related social and cultural contexts. They also give learners room (ala Freire) to take charge of their own learning practices and to own their own learning process.

As we developed the first two courses in the DIGC certificate, both of which are foundational to the certificate program, we examined the ways we wanted to build community for the classes. Because the PLPSO program is primarily online-asynchronous, one key issue we had to explore was using and developing effective asynchronous discussion spaces. We wanted to present students with spaces for low-stakes communication that did not carry the burden of graded activities. In the case of the first course, Digital Literacy and Cultural Change (DLCC), these spaces outside the learning management system (LMS) were more intimate in that students were more willing to share information about themselves. They also found ways to make informal connections between course materials and their interests outside the course. Our choice to use workspaces outside of the LMS gives students room to collaborate organically, in ways that reflect their own growing ownership of their learning process and community building. Students share: files, links to artifacts they’ve created, projects that are in-process for the course, and poetry. They also share things that they would otherwise save for less formal social contexts, including memes, emojis, short videos, and playlists created or curated for their own use. We chose to use Slack, Coggle, Google Docs, and a host of other tools outside the LMS to build a non-hierarchical relationship across our courses. These choices were specific to the circumstance of the development of each course and to the goals for mutualistic collaboration. With both courses, the extra-LMS setting encourages flexible and non-intimidating space for students to critically evaluate their own ideas, in addition to societal assumptions, about digital culture and technologies. Since we did this in different ways in each of the courses we designed and taught, we decided to write about them in our own voices, sharing the practices we developed in each of these courses.

What does it mean to model being advocates for learning?

DIGC 120: Written from Clay’s perspective

DIGC 120 began as it ended: with a poetry exercise. Some students were initially put off by this. Poetry wasn’t exactly what folks expected from a foundational course focused on digital technology; but it offered a form of careful literacy that allowed us all to advocate for different—more sensitive—kinds of communication in our shared learning space. I paid close attention to democratic ownership when designing this and other activities in the course. Each of us drafted project prompts and peer-review guidelines together–as acts of creative digital making. We were also honest about the risks associated with such openness and vulnerability in the course. To support this, I included a note on sharing, risk, and vulnerability in the first week which read:

This course will require us all to grapple with concepts and realities that may make us uncomfortable at times. It’ll also push us to share and reflect in a variety of ways. I’ve mentioned in the syllabus that sharing involves risks. Please know that my goal is to co-create a safe, inviting space in which all participants feel valued and heard. Still, some of us may decide that the risks are too high; and that’s OK. Your assessment and feedback will not be contingent on how personal or transparent you are in this collaborative course space.

The teaching team holds power in this space, no matter how democratic we wish to make it. These few words are our way of acknowledging the imbalance that’s built into this and other systems. We’ll have a chance to talk about some aspects of these systems explicitly. We’ll also try to mitigate various forms of imbalance as best we can, when we can. Although we’ve said it before, it’s worth repeating: please share only what you’re comfortable with sharing in the course.

We also wrote “notes to future students” that remixed poetic language and spoke to the generative aspects of vulnerability, as the course concluded.

In addition to poetry, I purposefully designed adaptable elements into the course structure that responded to co-created materials—like our community agreement which we authored, asynchronously, in a collaborative document outside the LMS. This initial activity encouraged everyone in the course to reflect on and share our individual responses to questions like:

  • What kind of course will not work for us? What guidelines might we put in place to avoid replicating such a course for present and future learners?
  • What shared expectations are important to us, and how might we hold ourselves accountable to them?
  • What do we need to feel safe/engaged/seen/heard in our learning environment, and what would help make that possible?
  • What brings us joy, and how might we incorporate that into the work we’ll do together?

After sharing their individual perspectives, students joined small groups to synthesize the document into a collection of policies—which included gifs, poetry, song clips, and other components—that ultimately shaped presence and critical connection throughout the course. This established an infrastructure for care and mutual accountability early on; it also affirmed our intentions for knowledge-building. Instead of centering stagnant parameters that encouraged model responses, the course reflected our collective growth through contextualized work that we created as individuals and as a community. This form of agency was messy at times, even as it laid the groundwork for deep engagement with digital citizenship and non-traditional placemaking—on a small scale.

With the expectations of communal placemaking established, we continued work in other knowledge-building environments outside the LMS, including in mindmaps, informal discussion channels, audio-editing platforms, and low-stakes study spaces that were all driven by questions we each hoped to answer before the course ended. The question I asked invited us all to sit with how we might imagine and shape change via digital means when our current choices seem so overwhelming and limited. I reviewed and reshaped the contours of this and other questions each week alongside students. We talked about serendipitous finds, frustrations, and persistent fears in Slack; we connected over music, soundscapes, and co-curated playlists in Spotify; and we worked through worldbuilding, capitalism, and commodified hope in SoundCloud. But the tools weren’t the point; creating compelling environments for meaningful learning was. Lectures were narrative podcasts with unit-driven story arcs and interactive transcripts. Assessments were open-ended opportunities for serious critical play (that included Octavia E. Butler’s science fiction and Adrienne Maree Brown’s emergent strategies for shaping change). Outcomes were personal, adaptable, and interdependent (in response to Tressie McMillan Cottom’s practice of “thick” revision). The course privileged design paths that eschewed fixed expectations and that encouraged us all to be sensitive advocates for learning.

DIGC 160: Written from Meryl’s perspective

In building DIGC 160, a key concern for the course topic was to present a model for critical investigation of assumed knowledge. The goal was to balance giving a structure for student exploration of a new way of conceptualizing (in this case) how technological innovation takes place and giving agency to students in both their own learning and in supporting the learning across the course. Like my counterpart, I chose to use Slack as the primary mechanism for course activities and discussions because of its lack of hierarchical infrastructure—all participants in the workspace have the same capabilities to post, share, and engage with everyone else in that space. Because my course topic and approach was more of a social science focus than a humanities-based one, I had to use this kind of space differently.

Being aware of the need for clear and focused spaces for engagement, I minimized the number of channels where students were asked to share, and (with one exception) maintained consistency throughout the course in terms of creating public and small group spaces. Users in Slack can send Direct Messages (DMs) to any participant in the workspace, and can create ongoing conversations with a small group that is private from the rest of the workspace participants. I created channels for small groups and assigned students to specific groups to give them small (3-6 member) working groups they could build working relationships with, share knowledge, co-create and collaborate on a group project, and give and get constructive feedback on individual-level course assignments that were also accessible to the instructional team. Students also completed individual work within the course’s LMS, where they could develop their own ideas with feedback from the instructional team. Criteria for evaluating these reflection submissions were processual—they were evaluated on the basis of instructions that guided them through growing their knowledge from whatever point they began from. Students in the class came from all parts of the US as well as two other continents, so norms of communication and learning, as well as personal experience, were highly varied across the class as a community. Students also ranged widely in age, which led to a wide range of perspectives being shared. Students also took this class for a range of reasons, ranging from the transactional[14] to different degrees of personal interests.[15]

In building the course infrastructure within the LMS, a similar set of concerns attended to the design of each week’s content. Thinking of the LMS as a virtual classroom, where students and instructional team members all need to know how to access tools and resources, modules were designed with a consistent aesthetic, and to be accessible in as many ways as possible. For example, course lectures were recorded as podcast episodes of 6-11 minutes each, with transcripts of the episodes and relevant sources posted below each lecture. Students had the option of listening to lectures through the LMS on a computer, tablet, or smartphone, and also had links to listen through SoundCloud, should they prefer or be better suited to that experience.

Students were asked to process readings and course content through a reflection process that was consistent across the weeks of the course with instructions that were transparent—there was no assumption that the instructor role was the only one to introduce concepts to the class community. Indeed, the community of practice within the Slack space encouraged students to take on the role of being mutually accountable through regular group activities and discussion. Like in any learning process, this peer accountability process was sometimes uneven, but at the end of the day it created an environment that one student, in their evaluation of the course noted: “The Slack community was buzzing. This class felt really alive…” This vibrancy was fostered and supported by both members of the instructional team through regular and consistent feedback, and this modeling was recognized by the student members of the community.

I focused my practices on the framing of student-provided materials, sometimes reframing content to help students practice exercising their critical thinking muscles through the lens of the course structure. An example of this guidance was a comment I made on a student-shared news article and TedTalk on the topic of artificial intelligence and algorithms. These were both written/presented by an AI expert who was clearly representing a coding perspective that assumed it was unbiased and the student shared it as an example of this; one of the key concepts we were exploring in the course was uncovering the extent to which this is a logical fallacy, and the extent to which most people are unaware of such biases:

Just putting on my professor hat here to make a comment on the approach of this article—it ignores that human bias is part of all incarnations of AI and algorithms. There was no superhuman who created the first one without any biases, any more than the first person to develop a marketable microphone didn’t build in a preference for particular sound frequencies that matched what sounded good to their own ears. There is no such thing as an unbiased human. What there can be are humans who are aware of most of their biases and build checks and balances into the systems they develop to account for them.” (Dr. Meryl, Slack #random channel comment, December 9, 2021)

At the end of the day, this example demonstrates the ways we met the goals of the class: to have students problematize and unpack the role of the digital algorithm as a fundamental building block of contemporary digital culture—they need a space in which to do it where they are free to be and engage as themselves, much as they do in DLCC. Future courses in the certificate program build on this foundation and are in the design process at the time of this publication.

Synthesis: What Would it Mean to Teach from Our Sensitive Edges?

Many of us sublimate our sensitive edges in our teaching. These include the places where we feel our most human and vulnerable. As Alexis Pauline Gumbs writes, our sensitive edges “enable us to live more porously, more mindful of the infinite changeability of our context, more open to each other and our own needs” (Gumbs, 2020, p.61). They also allow us to remain open to the generative messiness that supports human-centered learning. This openness makes room for us to practice self-governance which, in turn, allows us to connect with our desire to share, personalize, and change our teaching and ourselves. But it’s not sustainable without creating a pedagogical infrastructure that affirms vulnerability and care as foundational to design decisions. This often involves embracing the things that make us unique as educators and learners—outside of flattening models—even when it challenges “the plan.”

As a takeaway, at a theoretical level, it is important to reiterate how critical instructional design practices intersect with and disrupt normative models of education:

  • Power differences are normative models that assume that instructors are the purveyors of knowledge, and that they are the funnels through which knowledge is passed to students
  • The asynchronous approach to learning gives students agency in the sense that students have more control over their own learning processes
  • Disrupting normative models: Synchronous engagement in an otherwise asynchronous course
    Synchronous engagement necessarily takes on a different, more democratic form. Many students who lack a framework for learning—either on a particular topic or are simply removed from the learning context—benefit from a structured, but open, space to directly engage with instructors and peers.

Our efforts affirm critical instructional design as an andragogical method that supports intentional placemaking practices. Class communities are co-constructed in digital spaces that work to ameliorate many of the barriers which exist in elite higher education and are relevant to any critically-designed learning space. In addition, the design of the BAAS supports the adoption of accelerated courses which similarly meets a well-identified need for learners to build the kinds of learning spaces that support their own needs and goals. Ultimately, this andragogical approach can benefit from more critical attention—particularly within the context of a post COVID-19 world which demands we ask different questions about access.

It’s hard to overstate the pandemic’s role in highlighting the ways critical instructional design methods intersect with the evolving landscape of higher education. While asynchronous online learning was a growing arena for higher education prior to COVID-19, the pandemic accelerated the exploration of new approaches to education while simultaneously foregrounding the need for adult learners to connect more intentionally with lifelong learning as a lens, rather than a stage intended for traditional age populations. This challenged many of us to think more critically about teaching and learning in digital spaces and to build from our sensitive edges through critical instructional design that prepares us for futures that demand change.


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  1. Many define traditional learners as students aged 18-24, who are attending college or university full time, and who have entered college or university directly from completing their high school (secondary) education. In contrast with traditional learners, non-traditional “adult learners” are students who are returning to school settings some time after the completion of their high school (secondary) education. See in particular data reported by the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, including characteristics by student population, at the end of this chapter, for further reading. This data set is regularly updated.
  2. Friere tells us the importance of our humanizing “preoccupation” with the beautiful messiness of emergent critical instructional design. A number of key ideas in this chapter are grounded in the Friere method—empowering people to take control of their lives through literacy education, which he considered necessarily anthropological and contextual to the cultural settings in which learners live. Friere developed a dialogic pedagogy in which learning and critical thinking were co-created by leaders and learners—where “the method ceases to be an instrument by which the teachers… can manipulate the students … because it expresses the consciousness of the students themselves… Consciousness is thus by definition a method, in the most general sense of the word” (Freire & Macedo, 2021, p. 66).
  3. Following the guidance of bell hooks and Audre Lorde, we wrestle with what it means to support interdependence and accountability via the work of teaching, which is also the work of survival “no matter where we key into it.”
  4. “The specific needs of that adult learner audience drove the creation of Penn LPS Online, developed to further advance Penn’s mission of making a relevant, high-quality education accessible and affordable for working adults. “ From (Penn LPS Online, 2018)”
  5. See Rasheeda Phillips’ provocations about linear and non-linear constructions of time in “Organize Your Own Temporality: Notes on Self-Determined Temporalities and Radical Futurities in Liberation Movements.” She notes that “[r]adical liberation movements reappropriate notions of time and temporality itself, stealing back time to actively create a vision of the future for marginalized people who are typically denied access to creative control over the temporal mode of the future, and redefining that future’s relationship to the past and present.” (Phillips, 2016, pp. 49) This encourages us to ask: is critical instructional design about the business of radical liberation in its “practice of freedom?” If so, how do we use transgressive construction of time to advance this work—in the face of linear narratives about progress which often silence histories of systematic disenfranchisement and capitalist extraction?
  6. We feel it is important to acknowledge that hooks’ identity as a Black feminist is crucial to understanding both her writerly and teacherly perspective. The dialogic structure she uses in Teaching to Transgress gives her room to explore a reflexive praxis that upends some of the distancing strictures of traditional academic writing. It also allows hooks to offer a care-filled critique of Friere’s “sexist language” and “phallocentric paradigm of liberation” in his earlier work where—she argues—“freedom and the experience of patriarchal manhood are always linked as though they are one and the same” (hooks, 1994, p. 49). She does not detach, downplay, or compartmentalize the messy bits of patriarchy in Freire’s early writing. She, instead, places her reading in relation to the nuanced, personal, ways of knowing she develops with and through his work, as she shares: “there are many other standpoints from which I approach his work that enable me to experience its value, that make it possible for that work to touch me at the very core of my being” (hooks, 1994, p. 49).
  7. Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ asks us to consider “what our sensitive edges have to teach us” in her work Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals (2020) which contributes to a larger “Emergent Strategy Series.” She invites us to make connections between forms of listening, being, and doing that reach across species and ecologies, arguing that “[l]istening is not only about the normative ability to hear, it is a transformative and revolutionary resource that requires quieting down and tuning in.” (p. 15) We suggest that our sensitive edges allow us to listen and “tune in” across digital distances and spaces.
  8. See Robert A Reiser’s “A History of Instructional Design and Technology: Part 1: A History of Instructional Media,” and “A History of Instructional Design and Technology: Part II: A History of Instructional Design” which grew out of his earlier work on instructional technology.
  9. Some of these models include, ADDIE (which we reference earlier in the chapter), SAM, Cathy Moore’s Action Mapping, Sick and Cary Model of Design, Merrill’s First Principles of Instruction, and a host of others.
  10. See Ruja Benjamin’s reflection on what it means to think critically about design as a concept and practice in her work Race After Technology. She asks readers to consider the ways design acts as “a colonizing project...to the extent that it is used to describe anything and everything” without contextualizing the many systems and “[g]eneologies [that] reflect and reproduce power relations" (Benjamin, 2019, p. 176 -177). Among the many questions she raises in the work, one sticks with us, as we grapple with critical instructional design praxis: “If design is treated as inherently moving forward, that is as the solution, have we even agreed upon the problem?” (Benjamin, 2019, p.180).
  11. See Sasha Costanza-Chock’s discussion of equitable design practices in Design Justice (2020). She argues that “[t]he participatory turn in technology design, or at least the idea that design teams cannot operate in isolation from end users, has become increasingly popular over time in many subfields of design theory and practice…[including] participatory design (PD), user-led innovation, user centered design (UCD), human-centered design (HCD), inclusive design, and codesign, among a growing list of terms and acronyms.” (p.85) However, she also notes that many practitioners of these practices fail to “ask key questions about how to do design work in ways that truly respond to, are led by, and ultimately benefit the communities most targeted by intersectional structural inequality" (Costanza-Chock, 2020, p.85).
  12. See Bryan Keith Alexander’s “Embracing the Teachable Moment: The Black Gay Body in the Classroom as Embodied Text” in Black Queer Studies (2005).
  13. Most BAAS degree programs identify themselves in contrast with a liberal education founded in a traditional BA degree—that is, the BA is designed to prepare students with a liberal arts background for graduate education. They contrast the BAAS as a more vocationally-focused program that requires substantial academic education in “core academic [liberal arts] areas”. (College Atlas, 2014)
  14. DIGC 160 meets two different degree requirements, including as a Gateway course, and to meet the qualitative historical foundations requirement for the BAAS degree.
  15. Students in DIGC 160 filled out a Student Background Survey, which asked them both about their reasons for taking the course, as well as their goals for how they hoped to use what they learned in it. 23 of the 24 students who completed the course completed the survey, giving a holistic view of the goals and interests of the participants.


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Toward a Critical Instructional Design by Meryl Krieger and Clayton D. Colmon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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