2 Centering the Margins Through Critical Instructional Design

Amy Collier; Sarah Lohnes Watulak; and Jeni Henrickson


The COVID-19 pandemic created significant challenges for many, if not most, students in higher education. While many of the challenges students faced existed pre-pandemic, the pandemic illuminated and exacerbated inequities both in our institutions and in historical models of instructional design. Stommel and Burtis (2021) observed a trifecta of educational design issues that had long been simmering pre-pandemic: (1) the historical grounding of instructional design in hierarchical models that promote oppression; (2) the often overlooked basic life needs of students; and (3) a lack of faculty training and support.

The pandemic brought more human-centered instructional design approaches to the forefront. These included trauma-informed teaching strategies, and strategies that centered on care and community, flexibility, and student voice and choice. These approaches form core parts of our own pedagogy, teaching, and writing, and influenced our approach to the study we share in this chapter, which investigated students’ lived experiences of the forced transition to remote learning necessitated by the pandemic. In particular, we explore specific structural barriers and challenges students faced during that transition and share ideas for how we might use inclusive design and design justice to bring marginalized students to the core of our instructional designs – not just in reaction to a global crisis, but in an ongoing way.

As members of Middlebury’s digital learning organization, we wanted to understand the experiences of students who faced challenges during the pandemic, and particularly during the moment of the rapid transition to remote learning, and how institutional and faculty response shaped those experiences. We recruited participants from two campuses of our institution, an undergraduate college on the East Coast of the United States, and a graduate institute on the West Coast. We identified possible participants through targeted recruitment using data collected by the institution in surveys sent to students in Spring 2020. The surveys asked students to identify needs for support during the transition, including and beyond technology support. We sent an invitation to participate in the study via email to students who reported challenges, and four undergraduate and six graduate students agreed to participate.

For the research design, we chose a post-intentional phenomenological approach, which emphasizes, “the various ways that phenomena are socially produced in context” (Valentine, Kopcha, & Vagle, 2018, p. 466). The approach recognizes and accounts for the specificities of a phenomenon as produced in a particular moment in a particular time and context — in this case, in the context of a global pandemic. Study data were collected via two thirty-minute semi-structured interviews conducted via video conference, a written narrative shared by participants, and researcher reflexivity journals. We took a whole-part-whole approach to data analysis, completing line-by-line readings and coding of the data. Via this process, we crafted tentative manifestations and essence statements (Pazurek-Tork, 2014), and later, a full narrative of the students’ shared experience of the transition to remote learning. In Section 2 of this paper, we unpack the main elements of that experience. Frequent research team discussion, as well as individual reflection on our assumptions and positionality vis à vis the study, was also woven throughout the process.

Here, we share the story of one student, Nina, which illustrates the early days of the pandemic shift to remote learning for some students. The narrative is largely in her own words, with some editing for length and to protect privacy. All participant names shared throughout the chapter are pseudonyms.

Spring break 2020 wasn’t much of a break. One day melted into the next, full of anxiety and unhelpful emails, without much sleep in between. I spent the first five days of break driving west from campus to where a friend of mine was living. Going to my parent’s house wasn’t an option. My plan was to just bounce around from backyard to backyard, campsite to campsite, living out of my car.

As stressed as I was in the days immediately following the announcement that campus was closing as I tried to figure out where to go, arriving at a destination didn’t bring much relief. Once I pitched my tent in the dusty backyard of a friend’s rental, it was immediately apparent that finding a place to stay was the least of my problems. My friend didn’t have internet, and my phone had limited data. I was looking at my bank account, trying to figure out how I was going to afford food, gas for my car, and also buy enough data to connect to online classes. All the places I might have been able to connect under normal circumstances — coffee shops, libraries — were closed in the initial pandemic shutdown, so I was looking at having to buy a new data plan for my phone, which would double my expenses.

My college had promised that we’d be refunded room and board, but that didn’t seem like it’d be back in my pocket for a while. I hadn’t budgeted for living expenses this spring besides those associated with living on campus, and I estimated I had less than two weeks before I would have to start exploring the offerings of local grocery store dumpsters.

I spent a day talking with everyone I knew who might be able to help me find some sort of remote work. I had no idea if I’d be able to manage my full course load while working the hours necessary to have any sort of meaningful income. I didn’t get the chance to find out because in the uncertainty of lockdown and projected economic downturn, no one was hiring.

The days before classes started were dominated by a frustrating swirl of emails with deans and professors, some of whom were proactive about reaching out. I read but didn’t respond to emails from professors who were asking students about our living situations, our availability, our internet access, because I didn’t know what each new week would bring, and I was too embarrassed to share my own personal situation over and over again.

Eventually my advisor and another professor close to me were looped into my situation and got me some cash for living expenses from a fund I hadn’t known about, and a dean found a bit of money for a mobile hotspot and data plan — not enough to cover the full cost, but with the other cash, it was enough to get to the end of the year.

The rest of the semester was not easy, but the low point was the second week of spring break when I genuinely doubted I would be able to finish my coursework. Not just because I didn’t think I had enough data to get to the end of a month of Zoom classes, but also because it seemed like I might have to focus entirely on finding a job and working rather than finishing my studies. I’m so grateful to several of my professors who worked with me to create low-internet versions of their class, who were flexible with deadlines when I was on the road, and who helped me get funding to get through the semester.

Students’ lived experience of the transition to remote learning is ultimately a story of connection and disconnection. While technology barriers inhibited students’ access to courses, faculty, and friends, and were a source of ongoing frustration, the essence of students’ experience of the transition to remote learning isn’t “students hated Zoom.” Rather, it’s a story of trauma, disconnection, and loss.

In the remainder of this chapter, we will explore harms that students faced in their learning experiences, sharing their stories in their own words; and we offer suggestions for how we might counter those harms through specific instructional design strategies grounded in care and community, flexibility, student voice and choice, and design justice.

Student Experiences of the Pandemic Transition

The lived experiences of students we interviewed painted a bleak picture of lives disrupted by the pandemic. Some students talked about “surviving” the transition — not because they are prone to hyperbole but because they struggled with existential challenges. Students who self-identified as coming from marginalized communities (BIPOC, low income, LGBTQ+) expressed a compounding effect — they already felt challenges associated with their experiences of marginalization and those were compounded by experiences caused by the transition. Those students not only had to deal with changes to their learning, they also had to deal with homelessness, abuse, hunger, and a lack of basic access to needed services, support, and infrastructure. Many faced mental and emotional trauma. Kai shared: “the first thing that went through my head was like I’m about to be, you know, flushed into a much less safe environment for my physical and emotional well being, which would just entirely dampen my ability to focus on school work…That thing was me having to move to a completely new area. I don’t know how to drive. I don’t have a car. There was no public transport. I had no friends. I have an abusive family. And that, I guess, like background struggle was all that was going through my mind when I thought about how I am gonna continue my life as I know it now as a student.”

For many, stability was tied up in access to the institution — its supports, schedule, community, services — and when those were suddenly shut down, students suffered their loss. Casey highlighted how the pandemic revealed inequities in students’ lives: “[the institution] is really great at…like not everyone is on the same playing field, but at least I had steady internet, at least I had my own room. At least I had a desk, a library, like these very bare essentials, right? And so going back [home], I did have internet but it was very spotty at times…I didn’t have my dedicated workspace…there was a lot of distractions…And then also I think there’s like a cultural barrier. ‘Cause my family is first generation immigrants. And so my mom was like ‘why? Why are you doing that? Like come have dinner.’ There was a lot of conflict that added to my, it was like a barrier sort of to being able to completely focus.”

While some students reported fewer dire struggles, all noted that the transition to remote learning created significant hurdles that they had to navigate, and quickly. As they dealt with those transitions, students also had to deal with the new reality of their educational experience. Technological barriers were widespread, as were other access issues, like having classes with live sessions in the middle of the night for students in distant time zones. Some of the “technical” barriers students identified were created when faculty did not center the perspectives of remote students, which became especially problematic in the fall semester, when some students returned to campus for courses and some remained remote. Jin described challenges with that mixed-modality format: “whenever the professor would turn towards the white board and start writing, his audio, the quality would become worse, simply because he wasn’t facing the mic. And you know, the camera’s [facing the front] and so when he’s engaging with the classroom, I can’t see the other students and like that’s a little weird…it also just sort of makes you feel a little marginalized, almost as if you’re not really getting the entire experience because there’s an entire classroom of people actually sitting there.”

For many students, the transition forced a reorientation of their time, and for students who were in distant time zones, time was a continual barrier to participation, access to learning resources (such as office hours), and community. Jin, who lived 9 ½ hours ahead of his campus time zone, connected his time-zone challenges to his struggle to manage workloads: “I would write that email in my night, and in the next morning I would receive a response and then I would write an email back to the professor, and then I would receive a response either in night or the next morning…it wasn’t sustainable. It was very frustrating, especially because you know, I was spending more hours doing things that could have been easily resolved in office hours.”

While some students appreciated how their part of the institution managed the transition, others expressed frustration over how support, communications, and policies were handled. Opportunities for support were difficult to identify, and students like Nina were often “bounced around”: “I had not budgeted to be buying my own food until June, right? And so if they could have refunded us right away, that would have been fine, but they couldn’t….So then this professor and through this fund I was able to get money to get me through the rest of the year until I could start working…but that wasn’t advertised or sent around, [it] took a professor talking to another professor.” She added: “I think if [the institution] cared about our mental health, they would have given us an A/A- grading system. I think if they cared about our mental health they would have given students on financial aid 400 bucks when they closed campus…for getting home…for getting through the next few weeks. Like things would have been so much more for my mental health than having someone to talk to. And I think [the institution] thinks that it’s just counselors, and it’s group therapy sessions, and resources about self-care and puppies at finals. But if they actually, like that, ’cause what stresses us out during the pandemic are having places to live, having food to eat…I think that is the essence of what I wish the school had just focused on is all those material things.”

Changes to community may have impacted students the most in terms of their educational experience. Many students reported feelings of isolation and loneliness, and of missing the community of friends and professors they had previously enjoyed. Some struggled with learning in isolation and would sometimes take extraordinary measures to join live class sessions (like waking up at 2am, or driving to a restaurant with free WiFi). Students craved connection with professors and classmates. Some found that connection through live sessions that were structured around dialogue and community building, rather than lecture, office hours, and group work. Graduate students in particular struggled with the amount of group work assigned and with coordinating projects with classmates around the world.

Even when access to peers remained relatively unchanged, for students who stayed on campus or with roommates with whom they were living pre-pandemic, relationships sometimes changed, shaped by the need to now learn, sometimes work, and live together. Val highlighted how isolation compounded her feelings of marginalization: “as a person of color at [the institution], I was more mentally challenged, psychologically too, because it was already challenging as in-person. And then there was a realization that we’re going to go online. And that means probably less connection with people. Especially with mental health, like I needed, personally…I would love to have seen my friend in the program and ’cause you know we were always together at the library. We are able to like vent and then work on stuff so that transition of like, ‘oh we’re going to be online,’ it already feels disconnected.”

As students navigated new educational experiences, and the disruptions in their lives, many were unmotivated to complete work, participate in projects, and participate in non-curricular community activities offered by the institution. Ana shared: “I realized that I wasn’t even caring. I just felt as if, ‘oh, fine if I don’t submit, I don’t submit’…So then [the deadline] would push me to do it and then I would sit through it and finish it on time. But until then my attitude was basically ‘I don’t care about this. This is not important.’” Lack of motivation may also be tied to mental health issues faced by students. In addition to the trauma of homelessness, abuse, and financial strains reported by some students, most students reported loneliness and disconnection, headaches and other physical problems, worry about their health and the health of family members, the stress of navigating family and friend relationships changed by the pandemic, and stress associated with their courses. As Sidney noted, “I was also trying to think about like, if I do get sick or if someone in my family gets sick, do I want to be here by myself or do I want to be with them or where do I want to be, so…yeah, just like, a lot, like overwhelming amount of information and thoughts to think through in a very short amount of time.” Mental health stressors students faced were diverse and compounding, making it difficult for students to navigate their classes and difficult for faculty and staff to provide sufficient support. For example, Jae shared struggles with screen fatigue, especially during long synchronous Zoom class sessions: “You know, I could usually get to about the hour and a half mark, and then I was like…I’m here, but I’m not here. I’m not mentally here. And some professors were not good about breaks…or their breaks would be like, ‘oh OK, we’re, we’re running out of time, OK, take a three minute break.’ And I’m like, ‘my brain and my body need more than three minutes away from this screen.”

Mental and emotional trauma was pervasive and damaging to students. While some students took advantage of counseling services, most noted the limitations of those services, and they identified other strategies they needed to cope. Coping strategies included walking with friends or pets, talking on the phone to loved ones, and using strategies such as turning off their cameras during live class sessions–which several students explicitly named as “self-care.” Other students, like Ana, struggled with coping: “There were like two, three days after moving, I would just sit. I didn’t want to sit alone and think about what happened but every night when I would go to sleep, it would creep in. And then I was like ‘Oh no,’ I would brush it aside and then start thinking about or start studying for my finals.” Students who did take advantage of institutional support for mental and emotional wellbeing felt frustrated by its limits. Trina shared, “I was very sad that we were only given 6 free sessions for [therapy]. So I was always keeping track of which session this was…How can I get the most out of these six sessions…I was also panicking because of the limit.”

Students noted, and appreciated, the efforts that many (although, they reported, not all) faculty made to be empathetic and flexible during the transition, and students had empathy for professors who were also having to learn new ways of teaching. Students pointed to the flexibility around assignments and deadlines that professors gave during this time as an example of empathy in action, and appreciated when faculty put effort into organizing Canvas sites and adapting teaching to include synchronous and asynchronous activities. Students also shared frustrations with faculty who were less willing to be flexible, or who provided flexibility on a case-by-case basis: “some of the professors would, if students asked, be a little bit flexible, but it’s a lot of work and I have a couple of issues with that. For one of my classes, 10 other students and I had to go on a Zoom to talk to the professor about the ridiculous requirements of the class and how it was unreasonable. And even then we were told like, ‘no this has worked for 10 to 15 years, you’re not working hard enough’ and all this stuff…that doesn’t feel good…It was confusing and I think one of my professors would push back deadlines if a lot of students would ask but also that’s putting the burden on the students to reach out when it’s really hard to do that, and it takes a lot of courage and a large amount of being overwhelmed.”

Countering Harms Through Critical Instructional Design

At the moment of the pivot to remote learning in spring 2020, and throughout the academic year 2020-21, many newly adapted remote courses replicated and amplified existing inequities. It’s not uncommon for faculty and instructional designers to design for the “mythical average” (Holmes, 2018), treating the experiences of marginalized students as “edge cases” (p. 95-96). Costanza-Chock (2020) cautions that designing for this mythical average, or what they call the “imagined user,” reproduces inequality because “designers tend to unconsciously default to imagined users whose experiences are similar to their own… in the United States, this means (cis)male, white, heterosexual, ‘able-bodied,’ literate, college educated, not a young child and not elderly, with broadband internet access, with a smartphone, and so on.” In the case of remote courses, the imagined user or mythical average was assumed to be students who had access to basic needs such as food and a stable living environment, reliable internet access, a computer powerful enough to deal with streaming video and multiple applications, ability to interact with that computer for long periods of time, and the ability to access all needed technologies, among other things.

What would it have been like to instead design with “edge cases” in mind? What strategies can designers of learning experiences use to center the experience of students who are excluded by designs that create barriers to full participation in their learning? In this section, we explore how we might use tenets of critical instructional design, which “prioritizes collaboration, participation, social justice, learner agency, emergence, narrative, and relationships of nurture between students, and between teachers and students” (Morris, 2017), to counter some of the harms that students experienced during remote learning.

We offer four instructional design practices that respond to specific harms articulated by students in our study:

  1. Attend to the material and embodied nature of learning
  2. Build in flexibility as the default, not the exception
  3. Design for low-bandwidth users
  4. Combat isolation by creating connection within and beyond the course

For these practices, we include suggested strategies for putting practice into action. Practices and strategies are informed by critical and feminist pedagogy, inclusive design, and design justice frameworks that emphasize centering student voice, and student participation and agency in their learning.

It is important to note that when we design for the “mythical average,” students who are excluded must advocate for themselves in order to fully participate in their learning. In our study, Casey highlighted this burden: “Some students may not feel comfortable divulging their home situations and in doing that, it sort of creates this weird dynamic with professors…Students may think that the professor doesn’t trust them…some students may have to…share a little bit too much…more than what they’re comfortable sharing with the professor.” The strategies that we offer below can be used to proactively build into design practices many of the elements that students had to advocate for themselves during the pandemic.

While we are confident that instructional design approaches that center critical and inclusive practices can counter harms experienced by students, we also feel strongly that some harms students spoke of point to issues that need institutional solutions. Students at the margins of designs need to be centered in design work across the institution. We recognize that instructional designers are typically not positioned within institutions to have the power to shape conversations at that level. We also acknowledge that many of the practices described below have to do with the shape and approach to course content and activities, areas where instructional designers can make recommendations but often do not have the final say in adopting those recommendations. Still, we believe that entering into conversations with faculty about these issues is a beneficial small move toward more inclusive online learning design.

Practice: Attend to the material and embodied nature of learning

In our study, we heard from students who were harmed by policies and designs that did not account for the ways in which material lives and embodied selves intersect with learning. Students’ concerns about their material and embodied needs – a safe and quiet space to work, money for food and shelter, access to the internet, breaks from the computer – were not adjacent to students’ learning, they were necessary to learning. Posthumanist critiques of dis/embodiment and the lack of attention to materiality in digital learning argue that such things are integral to the co-construction of student learning (e.g, Bayne et  al., 2020). Gourlay (2021) unpacks this idea further, laying the groundwork for design approaches that account for the cognitive, social, and material aspects of learning:

“I would suggest that shifting the focus of practice towards the material and embodied allows us to view digital engagement as fully entwined with it, rather than seeing the material and embodied as context, or means to practice. This allows us to conceptualise digital knowledge practices in a more holistic manner. Issues of access to suitable devices and spaces then become part of practice, and can be brought to the fore. In pedagogic terms, greater prominence can be placed on the embodied nature of practice, thinking about length of time on screen, people’s physical needs for movement, physical comfort and breaks. The priorities of students with disabilities could be made more explicit. The (often gendered) reality of domestic contexts could potentially be made less hidden, and more integrated” (p. 64).

Attending to the material and embodied nature of learning means employing strategies that take into account the embodied experience of learners, strategies that invite students to bring their whole selves to class, and that seek to understand, give voice to need, and provide agency to fully participate in learning.

Strategy: Basic needs support

The Hope Center reported that during the pandemic, “58% [of students] were experiencing basic needs insecurity,” with students of color more likely to experience food and housing insecurity (2021, p. 32).  However, “the percentage of students experiencing some form of basic needs insecurity was not meaningfully higher in 2020 than in prior years” (2021, p. 36), pointing to the need to provide ongoing support. We suggest including a basic needs statement in the syllabus that provides information about support available at your institution. The Open CoLab at Plymouth State University (2020) reminds us to “be prepared to serve as a resource for students as they navigate challenges related to what you include,” and offers an excellent guide to becoming a resource for your students.

Strategy: Make space for students to check in with themselves at the start of class

This strategy was inspired by Andratesha Fritzgerald, author of the book Anti-Racism and Universal Design for Learning, who suggests asking your students at the beginning of class “what do you need to be successful or present in class today?” This brief but powerful question invites students to check in with themselves and set themselves up for success based on their needs at the moment. For a synchronous class session, that might mean showing up in pajamas, or keeping the camera off. It might mean making sure to have a snack and a drink handy. The question honors the individual needs of each student based on the ways in which the material and embodied are present and intertwined with their learning experience. In an asynchronous class, you might ask a version of this question at the start of each week.

Strategy: Build in movement and attention breaks

We heard from many students that they worked in front of their computers for 12 hours a day. It’s easy to forget that there’s a body and brain, which need to move and take a break from time to time, attached to the fingers that are typing on the keyboard. Build in regular movement or attention breaks in synchronous class sessions. In asynchronous course environments, you might create an activity within a module that invites students to take a break, or move around and stretch, etc.

Practice: Build in flexibility as the default

All students in our study noted their need and appreciation for flexibility in courses. Flexibility was inconsistently available to students; some professors provided flexibility upon request, others provided little to none, even when students requested it. Rarely, flexibility was built in from the start and available to all students independent of needs. While students desired flexibility, they also shared how important structure and consistency can be. One student noted that she was more successful in courses with well-defined deadlines because they kept her moving forward. Navigating tensions between structure and flexibility can be challenging, but designing for structured flexibility may provide students options while also offering clear paths to help students manage course workloads.

Why might faculty resist offering flexibility from the start? Some faculty may worry that offering flexibility creates additional work for them, either in the design or assessment of the course. They may worry that providing flexibility will lead to students’ taking advantage of them, leading to overly authoritarian and inflexible designs (Denial, 2019). The strategies in this section highlight how flexibility can be part of a “pedagogy of kindness” (Denial, 2019) that supports students in achieving academic goals.

Strategy: Rethink syllabi policies

In the post “Cruelty-Free Syllabi,” Cheney (2019) encourages faculty to review their syllabi and ask the following questions:

  • What’s the tone of [my] syllabus? Do negative commands overwhelm positive invitations?
  • Is the premise of the syllabus that students are untrustworthy?
  • Are [my] policies designed to punish more than to support?

Denial (2017) shared that her “old syllabus suggested that students had to be told what to do or they’d mess it up. It communicated that they should passively receive my instruction, and it gave them no credit for their intelligence, integrity, or creativity.” Cheney (2019) recommends using language that invites students to talk to their professors, language that acknowledges that their lives are filled with other commitments, and language that helps students understand the value of attendance, participation, and on-time assignment submission.

Strategy: Offer a participation menu

Inspired by a faculty colleague and by principles of Universal Design for Learning approaches for multiple means of engagement (CAST,  2018), we have used a participation menu that provides students with multiple ways to participate in class. Participation menus can offer opportunities to interact with others in the class and to do individual work that counts as participation. They might also offer synchronous/scheduled and asynchronous ways to participate, to help accommodate students who want and can connect synchronously and those who cannot. Students also noted that they appreciated flexibility in assignment options, such as being able to submit assignments in different formats (podcast, video, text) and having options for assignment topics or foci.

Strategy: Rethink grading

A rigid approach to grading, often driven by a desire for “rigor,” can restrict how much flexibility faculty feel they can offer students. Consider approaches to grading that increase flexibility, such as ungrading (Denial, 2017) or contract grading (Warner, 2016). These approaches provide options for students to decide how much work they want to complete, to reflect on their learning and the quality/quantity of their work, and to engage collaboratively with the professor about their grades. There is a bonus benefit, too, as faculty who have used these approaches say that they have made grading “fun” and that they don’t plan to go back to traditional approaches to grading (Denial; Warner).

Practice: Design for low-bandwidth users

We heard from students in the study that access to high-speed internet was sometimes a barrier to participation in class. Even when the majority of students in a class have reliable access to high-speed internet, designing for “edge cases” has benefits for all students (as is frequently the case when we design inclusively). In our work, we often draw on the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework to argue for designing course content and activities that are flexible in terms of access, bandwidth, and learner preference. UDL’s flexible approach seeks to identify and ameliorate barriers to student participation in the learning environment at the moment of curriculum design, often by providing students with choices in terms of how to engage with content and activities.

Strategy: Provide content in multiple modalities

Providing content in multiple modalities is a small move with a big impact, and allows students to choose which modality best suits them, without having to ask. For example, if you have course videos, some applications make it relatively easy to share or extract audio-only versions to offer alongside the videos. If your video is captioned (highly recommended), you may be able to download the captions and turn them into a text transcript that can be shared. While we acknowledge that captioning takes time and effort, we are heartened by the inclusion of AI-assisted captioning tools in many digital platforms that are lowering the barrier to providing more accessible media. When providing images – including infographics – make sure to include a text description of the image.

Strategy: Offer meaningful text-based participation options

During the pandemic, faculty who required students to attend live class sessions frequently suggested that a recording of the session would be an acceptable alternative for students who were unable to attend. We argue that offering a recording of a live session is not an equitable option, as it does not provide opportunities for students to fully participate in their learning, and may still present bandwidth barriers. We suggest offering meaningful text-based alternatives for students to encounter and discuss content, such as social annotation of readings.

Strategy: Carefully consider the amount of synchronous time needed

Our study highlighted another type of limited bandwidth – time. We heard from students that small group work, especially when it required synchronous interaction outside of scheduled class time, was a challenge for students. Small group work can be designed as asynchronous activities using tools like the Groups area of Canvas, Teams channels, etc. If synchronous small group work is needed, consider building time for small groups to meet during regularly scheduled class time.

Practice: Create connection within and beyond the course

Students shared that the most significant challenges they faced during the pandemic transition related to feelings of isolation and loneliness, exacerbated by losses of their academic community. Whether teaching during a time of crisis or not, faculty should intentionally design courses for community while recognizing that marginalized students may already feel disconnected from or apart from their class and institution. During the pandemic, the notion of “building community” was often associated with synchronous Zoom sessions, which privileged students who had time, access to technology/internet access, time zones close to those of the campus, and an interest in connecting synchronously with others. Even for those students, Zoom fatigue often interfered with effective community-building inside and out of classes.

Strategy: Regularly check in with students

When we asked faculty and students about what worked well during the transition to remote learning, many highlighted how they did more check-ins, such as one-on-one calls or meetings, surveys, and conversations during class. Some faculty mentioned they plan to continue those practices to better understand and support students going forward. Part of antiracist pedagogy’s tenet of validation and equity-centered pedagogy, these practices can help marginalized students in particular feel supported and engaged in their learning environment (Ahadi & Guerrero, 2020).

Strategy: Provide multiple ways to connect

As faculty transitioned to remote learning, we heard many lament how challenging it was to create community in online/hybrid courses, given how “natural” and “easy” it was in face-to-face courses. We wonder how many of those “natural” communities are also “imagined” communities, best serving “unmarked” students (Costanza-Chock, 2020). Zoom was the tool of choice for faculty who wanted to replicate in-classroom dynamics; some used Zoom’s breakout rooms for small-group discussions. Inclusive design and design justice invite us to ask, “for whom is that approach to connection and community-building best suited, and for whom is it not?” Beyond synchronous interactions, look for asynchronous ways to create community in your class, including ways that are designed for and informed by marginalized students, such as digital storytelling using prompts such as “where are you local?” or “what’s the story of your name?” (Bali, 2020; Selasi, 2014).

Strategy: Let students lead community efforts

Building on participatory design approaches, create opportunities for students to lead community-building efforts. This may start with having students to co-construct community guidelines or norms for course interactions. Students can create and facilitate discussions in the LMS or community space (e.g., Slack). Students can bring creative energy and diverse perspectives — building class community through art, music, storytelling, and more. Encourage students to develop multiple means of participation, including analog approaches and embodied approaches (e.g., using their voice, using movement).


All of the students with whom we spoke faced challenges during the pandemic shift to remote learning, ranging from technology to time to workspace to support structures, mental health, and safety. Notably, students who already felt marginalized from the dominant culture and discourse of the institution — particularly students who identified as international or BIPOC — experienced a compounding of marginalization, impeding full participation in their learning experience. Students’ basic life needs were sometimes overlooked in the rush to go online, and assumptions were at times made by administrators, faculty, and instructional designers alike, tied to a “mythical user,” that burdened students with additional trauma.

The strategies we outlined above serve as a first step to address some of the barriers and traumas faced by the students we interviewed. These barriers existed before the pandemic and were exacerbated by the pandemic. The recommendations in this chapter can and should be extended beyond the pandemic as part of an ongoing pedagogy of care for our students. We can apply these suggestions to all course design projects in the hopes of avoiding future harms.

Significant shifts in instructional design practice such as these will require us to more intensively and intentionally explore what it might look like to build these types of approaches into “standard” instructional design practice as a whole, and to connect instructional design as a profession with inclusive design and design justice. This requires a shift from behaviorist roots and practices (Bradshaw, 2018; Watters, 2021) to a mindset of working openly, co-creating with students, and embodying participatory design, while working to make antiracist and inclusive practices part of the broader curriculum.


Ahadi, H.S. & Guerrero, L.A. (2020). Decolonizing your syllabus, an anti-racist guide for your college. Academic Senate for California Community Colleges. https://asccc.org/content/decolonizing-your-syllabus-anti-racist-guide-your-college

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Toward a Critical Instructional Design Copyright © by Amy Collier; Sarah Lohnes Watulak; and Jeni Henrickson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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