Martha Burtis and Jerod Quinn

As we all witnessed our schools scrambling to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, the implications of instructional design had never felt so important—or so fraught. As our schools now scramble to “return to normal,” we wonder what we’ve learned? For many of us, the crisis brought into focus that the assumptions underpinning our instructional design, and our ID practices themselves, were failing our teachers, students, and institutions. Perhaps it was time for a new approach?

In March of 2021, Hybrid Pedagogy put out a call for chapters for a Critical Instructional Design Reader. That call asked the questions:

“What if technology had misled us, distracted us from what’s actually important for teaching online? What if technology has so far interpreted instruction for us—even from the days of correspondence courses—making the page, digital or otherwise, a surrogate for our pedagogies? How do we reclaim the relational, communal, intimate side of teaching when glass and pixels and apps stand between? When we undertake the work of defining and investigating critical instructional design, we must shift our focus from the screen to the student, from best practices to humanizing pedagogies.”

Submissions from North America, Europe, Africa, and Australia came in with a wide scope for how and why a problem-posing approach of critical pedagogy can be applied to online classes. We heard from instructional designers, educators, and students themselves. It quickly also became clear that while the COVID-19 global pandemic did not instigate these conversations, it certainly poured gasoline on the fire of implementing them. Care in online classes began to become a mainstream conversation among all kinds of educators as the pandemic created new tensions and exacerbated old ones on a literal global scale.

As the editors were sifting through the submissions we noticed two related, but divergent streams emerging. One stream was focused on creating environments and experiences grounded in care and compassion. It includes conversations about the logistical hurdles of building intentional hospitality into online experiences, but also the rewards of learners being included in the experience. The other stream focused on applying the ideals of critical instructional design to the course design process. These chapters challenged the assumptions of linear, western approaches to higher education and pushed the boundaries of what online learning can look like. The editors made the decision to gather these chapters into two sibling collections: Designing for Care and Toward a Critical Instructional Design. The collection you are reading is the Toward a Critical Instructional Design edited collection.

Toward a Critical Instructional Design

The idea of critical instructional design, while it is still nascent and demands continued commitment from us as we strive to define it and enact it, is rooted in the ideas of critical pedagogy first laid out by Pablo Freire. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he famously compared traditional education to banking:

“In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing…The students, alienated like the slave in the Hegelian dialectic, accept their ignorance as justifying the teachers existence — but unlike the slave, they never discover that they educate the teacher.”

Freire’s critique of the banking model of education is a cornerstone of critical pedagogy. And through that metaphor, he not only illustrates for us what is wrong with the status quo, he also begins to draw a path for us in another direction, leading us toward a problem-posing pedagogy:

“​​Those truly committed to liberation must reject the banking concept in its entirety, adopting instead a concept of women and men as conscious beings, and consciousness as consciousness intent upon the world. They must abandon the educational goal of deposit-making and replace it with the posing of the problems of human beings in their relations with the world.”

In the same way that Freire imagined a metaphor of capital (and its implied hoarding and distribution) as a metaphor for teaching, we would do well to understand the metaphors (and their implied practices) that underpin traditional instructional design. In fact, the roots of the field, in military and corporate training, point us in useful directions. Traditional ID often seems consumed with a militaristic and industrial ethos—and linear, mechanistic ways of describing learning (and, by extension, learners). It is demarcated by structures, rubrics, tools, and checklists. It fusses over design rules in which objectives are tidily mapped to activities that are neatly measured by assessments. In all this fussiness and tidiness, mechanics and measurements, it loses sight of the complex and messy humans that sit at its center—human teachers, students, and instructional designers. Freire describes the banking model of education as alienating and enslaving; similarly, traditional instructional design approaches separate learners from their humanity, expecting them to act as yet another (predictable and impersonal) cog in the industrial machine of learning.

Just as Freire insisted that we center humans in pedagogy, critical instructional design demands we find a way to center humans in the design of education. We must learn to live without our fussy tools and find new ways of imaging and describing the work of instructional design. What can we imagine, design, create, build that will liberate our design practices—and the humans inside of them—the way Freire helped liberate our classrooms—and the teachers and students inhabiting them? We hope that this volume is just the first exchange in a new and sustained conversation about critical instructional design.

Scope of the Collection

In this collection, you will find perspectives from across the globe engaged in a conversation about the purpose, meaning, and practice of critical instructional design. We are particularly proud of the wide range of voices included here, from students to designers to technologists to teachers. In addition, we have authors from Australia, Africa, Europe, and North America all sharing their work. We decided that changing the spelling of words to be the Americanized versions seemed to work against the value of letting people share their own stories in their own words. It might be a “little” thing, but it didn’t feel right to change these so you will see spelling variants throughout the collection. That choice was intentional.

Counter-Friction to Stop the Machine starts this collection by describing how current approaches undermine teachers, devalue instructional designers, and harm students. In the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more schools are doubling down on these problematic practices, making the need for a new, critical approach to instructional design all the more acute.

Centering the Margins through Critical Instructional Design situates us directly in the long shadow that COVID-19 has cast over colleges and universities. Importantly, they place the real, lived experiences of students at the center of the need for a critical instructional design, and they share specific practices to counter the harm students face.

Quiddity of Design in [learning + design] proposes we think more deeply about the philosophical dimensions of learning design. Through this probing into the “whatness” of our work we can learn to better understand, and operate within, the tensions, discomforts, and risks that often make their home in education.

Compassionate Learning Design as a Critical Approach to Instructional Design suggests we embrace compassion in our teaching and introduces a model for compassionate learning design that is structured around participation, justice, care, and an overarching commitment to praxis.

Indigenizing Design for Online Learning in Indigenous Teacher Education demonstrates how we can embrace and embed Indigenous perspectives and histories in our course designs. In particular, the authors focus on four pedagogical principles informed by Indigenous experiences: Indigenous knowledge frameworks, localization, multimodalities, and designing for relationships.

Hybrid Teaching is Not a Limbo Nor a Multiverse explores the HyFlex phenomenon that has recently permeated the higher education landscape and identifies one of its core challenges: teachers cannot sustain the “double-identity model” that is so often attempted. Alternatively, by adopting a Freirien dialogical approach, educators can develop a consistent teaching persona across modalities and contexts.

Building a Framework shares the story behind the development of an Application Framework for Critical Pedagogy. As a tool, the framework was designed to help faculty across a spectrum of experience to engage with and incorporate critical pedagogy approaches into their course design.

On Practice: Instructional Designer invites us to consider what it means to be an instructional designer, acknowledging all the baggage and buzzwords, but also prompting us to slow down and consider our own humanity in the work we do.

Quality Theater takes a closer look at one of the most prominent online instructional design tools and challenges us to consider more closely how these tools actually impact the success of our students. As an alternative, what if we focus on only those things that matter most: connection, inclusion, clarity, and an overarching theory of practice?

Siberian Syndrome in Online Learning dives into the power dynamics in the classroom and how, when we do not attend to them, students can find themselves on the periphery of the learning community. What happens when we apply this lens to the hybrid, online classroom, where technology creates new kinds of peripheries and reinforces power in new ways?

Building from Our Sensitive Edges focuses on the specific needs of “non-traditional,” adult, online learners and proposes an approach that embraces accessible, open, and adaptable practices. These practices allow us to explore mutual accountability, access and inclusion, and collaborative learning communities.

Militaristic Origins, Power, and Faux-Neutrality is an examination of traditional instructional design from the perspective of an education graduate student. In order to imagine a new critical instructional design, we must understand (and grow from) the missteps of the past.

Towards a Critical Instructional Design Framework examines the landscape of critical scholarship related to teaching and learning and synthesizes it into a framework for examining course design. We are asked to consider organization, tools, social relations, and practices but not through a traditional lens; rather, what happens when we interrogate their relationship to learner identity, representation, and power?

Thank you for exploring this volume and giving space for these authors’ voices. We hope that your reading brings into clearer focus both the ways in which our current instructional design practices are failing our teachers, students, and institutions and how we can begin to examine, reimagine, and create new practices, approaches, and communities for a critical instructional design.


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Toward a Critical Instructional Design Copyright © by Martha Burtis and Jerod Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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