Dana Grossman Leeman
James Altman



What is the soul and how do we bring it to our work, relationships, and lives? How do we create courses for adult learners that connect with their souls and intellect, especially if we can neither succinctly define or operationalize the construct? The Merriam-Webster (2019) dictionary defines the soul as the spiritual, immortal, or immaterial part of a human being or animal. A secondary definition reveals that soul may constitute an emotional or intellectual energy that manifests in an individual’s artistic work. In her poem, Why I wake early, the late Mary Oliver (2004) reflected on the meaning and nature of the human soul and concluded that it was (mostly) unknowable. “…and what the soul is, also I believe I will never quite know. Though I play at the edges of knowing, truly I know our part is not knowing, but looking, touching, and loving (pp. 4-5). Despite the intangibility of the soul, maintaining the integrity of the learner’s soul and their internal emotional lives and regarding them with compassion and intentional kindness are very much our guiding principles in course design and teaching. Doing this is complicated; it is the creative challenge of our work, and the narrative of this chapter.

In their article, Engagement and kindness in digitally mediated learning with teachers, Cramp and Lamond (2016) chronicled the process by which they created an online module informed by the “principles of engagement, dialogue, and kindness at its center,” where educators have an obligation to “shape digital learning landscapes into equitable, human, and democratic environments” (pp. 1–2). In addition to those values and practices, we add that course design must contain empathic attunement to the holistic needs of the learner, establish a mutually respectful relationship between the learning experience designer and the professor, and create emotionally resonant educational experiences. Bell (2011), as cited in Cramp & Lamond (2016) stated that learning is emotional work, and that attunement to the learner’s needs and positionality is an act of kindness that does not diminish academic quality or rigor. This will be explored further in this chapter. Creating compassionate course design involves a parallel process, with the course designer empathically attuned to the professor and vice versa, and with both attuned to the cognitive, social, and emotional needs of the student.

There is much to consider when creating a course, and one might assume that the process begins with the curriculum. As course design commences, conversations in this phase begin with a review of the syllabus, or a preliminary map or outline that details the knowledge areas and topics to be covered, and the order in which they must be taught. Practically, the foundation is built. The curricular world has been mapped, and one refines that map (or not) over time as one teaches the course. This strategy might seem logical, for at least two reasons. First, the professor is probably a content expert, and categorization of knowledge areas is useful and intuitive, and reflects their particular areas of study. Less obvious is that faculty often teach the way that they themselves were taught. One artifact of this approach, and perhaps an unintended consequence, is that seasoned faculty can lose sight of their students’ cognitive, social, and learning needs and preferences as they are newly exposed to knowledge and skills. The gap between expert and novice complicates teaching and learning, and for learners, might result in disenfranchisement from their faculty, from their peers, and from course content. In the aggregate, this could derail or prevents learning from being meaningful, impactful, or transformative—that is, it prevents what Dee Fink (2013) refers to as significant learning experiences.

Faculty most often write syllabi based on three criteria: program and accreditation requirements, institutional standards for rigor and quality, and their own particular strengths and expertise. Benchmark assignments, learning activities, and assigned readings typically reflect these guiding criteria. Pedagogical approach, however, often emerges as a kind of muscle memory (e.g., “I was taught a particular way, within a particular academic culture, and I will carry the tradition forward”).

We argue that curricular design begins by identifying the skill-based competencies that students should have attained by the end of the course, and it is from this desired endpoint that the means to achieve these outcomes are constructed. This is the essence of inductive or backward design. The professor and learning experience designer (hereafter LXD) make critical decisions that will support the learner toward meeting articulated learning outcomes.

For students, the path toward successful completion of a course is paved with literature, experiential activities, quizzes, papers, some form of class participation expectations, and a combination of no-stakes, low-stakes, and high-stakes assessments. We believe in treating each learner as a whole human being with cognitive, social, and emotional needs that must be met throughout learning experience design.

In serving the needs of the student, the good teacher attempts to see things from the student’s perspective. This is an essential prerequisite of kindness” (2010, as cited in Cramp & Lamond, 2016, p. 2). To this end, as you read this chapter we challenge you to maintain a mental image of faculty and students that you have known and connect with those associations and feelings. We hope that this will ignite your curiosity about the experience of online teaching and learning in new ways.

Brookfield (2015) remarks that “the language of student learning is, on the whole, fairly bloodless . . .. Yet as any teacher knows, learning—particularly that involving risk, discomfort, or struggle—is highly emotional (p. 55).” The intentional separation of rational thinking from emotion is not only a western educational tradition, but is evident in the work of Plato and Descartes—who elevated rational thought and devalued learning as an affect-laden process (Ashton & Stone, 2018). We now know from neuroscience and cognitive psychology that emotions can deepen and accelerate learning, and improve retention (Cavanaugh, 2018); equally, however, they can become a barrier when a student is deeply fearful, anxious, and insecure in their abilities. As previously stated, learning often evokes intense feelings that may include anxiety, terror, shame, paralysis, impostorship, insecurity, anger, joy, excitement, pleasure, pride, love, curiosity, wonder, awe, and transformation. We maintain that these feelings are experienced in parallel by educators, who can use this awareness to mindfully design courses infused with compassion and emotion, leading to multi-dimensional online presence and deeper investment. We assert that compassionate and soulful educational experiences are the result of faculty and LXDs keeping the learner alive and three-dimensional in their imaginations and hearts. We also believe that the use of compassion extends to the LXD holding their faculty partner in a similar regard. We believe that each stakeholder (faculty and LXD) must be willing to take some personal risk to grow this working relationship from purely transactional and potentially objectifying to one that is characterized by interdependence, and allows for the mutual evocation of vulnerability, curiosity, apprehension, resistance, excitement, hope, and a host of other emotions that add depth and richness to their partnership and, ultimately, to the course they design. As a newly constituted team, the professor and LXD envision and bring to life a complex learning journey for students in a way that maximizes the shared and distinct knowledge and skills that they bring to the work, while building a relationship that allows them to be authentic with each other.

Definitions of Relevant Concepts

Throughout this chapter several terms will be used that merit definitional clarity. They are by no means exhaustive but they undergird our meaning making and lay a foundation for our philosophical approach to learning experience design, and praxis. By so doing we undertake to locate ourselves in this work, thereby engaging in reflexivity.

Reflexivity (noun): The theory and process by which one engages in a conscious effort to consider the impact of one’s perceptions, actions, and meaning making on others (Reinharz, 2010). Our philosophy about learning experience design derives from our individual and combined experiences as adult learners and as designers of online learning. Our core beliefs include the following: First, we believe in addressing the whole human being in our learning experience design. We take this as far as exploring the idea of the soul in order to improve our practice. To do that we continually evaluate our own mental models of what it means to learn. We believe that this kind of attunement to self and those with whom we work serves to create richer relationships between faculty and their students in distance education settings, and profoundly connects the LXD to the very personal and emotional nature of adult learning in a way that impacts course design.

Compassion (noun): An individual’s ability to feel another human being’s feelings, particularly in moments of sadness and distress, and in so doing, innately wishing to alleviate the other’s suffering (Compassion, 2019).

Intention (noun). A sense of resolve and determination to act in a certain way, often characterized as the state of mind with which an act is done. Our use of intention is aligned with the secondary definition in that ‘intention’ connotes the rationale and justification for a method or practice and its application, with the expectation that it will yield a desired outcome (Intention, 2019).

Authenticity (noun). Genuine and original (Authenticity, 2019).

Cogenerative dialogues (noun). Dialogues that are structured exchanges between students and their faculty, and between academic colleagues. These conversations emphasize the co-development of strategies for instruction and classroom activities that focus on students’ academic and socioemotional needs. These conversations create less-hierarchical learning experiences, democratize the classroom, and build student self-agency (Emdin, 2016).

Dialectic (noun). A potentially transformative approach to learning in which there are dynamic, flexible, and reciprocal interactions between investigators and the objects or subjects of their inquiry (Dewey, 1958 as cited in Haynes, 2018; Haynes, 2018; Lipman, 2003 as cited in Haynes, 2018).

Picture the Reader

As demonstrated throughout this chapter, consciously designing courses to engage the whole human being is at the core of our approach to learning experience design. Therefore, we begin with you, our reader. Who are you? One way to answer that question is to create reader personas (see Appendix C), which derive from user experience and human-centered design practices. Generally applied, doing so helps the designer answer the question “Who is going to use what I’m trying to produce? What preferences, histories, and biases are the learners bringing to the table?” We will use a few categories to picture you, as a demonstration of the practice and to model how you can tune into your learners. We encourage you to remember that during the process, the faculty member with whom you partner may be the learner you have to keep in mind. To support readers’ understanding of our work, we created a few representative personas that incorporate the characteristics and perspectives of three learners who might be reading this chapter. Please see Appendix C to read about Ramona, Daniel, and Omar.

Picture the Online Learner

In your mind’s eye, see them (we use gender-neutral pronouns) turning on their computer and logging on to the digital campus. Perhaps this is their first time doing so, and they are not digitally confident. Maybe it has been many years since they were last in school. What might they be feeling? What external concerns are weighing on them as they log in? What might they expect or notice? What might induce anxiety as they begin to navigate the course materials on the learning management system? Imagine the volume of information to which they are being exposed. Imagine them posting for the first time on the discussion forum or course wall, or disclosing personal information to their instructor or colleagues. Imagine all of the cognitive performance demands imposed upon them: imagine how they feel.

Picture the Faculty Member

As a co-author of this chapter, I want to share with you my experience as a faculty who was recruited by the institution’s leadership to create an online course in 2013. At the time, I knew nothing about distance education. Although I had decades of teaching experience and content expertise I didn’t know how to translate brick-and-mortar approaches to a digital space. I felt overwhelmed, angry, resentful, fearful, and lost. The American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron (2001, p. 91) wrote:

Working with life’s obstacles is life’s journey. The warrior is always coming up against dragons. Of course the warrior gets scared, particularly before the battle. It’s frightening. But with a shaky, tender heart the warrior realizes that he or she is just about to step into the unknown, and then goes forth to meet the dragon.

The dragon is a metaphor not so much for online education per se, but for all of the unknowns that are evoked when one enters this new world. In my first experience with online teaching, I was plagued by questions: Would I care about my online students even though we were not physically in the same space? Would teaching online, with a computer between me and my students, unsettle all I thought I believed to be true about my teaching? After years of thinking I was a competent educator, would I realize, in front of a national audience and the university, that I was a fraud? Would I fail? At the time, most of these feelings were largely unnamed and unconscious and enacted through resistance and defensiveness.

Imagine the professor who meets an LXD team for the first time and responds to them with cynicism and hostility. The LXD may symbolize all that is threatening about this new frontier. For faculty, the LXD may represent a loss of independence. When I met my LXD and producer team for the first time, who could not have been warmer or more welcoming, I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach and thought: “You are like locusts. You’ve come to devour and destroy everything I love and care about teaching.” Imagine being the LXD who is trying to build a partnership with this faculty member.

Picture the LXD: Role and Skills of the Learning Experience Designer

The LXD must be mindful of their role as they try to balance the complicated equation of online educator and online student. When we say “LXD,” we want to be clear about what we mean. One might associate it with titles and roles such as instructional designer, eLearning designer, course developer, or course strategist. People in those roles bring varied perspectives to their work, and with many overlaps. It is a safe assumption that they feel comfortable writing learning objectives and goals resembling skills or competencies that enable them to make design decisions, and regularly assess instructional alignment. We call these traditional instructional design skills. Although it is important for the designer to spend time and energy on these tasks, we argue that these tasks alone are not enough to make an LXD successful. It might be easy to imagine a person in any of these roles deeply considering the learner’s cognitive ambitions, but does their ingrained or defined practice consider the whole human being—brain, heart, and soul? For example, has the designer thought about whether or not the student will smile or laugh while taking this course? Has the designer considered what the learner’s day was like, or the social context that impacts how the student will engage with content and what they will feel about this learning experience? This empathic exercise needs to be conducted from the start and repeated throughout the design and development process. If the designer does this regularly, then they are not merely designing instructional content; they are moving toward designing compassionate learning experiences. In this section we will walk through what we consider the essential LXD skills for compassionate course design. (Figure 2.)

The experienced LXD ideally operates from a set of evolving principles and practices. In this work the LXD should draw on two major areas. First, it is important that their method is grounded in evidence. The LXD must keep abreast of current relevant research in the ever-expanding fields of cognitive and learning science, neuroscience, educational psychology, and user experience (UX). Additionally, the LXD and professor together must establish and promote a culture of learning where relationships and an inquiring mindset flourish beyond the content and concepts of the course. This should be true for the learning journey that the LXD and the professor go on together, and for the students taking the course. As the LXD and faculty work openly and honestly together, they can use their shared learning experience to build reflexivity into the course design. Research suggests that learners benefit from self-assessment at frequent junctures (McDonald & Boud, 2003), and building reflexivity in from the start can be an effective way to accomplish that. In other words, if the professor and LXD stop to self-assess on their own learning journey, they might be more likely to incorporate this learning design best practice in the course they are designing.

If we connect these principles with the need to understand and account for our partner’s learning curve, which we will discuss further below, we can see how these principles could be applied in two directions. Outwardly these principles guide the development of the eventual learning experience, but inwardly they guide the interaction of the designer and the professor. The LXD should think of themselves as the learning guide for the faculty, who—especially if they are new to course design—is a learner throughout this process. (Figure 1) The LXD should try to understand the professor’s perspective and consider how their experiences in teaching and learning might also influence their instincts for course design. As we have established, the LXD must not lose sight of the learner, particularly in terms of the learner’s thoughts and feelings. This effort to picture the learner guides many design decisions that the LXD and professor make together. While the LXD will maintain an evolving set of effective learning approaches or methods that can be applied across courses and disciplines, the specifics matter. The LXD should ensure that the design for any particular course seeks to meet the needs of the experience on a case-by-case basis incorporating the anticipated needs of the learner profiles and the professor’s own humanness.

Of the many responsibilities and skills that support the principles and practices of learning experience design, one lies squarely at the feet of the LXD, especially at the start of the process. The LXD has to build trust with their faculty partner quickly and effectively. Effective and free-flowing communication is intrinsic to building trust. From the beginning of their collaboration, the LXD creates and supports rich written communication and verbal discourse. Until such time as technology allows us to share thoughts wirelessly or create thoughts collaboratively, thought partners will have to write and speak to each other. Since each person brings their history and biases to that relationship, the LXD must work to create an environment that is comforting. They need to learn how best to support their partner, which requires the LXD to develop and refine skills in communication and emotional attunement.

Much of the relationship building during the initial stages of work is a form of investigative journalism. For example, it can be quite helpful for the LXD to interview the professor about their coursework using strategic questioning rather than simply outlining topics. Moreover, outlining topics can promote the idea that the course is about delivering information, rather than creating a journey of inquiry and learning (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 1999). Thus, the LXD must become adroit at interviewing, intentional listening, creating and following lines of questioning, discovering and tracking key elements of content such as difficult concepts or nuanced understanding, and asking smart and evocative questions that lead to deeper inquiry. During this discovery process, the LXD should take comprehensive notes. They are obviously useful to reference at later stages, but can also serve as a means of leading the conversation in the moment. One might imagine the LXD saying, “Earlier in this meeting you said, ‘At this point in the class, I’m not really delivering new content, I’m helping the students synthesize several concepts.’ Could you walk me through how you help the students here?” This could mean several things from a learning experience standpoint and is likely a critical learning opportunity, so taking notes on the conversation prevents the LXD from interrupting the professor’s train of thought, while providing a basis for investigative follow-up later in the conversation. After particularly in-depth and intense meetings, it is useful to review one’s notes while the conversation is still fresh. This triad of asking, writing, and processing is an important skill to use not only in these meetings but throughout the continued collaboration with your partner. The LXD should practice, be mindful of, and continually work to improve empathic verbal communication. The inquiry methods discussed above certainly require a baseline of questioning skills to avoid railroading the conversation during the interview, but there are many other opportunities to gather and elicit the intentions of the professor, to remove pretense and get to the heart of the matter of what this course should be doing in service of student outcomes. We all want to work with a partner who demonstrates empathic understanding throughout a long collaboration. Life can deliver unforeseen trials during the project, and working through sometimes difficult personal situations requires empathy, diplomacy, and compromise. The LXD should be aware of what else is placing demands on their partner and proactively seek to get a sense of these demands. The LXD and professor need to tune in to the obligations and rhythms of each other’s lives. This can be done gently, tactfully, and not intrusively, and conveys to the professor that the LXD is aware that they have a life outside of the academy. We ask LXDs to consider their own partnerships. As you read this, do you know if your faculty partner has children? What are their communication preferences? At some point during their work together, the LXD may need to have difficult conversations with their partner to ensure the best possible product, and the best solution may demand that faculty step out their comfort zone. A safe relational space is developed through nurturing a relationship where each member values the other and does not underestimate the other’s expertise. Each partner is bringing a form of expertise, but the professor must traverse a steep learning curve if they are new to designing online learning experiences.

Accounting for the perspective of the professor and considering their experiences as a teacher and adult learner profoundly shape the design process. For faculty new to course design, the designer can be an apt guide who illuminates the myriad steps and decisions that must be made, from strategic direction to detailed production methods. Faculty creating their first online course may also be unfamiliar with the conceptual frameworks and research related to teaching and learning. While many faculty have had years of experience in the classroom, they may have had few opportunities to immerse themselves in theories of adult learning and emerging pedagogies. Often, faculty focus their own professional development within their area of content or practice expertise. They may not have engaged in disciplined study of the art and practice of teaching. Another aspect that will likely feel new to many professors is creating an online course that will eventually be taught by others. There are many design implications for courses built for scale, and the LXD must incorporate those elements and orient faculty to what that entails. To develop a good course, it will help to have a shared understanding of the environment. In these cases, the designer describes the world of online learning and assists the professor to find options and boundaries. The LXD provides critical support and ballast as they navigate this new world together. As their relationship evolves, each partner is more likely to share their individual and collective intentions and hopes for what this course could become and mean to learners.

Let us further unpack the importance of a professor’s prior teaching experiences, because the DNA of their professional approaches is omnipresent in course design and will leave some imprint on the course itself. Imagine a professor who has spent 20 years lecturing in very large introductory courses, and is most comfortable assessing students with one midterm and one final exam. The approach of the LXD will be very different than if the professor has taught smaller seminars using the Socratic method. The designer will use interviewing skills and active listening, as discussed previously, to better understand the professor as a learner in the design process. From there, the LXD will translate and transform the successes found in the professor’s pedagogic style into asynchronous and/or synchronous learning experiences. Both lectures (direct instruction) and the Socratic method can have a place in online learning, but more importantly, the faculty’s perspectives on those delivery or interaction modalities may be the catalyst needed to incorporate alternative, and possibly more compassionate, online approaches. For example, while the Socratic method may be a tried and true method for teaching and learning in law or business education, the execution and quality of impact yielded by the method can vary greatly. The extent to which the professor is committed to this method can be very informative and will influence the designer’s process. Cold-calling in a large lecture hall as a starting point for a lecture and discussion might be a good way to increase student participation, but the follow up on those questions is critical (Dallimore, 2013). If the questions were designed to rarely have correct answers in a way that requires students to think critically and defend their thinking, then the door to improving learning outcomes might be opened beyond just participation induced by cold-calling. Faculty can enter the design process with preferences or experiences that reside on this spectrum. Identifying this at the beginning of the work informs the trajectory that they will follow. If trust has been established, the LXD can encourage reflection on how the design process is being shaped by the faculty as a learner. If the LXD can help the professor understand their own movement on the learning curve of learning experience design, this can have a profound effect on both the design and the professor’s development.

We subscribe to the maxim that learning is a journey and not a destination (Dewey, 1938). From this perspective, the journey for the new professor should include learning experiences that transform their perspective on what is important in the design of learning experiences. The LXD too will continually grow through accumulated practice wisdom and review of available evidence, and then will use and test these understandings in their work with faculty.

There is one more skill that we believe is important to advocate, and it can be challenging for many LXDs to incorporate into their evolving set of practices: questioning assumptions and inviting dissent. The list of skills shared in this chapter is not comprehensive by any means, as it has focused on the skills most critical to compassionate course design, but that does not mean one cannot foment conversations where world views and perspectives may clash. Encouraging dissent may feel counterintuitive, but that is the reason it is so crucial. When deep in the collaborative and supportive back and forth of design, especially with the intent to design with compassion, a sense of shared understanding might at times feel like the goal, but this should be taken with caution. Research suggests that the members of a partnership might not raise concerns or propose alternatives because they want to keep their partner happy (Nemeth & Nemeth-Brown, 2003). Design partners should strive to keep a soupçon of dissent alive in the process! We suggest that discussing this and creating guidelines for respectful and productive dissent is best practice.

A common situation in online course design pertains to designing a multi-role creative video. There are many incorrect assumptions about the planning and development process of video. As the LXD, one must invite dissent in order to design the best possible learning experience. In our experience, it is common to assume that scripting the video is a good idea. It can also be easy to assume that performing a script on video will be easy. “I’ll use a teleprompter.” is a common statement at this point in the design process. In reality, scripted instructional video is difficult to make and takes a very long time, and can be of poor quality. Questioning these assumptions can help ensure that the final product is good. Sometimes this is a hard point to make with an enthusiastic professor. LXDs know that student engagement declines after only just a few minutes of direct instruction on video (Guo, Kim & Rubin, 2014). We also know the construction and design of the video can move that metric dramatically, considering that the average person can easily sit through a 22-minute TV episode or a 90-minute movie, depending on the qualities of the production. In this regard, without dissent, the partners might continue down a path of creating scripted video or longer segments of purely instructional video, both of which are paths full of pitfalls. Most significantly, poorly executed scripted video can trigger a strong negative response from the learner, undermine the power of the content, and catalyze disengagement.

Dissent is also important to building trust between the LXD and faculty. The LXD may challenge or disagree with the professor’s vision because they bring knowledge about production and insights from prior courses. It is exceedingly helpful when an LXD raises concerns about the efficacy of a faculty’s vision. This does not mean that the LXD is disagreeing with the content, but rather its execution. professors may cling to their way and the LXD may blithely agree with them on every point, but when the course has launched it may rapidly prove to be unclear and does not excite students to engage. This creates a much bigger problem on a programmatic level, and it is more difficult to resolve after the course has been built and placed on the learning management system. Approaching the faculty with respect and evidence throughout the process will likely yield the most productive result and a better course.

We can also make an interesting connection between the importance of designing a stellar video experience and the intent of this chapter. We advocate for authentic and compassionate course design and outline ways we have found to be successful. We advocate against highly scripted video above because it runs the risk of appearing inauthentic to the viewer. Scripted, lecture-style video may deliver instruction, but may bore the online learner. One simple suggestion to avoid this path from the start is to ensure that planned video has built-in elements of surprise and suspense. This can be incorporated by hiring performance talent. Regardless of the delivery methodology, the key is ensuring that the partnership is set up to manage the creative dissent necessary to push the course to a new level. It is lovely to feel connected to one’s partner, but this should not come at the expense of the course’s integrity.

Building Trust and Partnership: The Faculty Perspective

Online learning experience design and pedagogy require faculty and LXDs to live in perpetual curiosity and to have conversations that are grounded in questions. Curiosity should first be elucidated as a construct because it is complex and has implications for building trust and partnerships. In scientific terms, curiosity is the “arousal brought by complex stimuli that leads to exploratory behavior” (Shenaar-Golan, 2013, p. 350). It is the basis for all learning, and precedes reflection, action, and further reflection (Dewey, 1938; Freire, 1998; Schon, 1983). Freire (1998, as cited in Shanaar-Golan & Gutman, 2013) viewed it as “what makes me question, know, act, ask again, recognize” (p. 350).

The design process requires the actors to develop a relationship that includes mutual regard, trust, faith, empathy, and a shared commitment to taking a curious stance and creating intentional and thoughtful curriculum and learning activities. In the parlance of Zen Buddhism, one should adopt a beginner’s mind (Kabat-Zinn, 1994), meaning one maintains an attitude of openness and eagerness, and a willingness to suspend a priori assumptions even when one may have advanced knowledge. LXDs naturally bring a beginner’s mind to the content as few are subject matter experts for every course they design. They also bring a disciplined and careful study of the course syllabus which can help faculty see their course from a fresh perspective. Therefore, approaching course design with genuine curiosity and an open mind and heart, and a willingness to grapple, question, be questioned, and sit in nebulous places, will yield the best results. We recognize, however, that this is easier said than done.

Impediments to Building Trust

Professors who teach online comprise a heterogeneous group of academic homesteaders, including early adopters who began flipping components of their syllabi in the early to mid 2000s, others who were conscripted more recently as the result of institutional mandate, and others still at various stages in between. There remain many negative opinions and assumptions about online programs, such as worries about the quality and rigor of online education. Online programs at the professors’ home institutions may be seen as diploma mills that exist to generate revenue for colleges and universities, and risk damaging the reputation and brand equity of the program or school. There are faculty who fear online programs will consume brick-and-mortar programs, or simply fear the change that these programs represent. While this a reductive summary of the landscape for faculty in a rapidly growing online world, it is important to keep this context in mind when picturing a professor who is about to begin designing an online course. These environmental stressors and biases may impact the creative spirit and energy that they invest in the course design, and the amount of compassionate reserve they have (or lack) for the online student as they create the course.

When one is assigned to develop a course by working with an LXD, the decision is often made by someone other than the professor. Yet, for the duration of the design process the professor and LXD are inextricably linked. Creating a strong partnership requires the professor to take a leap of faith, to begin by believing in the good intentions of the LXD, by resisting rendering them “other,” and by placing some measure of trust in the LXD—all of which can be difficult to achieve. For some faculty, this can feel like diving into murky waters with a foggy scuba mask, swimming behind the LXD and hoping that one will be led to a patch of vibrantly colored coral and not into a school of barracudas! This leap of faith further requires faculty to respect the LXD’s knowledge, skills, and perspective and be open to hearing their ideas about how the professor’s course content might be presented in myriad ways. It also means—and this is tricky and risky—that the faculty must try to remain curious and non-defensive when asked about their pedagogical approach, particularly alternative ways to teach or assess course content. A strong working relationship develops when there is a true meeting of equals. Both professor and LXD must honor each other as their intellectual equal, ally, and partner. The LXD does not work for the professor, but is there to assist them in bringing their best self forward, along with the course content and an optimal and dynamic learning experience for the online student.

Learning experience design is as inherently creative as it is strategic and content based. One of the most effective ways for LXDs to build trust and currency with their faculty partners is to engage them in brainstorming that is bi-directional and places no boundaries or limits on the ideas that are generated about potential avenues for course design. This creates a kind of free-flowing dialectic where initially all ideas are open to consideration, no idea is a bad one, and the realities of budget, time, and production constraints have yet to surface. For a blessed time, LXD and faculty live in a world of possibilities. This is intensely intellectually stimulating; it is also delightful and infuses them with tremendous creative energy and spirit. This feeling may be unfamiliar to many academics because their work is usually constrained by accreditation standards, programmatic expectations, academic leadership, rank and seniority, the faculty senate, curriculum committees, governance committees, and faculty vying for political ascendancy. But in the nascent phase of course development, LXD and faculty are free to brainstorm together. Design sessions feel like think tanks where the dialectic comprises questioning and challenging each other’s perceptions and thought processes. This give and take can transform curriculum from a constellation of ideas into the course plan, the production plan, and finally the whole that is housed in asynchronous or synchronous learning domains.

To produce a blueprint for filming and live-session activities, the LXD asks the faculty a series of scaffolding questions in an attempt to better understand their world view, creative and informational strengths, and vulnerabilities. This conversation may happen face-to-face or in front of a whiteboard that quickly fills up with words, phrases, colors, and ideas, or it might happen in an Adobe Connect or Zoom virtual meeting. Regardless, they become involved in an exchange that can be lively, thoughtful, perplexing, and revelatory—the essence of a cogenerative conversation (Bondi, Daher, Holland, Smith, & Dam, 2016). Cogenerative conversations (cogens) are a democratized approach to teaching where faculty and students routinely engage in reflections about class activities and the totality of the experience from the student perspective. As these conversations ensue, they motivate changes; this is an ongoing process over the course of the semester. In this way, students have more voice and responsibility for their learning and the collective success of the course—power and control do not reside solely with the faculty.

As a course design team, we developed a very cogenerative flavor. With time, sessions became kinesthetically playful and full of mutual regard, and a friendship developed that remains to this day. The weekly check-ins were about the process. In those meetings, members of the team sought to answer, “How are we working together?” Although fidelity to the curriculum was my responsibility, the end result was a co-constructed effort. Our work was social and relational, which freed up mental space to intentionally discuss the learner in very palpable ways. Eyler (2018) suggests that “sociality is fundamental to everything we do, including learning. Our nature as social creatures gave rise to our unique modes of communication as human beings, and thus became the bedrock for the ways we share knowledge. In turn, these interactions eventually led to more sophisticated kinds of learning.”  (p. 67). Taken further, these interactions enable the faculty to practice a new way of engaging that influences their growth as an online educator. Cogens purposively invite multiple perspectives that create space for learners with varying learning preferences and needs, allowing them all to have a voice and visibility, and to develop self-agency (Boss & Linder, 2016; Emdin, 2016). Cogens are a pedagogical approach that have applications to learning experience design and contribute to productive, creatively inspiring, and fulfilling learning experience design that results in transformative educational experiences for faculty and learners alike. Learning partnerships do not necessarily begin with faculty and LXD intending to work in a cogenerative fashion, but we argue that this is a mindset that they can bring to their work together. One caveat: similar to our previous discussion about inviting dissent, cogens also invite free expressions of apprehension, doubt, or fear. At their best they are equal measures of creative interchange and courageous conversations and evoke vulnerability and productive conflict (Bondi et al., 2016). What do cogens look like? The following is an example of a successful cogenerative conversation. As you read it, consider what makes it so.
LXD: “Tell me about your course. How long have you been teaching it and what about it is most important to you?”

Faculty: “I developed this course 10 years ago and it is my absolute favorite to teach. I really love it because it’s very hands on and I want to preserve that aspect of it. It is really important that they have ample chances to learn in vivo. Students tend to really like it for that reason. I tend to be a pretty experiential teacher, and creating interactive activities helps students really synthesize the concepts and build skills.”

LXD: “That’s great. That’s really important information. What are some other experiential methods that you’ve tried—what has worked? And maybe you could tell me about approaches that didn’t always work. For example, I see on the syllabus that you do a role play in session #3. Tell me a little about this role play. What are the learning objectives, and how do you set it up? Are there learning outcomes that are readily observable?”

Faculty: [Describes the role play and intended outcomes; answers the LXD’s questions then shares that some students really despise role plays because they feel too performative and too anxiety provoking.] “Sometimes they groan when I tell them that we’re going to do a role play, and even though I put it into context, I can see their terror. I still feel this is essential for skill building. How would this even work? Would we film a role play? But how would they practice it and where?”

LXD: “I totally relate to their anxiety and I used to get scared of them when I was in school. Would you be open to workshopping some other ways to get at those observable learning outcomes that might be less scary, but also reinforce the content in the way you feel is important?”

Faculty: [Body language and facial expression suggest curiosity.] “So the skill building would still be the end result, but the process of building those skills might be different? I just want to make sure I understand.”

LXD: “That’s a great question. Yes, and I am not saying we’re abandoning the role play, but I wonder what other ways can you build these skills that you might have tried or thought about in the past.”

Faculty: “Do you have an idea in mind? Perhaps an example of what that might look like online?”

LXD: “I don’t have the answer just yet, but I want us to explore multiple possibilities and arrive at the best possible one. It may be a role play after all, but maybe there’s a way to build up to it, or we find something new that we can do with creatively produced video or during a synchronous session. Let’s play with the idea. Is that okay?”

Faculty: “Sure. I am curious to see what happens. I just want to make sure they learn what they need to learn and that it is observable.”

LXD: “Of course, and maybe there is a cool assessment activity we can build in so that all students taking this course across multiple sections can be assessed by the same rubric.”

Faculty: “We can do that?”

LXD: “Absolutely.”

In this exemplar, the LXD’s inquiry neither challenges the faculty’s method or expertise nor conveys that their pedagogy is wrong or deficient. Rather, the LXD coaches the professor to think through why they do what they do and what result it is likely to yield, and to consider being open to alternatives. Also, the LXD does not offer alternatives, so the conversation remains faculty-centered and grounded in the professor’s content expertise. In the end, the LXD may have a vision for how best to teach that content in asynchronous or synchronous modalities in a way that the professor does not yet understand, but at this point the LXD is approaching the possibility in a curious fashion. In that moment, the LXD’s acknowledgment that she did not like role plays as a student enables the team to be compassionately attuned to the learner who will be taking this course. This makes the learner central to the planning in a very real way. Had this conversation gone differently, the professor might have become defensive, shut down, and clung to their pedagogy regardless of student learning outcomes. That conversation might have looked like the following:

LXD: “Tell me about your course. How long have you been teaching it and what about it is most important to you?”

Faculty: “I developed this course 10 years ago and it is my absolute favorite to teach. I really love it because it’s very hands on and I want to preserve that aspect of it. It is really important that they have ample chances to learn in vivo. Students tend to really like it for that reason. I tend to be a pretty experiential teacher, and creating interactive activities helps students really synthesize the concepts and build skills.”

LXD: “That’s great. That’s really important information. What are some other experiential methods that you’ve tried—what has worked? And maybe you could tell me about approaches that didn’t always work. For example, I see on the syllabus that you do a role play in session #3. Tell me a little about this role play. What are the learning objectives, and how do you set it up? Are there learning outcomes that are readily observable?”

Faculty: [Describes the role play and intended outcomes.] “Sometimes they groan when I tell them that we’re going to do a role play, and even though I put it into context, I can see their terror. I still feel this is essential for skill building. How would this even work? Would we film a role play? But how would they practice it and where?”

LXD: “That’s really great, and such important context. Have you ever thought about achieving those outcomes in any other way? I mean, do you have to do the role play? How else might you reinforce those skills?”

Faculty: [Body noticeably stiffens.] “Why would I do it any other way? It works this way. It has always worked this way. This is the only way I can reinforce these skills. It has to be this way.”

LXD: “You raise really great questions, but I am wondering how we could achieve those outcomes with creatively produced video, or some other kind of asynchronous activity.”

Faculty: “No, no, no. It has to be this way. I am telling you that this is the most effective. I have been teaching this course since 1996. I created it and this is the way that best teaches the skills. They need to have a place to practice finding the words and making mistakes before they do it with ‘real’ clients. I am sorry, but we are keeping the role play. We are keeping all of them.”

How might we make sense of the breakdown in the second example, when the LXD was taking a similar approach with the professor? What are the differences between the two examples? In the second example, the faculty was being pushed to succinctly articulate her approach in a way that put her on the defensive. It can be frustrating and difficult for faculty to do this, for two main reasons: they may have forgotten why they chose a particular learning activity in the first place and it might not have been grounded in a disciplined theoretical or thought system, or they may be teaching content the way they were taught.

There is another possibility that is slightly more elusive to name: some faculty are instinctive educators and teach based on a fusion of content and the alchemy of the class that informs pedagogical decisions in the moment. They might teach intuitively, based on their feel for and read of the room. Schon (1983) referred to this as “knowledge in action” and regarded it as a manifestation of “artful competence” (p. 19). Teaching this way is exponentially more challenging in online classrooms, particularly those that occur in fully asynchronous domains.

In the first example, when the LXD suggested that there might be other ways to achieve learning objectives, the faculty reacted with surprise and curiosity and a conversation ensued in which the possibility was unpacked before they began playing with actual solutions. Frequently referred to as “workshopping” by LXDs, these conversations prepare the team to play with ideas or test new activities using the virtual classroom to see what piqued further curiosity and discussion, or what approaches were unsuccessful. This was also a lot of fun! Dewey (1910/1938, as cited in Giaimo-Ballard & Hyatt, 2012) advocated for “the importance of testing ideas, which allows for further responses and possible change” (p. 8). Put simply, collaborative conversations and hands-on trial and error enable the LXD to help faculty reflect on their teaching, evaluate their efficacy in teaching, and consider adjustments that ultimately improve the student experience and outcomes. Dewey (1910/1938) referred to this as an inquiry-oriented attitude: “Maintaining an inquiry-oriented attitude thus provides educators with opportunities to reflect on situations while devising the latest strategies for problem solving” (quoted in Giaimo-Ballard & Hyatt, 2012, p. 8).

Another lovely example of inquiry-oriented attitude occurred mid-way during the design, just prior to the start of pre-production. The team discussed ways that synchronous sessions could begin with an icebreaker, similar to campus group work classes. Members of the team asked for examples of icebreakers, most of which involved students getting up out of their chairs and moving around the room, or sitting in a circle—things we could not do in the synchronous video conferencing platform. We discussed a whiteboard activity where students actively participate. We wondered, “Is there a way we can do this in the live sessions?” One of the producers said, “Well, there is a whiteboard function in our live session tool. Should we give it a try?” We pulled up the whiteboard and ran a mock session. As we did the activity together, playing with color, text, and drawing circles and lines to connect our ideas, we filled the literal tabula rasa with words and images. We were all excited! It worked really well and it remains an activity that students really love. They report that it helps them feel connected to each other and learn a great deal about each at the same time.

Lessons Learned: Faculty Perspective. Picture the Online Learner: Redux

Earlier in this chapter the online learner was introduced in the section, “Picture the Online Learner”. This introduction was brief and vague. We want to stress how important we believe it is to understand your learners from the start. We will demonstrate how important this is through the lessons we learned in developing portions of our online Masters of Social Work (MSW). As we began development on our first wave of courses we made many assumptions about the students that would enroll. We assumed they would be a lot like our on campus students. Therefore, we designed the courses with our campus students in mind; they were predominantly young, white, and of higher socioeconomic status, and lived in urban Boston or the surrounding areas. The asynchronous content that we created featured mostly white students, practitioners, and faculty.

Beginning with that inaugural group of students in July 2014, and in all of the cohorts that were admitted over the ensuing five years, certain demographics remained consistent for a large majority of students enrolled in SocialWork@Simmons. Most of the students work full-time while attending school and attempt to maintain full-time employment even when fulfilling clinical field placements, out of economic necessity. Many of the students are parents, or primary caregivers for grandchildren, aging family members, or partners who live with severe injuries or psychological trauma sustained during active military duty. The stressors and adverse conditions with which many of these students contend are relentless and create obstacles to their attainment of academic achievement and persistence to degree completion. Nonetheless, more persisted to graduation than did not, and did so with awe-inspiring grit and Herculean determination.

Unlike the campus program, the online program enrolls a more diverse student body. Approximately 30–45% of our campus students identify as persons of color, compared with 40% of the online student population. Of the remainder, 30–35% identify as Black/African American, and 5–10% identify as Latinx, with smaller cohorts of Native American or other indigenous-identified students. Students frequently revealed to faculty, academic advisors, and administration that they grappled with housing and food insecurities, lived in communities where there was chronic and domestic violence, or were homeless at some point while pursuing their master’s degrees. We also saw evidence of the achievement gap in students who lived in poor communities and poor communities of color. For example, when our new students took a Social Welfare Policy and Services course and were asked about the three branches of government and how bills were signed into law, it surprised us how few knew these processes. An adjunct from the West Coast informed us that because of budget cuts, civics education had been absent from secondary schools in that part of the country for a decade, and we saw similar trends in the Midwest and rural South. We also saw evidence of educational deprivation in our students’ writing abilities and difficulty applying critical thinking to literature. Most surprisingly, because of the geographic disparity of our students, some students were from politically conservative right-wing Christian communities and espoused socially conservative belief systems in our applied professional program with historically progressive values. We found ourselves teaching students who did not advocate for marriage equality, LGBTQA rights, or gun control, and strongly opposed many of the central tenets of the social work profession. We were unused to this in our Boston campus classes. You now have a fuller picture of the online learner, but we knew none of these things when we created the course.


This chapter discussed the players involved in the pursuit of compassionate course design, along with their roles, skills, and perspectives. We have tried to evoke an image of the reader, the online learner, and the LXD. As we conclude, let us return once more to the student, but shift perspective. How does one assess the success of compassionate course design? How does one measure this, and what are the benchmarks? On the individual student level there are the obvious indicators like student satisfaction, and student self-reported learning, retention, and engagement. But we needed different evidence. We wanted to observe transformation. We wanted to see joy in the countenance of the students. We wanted to provide a safe, sacrosanct space for the students to learn and share. We wanted to create an environment that the students would miss, that would tug at their heartstrings as being a peak experience. We wanted to be deeply moved by the interactions that took place in course wall posts and during live sessions, and we wanted students to feel these things in relation to each other.

We wanted to know that we could sit with 16 faces in that virtual live session room staring back at us, feel each other’s presence, and feel comfort and warmth. Success for us means that a culture of connection and learning is palpable and accessible and that every student feels visible, cared for, and like they belong (Rosenberg & McCullough, 1981; Schlossberg, 1989).


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Appendix A

Case Study: Introduction to Social Work with Groups

In 2013, approximately one year after the successful launch of Nursing@Simmons, the online Family Nurse Practitioner program at Simmons University, a contract was signed between Simmons and their commercial partner, 2U Inc., to launch a second online program, SocialWork@Simmons—the online MSW program. Simmons School of Social Work is reputed to be the first single-concentration clinical school of social work in the country and carries this historical legacy as part of its brand. The decision to bring this program online, informed by fiscal need and the wish to expand the program’s brand equity through national exposure, met with mixed reactions by the faculty, and although it had to be approved by faculty consensus, many felt the vote was a governance formality.

Several contextual factors made mounting the online MSW program a challenge. Faculty buy-in was difficult to attain and some faculty were clear that they would not be involved with course design or online teaching. Faculty felt skeptical that clinical social work—a relational practice—could be effectively taught in an online format even with weekly synchronous sessions. Further, they voiced many concerns about working with a for-profit corporate partner. They expressed concerns about securing field placements for students at agency sites in states they would never visit and worried that the quality of field education would be compromised. Lastly, faculty had 7 months to design two courses, devise requisite policies, review admissions applications, create curricula, learn how to use the technology, and interface with university and 2U operations in ways they had not done before. By December 2013, a program director had not yet been appointed, so there was a leadership vacuum as well.

The Dean of the School of Social Work was tasked with choosing two courses and two faculty to immediately begin working with 2U content strategists. This occurred two weeks before the start of winter break when most faculty are away from campus for one month. The Dean approached two faculty members and asked them to take on this work. Both were content experts in their respective areas and had created the syllabi for the campus programs. Neither, however, wanted to accept the Dean’s request. Professor Leeman, the creator of the Social Work with Groups course, felt particularly concerned because this course emphasizes the experiential component of learning about and living the developmental stages and dynamics through which groups progress. She agreed to the task if course design could be delayed so she could learn from a colleague’s acquired practice wisdom. Unfortunately, this was not possible. The Dean issued an ultimatum: “This is your course, but if you won’t do the work, I’ll find someone who will.” Professor Leeman was given the weekend to make a decision.

The following Monday, Professor Leeman met with the Dean and agreed to do the work on one condition: that she could obtain support and mentoring from a respected practitioner-scholar in Higher Education and the Dean would pay for consultation. Although Professor Leeman would be working with a 2U content strategist and producers, she was adamant about having someone outside of both systems with whom she could confer to bring new ideas to course design conversations. The Dean agreed to her terms, and one week later she had her first meeting with her content strategist and producer team.

During this first meeting, the content strategist and producers discussed the course, philosophy, objectives, and learning activities and reviewed the seven-month schedule for course design, production, and post-production. Professor Leeman, though anxious, resistant, and fearful that “her” course would not successfully adapt to an online platform, was impressed by the level of preparation that the content strategist had done prior to their meeting and how well versed she seemed to be in the syllabus. Professor Leeman was given a homework assignment to complete before their next strategy meeting: she and asked to take a “deep dive” into one full class of the semester. The deep dive involved the professor choosing any week of the term and scripting out in great detail everything she said and did during that class with regards to lecture and activities, her intentions behind them, and responses that students might have to content presentation and experiential learning activities. The exercise took Professor Leeman four hours to complete on a snowy Sunday afternoon in late December. She did not understand the purpose of the exercise or how it would assist the content strategy, but she did what she was told and completed the task.

The team was due to meet remotely right after New Year’s, to review the deep dive exercise. Professor Leeman reached out to the team and offered to travel to their offices (in another state) at her own expense to meet with them in person. She expressed to the team that they had come up to Boston to see her, and it seemed fair that if they were to become partners, she should make a similar effort. Professor Leeman felt it was essential to see where her new colleagues worked, observe their culture first hand, and glean insights from meeting the team on their own turf, and the team was receptive to this idea. Upon arriving at the offices in early January she was welcomed and given a tour of the space, and then they went to work.

Debriefing the deep dive occupied their entire two-hour meeting. Professor Leeman was questioned about everything she had documented, and asked to do the following:

  • Articulate how she made decisions about:
    • what content to teach,
    • how much to cover in a single three-hour class session, and
    • how she chose a particular icebreaker exercise or other experiential activities;
  • Elucidate all the knowledge and skills she hoped that students would attain based on the learning activities; and
  • Identify assessments she used to gauge learning outcomes.

The conversation felt interrogational. She became fearful that the team thought her praxis was flawed or nonsensical, and although she liked the team, she did not understand their approach. Despite her discomfort and continued ambivalence about the process, Professor Leeman did the following to maximally engage with the team:

  • Had frequent conversations with her mentor, who challenged her biases and assumptions about online education.
  • Began to use her campus classroom as a laboratory for trying new approaches.
  • Brought new activity ideas to weekly strategy sessions where she and the team would attempt to adapt them to the tools available in the virtual classroom.
  • Discussed alternative methods that would yield similar learning outcomes, when the usual methods were unsuccessful.
  • Began to consolidate the content that would be filmed for asynchronous course materials, while thinking through weekly live session approaches.

As the weeks went by, the relationship between the professor and her team began to shift. Professor Leeman confided at that time that she was afraid she would fail as an online educator and that the course would be less effective and less meaningful than it had been on campus. She expressed fears that her online students would not enjoy the connections with each other that they did in campus classes, and that she would have a more difficult time getting to know them. She shared her anxiety that she would be less invested in the students because of the physical and emotional distance. She feared that they would not have an optimal graduate school experience because of her limitations.

Appendix B: Case Support Materials

Questions and Answers

  1. What else could have been done in the preparation and design of this course to increase its overall success?
    1. Previous online social work programs had launched and generated data—albeit often difficult to obtain—that would have been useful. It would have helped to intentionally focus on the potential learner, and gather as much information as possible to create detailed learner personas.
  2. What are some potential barriers to understanding the learners as part of designing online learning?
    1. One obstacle to understanding the learners was the timing of development and launch. There were no admitted online students yet, so understanding them was speculative, and Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) had restricted access to information from similar programs. For online programs that quickly scale, enrollment projections and effective marketing targets are difficult to predict. In this case, increased enrollment from rural areas presented challenges to compassionate design as the program traditionally supported urban students.
  3. Why should it matter who takes the course, as it relates to how effective the course is for their learning?
    1. Understanding the learner makes for more compassionate design. The participants in some creative video elements lacked the diversity of the online students. The learners saw mostly white female students and practitioners in the videos. For students of color, the videos (and the underlying concepts) were harder to identify with, inadvertently marginalizing diverse students.
  4. In this case, are there other roles that could have been involved to help ensure a successful course design?
    1. There were many roles not mentioned in the case that should be involved to help achieve compassionate course design. First, having willing and engaged representatives of potential student body segments would bring the personas to life and would be a continual source of information and validation of design ideas. Engaging students in focus groups that included rural students, active military, and students with conservative values would have decreased underrepresentation.
  5. What tools and systems might faculty and LXDs use today that were not readily available at the time (2014), or within the technology boundaries of the case?
    1. Technology of interest for compassionate course design would include synchronized virtual reality (VR) supporting students’ ability to view each other and faculty more completely, improving group cohesion and a sense of connectedness. Other technologies were available at the time but not within our environment: assessment branching, learning management system (LMS) instant messaging, and in-context help guides. Increased bandwidth and enhanced video tools could contribute to deeper connection through better visibility of facial expressions and clear, uninterrupted audio.

Epilogue and Lessons Learned

Palmer, Zajonc, and Scribner (2010, p. 98) assert that higher education can be transformed if learning involves taking compassionate action, which is “fostered in students when they learn not only with the intellect but also with the heart. Once knowing activates our feelings, we are moved to action. We move from being a bystander to being a neighbor or friend.” This quote beautifully captures the most important things we learned about compassionate course design and pedagogy in distance education. Although faculty and students are not learning and interacting in close physical proximity to each other, distance is often more psychological than temporal or spatial. There were three other epiphanies that merit attention, and the first addresses the fears that many faculty members experience on initial exposure to this new frontier: Fear of failure and disconnection. All of the fears that I had about not feeling connected to and with students, and about them not feeling invested in each other or feeling that I was not accessible to or invested in them, were unfounded. I learned that I could convey compassion and expectation in the same moment and with small gestures. Most importantly, I reaffirmed what I have believed to be true since I graduated social work school in 1989: Human beings are wired to be in relationships with each other. We need and seek out kinship systems. If people are given the context and support to develop meaningful and intimate relationships with each other, they will form them. In fact, I was constantly amazed by the ease with which I settled into online teaching. Seeing students on webcams in their homes or places of work—seeing the occasional child, a picture of their family on the mantel in the background, or the sudden appearance of a cat landing on a student’s shoulder in the middle of a whole-group discussion—forges a different kind of intimacy not possible to achieve in a campus classroom.

List of Additional Sources

Recommended Blog Sites

Faculty Focus

The Scholarly Teacher

Teaching Professor 


Institute for Higher Education: Inside Digital Learning 

Recommended Organizations

POD Network

Online Learning Consortium


Additional References

Hooks, B. (2003). Teaching community: A pedagogy of hope (Vol. 36). Psychology Press.

Brookfield, S. D. (1995). Becoming a critically reflective teacher. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, a Wiley Brand.

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Appendix C: Learner (Reader) Personas




Age, title, organization

Age 33. Manager of Instructional Design at Bonder College, in Iowa

Age 44. Self-employed, senior designer, owns his own boutique digital design firm

Age 24. Tech Support Specialist at a large higher education service provider

Career aspirations

Ramona would like to become the Associate Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Bonder. She has worked on several projects with them and enjoyed their deeply academic and research-driven approach.

Daniel would like to grow his design business, but not too much. He wants to retain some flexibility in his life, to perhaps work from remote locations for extended periods of time. He hopes the business will earn enough for his family to travel and learn about other parts of the world.

Omar is unsure of what is next for him, but he is ambitious, creative, and bright. He is confident that he will grow in his career, and hopes to manage and lead in the near future.


– Her undergraduate degree is in anthropology

– First job was at her local public library

– Enjoyed creating the learning programs

– Took a short course in instructional design (ID) on the recommendation of a librarian

– Obtained an entry-level ID job at a university

– Worked in retail, then at non-profit organizations, small consulting firms, and universities

– Has led small teams and managed divisions of over 40 people

– His undergraduate degree is in psychology

– He has a master’s in ID

– Did two years of community college before taking a part-time IT campus job to help cover tuition

– Found success and satisfaction in IT on campus and grew to like and understand academic technologies

– Helped faculty use classroom technology and some student systems

– Recently found an entry-level IT job with a major higher education service provider

Life demands

– Newly married

-Wife travels a lot for work

– Thinking about having kids next year

– Married 13 years, two children (ages 5 and 11)

– Spouse works part time in mental health care

– Has little to no family nearby so travels regularly to see them

– Single, has one roommate (a former high school classmate)

– Takes care of mom who lives nearby and who has trouble seeing and walking


– Believes she needs an advanced degree in something like learning sciences to get the job she wants in the teaching center

– Wants to see the business grow

– Hopes to create a niche in the highly competitive market and is exploring learning design to do that

– Is worried about paying for college

– Paying the rent can compete with student loan payments

– Isn’t sure IT will keep him satisfied, especially because support can be draining

– Would like to find other possible paths but feels limited by his lack of formal education


– Loves doing pottery at the student studio on campus

– Relaxes by playing and snuggling with her cat, Dimitri, while watching The marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

– Reads voraciously (or listens to podcasts) and is very fond of science fiction

– Enjoys time with his family at theme parks and on the beach

– Is interested in new tech gadgets but rarely buys them

– Plays guitar in a garage band

– Is an avid gamer in massively multiplayer online games (MMOG)

– Likes fixing up his car and doing yard work when he has time



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Connecting the Dots: Improving Student Outcomes and Experiences with Exceptional Instructional Design Copyright © 2020 by Whitney Kilgore and Diane Weaver is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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