Critical Instructional Design

Sean Michael Morris

When I co-founded Digital Pedagogy Lab in 2012, I wanted to address the widespread lack of critical thinking about learning online. I write in “The Failure of an Online Program” that “An insistence on doing things as we’ve always done them, on trying to match piece to piece, part to part, learning object to learning object, only limits us. Non-inquiry blinds us to the environment in which we’re actually teaching.”

Design of online courses also suffers from a perceived need for efficiency. More students means more courses which means more teachers. And these are largely adjunct and contingent teachers, most of whom have only the time to receive the most preliminary kinds of training before (but most usually after) starting teaching online. And, that training usually consists of how-to lessons scaffolding to best practices.

But digital pedagogy should not be reduced to a set of best practices, tools, or interfaces. So, when Jesse and I started Digital Pedagogy Lab, we centered its philosophy on critical pedagogy, or on a critical digital pedagogy, as seen in the work of Paulo Freire, bell hooks, Henry Giroux, and others.

A critical digital pedagogy, we argued, was one that would ask questions about technology, about the assumptions we make about technology—its includedness in education, its politics, its economics and labor, and its repercussions for privacy and surveillance—and not simply about the use of technology. We wanted participants in Digital Pedagogy Lab to push beyond the “how” to use a tool, and into the “why” and “whether.”

The seat of critical digital pedagogy is one of inquiry and observation. It is mindful of all the variety of dimensions the digital has in our and our students’ lives. The “why” and “whether,” then, are not just about lesson planning, choosing video over text, or learning on campus versus learning online. The why and whether must begin with questions about what happens when learning goes digital, when it goes online.

Jesse reminds us, in “Why Online Programs Fail, and 5 Things We Can Do about It,” that:

Educational campuses have libraries, coffee shops, cafeterias, quads, lawns, amphitheaters, stadiums, hallways, student lounges, trees, park benches, and fountains. Ample space for rallies, study-groups, conversation, debate, student clubs, and special events. Few institutions pay much attention to re-creating these spaces online. The work done outside and between classes (which we would argue is the glue that holds education together) is attended to nominally if at all.

Since on-ground college life and learning is deeply integrated into not just the student’s life but also the life of the surrounding community, critical digital pedagogy would ask: how is or does the LMS or VLE integrate into the student’s life online—whether that life takes place on social media, or in text messages and e-mails, or on other platforms where that student works, shares, and learns online? Is the LMS a walled garden? Or does it participate in meaningful ways in the wide range of digital experiences that students and teachers both have online? How are the conversations that become the marrow of learning on-ground accommodated in online space? How is diversity embraced or represented? Where does not just interdisciplinarity lie, but intersectionality? Where do chance encounters occur?

And, of course, if we venture outside of the LMS and into, say, social media, we need to wonder: what kinds of participation are we asking our students to enact online? What communities will they belong to? What are the compromises they will make, what benefits will they reap, how will their privacy be sacrificed and how can it be protected? Where there may be specific drawbacks to a LMS that doesn’t look or act like the internet despite its belonging on the web, there may be some benefits to the ways it can isolate students. For example, does the LMS provide a space for identity formation in the way university life might? Does it provide a testing ground for citizenship? Does a platform bent on content and learning management offer opportunities to safely bridge the public and the private?

Henry Giroux writes, in “On Critical Pedagogy”, that:

Critical pedagogy asserts that students can engage their own learning from a position of agency and in so doing can actively participate in narrating their identities through a culture of questioning that opens up a space of translation between the private and the public while changing the forms of self-and social recognition.

This is increasingly important in a world where authoritarianism seems to be on the rise. Does the LMS, or do any of our strategies for online learning, provide a space where students participate in narrating their identities, or in beginning to understand the interdependent nature of their own identity with the identities of others in their communities? And if so, where and how?

Because critical pedagogy asserts that learning is a matter of engaging in a process of becoming conscious—and not just becoming knowledgeable of a certain set of facts, ideas, precedent—a critical pedagogy that fronts the digital must inquire how each new tool, environment, or network makes possible that becoming conscious. It is, in other words, asking much more foundational questions of learning online than simply “how do I post to the discussion board” or “where do I post grades.” And it expects more of its teachers than analysis of learning analytics.

Consider, for example, that certain kinds of surveillance and control are possible in an on-ground classroom. And to a certain extent, students have come up in a system where they understand the ground rules of authority in even the most liberative learning environments. In digital environments, though, are we certain that students understand what is being surveilled and by whom? Do they know what analytics are being kept, who is checking those analytics, and what the repercussions of their actions or inactions online might be?

The VLE might not be as permeable, as vulnerable, as Facebook or Twitter, but it is decidedly different in its capacities for control and observation than a room where we all gather together to learn. In fact, it is less private even than students, learning alone in their bedrooms and living rooms at home, think it might be.

What students learn online is never just the content we load into the LMS.

Which is why, at its most practical, critical digital pedagogy looks askance at the tools we use, the tools we are asked to use, the tools that are sold to us, which then prompts us—as learners and teachers online—to ask after the promises that digital technology offers. Promises of efficiency, time savings, greater engagement, higher test scores, increased retention, and even deeper relationships with our students through the mediation of algorithms and digital clickers.

When we think through the whole context of learning online, it becomes apparent that it is never enough to do teaching with technology, to suffice with content and learning objectives and assessments. We must always step back and inquire:

  • Are students online cared for? Have we found ways within the LMS or other platform to, as bell hooks writes, “respect and care for the souls of our students”?
  • Have we engaged students in some way not measurable by clicks, hits, and discussion posts, or, are we letting the the technology teach in place of us?
  • Is learning online rich with the problem-solving Freire recommends as an alternative to “banking education”, or does it amount to a checklist for satisfactory performance and completion? Have we laid the foundation for student agency?

What is needed, what has always been needed. is an effective digital pedagogy that lets us span the interface, cross the digital, and find one another where we are.

A critical digital pedagogy is one where learning and teaching online provides the material from which students can forge themselves into ethical subjects in the context of their lives as hybrid learners and complicated human beings.

Tim Amidon writes in “(dis)Owning Tech: Ensuring Value and Agency at the Moment of Interface,”

Educational technologies, as interfaces, offer students and educators opportunities to discover and enact agency through strategic rhetorical action. Yet, realizing this agency is complex work because “participat[ing] fully and meaningfully in [the] technological activities” that comprise so many aspects of our social, civic, and professional lives requires an increasingly sophisticated array of multiliteracies.

Critical digital pedagogy has as one of the primary ends to its inquiry the development of these multiliteracies. Look beyond the tool to how we use the tool. Look beyond how we use the tool to how the tool uses us. Look beyond how the tool uses us to how we can resist, hack, change, or simply “prefer not to.”

This doesn’t just apply to the LMS, or Twitter, Turnitin, a cool new app, or an online proctoring service. Education is itself one of those tools. We could ask: how might students use and shape their educations? How do their educations use and shape them? And how might they resist, hack, change, or simply prefer not to? We don’t get to stop asking questions about the why and whether of our teaching simply because the digital provides algorithms that approximate answers.

Learning online still needs—really really requires—human teachers. Because what it comes down to is, we are the most important technology involved in digital and online learning.

A Call for Critical Instructional Design

Since the beginning of 2016, I’ve been working out an idea which I call critical instructional design. And I’m not the only one. Teachers and researchers in composition studies, sociology, and other fields have been at this endeavor for years. For my own part, my ideas are a response to the truly banal solutions I’ve witnessed a traditional instructional design provides for the complications of online learning—solutions which tend to reduce the complexity of learning to straightforward methodologies that provide replicable results.

Critical instructional design is an early, emerging attempt to get at some concrete methodologies for creating agentive spaces in online and hybrid learning environments.

It’s not an iteration of traditional instructional design. It doesn’t find its roots in behaviorism or the ideologies of B. F. Skinner. Rather than researching an instructional design based on positivist, research-driven, evidence-based methods, critical instructional design turns to critical pedagogy—to Paulo Freire, bell hooks, John Holt, Seymour Papert, Maxine Greene, and others for both inspiration and complication.

The critical instructional design approach prioritizes collaboration, participation, social justice, learner agency, emergence, narrative, and relationships of nurture between students, and between teachers and students. It acknowledges that all learning today is necessarily hybrid, and looks for opportunities to integrate learners’ digital lives into their digitally-enhanced or fully online learning experiences.

Importantly, in keeping with its social justice roots, critical instructional design seeks to create learning and educational opportunities for students of all backgrounds, leveraging techniques especially to give platforms for those voices most usually suppressed or oppressed, including the voices of women, people of color, LGBTQ folk, people with disabilities, and more. It works against the standardization of so many educational technologies, and aims for the fullest inclusion possible.

I believe we must conceive of an instructional design that approaches the very human task of learning, the impulse to learn, and the increasingly urgent need for learning to result in the wisdom of agency.

Stanley Aronowitz writes, in Against Schooling: For an Education That Matters,

Few of even the so-called educators ask the question: What matters beyond the reading, writing, and numeracy that are presumably taught in the elementary and secondary grades? The old questioning of what a kid needs to become an informed “citizen” capable of participating in making the large and small public decisions that affect the larger world as well as everyday life receives honorable mention but not serious consideration. These unasked questions are symptoms of a new regime of educational expectations that privileges job readiness above any other educational values. (xii)

Where critical pedagogy, and critical digital pedagogy, offer questions about “what a kid needs to become an informed citizen,” critical instructional design attempts to provide a platform where those questions are given a forum that pairs them with curriculum. In other words, an approach to online teaching and learning that creates a space where student agency and critical consciousness can be fostered in a way that grows knowledge and expertise in a given subject.

Of course, the first question that comes to mind when I say that is: “How?” What are the methods employed by a critical instructional design? What are its best practices? How is it replicable?

The worst best practice is to adhere to, or go searching for, best practices. I have been in countless rooms with teachers, technologists, instructional designers, and administrators calling for recommendations or a list of tools they should use, strategies that work, practices that cannot fail to produce results in the classroom. But digital tools, strategies, and best practices are a red herring in digital learning. Learning always starts with people. Instead of asking “What tool will we need?,” ask “What behaviors will need to be in place?”

For critical instructional design to work, we have to find a way to re-approach what we know about teaching and learning, about learning theory, about the digital. In Zen terms, we have to find “beginner’s mind.” This may sound strange, but the truth is that critical instructional design isn’t an iteration of the instructional design that came before. It’s new, while at the same time being old; it is familiar while at the same time disorienting.

In other words, for critical instructional design to begin, those undertaking the design of learning must themselves become more critically conscious of the work at hand. The most critical stance we can take as educators is to assume we know nothing and become profoundly observational.

If we want critical instructional design to work, we can’t approach the virtual learning environment, or the student, or the writing of our syllabus, or the idea of assessment while our brain is loaded up with old stories about those things, and our habits for fronting them. Instead, we have to essentially clear our cache, assuming nothing, and think through each step of design as it arises.

The reason we have to do this is that traditional instructional design seems to work; educational psychology and behaviorism seem to work. The way we’ve been doing things has resulted in analytics that tell us something is going well (of course, the algorithms behind those analytics only measure, only can measure, statistics that help sell the platform). Too often, because we have something that works, we assume little else will.

Paulo Freire offers, in his book Pedagogy of Indignation, that

To the extent that we accept that the economy, or technology, or science, it doesn’t matter what, exerts inescapable power over us, there is nothing left for us to do other than renounce our ability to think, to conjecture, to compare, to choose, to decide, to envision, to dream. (33)

Instead of saying “I’ve always done it this way,” we need to say “How should I do this now?”

That is literally the first and, as far as I can imagine, the only best practice associated with critical instructional design. Where critical pedagogy centers on social justice and liberation, and critical digital pedagogy fronts with the complications of learning in digital environments, critical instructional design looks directly at application and asks, open-eyed and slack-jawed, “What is the best first step, the right action for the circumstance, right now?”

And what happens when we begin to let go of our old ideas of instructional design and learning theory is that we feel the return of invention and imagination to the acts of learning and teaching. Freedom occurs, only to remind us that we’ve always been free.

Giroux writes in On Critical Pedagogy, “For me, pedagogy is part of an always unfinished project intent on developing a meaningful life for all students.” This is vitally important to the project of learning online. I have long believed that online learning doesn’t understand itself. That it is as a two-year-old child who discovers they can walk but doesn’t really understand the nuances of the ambulatory act, nor really even what walking’s for. As such, teaching online, designing online learning, is in fact an act of learning online… both learning in an online environment and learning what “online” even means.

At the same time as I encourage the idea of “beginner’s mind”, though, we cannot literally go back square one. Education has become too shrouded in technology for us to return to the mere classroom, mere pen and paper, chalk and chalkboard. But we can retreat to that point in our minds, to make it back to a figurative, theoretical square one, and consider what choices we would make from there. And then begin making them for the first time. What technology would we include? What technology would we veer away from? What practices are we most afraid of losing, and so what practices must we carefully and with passion fight for?

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Critical Instructional Design by Sean Michael Morris is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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