Built upon silencing? No, built upon desperation for a better learning experience.

image of an archery target with multiple holes all over
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I don’t usually have such a strong reaction to work of critical thinking in my community, or at least I don’t write about my reactions as often as I’d like. Here goes… @slamteacher and some others in recent threads around critical instructional design are off the mark, imo. I love and respect the work of the critical pedagogy community, including Sean Michael (I don’t think we’ve met or had an opportunity for face-to-face discussion before), but I disagree today. In this post SUBJECTIVITY, RUBRICS, AND CRITICAL PEDAGOGY, @slamteacher provides some accurate criticism of the constraining effect of instructional design and rubrics generally, but misses some vital information about the practice of instructional design for designers, both contextually and personally. It’s difficult to target a thing without in some way grazing the humans behind it.

The post reads, “For too long—really, since its inception—instructional design has been built upon silencing.”

If I were to rewrite that sentence to read “For too long–really, since its inception–formal higher education systems have been built upon silencing,” then I’d feel closer to the crux of where instructional design demands criticism. In my experience, the practice of instructional design by instructional designers, especially in online courses, has become its own form of critical pedagogy. This critical professional approach is necessary based on the institutional practice of tossing classroom educators into online teaching and learning with zero support, little autonomy, no extra time, and no professional development about the affordances of the environment. Institutions large and small do this all the time.

The majority of instructional designers that I know (and this would not be all) are inclusive student empaths sweating and straining every day to improve awful learning experiences for students. They do this at the mercy of institutional practices and policies that insist on an LMS, often dictate enormous class sizes, and – other than hiring instructional designers – provide zero recognition that the online paradigm might create a training and development scenario rather than something approaching a real education. Thus far in my career (possibly made shorter by this post), the number of educators and designers with the power to create a learning experience that is highly student-driven, based on self-reflection and collaborative processes, providing the privilege of no grading are few and far between. I agree that there should be more of that.

It’s interesting, not surprising, and extraordinarily frustrating to me that I have put out a call this year as part of my Ed.D research to volunteer my time and learning design skills in partnership with an online educator to explore an online, accredited, undergraduate OER-based learning design. In this design students would drive the finding, sharing and adapting of OER (with support for whatever skills they need to learn more about) for their own and peer learning. 100% zero uptake thus far from any educator, in any discipline. What’s up with that? I have to change my research because critical pedagogy does not equal empowerment, or an opportunity to walk this walk for most educators  that I know or can reach. I have heard 19 times that “my institution would not allow me to do that.” Is that the fault of instructional design or my proposition within it? Nope.

By its very nature, formal higher education is a pre-framed doorway it’s “height, width, shape and the material from which it is made–determined by the builder” SMM When you turn that doorway into a login for an online course through a learning management system, it becomes an extraordinarily narrow passageway with very little breathing room for educators, learners, or instructional designers.

While some educators have empowerment from their institutional framers to change what happens inside the learning “room,” the initial doorway in and out for the students remains the same. What if an educator works at an institution where even the room and their role and practices within it are framed for them? When that happens, the folks that labour in instructional design and those that research, develop theories, and design frameworks have an even bigger and oppressive task – to try and support any kind of creativity and empowerment with and for educators and students.

Those in the critical pedagogy community, including most learning designers that I know, are well aware of how great learning experiences might be planned, and how vital it is that inclusivity and learner driven exploration and empowerment are promoted. We should keep talking about that, However, the reality of institutional constraints is overwhelming and often drowns out any attempt at great learning experiences. The institutional cry for increased “access” at this moment in history is creating a cookie-cutter approach in an attempt to massify status quo practices. Whenever I have heard the phrase “we need to scale up,” I have translated it to mean “we need to cram more students into classrooms and online courses to increase the appearance of inclusivity and access while reducing our costs (read reducing instructors).” Randomly select 10 instructional designers that work at a public higher education institutions and survey them about what they actually do. You might find many that would admit (under condition of anonymity), “I desperately seek every possible opportunity to help ensure that the learning experience for students doesn’t completely suck.”

The majority of instructional designers that I know work at public institutions, some with 50,000 learners in their online programs alone. In this world of instructional designers, mentioning Freire in a team meeting results in a demerit point in their human resources file (or mental “reminder” in their boss’s head not to invite Jenni to meetings with publishing vendors again). Given his background, and other work that I admire, I doubt that Sean Michael has forgotten what it’s like to use every tool possible, including rubrics, and templates to move the bar the tiniest fraction in favour of learner and educator freedom. So, I’m confused, a bit, about the choice to criticize instructional design in this moment, rather than higher education practices and policies that lead to dreadful pedagogy (either by constraints of accreditation, class sizes, workload, or complete indifference to the practices of their instructors).

What should happen when, as a learning designer, I’m faced with supporting an educator whose grading practices are completely haphazard, ill-defined, and hidden entirely from students? This has happened a lot in my practice. Suggesting to such an educator that they might stop grading is one option, but unlikely to be taken up, and likely to have me reassigned to a different project. What then?

Rubrics in my world have often been just one way (among desperate many) of supporting inclusion. What I mean is that I’m using a rubric to support learners that don’t fully understand the direction “write a short paper on any topic in Chapters 3 through 7.” When that sentence is the full instruction students receive in a course, many find themselves with a D on their paper because they submitted a five-page paper, in their own voice. What the instructor meant, and graded on was, “no more than 2 pages, double-spaced, times new roman 12pt font, with APA style citations and references.” Freedom is a relative concept in this one small example. As a learning designer in favour of the freedom of students to not receive a D on their paper, I won’t apologize for designing and recommending the kind of rubric I know I can get away with (no matter how authority-centric it might seem). I know that without it, learners without the ability to read the educator’s mind are at risk.

Should instructional design tools, frameworks, and theories (including rubrics and their constraining and colonizing effects) be examined critically and improved? Certainly. It’s likely that many instructional designers would agree. However, related to this idea, “As regards arbitrariness and bias, if a human builds a rubric, it is arbitrary and biased.” If all things are subjective all the time, and the human building the rubric is an instructional designer, the bias is likely going to skew toward “a learning experience not sucking within the constraints of what I can influence.” I’m more than okay with that.

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