Critical Instructional Design

Critical Instructional Design is a “theoretical approach to the design of teaching and learning that grows out of the tenets of Critical Pedagogy as forwarded by educators like Paulo Freire and bell hooks” (Morris). Through this lens, we understand education to be a liberatory, discursive act of resistance. What does a liberatory digital learning experience look like? What does it mean to design for learner agency and emancipation?

Sean Michael Morris, who coined the term “Critical Instructional Design,” puts questioning at the heart of Instructional Design work. Questioning offers a chance to investigate practices and assumptions, explore tensions, and develop solidarity among educators and learners as we seek the emancipatory empowerment that education can ignite. Inquiry, which we define here as exploring the ways educational technology and “the digital” intersect with other disciplines and epistemologies, is also essential to the Critical Instructional Design framework. Questions like, “how does colonialism play out in one-laptop-per-child programs? and “what is the culture of geocaching?” can inform our understanding of the digital not just as the use of tools, but the digital embodiment of social practices.

Design, as a collaborative process through which teachers thoughtfully re-imagine their classrooms, can spark creativity and inspiration in teaching. But design can (and should) also be about the activism needed when questioning and inquiry force us to confront entrenched inequities in education and in our society.

In the Critical Instructional Design track at this summer’s DPL Fredericksburg, we will explore the intersection of design with the praxis of Critical Digital Pedagogy. How can design (in a digital landscape dominated by surveillance and data commodification) be activism–the kind of activism that catalyzes “education as a practice of freedom?” As the digital has become central to institutions’ educational missions — as a strategic objective, a financial sustainability imperative, a means to an end —  it has become more difficult to freely pursue curiosity and creativity, and to break free from traditional models of Instructional Design that emphasize predictability, control, and simplicity. When the digital was peripheral to institutional missions, it was afforded playful agency, the ability to experiment and deviate from circumscribed paths (with limited resources, of course). Instructional designers who want to engage critical approaches need opportunities to explore the tension between the centrality and marginality of their work–and how to make progress in spite of the constraints each presents.

Critical approaches to design involve marinating in the complexities of education before jumping to answers, resisting the pull of solutionism and efficiency. That’s a bird’s eye view — but what does it look like to practice Critical Instructional Design in environments that privilege platforms over people, analytics over agency, and outcomes over inquiry? How do we move this forward in institutions where there may not be much room for work that looks different (less transactional, less tech-focused) than what people expect from designers and technologists? These are questions we will grapple with together throughout our track. Over the course of the week, we will question design and designed teaching and learning practices, and investigate the roles of authority and empathy in design, including discussions about how design can catalyze the true work of empowerment and emancipation in education.

Sean Michael Morris

Among with Digital Pedagogy Lab

Sean Michael Morris is the Director of Digital Pedagogy Lab and senior instructor of Learning Design and Technology at the University of Colorado Denver.

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