MMID: Toward a Critical Instructional Design

MOOC MOOC: Instructional Design (MMID) is the sixth iteration of a mini, meta-MOOC designed to inspect different aspects of higher education, teaching, learning, and the digital. MMID will take place from January 25 – February 12, 2016. For more information, see the original announcement.

“Ask not what Vygotsky can do for you. Ask what you can do for Vygotsky!” ~ John F. Kennedy

Let’s look at the LMS.

L: Learning. From the Old English leornian, “to get knowledge, be cultivated, study, read, think about,” which is from Proto-Germanic *liznojan, “to follow or find the track.” Key here, I think, are the active verbs “get” and “find.” Each of these implies a skill on the part of the learner to discover, acquire, seek, research. There’s something deeply agential about getting and finding (even, following, in this sense is agential, as the track followed is one the learner comes upon or works to uncover). The learner as tracker. The learner in the open wild.

M: Management. Probably from Italian maneggiare “to handle,” especially “to control a horse.” Influenced by French manège “horsemanship.” Explicit in this term is the idea of control, especially control of an animal known for its willfulness. Dropping management in right after learning, we can imply that it is learning (or learners) which needs controlling. In a single turn, the learner in the open wild has become domesticated, bridled, broken.

S: System. From Greek systema “organized whole, a whole compounded of parts,” from stem of synistanai “to place together, organize, form in order,” from syn- “together” (see syn-) + root of histanai “cause to stand” from PIE root *stā- “to stand.” A system is a manufactured organizational model that causes the parts to stand together as a whole. The idea of seeing learning as a whole is reassuring; but we cannot consider what this “whole” is without considering how it’s been divided into component “parts”. We are now so far from the idea of a learner in the wild that we’ve arrived upon a simulacrum of a learner in the wild. A mimicry of learning, in containment. Wild horses at the zoo.

“How could Vygotsky see anything but the shadows if he were never allowed to move his head?” ~ Plato

How have we been misled? This is the foundational question for this week in MOOC MOOC: Instructional Design. By it, I don’t mean “under what thrall” were we misled, but rather, “in what ways” have we been misled. What ideas have we accepted without them being our own? How have we let “evidence” assault our common sense? What methods have we employed without critical consideration? How have we set ourselves aside out of compliance?

The LMS represents one way we have been cowed into beliefs about learning that were not originally ours. As first-graders rushing into learning we were not excited to be corralled. We were finger painters once; and now we are adults who not only “nurture” and “protect” learners through evidence-based control, but who also allow ourselves to be likewise nurtured. Our corroboration of techniques for managing learning (they are right in that we prove them so) is complicity, not agency. In many cases we have surrendered our agency for systems, theories, “best practices”, that work smoothly, that take the effort of agency off our shoulders.

But if we don’t have agency, how can we inspire agency in learners? We have been bridled and broken and so we bridle and break. That we refuse to refuse the LMS is evidence enough.

“Be the Vygotsky you wish to see in the world.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi

There must be another way. And if there is, we will discover it through critical reflection on the systems for managing learning which have proliferated (of which we are proliferators). It will not come necessarily from knowing etymologies, nor from archaeologies, nor from our learnéd experts on learning (Vygotsky, Freire, Skinner, the whole lot of them) unless they help us recognize the path we’ve tread that we must now transgress. “A critical social science, “ says Norman Denzin, “seeks its external grounding not in science … but rather in a commitment to critical pedagogy and communitarian feminism with hope but no guarantees” [emphasis mine].

We don’t know the path we haven’t tread, but that shouldn’t keep us from seeking it out.

Everyone has a first day of learning. This week in MOOC MOOC: Instructional Design is about those first days. First day after first day after first day.

Take a look at the readings below, and then join us on Wednesday, February 3 at 5:00 PM EST for a Twitter chat using #moocmooc. As well, join in one of this week’s two activities.


  • MOOC MOOC Discussion: Wednesday, February 3 at 5pm EST
  • Jump into the document “Critical Instructional Design: a Definition” where we’ll be discussing and writing a definition for a new approach to instructional design;
  • On your own blog or collaborative document, write an Instructional Design statement that reflects your philosophy of learning (much as a teaching statement would). Be sure to share your posts on Twitter using #moocmooc.


Guiding questions

  • If we imagined the staples of instructional design didn’t exist, where might we begin formulating a new, critical instructional design?
  • What are the priorities of critical instructional design?
  • How do issues of intersectionality play into the design of an online or hybrid course?
  • Is there an aesthetic to course design, curricular design, or, more granularly, to the writing of a discussion prompt, the posting of a bio, the ever-dubious video lecture?
  • Rather than asking “can we,” are we able to ask “how can we” defeat the oligarchy of learning management systems?

[Photo, “this scar” by Fio.]

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