Instructional UN-design

I have been rolling this idea around for a long time, ever since I first encountered the idea of PLEs.  If there is no “course” (in the traditional sense), if we’re not “designing” courses (in the traditional sense, with outcomes/objectives, a defined path through pre-determined content, using a systematic process like the one shown here, bla bla), what is the role of the instructional designer? Is there a role? I’m thinking no, not in the traditional sense.  Maybe not at all. This is exciting and a bit freaky.

About 10 years ago, a teacher I know got excited about what he was calling “radical constructivism” – basically he was NOT going to design his course in advance, he wanted to let it emerge and co-create it all with the students, inviting them to define their own path and “construct their own meaning”.  It was a disaster.  The students hated it.  They accused him  – angrily – of being unprepared and disorganized.  I  think having their expectations shot was so distracting that it prevented them from even seeing or considering – much less embracing – the opportunity he was offering them.  They didn’t want to work with him, they wanted to be told what to do. What’s perhaps the most surprising/disappointing is this was an Education class. Or maybe it’s not surprising. Classes (and schools) are groups, which, according to Downes, embody roles and limits and a central authority and emotional stuff  –  members of groups “need” leaders to lead. That’s the model we know.

I bet a lot of people have a story like this, or at least can (or can’t NOT)  imagine this kind of outcome as a consequence of abandoning traditional instructional design.

But, come on. Think of ALL the things you have somehow learned outside of an instructionally designed course. Downes offers up the Internet as just one example – there was no course on how to build the internet. Yet, somehow, here it is.

So if we accept, like Downes does, the “radical” concept that students can learn autonomously, that we don’t need to take them by the hand, that they won’t be hopelessly lost, that they will learn without our “design” (control?), then what?

Well, I think there is still a place for “us”, the artists-formerly-known-as-Instructional Designers. I’m not sure what it looks like yet, but here are some early thoughts:

  • faculty/teachers still need us. at least some of them, and at least for now. they need help wading through the endless sea of ed tech tool options, they need help exploring alternatives to the very common response to a new technology: using it in an old way (podcasts? great! I’ll lecture for a long time!  web conferencing? great! I’ll lecture with PowerPoint for a long time! Second Life? Great! Let’s build a virtual classroom where my avatar can lecture to their avatars for a long time!). We can help them consider alternatives to themselves as the authority/centre of students’ learning. Gently, respectfully, helpfully.
  • assessment – ok, i’ll admit. this is something i’m putting OFF thinking about right now, while these ideas congeal. Not because there’s no good answer, but because “what about assessment?” is a question that is actually an objection, a wall, that translates to, “this can’t work because, what about grades…????”.  But I see a potential role for IDs in assessment. TBD.
  • course midwives: the old model is about setting a course up from the beginning, and letting it run. Often for IDs, the start date of the course is our end date, and the date where we are “done” and can turn our attention to the next course(s) on our plates. Maybe we need to stay with courses and help instructors mentor them along. Maybe course development/design becomes “agile”, emergent, and ongoing. So maybe we stick with our courses, rather than abandoning them when they start, reviewing them when they’re “over”, looking to “revise as required” before the next start date.
  • do it ourselves – one of the best things I’ve done in a long time is take cck09, a rather large open course.   It’s easy to forget what it’s like to be a student, and even if you remember, being a student in an open/un-designed course is a different thing altogether. So we need to throw ourselves in there, play with new technologies, take open courses, be part of the network, find out what others are doing, figure out what’s good, what works, and bring that back to our institutions, instructors, etc.

So, Instructional Undesign might look less like building the whole house in advance, and more like framing it. Or even just bringing some tools to the job site, and helping build.

4 thoughts on “Instructional UN-design

  • October 7, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    Thanks for leaving the link to your post in the CCK09 Moodle forum. I am glad I read this because I also have been thinking about “Instructional Undesign” for a while.
    I started last spring when I was in an Instructional Design course during which George spoke about Connectivism. We were asked to discuss what the future of Instructional Design and the Designer might be.
    I imagined something similar to course midwives but I compared the designer to a dungeon/gamemaster from a role-playing game (yes I am a dork :)). The Instructional Designer in this scenario would have to allow for the different paths a learner could take. Basically I think it would boil down to the designer designing on the fly, minute by minute as the course happens.
    Whatever happens it is sure to be exciting.

  • October 7, 2009 at 6:13 pm

    Totally – designing on the fly! Love the Dungeon Master metaphor! I am excited about this too, and just have to ignore for the moment that it doesn’t fit in readily with most existing institutional and ID models. Do we need to be content experts in this case? Maybe not, but we may need to work a lot closer with faculty as the course unfolds than maybe we do now.

  • October 8, 2009 at 12:44 pm

    I think it would be impossible for us to be content experts. The learners are creating their own journey so it is totally possible (and I assume encouraged) for them to come up with their own content.
    Maybe Instructional Design will come down to facilitating creation of a PLN?

  • October 9, 2009 at 10:56 am


    I appreciated reading your perspective. I have been thinking along similar lines as well. I think the need to utlize ‘un-design’ modes will increase in demand as faculty become more ambitious. Our Media Arts dept. are currently looking into ways of developing online courses that have a non-linear structure, and I am excited about working on such efforts (whatever non-linear might mean to them). But I think the role of the designer will actually be more prominent in such efforts. The demands of conceptualizing/designing non-linear, distrubted, ARG-type courses will add additional complexity to the current Quality Matters-esque demands (which are themselves robust, especially for novice online instructors). All this ultimately leads to job security in my mind!

    So why should providing autonomous learning opportunities require more design work? I don’t know the details of the teaching situation you describe, but I have a sense that the students didn’t appreciate the ‘co-creation’ approach because the faculty member didn’t provide an alternative framework (philosophical and instructional design) that allowed students to appreciate its potential. This is where good deal of creativity is needed, and much more work on innovative design structures in my opinion. There would be a need for a paradigm-shifting introduction, procedures for co-devising a syllabus and assessments; guidelines on all of the above procedures so the process is contextualized; a shift of assessment to the process of developing the course, and so on (not even touching on use of technologies)–and all this needs to be designed with engaging with the content of subject in mind.

    It could be great! but without sufficient consideration, it would very likely fall flat. It would be a novel framework that will be a little ‘raw’ and so would need to articulate its difference in concrete terms. In the planning stages, it could be created on the fly, but in the implementation phase, student’s will need to feel ‘comfortable’ that this new structure is going to allow them to learn. Facilitation would again allow for on-the-fly adjustments :-). It seems we all agree on this. As long as faculty see the opportunity of providing autonomous learning opportunities as requiring additional conceptual and design work, then they are probably on the right track.

    On assessment in an ‘undesign’ mode, I would like to make assessment as representative of the practical application that the learning will be used for—that is authentic. If you’re going to continue to reflect on learning theories on blogs or write research papers on Connectivism like Stephen and George, then CCK 09 assessment is authentic. For me, authentic assessment of my understanding of this course is in how I manage to practically apply it to my work. As such, I’m looking at ways to apply the Connectivism model to improve instructional design, whether it involves the conceptual or practical design of the course. At the very least, it may provide an appealing rationale for current/innovative educational and instructional design approaches. To offer a principle for assessment in an ‘un-design’ mode, then, I would suggest that the authenticity of the assessment needs to be negotiated with students at the beginning of the ‘course’. Again sufficient scaffolding would need to be provided to make this a meaningful process for them. This is nothing new perhaps, but it would provide a good deal of work to make this a powerful learning experience for students.
    I like the point you make about staying with the course as it is in progress. I think that we could learn a lot by doing this regularly, and perhaps I will ask to be involved in some courses that are currently being developed. I think that the provision of the instructional design development support process, whatever form it takes your institute, should include a means by which faculty are required to gather data on the effectiveness of their course delivery. This could be reviewed after the completion of the course with an instructional designer. We are making steps in this direction, so thanks for the good idea.
    BTW: the website I listed is very much a work in progress—playing with Drupal and looking at providing a forum (and valuable content) for instructional designers. Don’t expect too much at present! :-).


    Robert Squires


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