2020 – The Year of the Radical Instructional Designer

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

Buckminster Fuller

In 2020, I’m going back to my roots. Scanning the events and media references about me over the last year, I’ve been described and introduced in many ways: president, professor, leader, writer, author, thinker, education policy analyst, futurist, scholar, researcher.

I certainly relate to and value the ways in which some of these words describe my work, but the word that gets at the root of how I look at and think about much of my professional life is not on that list.

I’m a designer.

From OED, a designer is, “a person who plans the form, look, or workings of something before its being made or built, typically by drawing it in detail.”

From the MW, a designer is, “one who creates and often executes plans for a project or structure.”

Notice that I didn’t state that I’m an instructional designer, although education is the primary setting for my design work. I’m slow to use the phrase “instructional design” because the majority of existing definitions are restricting and uninspired. Most of the working definitions for instructional design read as if the came off the factory floor, infused with a heavy dose of industrial-ese.

Fortunately there are a few exceptions. Here is one. From our friends at InstructionalDesignCentral.com, “What is instructional design? In short, instructional design is the process by which learning products and experiences are designed, developed, and delivered.”

What I appreciate about this definition is that it doesn’t prescribe the process. It simply acknowledges that there is one (or there are many). It also recognizes that instructional design doesn’t necessitate turning everything into a product. ID is also about learning experiences. Finally, the definition recognizes that, in practice, ID involves stages of planning, creation, and bringing that creation to the world. This definition fits much better with how I think about myself as a designer as well as the most hopeful future for the role of instructional design in general.

Even so, it is still too limiting for me and it is why I identify as a designer more than an instructional designer. There is just too much philosophical and ideological baggage associated with the phrase, even with the word “instructional.” I will hesitantly reference instructional design, but I much prefer to think more broadly. In that sense, I offer an alternative definition for the radical instructional designer as ”a person who builds upon deep beliefs and values while contributing to the creation of learning experiences, environments, solutions, possibilities, frameworks, models, tools, and systems.

This definition is beautifully broad, so much so that it can be applied to countless roles in education and beyond. It is broad, but it has power…power to change existing realities.

What do I mean by “beliefs and values”? I’m referring to beliefs about human worth, dignity, meaning, and purpose; beliefs about what is good, true, and beautiful. I’m describing values that go deeper than professional standards and clearly defined learning outcomes, values about justice, equity, liberty, agency, compassion, kindness, empathy, democracy, and so much more. You can design a learning experience that produces consistently amazing outcomes, but what if it dehumanizes and dishonors people along the way? The goal of radical instructional design is to get down to the roots, and to grow something beautiful from there.

Amid the growth of online learning over the past thirty years, we’ve seen the number of instructional design jobs increase, and some of those are factory floor jobs, thoughtfully and faithfully contributing to the systematic and rapid development of course after course, operating from some agreed upon set of standards for quality alone the way.

This is still a thing, even a needed thing. For most instructional designers in such roles, the exciting part is when they actually get to engage in creative work, not simply helping build another course widget, but contributing to a team that imagines and designs promising possibilities for a course, learning experience, program, or product. There might still be a factory, but at least they have some say about the standards and specifications of the widgets…maybe even the structure of the factory floor.

Let’s dig until we can see the roots. Behind every instructional widget is a set of beliefs and values. There is an underlying philosophy (or a set of competing philosophies). Even when it is not explicit, the widget is designed to fit within an existing academic or organizational reality, and that organization has fences that consist of beliefs, values, and traditions. These fences consist of existing practices about grading and assessment, standards, goals, beliefs about what constitutes good or relevant education, views of the proper role of a student and teacher, beliefs about what constitutes success and failure, and so much more. These are the roots.

This is where the work of the radical instructional designer begins. Getting to the roots, we are able to engage in conversation, planning, and co-creation that reflects what resonates with our most noble and deeply held beliefs and values. Even then, we test our creation to see if it lives up to our beliefs and values. This is in contrast to making due with the existing system and faithfully coloring within the often-unchallenged philosophical and ideological lines of the organization.

This is the type of instructional design work that we need today. Yes, there will be plenty of spots on the instructional design factory floor (and that can indeed be good and admirable work), but I contend that 2020 is the year of the radical instructional designer, the one who is willing to go deeper, deep enough to join in changing the existing reality by helping to create experiences, models, frameworks, and environments that are so resonant…so compelling…so relevant that they begin to make existing realities obsolete. Or, in the presence of such compelling alternatives, the present realities are forced to listen, learn, change, and respond to the needs and voices of the learners and other relevant stakeholders.

It is the radical instructional designer who can join the cause of helping to co-create a better, more hopeful, more inspiring, and more humane education ecosystem. This is where we are going to see some of the most promising and exciting potential futures for education.

We can exhaust ourselves trying to make tweaks to the existing realities along with their deeply embedded industrial beliefs and values. Or, we can create time and space to join in creating something better, something that is less tethered to the systems that manage to turn some of our best designs into domesticated pets, never giving voice to their true, wild, reverberating roars.

Here is to 2020 as a year of the radical instructional designer.

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