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Instructional Design vs. Online Pedagogy

Sean Morris - April 21, 2014 11:00 am MST
LEGO faces
Bambi vs Godzilla

A colleague recently asked me about the difference between instructional design and online pedagogy. We’d been in conversation about learning, and I blithely remarked that these two fields had important differences.

To address the distinction between instructional design and online pedagogy, let me first start by saying that not all online teachers or edtech professionals would make this distinction. I believe the difference is fundamental, however, if we really want good learning to happen online or in hybrid spaces.

From my article, “Decoding Digital Pedagogy, pt. 1: Beyond the LMS” on Hybrid Pedagogy:

“Pedagogy has at its core timeliness, mindfulness, and improvisation. Pedagogy concerns itself with the instantaneous, momentary, vital exchange that takes place in order for learning to happen.”

And from my previous post, “What is a Pedagogue?”:

“I like to think of pedagogues as fashion designers. They can be a bit blithe to the quotidian concerns of classroom teaching … The pedagogue is concerned more with big ideas, the themes of education, its ethics and morals and goals, and a lot less with grading mid-terms, quizzes, and preparing well-researched lectures.”

Pedagogy consists of the universal principles of learning that undergird any teaching practice. It is about awareness and care. A lot of what pedagogy does has little to do with institutional attempts to quantify learning. This is actually at the heart of the problem with programs like No Child Left Behind, or even Common Core: standardization across all learning situations is impossible and dangerous. It is one more attempt to control teachers and forcibly train students. Instead, teachers should work to be flexible, attentive, creative, and responsive, and allow students the room to learn in ways that are natural and instinctive to all humans.

Instructional design, on the other hand, comes directly out of early experiments with computer-aided instruction (CAI). Matthew Kruger-Ross outlines the history of CAI in his article, “A Plea for Pedagogy”:

“The basic computing program presented piecemeal bits of information to the learner. After, the learner was asked to complete a number of questions written specifically to determine if she had learned the content. Because of the … engineers’ simplified understanding of teaching and learning, CAI redefined learning as driven by clear and concise objectives that could be easily quantified and measured (see Hamilton & Feenberg, 2012). CAI initiated a trajectory of integrating computer technology into education that continues at present with only minor changes in language.”

Because computer-aided instruction was more invested in the relationship between the human and the machine, and not at all designed by pedagogues or teachers, the imaginative aspects of the experiment were primarily technological. Instead of embracing the multivalent ways that the human mind works, CAI looked to find ways that the computer could create delimited learning experiences for the user.

As a result, today most students of online courses are more users than learners. And the truth is, no one likes it this way (outside, perhaps, of the administration—those who do not teach, design, or learn within LMSs). More and more, universities are expanding their online learning offerings in order to expedite and make efficient the learning and teaching process in higher ed. In this recent Washington Post article, for example, Dominic Basulto predicts that we may be looking at a near-future situation in which “the first artificially intelligent machine begins to fully teach a MOOC—lecturing, grading and engaging with students the way a human professor might.” From a labor perspective, this is obviously troubling; from a teacher’s perspective it’s patently absurd and horrifying at the same time. And it’s only made possible because the majority of online learning basically asks humans to behave like machines. The notion is absurd, because it not only asks that teachers be replaced by machines but creates an environment in which students must also become like machines in order to succeed.

Truly great online courses will do a lot more than just ask students to obey commands, to respond to the computer. Truly high quality online teaching will be a combination of innovative pedagogy and responsive instructional design, which privileges learner-humans over user-machines—something I will explore in a future post.

[Photo, Bambi vs. Godzilla, by JD Hancock licensed under CC BY 2.0.]


  1. Your comment on pedagogical interests resonated strongly with me. I spent hours each day this past semester trying to integrate a new LMS with my concern for students’ thinking critically about their written statements, about primary research, and about pertinent supportive evidence for their claims. First-year university students accustomed in high school to grabbing material from any convenient internet source suddenly discovered their inability to recognize what they were viewing (blogs or magazine articles instead of scholarly articles, for instance).
    Although the LMS allowed me to set rubrics and easily grade essays, blogs, research papers, and even poetry, the system did not consider the various skills of each student. Standardization reigned, and attempts at plagiarism appeared evident. Although links imbedded within assignments offered help for different levels of writing or comprehension, students often submitted drafts or polished essays for the grade rather than use the tools for learning. Accustomed to answers readily supplied by Google, students found it difficult to determine pertinent evidence in order to summarize a magazine article dealing with long-term effects of personality development in high school; required to paraphrase rather than quote, students exhibited limited vocabularies. TED Talks popularized material, but the interactive, required discussions about ethics or popular issues like social media or procrastination forced mundane replies from all but the most motivated students.
    Admittedly, I’m having trouble engaging my online students to the same degree I can in a classroom where interactivity, group discussions, and spontaneity reign and where ideas circulate as the critical force behind writing assignments, but your article suggests that my pedagogical ideals and the technological thrust toward standardization will cause continued, irreconcilable conflict.

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