Human-centered instructional design

Building Empathy (and Courses)

Technology, and technologically-mediated learning, can be dehumanizing; but it doesn’t need to be. Instructional designers, and the tasks assigned to them, can vary widely among institutions. Large, fully online programs often have very specific templates to which their courses must adhere. In many of these cases, the instructional designer’s task is simply to gather (and occasionally create) content from a “lead instructor” and plug it into a template. This work is often required to be completed months in advance, and the courses can remain rigid and unchanged for years at a time. In such programs, course design typically offers scant regard for the learners, instructors, and designers involved – they are all simply part of the machine. Even in less extreme examples, locally conditioned workflows, pressures to maximize profits, and desires for scalable efficiency might still marginalize the people most central to the learning community.

But what happens if we choose to recenter our humanity into the center of digitally-mediated learning experiences?

In your deepest, fondest dreams, what kind of impact would you most like to have on your students?

Dee Fink offers up the following scenario in Creating Significant Learning Experiences:

Imagine yourself teaching in a perfect situation, where the students will do anything and everything you ask of them. They will read everything and write everything you ask them to. They will do it on time and do it well. In this special situation you can do anything you want as a teacher and can have any kind of impact on students that you desire. The only limitation is your own imagination.

Question: In your deepest, fondest dreams, what kind of impact would you most like to have on your students? That is, when the course is over and it is now one or two years later, what would you like to be true about students who have participated in your courses that is not true of others? What is the distinctive educational impact you would like for your teaching and your courses to have on your students?

What is it that you, as a teacher, are most interested in accomplishing with your students? Is there a process that might better lead us down that path – whether delivering courses online or otherwise?

In the video above, Dav Rauch and Anne Trausch are discussing the human-centered approach they take to design at IDEO. Granted, there are significant differences between designing entertainment and education, especially with respect to one’s ultimate objectives. Nonetheless, one critique they make of many Virtual Reality entertainment experiences rings true with education as well. When one begins with the tool, rather than with the people, the experience is going to be a letdown and one’s objectives are likely to remain unaddressed.

What kind of impact would you most like to have on your students?

When beginning each instructional design process with faculty, I like to address the following three questions early on with faculty:

  1. What lasting impact are you most interested in this course having on your students?
  2. What do you like most about teaching (regardless of modality)?
  3. What about the learning environment, if anything, are you most worried about losing in the transition to teaching online?

Everything we do and every decision we make circles back to the instructor’s responses in the subsequent conversation(s). Moreover, the course should also be designed and delivered in such a way that it addresses the same questions from the perspectives of the students. The tools teachers choose to use and the instructional strategies they employ are meaningful only in as much as they engage the actual individuals involved in the process.

Human-centered instructional design places people at the heart of the course design and delivery process. Rather than a strict rubric or series of steps, this design process involves a series of questions, practices, and principles that might help guide the process. It looks to build empathy (among the key stakeholders in the course design and delivery) along with courses. Digital technologies and content are decentered and considered holistically in the service of, rather than as the end of, the instructional design process.

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