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Design Tensions

I am writing this blog post after a failed online search for a clear, concise, yet sufficient explanation of design tensions in instructional design. Deborah Tater’s 2007 definition is here, but it’s a fair bit longer than mine. Of course, her’s is also said more elegantly.

Design tensions are relationships between design components or features that are linked such that when one is repaired, improved or changed, another fails, is altered, or rendered ineffective.

For a general example in education, when designing for a problem-based intervention, too much structure in supporting scaffolds destroys the nature of the problem-based learning by giving away a quick solution, while too little supporting scaffolds may render the intervention impossible or overly frustrating for learners. When combined with the context of varied skill level among learners, the tension arises that as soon as one subset is scaffold-ed, the challenge is rendered meaningless for the others.  Design tensions can be so great as to render the approach infeasible, or alternatively, they may be somehow minimized or balanced in the process of design.

Most importantly for instructional designers, tensions must be identified in order for a problem space to be defined. How one frames a the  design problem is highly related to the resolutions that’s designed (Dorst, from Frame Innovation). This is what makes the act of finding and expressing a design tension so integral to the process of design. It *is* design.

In a design document of any kind, if one says there’s a design tension somewhere in a design, the listener is expecting the next sentence to tell which component or feature impacts which other component, feature or characteristic of the design. AS a reviewer of design cases, I can’t tell you how many times I have read an insightful author describe  something they call a design tension, and fail to express the second half of the tension because it was so obvious to them.

HCI deals with this more explicitly than instructional design. The graphic above is from a book on interaction design by Brian Whitworth with Adnan Ahmad. A full elaboration of the concept of design tensions is available in: Tatar, D. (2007) The Design Tensions Framework. Human–Computer Interaction (22) 4, 413-451.

The International Journal of Designs for Learning and the differences among Design Research, Design-based research, and Design Science

I was very happy to receive an invitation to join the advisory board of the International Journal of Designs for Learning (IJDL) yesterday. IJDL started in 2010 with a purpose to fill a very specific niche in scholarship in instructional design. Until that time, there was no venue exclusively set aside for design cases, rigorous analyses and reflection on specific designs for learning (Boling 2010; Smith 2010; Howard 2011). I was in the right place at the right time. I had been a volunteer assistant editor for Tech Trends’ Instructional Design Portfolio feature, a regular column allowing authors to share designs. The ID Portfolio was a fantastic first step and had expanded the field’s awareness of this type of research. However, the venue limited the length of the articles and was print media despite authors’ and reviewers’ desires for more space and oftentimes animated or interactive expressions of the designs. Design cases in IJDL are essentially unlimited in length (the guidelines say 9,000 words, but more than 11,000 is common), and the format is flexible—multimedia is the preferred choice of expression for approximately 20% of the authors who contribute to IJDL. While my dissertation was not a design case, I became very interested in this form of scholarship and subsequently wrote my own case. I also wrote an analysis of the difficulties authors find in publishing this form of design research, and a definition of this form of knowledge building. What an opportunity it was to work with Gordon Roland, Kennon Smith, and Elizabeth Boling, and all the advisory board members in those first two years the journal was up and running. Recognition for this type of research is growing, and it should be. Both practitioners and scholars of instructional design need to understand just what the goals of the different forms of research are in order to make practical decisions about where they invest their reading time. Alan Foley presents it well in his graphic that he uses to depict to graduate students the different types of research in their field that include the term “design” in their title. See the graphic below.

Alan Foley's Graphic

Graciously lifted from

For quick reference, here’s the consensus that’s growing around these terms: Design research has two types—one that speaks to how we design using various traditional methods of research, and another type, the design case, which speaks to the precedent a designer, or someone close to a design, has drawn out of the process and product of a specific design (Boling 2010; Howard 2012). Design-based research (Squire & Barab 2008) speaks to theories using design as the means for making those insights. Research in Design or Formative Evaluation is a type of research where the goal is to improve a specific design. Design and Development Research aims to establish empirical grounds for design practices. And finally, Design Science, a term Kevin Williams introduced to me, is parallel to design-based research placing emphasis on abstraction and theory building via the act of design in Information Systems. Check out this link to see just how similar the two terms are defined between Information Systems research and Instructional Technology research.

MOOCs and the confusion between instruction and education

Most discussion about MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) seems to miss the point entirely. I have been sent a solicitation to talk about an informational graphic which lauds MOOCs, but have also discovered an excellent discussion of the dangers of MOOC-ing. Both seem to make the same error. We get a lot of discussion about these technologies from people outside of education. Some even start their positions with statements that they question their own legitimacy. Let me back up and provide context to any discussion of MOOCs that will demystify the topic and situate it among the larger scope of what we know about learning.

The MOOC is an instructional strategy that has arrived precisely as was predicted over 2 decades ago. In 2006, Ted Frick, PhD, now an emeritus faculty member at Indiana University, made a statement to a group of incoming PhD students. He said that it takes the educational community about 30 years to figure out how exactly to use a new technology for teaching and learning. Tim Berners-Lee created the web browser in 1990, and the first web browser to muster widespread use was Mosaic, which appeared in use in 1993. 2013 is exactly the date educators like Ted Frick expected to see the educational community grasp and run with the potential of web technology, but of course we expect 10 more years of significant developement. Instructional designers and educators who have made careers in distance learning are not surprised by MOOCs.  They expected that by now, the community at large should understand the web well enough to apply it to teaching and learning in systematic ways which realize its potential. At the same time, the hype surrounding “Web 2.0” is not all forgotten. In the late 2000’s, Tim Berners-Lee said that Web 2.0 is jargon aimed at creating hype around aspects of HTML that have been there since its inception. So is the story with MOOCs. There is nothing technologically different with today’s MOOCs in comparison with regular technology that has been around for quite some time. Therefore, one can conclude nothing other than that MOOCs are an instructional strategy, not a technology.

There are many instructional strategies. Some encompass whole curricular designs and have multiple sub-parts, some focus on discrete points. Some are designed to teach process (for example, apprenticeship), some teach concepts (cloze activities), and other strategies teach attitudes or mindset (boot camps). Here are some instructional strategies you might be familiar with: the multiple choice test, the lecture, listen and repeat, group work, e-learning, and flash cards. Here are some instructional strategies you might not be familiar with: collaborative or pair testing (Mark Evan Nelson), the Silent Way (Gattengo), airborne instruction (MPATI). It is the very rare instance that one instructional strategy encompasses the entirety of an educational system. Can you imagine an entire course of study containing only lectures? The multiple choice test may be a sufficient strategy for certain aspects of teaching, but one would surely not want to do an entire curriculum via multiple choice tests. Using one instructional strategy for everything is rarely prescribed by those who design instruction on a regular basis.

Yet we find the arguments surrounding MOOCs to be primarily based on the assumption that the MOOC is a form of education, or that the MOOC is a new technology.  Neither of these notions are true, and the majority of educators I have encountered understand this. One indicator that these discussions have little to do with education is that very few educators are taking part in the discussion. Some educators who focus on learning technologies, for example see Curt Bonk’s extensive website, put MOOCs in line with the many other technologies which have changed the landscape of distance education.  But on the other hand, one of our nation’s leaders in education has raised the topic of teaching and learning via the exact opposite of the MOOC (Arthur Levine, example article here). He asks, instead of one teacher teaching many, what if we had a many teachers teaching an individual for longer periods of time? Sure, Arthur Levine is talking about technology in education, but he’s putting it in the larger scope, and considering a number of perspectives. When educators talk about education, this is how they do it. They consider a multitude of perspectives, and contexts, in light of the world we live in now, and the larger lives of the learners in our charge. Levine is not saying one instructional strategy fits all cases, and Bonk is viewing MOOCs as not a solution– rather an option among many. Both are saying we need to re-examine how, what and why we teach the way we do.

In this light, let’s look at some of the rhetoric surrounding MOOCs. Allison Morris of has presented me with an informational graphic to help me understand MOOCs. In her graphic she makes some assertions that may warrant a closer look. She writes that “They’re growing at a rapid rate.” This would be true of any instructional strategy that is entering the main stream after many years of development and distribution. I would be more interested in seeing the growth in popularity of the multiple choice test because at this point, I think the educational community knows something about how multiple choice tests work.  Binet got it down as a true proxy of reason back in 1905, and Thorndike got the multiple choice test into the form we now recognize, about 10 years later circa 1915. I would imagine that we started to get good at creating and applying multiple choice tests in the 1950’s. Where is the multiple choice test now?—everywhere. The multiple choice test has had its day and now its popularity is waning. Debates surrounding the common core reveal the limits of the instructional strategy.  The limits of the MOOC are, as of yet, still murky. If Morris is correct with her assertion, the implication is that we’re going to see a lot more development of the MOOC. Growth in popularity means the strategy is not mature, and just like any other strategy it can be applied well, or poorly. What I do like about Morris’s informational graphic is the way she has laid out the content — a powerful method of conveying an argument quickly. But what we have in the end is an argument that holds no bearing on MOOCs; popularity, demographics, and a description of the designers and participants, does not have any bearing on the efficacy of an instructional strategy.


Fig 1: Allison Morris, The Mind Behind the MOOCs

The discussion would not be complete without the dystopian perspective that MOOCs are horrible. I have seen this theme reappear in the Chronicle of Higher Education repeatedly over the past 12 months. Early last year one scholar warned the Chronicle’s readership that content delivery does not equate to education, and that this error in reasoning would make real education a luxury for the rich (Graham, 2012). Another seasoned scholar wrote more recently that MOOCs are a product of the time, to blame for part of our collective degradation of educational practice, making today’s education a re-instantiation of Wal-mart (Patrick Deneen, June 7). I don’t think it is unreasonable to say that the reason we see positive perspectives of MOOcs on literally thousands of blog posts (Blog + MOOC retrieves over a millions entries in Google searches) and dytopian perspectives on MOOCs in articles in the Chronicle is that those who support the practice are generally not scholars—they are internet users who are involved in online education, often exclusively in at-a-distance education, and the former are scholars who are quite adept at writing for publication. Deneen’s argument that MOOCs are the Wal-mart of education is well constructed, elegant, and at times even funny. I suggest everyone partaking in the discussion read it because the article raises relevant topics and is well written. But, the argument does not stand. Here’s why.

The fact that educational strategies are changing is not evidence that one strategy is wrong. Education is always changing, and should change, as Arthur Levine argues, because society is always changing. As educators we must keep education relevant because it is directly linked to society, and learning that is out of synch with life is always lacking. Signs of the times such as initiatives for “measurable outcomes” and “assessments” (that are also under debate, by the way) are not an indication that designers of instruction, or institutions that are adopting those designs, are down a path of doom. MOOCs may promote a monoculture, as Deneen argues, but we have seen no indications that the monocultures of MOOCs are actually any different from the monoculture of required textbooks, or other standardized content which gains popularity across nationwide curricula. (For example, is English 101 really different from institution to institution?) While a Wal-mart of education may not be all to attractive, who is to say that the Wal-marts of the world are not a driving force behind the popularity of farmers markets which also did not exist a few years ago. MOOCs may just be the strategy which raises our awareness of the diversity of perspectives and backgrounds that enrich our institutions.  Distinctions are now easier to draw between one instructional approach and another because they are more visible via MOOCs.  However, this does not credit nor discredit an instructional strategy. James Paul Gee may have had a more insightful observation when he wrote about the rise of the distinction between uniform and nuanced curricular approaches, making boutique colleges and universities an educational landscape apart from the commodity institutions. Visibility itself is not a criteria for quality practice.

Thank you to Allison Morris for prompting the conversation I have wanted to post about for about a year. I hope this post will prompt good discussion from students of instructional design, and lay to rest from of the misguided rhetoric that looks at MOOCs in black and white terms without seeing it as another strategy that will have a life of its own like any other, for better or for worse. I welcome comments that bring to light my errors in this post and take the conversation in a positive direction.


The July 19, 2013 Issue of the Chronicle review contains an informed response by Clay Shirky to Patrick Deneen’s rant against MOOCs. He seems to be taking a similar position as mine; he writes, “The effect of MOOCs on the academy is no more likely to be about pedagogy than the effect of MP3’s on the music industry was about audio quality.” His argument is primarily based on the economics, but he brings a larger understanding of how educations functions to the discussion of MOOCs. redirects here. I am hoping this location will last for quite some time. The IU home page I built with dreamweaver in 2007 had a good run- 5 years. But, I am hoping this one will last longer than that. Soon that IU page will be retired– probably in August of 2013, so the archive has to move before then.

Here are some other places on the web where people find me: