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We need more instructional design cases written by those who did not actually do the design, but where to start?
I suggest interviewing the designer. Elizabeth Boling did the same in her case about the Alcatraz cell-house audio walking tour. I have done interviews twice now to begin design cases about designs I did not create, and I share the protocol I developed here. This protocol was originally developed from reviewer questions in an article where I belabor all the difficulties I went through doing my own first design case. Of course, the instructional design case doesn’t begin and end with the interview. A good case will also have a few images of the design, the authors experience of it, maybe a few quotes from others’ user experiences, and the author’s reflection about why they were originally drawn to write the case. But of course, start with interviewing he designer.
Interview Protocol for Instructional Design Cases
- Telling them you are recording AFTER the recorder starts, so you get their agreement on tape
- Explaining that a member check will go out to them prior to the article’s submission for publication.
- Mentioning the time it takes– 90 minutes seems about right in most cases.
- Explaining that the markers and paper are there for exploring, please use them when needed. The notes are drawing from teh designer used to explain their product or process are important parts of the interview!
- This meeting is about the instructional design, not necessarily about the success of the design.
- Most importantly, Thank the designers for participation in this process.
Situating the design context and process:
- What were changes in context which motivated the design? Something must have happened that brought this design about.
- Who was the design team and what were their influences? Can we assume that the different members of the design team had different goals? Was that discussed? How were those decisions made?
- Did you initially intend to have students create a game? What were those key decisions? When did they happen?
- Can you describe the process by which you came to the initial formulation of the design?
- As you reflect on how you created these learning opportunities, what were the pivotal moments during the formulating of the instruction, the ah-ha moments or innovations, that you would want to tell someone else, who might be considering doing something similar for their learners?
Describing the design:
- Can you map out all the parts, especially the invisible ones, which someone viewing this teaching intervention might not see from the game itself? [Point to markers / pencils / paper]
- What is particularly interesting about this instruction?
- If you were to name the instructional design, NOT THE GAME, what would that name be?
Depicting the experience of the design:
- Can you describe the user experience? / How was learning measured, or not?
- Can you tell me about any unforeseen obstacles or aspects of the design that needed revisions that you only found out about after decisions were made?
- Did you try anything out, or consider anything, that was deemed in the end to be a bad idea in retrospect?
- How has this instructional design created complexities or challenges in your teaching? Has the instructional design failed anyone? TA’s, students, not met your goals?
- Have you skipped anything for simplicity’s sake? This can often trip up a design case because often what was skipped may be rationale for design decisions.
Special thanks to Duren Thompson, Synthia Clark and Lisa Shipley who were the student and staff contributors to this Policy for the LDT and IT Online programs. This policy developed the programs to better serve the field and to better enable our learners to navigate the expectations of practicing professionals in Instructional Design and Technology, both as a field of scholarship and one of practicing design.
Program Participant Professional Dispositions
University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Last Updated April 20, 2018
Instructional design and technology is a professional field with common values and professional ethics that influence the way professionals interact with clients, peers, and mentors. During a learner’s time in the Instructional Technology, (IT Online) Learning, Design and Technology (LDT) or the Online Teaching and Learning Graduate Certificate (OTL) Programs, it is imperative for learners’ future success that academic ability grows in unison with the professional dispositions outlined by the Association for Educational Communications and Technology Standards (https://www.aect.org/docs/AECTstandards2012.pdf). Listed below are the core values by which we expect students in these programs to abide. Multiple or egregious violations of these core values will lead to the evaluation of a students’ status in the program, as well as the development of an improvement and retention plan, and thereafter, possible dismissal from the program. The plan procedures and expected consequences when students violate these core values are provided below. In addition to following the shared core values in IT Online, LDT, and OTL learners are expected to follow the Student Code of Conduct in Hilltopics (https://hilltopics.utk.edu/) as well as the Academic Policies and Requirements for Graduate Students in the Graduate Catalog (http://tiny.utk.edu/grad-catalog).
1. Show commitment to the profession
• Learners must develop the skills and knowledge to become a productive member of the instructional design and technology professional community. This may include a new identity of professional conduct, which, while it can be intimidating and overwhelming, is a standard expectation. A learner’s professional transformation must evidence a voice that shows commitment to the profession. Remarks to peers, clients, or mentors suggesting a position against the profession as a legitimate entity would violate this core value.
2. Show academic integrity and honesty in your work
• Leaners will abide by the University Tennessee Honor Statement, which is listed in the Hilltopics as “An essential feature of the University of Tennessee is a commitment to maintaining an atmosphere of intellectual integrity and academic honesty. As a student of the University, I pledge that I will neither knowingly give nor receive any inappropriate assistance in academic work, thus affirming my own personal commitment to honor and integrity.” In particular, the ethical use of copyrighted materials is an important issue within the field of instructional design and technology. This includes the use of text, images, audio, video, and other media retrieved online. The use of published work created by others must be properly credited, and, in some cases, used only with express written permission. Learners should not only practice academic integrity, but also encourage and support peers to do so as well. When there are suspected cases of academic dishonesty, faculty and the student will follow the guidelines set for by the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards (http://web.utk.edu/~osja/index.php) to identify the best course of action.
3. Maintain a healthy rapport with your adviser
• Learners must seek help with course selection and remain in contact with their academic advisor regarding progress of their program completion. The IT Online, LDT, and OTL program assumes that learners will take ownership of their learning. This includes following instructions as to how to schedule meetings, the integrity of reporting the outcomes of advisory meetings, pursing shared academic opportunities, and the documenting of advisement. Positive, regular communication with your advisor can improve the overall learning experience and provide important opportunities and connections for after graduation. Ignoring advice or communications from your advisor is not only a violation of this value, but may delay program completion.
4. Be a reflective practitioner
• Learners must evidence that they enter all learning experiences, both independent and collaborative, in good faith as a reflective practitioner. The process of instructional design and technology learning requires reflection. Learners will learn from providing feedback to others, as well as receiving feedback. Program instructors support learners in this process while creating opportunities for them to learn how to work with feedback. While receiving feedback on work, whether positive or negative, can be difficult. Additionally, statements evidencing a desire not to learn the content put forward by faculty and peers is unacceptable. As a professional, feedback on your work should be celebrated as part of the iterative design process. It is the learner’s responsibility to learn how to evaluate feedback and address it in future iterations of design. The outright refusal of feedback as well as Ad hominin attacks or unexplained criticism would constitute a violation of this core value.
5. Be open to diverse ideas, approaches, abilities, and learning needs
• Learners must nurture an ability to work with divergent perspectives and ideation as a means to learning in instructional design and technology. Sharing of diverse ideas, approaches, and reflections lead to innovative practices. Learners may experience discomfort while being challenged by ideas, abilities, and learning needs not encountered prior to entering this program; however, all learners must learn to be open and respectful in sharing ideas and approaches with clients, peers, and mentors. Instructors can support learners to increase knowledge and skills for working with diverse ideas, however, learners may not refuse to listen to collaborators, or accuse others of willful obstruction to the learning. Ignoring or refusing requests for reasonable learning or communication accommodations (from peers, clients or within assignment parameters) also constitutes a violation of this value.
6. Accept the challenge to learn
• Learners must put forward an attitude which views failures as learning opportunities and accept the challenge to learn. Many students who enter the IT Online, LDT, and OTLprograms have exhibited qualities of a successful learner in traditional learning environments. The experience of becoming a professional learner can be quite different from prior experiences. When confronting difficulties while adjusting to new ways of learning, refusals to participate in class, participate in required components of course activities, or to collaborate with others, constitute a violation of this value.
7. Treat oneself and others with respect
• Program participants (both instructional designers and technologists-in-training) engage in numerous project-based course activities in teams and with real-world clients. This experience may be difficult at times. The difficulties themselves are not a problem; in fact, course activities often include authentic challenges that prepare learners as highly-qualified professionals. Behaviors which embody respect for the knowledge and skills of the field lead to becoming a successful team member. It is paramount that all learners show respect to themselves and others throughout this learning process. Disrespect to either oneself, one’s team, other learners, or clients would violate this core value.
8. Be a productive member of our community
• Learners must contribute to the community of practice in which they are engaged, in synchronous and asynchronous whole class discussions (online or face-to-face) as well as in smaller group work scenarios. In whole class activities, learners are expected to both contribute materially and support others in making their own contributions. In teams and group work, the negotiation of roles must accommodate a fair distribution of work. Fair distribution means that learners must contribute equally and equitably as determined by the team and cannot do less than what is agreed upon, nor do more by taking over the group work. In addition, it is a violation of this core value for a learner to refuse to participate in group activities or attempt to claim exception from peer evaluations due to conflicts in teams. Engaging in group processes productively as a member of a community involves skills and knowledge that may be new to them If learners find difficulties in such processes, they should view the situation as an opportunity to learn and reach out to the instructor of the course for assistance. The instructor can function as a mediator to assist team members with how to work together effectively. Refusing to contribute or monopolizing whole class activities would violate this core value.
9. Show integrity, honesty, and inclusivity in collaborative work
• As previously noted, many projects in which instructional design and technology professionals engage are shared by a team, with team members sharing credit for publication. Learners in these programs will give credit to the contributions of others for all completed work and document their own participation with integrity and honesty. In addition, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville values inclusive teaching and learning practice, and this extends to collaboration. Learners must practice inclusivity as a regular part of their collaboration. While learning to become a professional, learners must gain skills and knowledge for assigning work equitably among team members, develop a mechanism for monitoring contributions made by all members, and allow allmembers access to the learning taking place. Failing to properly and fairly credit collaborative work, or purposefully excluding group members from learning, are both violations of this core value.
Professional Disposition Evaluation and Participant Retention
Program faculty review student progress on a regular basis to assist students as necessary. While our main goal is to celebrate learner successes in becoming a highly-qualified Instructional Design and Technology professional, there will be times that faculty need to communicate to learners about issues relating to retention and improvement to ensure that learners are meeting both academic and dispositional expectations.
Program faculty are aware that becoming a professional is a learning experience of its own, and when participants show initial signs of dispositional issues, learners will be provided warning(s) to address them. These warning(s) will be communicated to learners during academic advising sessions. When dispositional issues are not remediated through early warning(s), faculty will follow the steps described below to address them.
Step 1: Students will be notified through a letter sent to their UT email account regarding an academic or dispositional issue that came to light and will be held to a probationary status as a student in the program.
Step 2: Students will schedule a meeting with their academic advisor no later than 2 weeks from the date of the notification letter.
Step 3: During the student/advisor meeting, the student and faculty will jointly construct an improvement plan that clearly lists the identified issue(s), strategies addressing the issue(s), expected outcomes of how student academic performance/dispositional issue will improved, and a date for the improvement plan outcome review. This plan will be kept in the student’s permanent record.
Step 4: The Academic and Dispositions Improvement and Retention Committee will review the improvement plan. This committee will consist of the advisor and two other faculty. Upon review the improvement plan, the committee will notify the student through a letter sent to his/her UT email account whether the plan was accepted or not. If not, students must meet with faculty advisor and address revision to ensure the plan is accepted by the committee.
Step 5: Students will take action according to the approved improvement plan.
Step 6: After the date that is listed as the improvement plan outcome review, the faculty committee will evaluate the student’s improvement according to the criteria of the plan. The committee will deliberate on whether the student did or did not meet the improvement plan expectations. If the students did not meet expectations, it will result in dismissal from the program.
There is a game called the Five Finger Filet. One holds a knife and stabs between thine outstretched fingers, risking a dangerous errant stab. Personally, I never had any attraction to games like this. I would surely chop off a finger and regret my own stupidity in a matter of moments. This however doesn’t dissuade my 5 year old daughter from trying to get me to play such a game. Of course, I show that I will get it wrong and continually mess up, stabbing ridiculously far-off and in the wrong pattern. To instruct her father, Erena designed this quick instructional scaffold. The location of the dots is what is important. Notice the string of five dots under her thumb. That’s the pattern, to each finger and back. I actually had not known what the real pattern was. But what caused me pause is how natural her behavior was. If a five-year old so naturally creates visual instruction, what does it say about the way we teach and learn that teachers and masters students in education rarely chose that avenue? Is any one else getting the idea that the pendulum has swung too far toward understanding learning as simply reading, writing, and nothing else? Maybe I am just chopping off another finger.
The last teaching task I completed for the year 2014 was a two-part peer teaching observation with Dr Sara Lawrence. But, unlike the teaching observations I have done in the past, this one was for an online class. I had never done a teaching observation for an online class before. We had a standard checklist for peer review, but the questions in it did little to guide us, so we made our way via a somewhat organic discussion, facilitated by the course materials stored in the completed versions of Blackboard shells for two separate courses. Here’s our process, boiled down to four parts that we experienced organically through the process of two, one and a half hour peer reviews. The first of these peer reviews was held in November, the other after classes ended in December 2014.
- We began by the person whose teaching was being reviewed expressing their values and goals, before we set out to look at materials.
- Then the person whose teaching was being reviewed discussed how the design of the course reflected those goals, or didn’t, and what struggles (design tensions) they had already discovered.
- Then we moved through course materials and some manifested discussions that took place in the course as. Looking at student work branched into a lot of discussion and ideation. I think we both found it difficult to stop from explaining details to the other while one looked through the online interactions.
- We then discussed nuances of interpretation that students might gather and divergent strategies we might be taking in our different approaches. These talks meandered quite a bit to the relationships between teaching content, learner context, institutional resources, materials and past experiences with the design.
- We concluded with itemized lists of revisions that might improve our instructional designs, we each added some plausible, and new, instructional tactics that might specifically serve these unique groups of students we have in these courses.
As it was my first peer observation for an online class, I didn’t know how our process stacked up against others. I have always taught online while also teaching other courses face to face, and this was my first formal review of an online class. The institution where I teach is going through a process of implementing review standards for online classes. I think standards are a good thing, if they promote learning in the end. So, after these reviews were completed, I went and read some of the literature surrounding the commercial materials being implemented by Quality Matters, the organization contracted to ensure a process of quality improvement for online course design. I found these materials from their website, and focused on one document (Introduction to the Quality Matters Program) in particular because I thought it might give me decent insight into how our ad hoc process compared to the initiative. That document provided an overview of the process and the focus areas, and I supplemented it with reading a white paper literature review published by Quality Matters.
What struck me was that our organic process and the areas of focus as stated in the Quality Matters literature seemed to outline identical discussions. The following table maps out the organic discussion as organized by the QM rubric.
|Quality Matters Rubric Item||Organic discussion among two peers|
|1. The Course Overview and Introduction||We both focused on getting to those materials, but I remember there was a fair bit of explaining verbally. This lead to a rather elaborated discussion about the role of the syllabus in online education, just how long it should and could be, and what value sub-documents might have as linked components of an online syllabus.|
|2.Learning Objectives and Competencies||Both Sarah and I related learning objectives when explaining materials we has added to our courses; competencies were are part of that discussion. What I found curious about this discussion is that each of us had more holistic goals that go beyond performance objectives. In one case, the competencies were state-mandated, which introduced a design tension: at the graduate level, the mandated competency is vaguely stated as required content of the syllabus. Is the instructor free to elaborate on that? Does that break the rules?|
|3.Assessment and Measurement||Both teachers elaborated on the rationale behind the point systems used, the rationale behind the tasks, and the values expressed by the design of the assessment systems as a whole. What struck me as curious about this discussion was the relationship between context and grading, revealing a design tension on one case. If a course is only offered once every two years, then with each instantiation materials must change, requiring changes in assessment practices, and limiting the design to an ongoing process rather than a fixed entity that can be decided on prior to the launch of the course. How would this context stack up against a rubric designed for courses with fixed and permanent content? Thus the design tension lies in the assessment of the assessment, rather than in the assessment of the students in their performances in the course.|
|4.Instructional Materials||I gathered from these segments of the discussion that materials’ discussions are pervasive within any discussion of online teaching. Our discussion lead to a recognition that all of the course is effectively course material. For example, in the discussion of navigation, which would be an access issue I assume, where content items are stored and how they are linked up (inside or outside of the LMS) is in fact teaching material in its own right. The design of how materials are delivered sends a message. A video linked outside the shell carries a message of don’t trust the system. Thus the design itself is a component of the course materials, a nuance I had not originally been cognizant of when I designed the course.|
|5.Learner Interaction and Engagement||Both teachers iterated the importance of interaction and the struggles with supporting it online. This lead to discussions of timing; e.g. when tasks are due during the week and throughout the semester. Views on interaction also lead to a discussion of teaching values. One instructor placed value on catering to the learners’ convenience by making everything phone-enabled. The other expressed a value of expressing the gravity of the task by pushing learners to experience the course via a full sized screen, were they can interact more fully, less distracted, and deeper. The contrasting values in this regard were some of my most valuable take-aways from the experience. Again, the configuration of learner interaction with both other learners and the instructor was both an expression of teaching values and a materials issue at the same time.|
|6.Course Technology||Discussions of technological choices were organic and pervasive through both talks. A number of persistent obstacles emerged. For example, Blackboard does not transfer links to purchased content (Atomic Learning models) resulting in dead links for students despite a number of proofreads of the course since the icons for the modules do in fact transfer over, albeit with outdated links. Thus each commercial content link, and there could be several in a design, must be revisited. In proofing a course before its launch, this can be difficult since catching all of them is not automated like we might find in a web authoring tool. Another point of concern was that Blackboard does not support a traditional wiki environment, in the sense that learners normally define the term. Supporting collaborative writing is then challenging despite the assumption that this technology supports that type of interaction.|
|7.Learner Support||I found it curious that our discussion of learner support actually hinged on a definition of our learners, who they are, and the broader goals behind what is meant to be taught in the course. Again, the topic itself cannot be disentangled from the discussion of materials. For example, one instructor felt that a course requirement asking learners to search out answers to technical topics prior to submitting questions was a move toward empowerment, and the other focused on curating materials because of the large amount of misinformation on the web. Both perspectives present a logical and reasoned position from a teaching standpoint. This discussion revealed an important aspect to understanding how a whole course fits together; something we would hope a viewer would know prior to evaluating an online course. It struck me that answers to the “correct” way one might empower learners in an environment that places so much emphasis on self-accessed learning hinges on each teacher’s perspective, and knowledge of their specific population of learners.|
|8.Accessibility||This term in the QM literature would need to be interrogated to be fully understood because accessibility can range from providing multimodal access to learning materials in a traditional sense (captioned videos for example), to values related to the design technology-enhanced learning more broadly. For example, I had not previously noticed the cluttered nature of my courses landing page. I had not discovered some of the tools on the landing page could be removed or hidden. This is actually an access issue. With so much on a single screen, is the instructor aware of how much of a burden they are putting on learners’ ability to find what they are looking for? Also, I had not included redundant links in convenient locations within the course. In retrospect, these are as much accessibility issues as providing captions on videos. We discovered this through the course of our talk. The same goes for providing free alternatives to software that I had assumed learners would have, an assumption I now question.|
The literature on observation in teacher education makes some very clear points about how teachers are best supported. Some key considerations are that teachers are best supported by non-judgmental observations (Fanselow, Bullock, Van Es), observation of larger constructs such as course design and lesson plans reveal very different aspects of teaching expertise and perspective than close inspections of specific teacher moves (Preston, Rosean), and “effective” practice cannot be defined without the input of the teacher (Owston). I wonder if some of these ideas do not get lost when we try and standardize peer review of online teaching. The Quality Matters materials do seem quite tied to the current research in online learning, which is a good thing, so, it strikes me as a beneficial aid to a novice teacher. But I have to wonder if the rubric wasn’t created from discussions like the one I had with Sara. The mapping of the discussion over the rubric strikes me as too precise to be coincidental. Perhaps the rubric only tells you what *should* be in a professional discussion; things competent professionals would talk about anyway.
Perhaps the QM initiative is an attempt to combat the issue of teacher obsolesce in the face of new technology. I think what our conversation suggests to me is that teaching online is less about being online than it is about teaching. The QM website goes to great lengths to make it clear that it has a rigorous approach to development, informed by the most current research, and includes a lit review of some of the trends in online learning research. What I think the approach may be missing in this endeavor is a key recognition that teaching and learning are in fact two different things, albeit interrelated. Research into online learning can only take us so far into learning how to teach online. Once someone grasps the concepts behind the available tools, the discussion goes much deeper into values, perspectives, and deeply held notions about learning a specific set of content items. The relationship between strategy and content is not one to one, but rather stochastic and deeply tied to values the teacher holds (Reigeluth). We have a comparatively meager body of research related to online teaching strategies than we do on online learning. I came away from these talks with the notion that peer-review observation of an online course is less about technology than it is about what it means to teach, less about the machine and more about the people we are trying to connect with and nurture.
This experience left me somewhat suspect of decontextualized observations from someone who is not in touch with our learners. There comes a point where the context of the learner reigns supreme over any instructional strategy that a teacher is assuming, and those unique contexts surface through discussion with a colleague about how the materials and design came to be as they are. I welcome any peer review with a colleague from my institution, but I wonder how much common ground I might find with someone from somewhere else. Perhaps this is related to why we grant tenure based on teaching at the institution giving tenure and not elsewhere. The differences in foci among teachers at different institutions may parallel differences among teachers within one institution, but they may also not. What one teacher is trying to accomplish may, or may not, be what the rubric supposes the teacher is trying to accomplish, and may or may not be needed for these particular students given the circumstances of the program as a whole. I remember more than once coming upon the phrase, “no, that’s already in another course.” This may be why MJ Bishop (University System of Maryland) says we don’t do courses as much as we do degrees; the course and the teachers have to fit together. The conversation about what should be taught is equally as important as the conversation about how it should be taught, and I am not so sure the two can be extricated from each other in a meaningful way, as we found in the multiple locations in our talk where the discussion of materials could not be torn from the other topics that our meandering conversation unearthed. I would feel more comfortable discussing curriculum choices with a teacher whose approach I know, than one whose approach is still a black box. Professional familiarity has an important value on the context of a school, a value the QM perspective seems to overlook.
The value of professional knowledge of a colleague hints on something more profound, and something related to improving teaching growth on personal level as well as on a program or school level: the importance of trust and comradery. The importance of trust is pervading into many fields of late, including medicine. All of the components of teacher observation that I found in my in-person observations were present in this discussion of our teaching, and I don’t know how comfortable I feel about intimate discussions of my teaching rationale with someone who may function on very different belief system about what teaching is, is not, and what is should be. Nor do I see an incentive to want a third party to see my course through my eyes. Sharing that with a colleague I foresee working with for a long time does hold that value for sharing. Working with people you know and trust is not intimidating nor trivial; it is a pleasurable and feels like time well invested in a colleague and one’s own teaching. It strikes me that this will pay off for students as well; teachers who know each other and how each other teach can make better decisions about what policies to implement. Also, accomplishments can be shared, and setbacks can be supported. A peer review with a trusted colleague makes for a better working environment.
I came out of this experience with the conclusion that a peer observation of an online class is not wholly different peer observation of a classroom teaching– the most rewarding parts are the discussion that happens after looking at teaching choices, and in discovering why a trusted colleague teaches the way they do, sharing why I do what I do, and reflecting on how this might be done better for the both of us, and our learners.
Teachers are told to make learning fun. Yeah! However, there is a fair percentage of learning that includes rejection and supporting that online is hard. Educational psychologists manage to gloss over the emotional side of things and come up with statements in research jargon that a learner is adjusting mental schema according to new information. Adjusting one’s mental schema to accommodate a big whopping REWRITE on a paper may have positive correlations on psychometric evaluations of learning, but calling it fun is a stretch. Many teacher training programs and educational psychology texts make it seem as if the learner simply processes information, without any pain. But adjusting one’s own “schema of the world” includes a key realization, I was wrong the first time.
Confronting one’s own being wrong is decidedly not fun, but it is effective. Sometimes it is so effective that we remember the lessons for a lifetime. Here are few of mine: Mr Savery, my highschool German teacher who I admired, told me to guess on the German language article declensions on my advanced placement exam. “Look, declensions in German are ‘en’ 70% of the time, if you try and figure it out, which is what you generally try to do and I know this because I have watched you take my tests for 4 years, you’ll lose time you could have spend getting to the questions that you are better at answering. Just guess all your declension items and move to vocabulary items as fast as you can.” This made me rethink just how much I knew and strategize my learning down the road. I went on to survive a year in Austria with this knowledge and pass a year’s worth of coursework delivered entirely in German. Dr George Hole’s comment on a final paper, “you didn’t think as much on this paper” was devastating. This forced me to rethink my writing and shortly thereafter I won a scholarship to Columbia University based on my application essay. Dr Carol Numrich’s similar comments on graduate papers were the same. Her feedback played into how I approached my doctoral application where I secured a fellowship to Indiana University. Ginette Delandshere handed me down a whopping REWRITE. Susan Herring’s 300+ requests for revision on the post-defense edit of my dissertation spun my head. How could I possibly write that poorly? Elizabeth Boling’s comment to my doctoral quals was eye-opening, in a more holistic way than just school, “righteous indignation does not serve you well in this context.” This idea played into my search strategy on the job market and helped me survive my dissertation. None of these rejections were fun, but they were all effective. All were in school, and none were online.
Healthy failures, as opposed to failures that lack transformative impact, also share something in common that is hard to accomplish online: care. The memory of the failure is coupled with the memory of the person who delivered it. It is the failures that are handed down from specific people that we remember. The failures I remember were all handed down from people who cared, or at least I felt that they cared for me. Imparting that feeling of being cared for is part of being a professional educator. While a missed objective question on an impersonal test may just require one to revisit the chapter, failures associated with more transformative learning all revolved around larger efforts: writing longer papers, preparing for bigger tests that seemingly predict a future, or attaining a significant life changing milestone–like finishing the Phd and getting my first tenure track job. Multiple choice, short answer and like approaches to formative assessments do not offer access to this kind of learning. Occasionally I have seen phrases on job descriptions in order of “genuine care for students,” but I have yet to see that operationalized into required teaching practices, especially online teaching practices. Failures on the big things may need to come from someone who has, or seems to have, a general interest in your well being in order to make that change from simple procedural and concept learning to transformational learning. The online instructor is not equipped with the same tools to express this care, and generally has had few examples to fall back on.
A large percentage of our online teachers have not experienced how care is expressed or attained online and have few experiences themselves of how failure is supported online, myself included. The online courses I have taken have all seemed somewhat removed from me; a kind of no frills instructional endeavor that gets right to the point, stays there, and ends. Read the materials, watch the video, listen to the podcast, post twice or three times a week, take the test, submit via the dropbox, finished. There were few pats on the back and little encouragement. Given this context, there was little opportunity for the instructors of these courses to impact real transformative change in my being. Any instructor who attempts incorporating support for failure is breaking new ground because, not only did they not experience failure support themselves, the media which they are working likely did not even exist a few years ago. Online instructors are not only learning to teach online, they are learning a whole gamut of digital ways to communicate. The best they can hope to do is try out some tips they saw at a conference, and learn from their mistakes over a long period of time, which I am trying to do.
Given the significance of these experiences in the longer term perspective of the experience of learning, I find it remarkable that I don’t find more emphasis on teaching failure well. Andrew Tawfik is starting to scratch the surface here, but we have a long way to go. In many years of teacher training I don’t remember ever focusing on how to deliver and support failure in learning, and I don’t remember any of these experiences that happened at-a-distance. Now that I am teaching online via an LMS, I feel even more handicapped at delivering this kind of caring for failure via the machine. Perhaps this is the greater implication of Joni Dunlap and Patrick Lowenthal’s advocacy for high touch low tech in online learning. But this is far easier said than done in contexts where learners have little time for synchronous communication and all their experiences come filtered through the lean media of a learning management system.
Healthy failure is difficult to administrate. It is a tricky business to put requirements for failure into programs, course designs, or teaching requirements. In the dynamics of instructional roles among teachers, few instructors enjoy being the one who tells learners that they were flat out wrong, the paper failed to meet certain standards, the learner is unlikely to pass given the present course of action, and so on. In graduate education there is a second ethical responsibility of telling a learner that, while the student may pass the course, from the state of the learners’ progress, it appears unlikely that the course of study will prove a prudent use of the student’s time, energy and money. This may just be the dirty work of teaching, especially online teaching where the message comes stripped of all tone and affection expressing care. Every job has some dirty work. Handing out the required rewrite may just be the dirty work of online education. Including precautionary statements in the omnipresent, all powerful, contractual agreement syllabus, seems to have little effect in mitigating the emotional impact. The statement “If the required criteria are not met in your final paper you may get a rewrite” is little consolation to the learner who actually does get a rewrite. Explanations that the editing process includes some of the most important aspects of learning the course entails can add salt to the wound even though the intension of the statement is to express care.
In our effort to make learning fun we sometimes handicap teachers, and learners, into thinking it is supposed to be fun all the time. If our most effective teaching strategies include experiences that are not fun, we may be handicapping our teachers from using the best tools they have to teach, especially online.
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.
I see research groups get stuck all the time. Graduate students, and those setting out to do research in groups, can get bogged down and tripped up at dozens of spots in the process from conception of an idea to publication of a completed study. Collective intelligence matters less in the process of research than strategy does in seeing the task through to completion. I’ve put together a few thoughts to help research groups strategize their process of working together.
Disclaimer: Putting these ideas down in a document was inspired by two blogs I follow. I am a big fan of two online blogs where senior faculty tell it like it is to doc students: Karen Kelsky’s the Professor is In and Matt Might’s Computer Science Blog. Both of those blogs offer great tips for doc students and others trying to do research, but I haven’t found this particular topic on those blogs—some of these ideas might be there under different terms than the one I use- strategizing group research.
1. Write down a strategy. I am surprised by how few groups seem to actually have a research strategy written and shared among group members. I think some of the fault lies in the terms we use to do research. Research strategies are comprised of more than just research methods. Of course, without the knowledge of methods a study will never get off the ground, but the knowledge of a research method can give a group a false sense of security that they know exactly how to get a study done. Coursework in a research method simulates a research environment much like an aviation simulation mirrors really flying a real plane. In a methods course, errors will not kill you, nor kill the study; they will just provide opportunities for learning. Errors in the real world can stop a study in its tracks. Research methods are so complex that having a controlled environment is often the only way to start in on the process of learning how to apply a method of data collection and analysis, but coursework takes place in an artificially controlled environment, unlike “real” research that happens in the real world. So this blog post is about those other areas that deter studies from finding their way into publication. A research strategy is usually a shared document that delineates who will do what, by when, and is all-inclusive, from IRB approvals to drafting tasks, from start to finish. It’s not set in stone, it’s a living documents that gets a group from start to finish on each project. I offer a few tips for creating a strategy to get the job done beyond the methods.
2. Document reasons for group membership. Students who have completed coursework in research methods often overlook the roles different people play in a research group. Perhaps this is because the experience of group work in methods coursework sets a stage where everyone is equal, and that aspect of the simulation is far from the truth of doing real research in the real world. In the real world, each member of a research group is there for a different reason, and those reasons are important. They significantly impact how group members are likely to behave. Each person needs a certain thing out of the project. Perhaps it is learning a new method, or perhaps it is getting a pub. Perhaps it is some stake in a research grant. Perhaps it is exposure to the experience. Whatever it is, it needs to be written down. Often, graduate students are not taught to do this in their coursework. These reasons are not addressed in methods coursework because they are not methods, but they are part of research in a group. Recognizing these roles is part of a solid research strategy. Methods classes rarely tell you to solicit and document the reasons people have come to a research group, but the practice informs all the members of the group and facilitates good will and understanding as the group moves forward with a project.
3. Recognize power dynamics in the beginning. Very often faculty and students are mixed. Sometimes junior and senior faculty are also mixed. When these contexts occur, power dynamics can get confusing. Students may solicit guidance from a faculty member who is not the leader on that particular study and their subsequent advice may be taken in undesirable directions for the leader of the group, or they may not recognize junior faculty are not exactly full equals to other members of the group. Sometimes a faculty member will refuse guidance as they might feel out of place, or if the leader is using the study as a teaching mechanism, for either a junior faculty or for a student. Recognizing positions of authority can help everyone navigate awkward moments and move on.
4. Discuss authorship and roles prior to the onset of the study. This is probably the most critical of the points I am making here. To be honest, the onus for this rests on those in lesser positions of power because they have the most to lose. At the same time, I am yet to encounter a faculty member anywhere who doesn’t want the process spelled out clearly – so do not be hesitant in approaching any faculty member leading or participating in research with questions about roles and authorship. It often happens is that the group is so busy in doing the work that they forget to stop and make some decisions about the strategy to get each aspect of the project done, or he needs of certain members are overlooked. There are dozens of websites out there with guidelines to determine who is first author, but the truth is, it is often the highest ranking faculty member who sets the rules. For my own work with students, my policy is always the same: If you have written the first draft of the paper, you are the first author. If I am invited to be a subsequent author, my name will appear last no matter how many students are included in the byline, and I will read and edit the draft that is submitted as well as the final proof, and those are the only drafts I will read from start to finish. I think most faculty members have some sort of general policy but rarely put it in writing because of the many different contexts they encounter. My own circumstances are pretty limited so I can put forward a blanket policy at this point in my career. While a discussion of roles and authorship may seem trivial, I have seen plenty of cases where studies develop in one direction or another where the roles and tasks were not clearly spelled out at the start, confusion ensues, papers never make it to submission, and there’s a fair bit of “I thought you were going to do that part.” Everybody loses in such a case. I suggest that all groups doing research have the authorship discussion up front to.
5. Have a contingency plan. A contingency plan is a plan B should members not be able to complete up their assumed role. The plan should ensure that the study makes it through the process even when things pop up, and thing generally do pop up. From my experience of multiple-author research, the contingency plan generally rests on the shoulders of the first author. For example, when there is a deadline ASAP, it’s the first author who sucks up the final touches and provides the momentum to get the product out the door, even on tasks agreed to by others. If the policy is addressed openly, feelings are not hurt and members can proceed, if nothing else, at least informed. The plan especially comes into play in cases where one is waylaid by illness, taking kids little league games, a death in the family, or any of a number of reasons that put obstacles in the path to publication/presentation. From group to group the first author position may means something different. In my experiences, the first author position had a specific meaning that was to-often unspoken– it’s not only (and not necessarily) the one who did the bulk of the work. It signifies who was the driving force behind the research itself, and who is taking responsibility for its completion. Of course, the mores of practices change among fields and institutions, so having the contingency plan discussed ahead of time can be a welcomed insurance policy for guilt and hurt feelings should the unexpected arise. When members are from a variety of cultures, straightforward addressing of the circumstances of contingency becomes even more important.
6. Avoid assuming that formulating the research design determines first authorship. While practices may vary among institutions and fields, the authorship discussion may also bring to light some important nuances of research we rarely get in methods courses. Just because one person came up with one idea does not mean the study itself is “theirs.” There’s a lot that goes into research. When groups meet, dialogue often results in new ideas. Group members new to a group may feel slighted if their assumptions about credit are not fulfilled in the practices of the group. In my own experience, faculty do not require first author position for every study they guide; however, in some cases, a particular study may be of particularly importance, either to a long-term trajectory or for some other reason. As long as the role of the study and value of the credit for it are addressed early on, the authorship discussion is a comfortable one. Faculty accused of “stealing” students research ideas are less likely research thieves than they are guilty of not having the authorship discussion up front. A lot of this could be mitigated by avoiding assumptions about how group work results in credit. Unfortunately, as it is often the responsibility of the student, and not the faculty member, rarely does the faculty member initiate the discussion or put forward these ideas at the start.
7. Several studies can be written on the same data, but this means a separate strategy is needed for each. Planning ahead and deciding who is writing which study from a given project is needed in order to do this. Few projects are at this phase in the early stages. Simply designating one person as “doing qualitative” and another as “doing quantitative” doesn’t avoid conflict in the future because the terms are not accurate descriptions of research. In my experience, “qualitative” is too vague. Simply equating “quantitative” with anything study that contains numbers is also too vague. I would avoid the both terms in deciding who is doing what. If a project is in the early stages, and multiple studies are planned, some things may need to be worked out prior to the strategy and authorship discussions. In those cases, it is helpful to anticipate revising the strategy as you move forward.
The final three points might be specific to scholars in education. I don’t know enough about other fields to speak to how research groups might work most productively in those fields.
8. Look beyond the quasi-experimental study. One of the problems research groups have is that newer members may only see as far as the experimental aspect of the research. While many research designs in education will fall into this category of quasi-experimental study, there is much more to look at in most projects. There is the design of the intervention, close inspections of learner experiences, stakeholders’ accounts of a practice, and methods articles, just to name a few. Very often, these other aspects of the study are the most interesting part, once you dig into them. And the experimental study itself may face larger obstacles to publication than new members are ready to tackle: quasi-experimental studies are often closely read for precise usage of research terms, such as the proper labeling of the data, the correct usage of words like “control group” and necessary treatment of what makes them “quasi” as opposed to true experiments, such as having a placebo. The literature review is perhaps the most foundational aspect of any study that gets overlooked, yet group members stepping forward excited to do the literature review are rare. The person who does the literature review is an important and often overlooked role.
9. Revisit the strategy when major changes occur. One of the most difficult things to grasp about the act of actually doing research is that research always reads linearly, but is almost never so in practice. Rather, the process is iterative. I might also add that is it not a bad idea to revisit the strategy after the initial grappling with the data by the group. Research questions are a work in progress until the proofs go to publication, in most cases. Initially viewing data under a general driving concept is great, but keeping in mind that the RQs can change as the project evolves can really empower a research group, and if all the members are aware that the strategy can be amended at any point, people can be encouraged to follow fruitful paths. Avoid getting stuck in “causes” and proposed calculations in the beginning. They can be elusive, especially in early stages when data has just been collected and is not fully prepared. Also, some calculations may or may not be worth the time to calculate until the group has grappled with some of the main ideas. You can always add calculations later at reviewers’ request. If you haven’t yet dug into the data, and done a few passes through with your analysis scheme, you can’t truly foresee what that data really means; and therefore, the initial strategy may have been naive. Seasoned scholars are not deterred by this, but newer members may feel discouraged when data shows the unexpected.
10. Share the strategy document when new members arrive, and revisit it at the end. The research strategy is more than a Gannt chart. New members need to see the progress that has been made to catch up quickly and contribute, and simply sharing a strategy document with new members can bring them up to speed in a non-biased way, especially is sub-studies have moved in directions of their own. It has value up until the final publication is sent out, and perhaps even after that. A group research strategy can function as a collaborative narrative of the twists and turns of the project. Group projects that last over extended periods of time can lose track of the rationale behind important decisions and expected outcomes. Revisiting a strategy after a projects nears the final stages can offer a lot in retrospect about how decisions were made and how those decisions played out in the end.