Designing the Multiplicity of Where

I generally eschew the terms instructional design and instructional designer. As for the process, instructional design can conjure an exercise in achieving efficiently pre-determined objectives, of didactically delivering content to unknown users via a codified set of so-called best practices. Regarding the role, instructional designer too easily isolates expertise as an individual trait, positioning a sole knowledge-holder as distanced from and distinctive of others. Both process and role are troubled by approaches to learning that engender communities of practice, that welcome ambiguity and dissent, and that distribute shared activity and knowledge creation across multiple people and places, and for multiple purposes. As a learning scientist and teacher educator, my chief concern is creating the conditions for learning across settings. Are my decisions to intentionally seed practices for such cross-setting learning acts of instructional design? Perhaps. And is my role as a broker of student participation across a shared learning ecology akin to that of an instructional designer? Maybe so. However, by privileging the creation of conditions — rather than the design of a singular tool or specified pathway — my participation in teaching and learning processes welcomes, in concert with my students, divergence and improvisation, diversity of expression, and contingent activity that is too frequently sanitized by the linear prescriptions of (an) instructional design(er).

I am currently teaching INTE 5340 Learning with Digital Stories, a graduate course at the University of Colorado Denver that is an ideal platform from which to experiment with creating the conditions for learning across settings. My pedagogical commitments are ecological; that is, my teaching seeks to draw upon multiple online and community-based settings, networks of relations, and academic and social resources to support my students’ interest-driven learning. Having sketched out why it is important to design for and tell stories about ecological pedagogy, I would like to address a question pertinent to those who care about relations among learning, setting, and practice. Specifically, how might (graduate) courses be designed to create conditions that seed student learning across multiple settings? In other words, how might learning be designed for a multiplicity of where?

Learning with Digital Stories is an online course. Both persistent media narratives and (many of) my students’ expectations concern online learning as a spatially delimited endeavor. Despite the open and production-centered web, (formal, and certainly credentialed) online learning is assumed to occur in this learning management system (LMS) or that “interactive module” (what a terrifyingly mundane invitation!). In Learning with Digital Stories, however, students are supported in leveraging multiple distributed settings and networks of relations. Some of these are designed (by me) prior to the course start, others are co-designed with students as the course commences, a few utilize established platforms or everyday routines, and all — collectively — constitute a dynamic learning ecology that has the potential to support student learning (about and with digital stories) across various settings.

Our mutually constructed and evolving “multiplicity of where” includes:

1. Student basecamps and blogs. Upon entering CU Denver’s Information and Learning Technologies (ILT) program, graduate student coursework includes creating and utilizing a “basecamp.” This basecamp website is, in many respects, an online portfolio that students author and update with coursework artifacts and evidence of engagement with program standards. The basecamp also includes a blog and, ideally, serves as a public record of academic and professionally-relevant growth. Unfortunately, not all ILT courses take advantage of student blogs as a location supportive of open learning. Here, and like DS106, the practices of storytelling and blogging go hand-in-hand.

2. Our DS106 home. Yesterday, DS106 guru Jim Groom wrote about “On Maelstroms and Syndication Buses,” and shared how he and his colleague Alan Levine have worked some back-end magic to connect my students’ blog feeds from multiple platforms (including Blogger and Wix, whereas DS106 primarily used Wordpress) to the recently launched DS106 CUDenver15 aggregation page. Now, anyone — and certainly all my students — can view peer assignment contributions, Twitter conversations, and other information in a public forum. In short, our DS106 home is the antithesis to a closed (and proprietary) LMS course shell.

3. We are using a LMS, too. An inconsistent design decision? Perhaps. CU Denver supports faculty use of the LMS Canvas. Having designed and taught Canvas-based courses for both CU Denver and the University of Michigan-Flint, my reliance upon tried-and-tired discussion forums and app-integrated wiki pages is wearing thin. So why use an LMS? Canvas does serve important administrative purposes. The private messaging system comes in handy. And my students are accustomed to it — it’s a familiar platform that if discarded whole cloth might make for too jarring a transition into the course. Our LMS is a limited but nonetheless important facet of our shared learning ecology.

4. Personalized platforms. As a complement to our DS106 home, students are also encouraged to personalize social media platforms that aggregate course-specific contributions. Rather than bounce around 20 peer blogs, students are encouraged to use tools like Feedly to aggregate the course’s collective feed. And Tweetdeck affords tailored readings of the Twittersphere, so that students might follow the ongoing conversations of #cudenver15, #ds106, #dailycreate, or make a list of peers enrolled in the same course. While blog posts and tweets are also aggregated on our DS106 home, supporting student use of personalize platforms serves multiple complementary functions, including introducing new tools, developing new skills, and supporting individualized pathways to course participation and expression.

5. Everyday encounters. The previous items are all online settings and relations that reflect (and, in some cases, refract) everyday encounters. My students, like many today, and whether in elementary or graduate school, carry their studies in their pockets across many places. Learning with Digital Stories will ideally occur at the grocery store, while walking down a school or workplace hallway, on the lawn of the neighborhood park, and in various cultural locations where ritual and language differ from the norms of formal schooling. If our learning is, by design, distributed, then it is also situated among the everyday. It is on the street corner, with the neighbor or vendor, and because of community concerns that stories percolate and become consequential.

Consider this list an initial mapping, yet to be completed and rough around the edges. What also remains unarticulated and ripe for exploration are the many practices — be they social, disciplinary, or inquiry-oriented — that students demonstrate as they create and share their stories across this learning ecology. As our course unfolds, and as we now collaboratively (re)design the multiplicity of our where, I am curious to share with others stories about the following questions:

— What designed settings are particularly useful in propelling students’ interest-driven learning? — What cross-setting relations will students shape and value, and what practices are notable linkages between settings? — How can storytelling practices mediate student learning across these and other settings? — In what ways do different types of learning practices coalesce around, and through, these and other learning ecology settings?

My hunch is that designing and storytelling across a multiplicity of where will entail a complementary breath of cross-setting practices — some shared, others divergent, and all oriented to cross-setting learning.