The limits of Instructional Design and Higher Education

The venture-funded 'disruptive' higher education start-ups often claim that they can offer a better education than the universities, because, apart from other things, they have great instructional designers. Just like the claim that AI will provide better learning strategies, this is also an attempt to hide behind jargons to avoid hard questions. 

Instructional design sounds serious enough to invoke deferential responses, particularly as it's not a common term in academic circles (except in schools of education) and indicates a certain affinity to workplace learning and invoke the holy grail of employability by association. But whether this is good enough to make better education remains to be asked.

Instructional design is popular in workplace learning but it's more a method than magic. Besides, for all its advantages, the instructional - process - bit is at the heart of it, rather than what one would make of the term 'design' at this day and age. While there are many innovations within the broad banner of instructional design, it still revolves around the assumption that the learners can be instructed to learn and that it could be achieved through content and activities.

If the above sound like common sense, we have to remember that the chief claim that underpins the viability of all the remote-delivered education businesses is the persona of self-directed learners. The irony of self-directed learners made to learn through careful instructional design may not be obvious, but this makes it a different world from the usual environs instructional designers navigate - the heart of uninterested learners made to learn under employers' dictate, or, regulatory requirements. And, I am not missing the point that instructional design is about adapting learning to contexts and learner aspirations, but rather pointing out that 'self-directed learners' are culturally and circumstantially defined and are driven by impulses and imperatives unlike that in a workplace; instructional design's core assumption, that there is a culture-free way to master the process of learning may run counter to this.

Indeed, my intent is not to have one generalized label of ID: It's a dynamic field of practice where new approaches are being fashioned all too regularly. Indeed, this is completely amiss from those conference presentations that claim superiority based on ID, as they claim to present it as an exact science rather than an art and a practice. But even at its most nuanced, ID remains grounded on the key assumption that the point of learning is to achieve objectively fashioned learning objectives. That learning objectives can be personal and culturally motivated is a common idea in Higher Education, but this breaks the back of ID.

I am indeed merely recasting the well-known difference between organisational learning and higher education. In organisational learning, the objectives of learning are defined with variable levels of clarity. The organisation knows or should know, where it wants to get to, and the job of the ID to help the learners to get there. This poorly transfers to a situation where learners have their personal goals and aspirations, of becoming themselves or to make others happy and proud of them: Imagine the ID as the Bus Driver who has to drop his passengers at their doorstep [as Lord Curzon once asked a London bus driver to do]. The pedagogic model in Higher Education does it easily, by creating a shared space and let everyone construct their own meaning, and it's hard to see how ID can better that model.

One can anticipate the counter-argument: The point of education should be employability, before meaning. That gets us to the third voodoo term so popular in conference circuits: Employability! Do we, when we have the right race, good education, right accent and enough credit, have a right to tell someone who had to really fight even to get access to basic higher education that employability for them should mean something other than what it means to us? Or, is it okay to assume that we will be happy with our kids aspiring to be a check-out clerk at Tescos, because that may be the easiest job to get in our locality? Higher Education is predicated on the possibility of reaching a station other than the one is destined to do - a disruptive enterprise! By boxing the whole idea of higher education into a very patronising idea of 'employability', these disruptive start-ups seem to aim to un-disrupt higher education.

Now, theoretically, it should be possible to do ID for meaning and motivation, but that will need an endless cycle of analysis that is likely to frustrate the investment-cycle bound entrepreneurs. They turn to ID for scale, not for a challenge to the rationale of scaling. It's exactly the same problem with AI: It may work after the scale has been achieved, but can it help create scale? The answer is a big no unless one is ready to risk many broken lives.




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