Elements, Principles, and Critical Inquiry for Identity-Centered Design of Online Environments

By Dudek, Jaclyn; Heiser, Rebecca | Journal of Distance Education (Online), May 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Elements, Principles, and Critical Inquiry for Identity-Centered Design of Online Environments


Dudek, Jaclyn, Heiser, Rebecca, Journal of Distance Education (Online)


Introduction

From a professional standpoint, the role of the learning designer is changing, and designers are taking on leadership roles in conversations around ethics and equity (Moore, 2014). As learning designers, we are intermediaries between departments, faculty, and students, and are uniquely situated to be advocates for diversity and culturally responsive pedagogies (McLoughlin, 2001; McLoughlin & Lee, 2010; Parrish & Linder-VanBerschot, 2010; Young, 2008a, 2008b). In our own positions as online learning designers at a large public university, we collaborate with faculty to design, build, and implement online courses. Our students most often work asynchronously, are geographically displaced, and vary greatly in age and professional and academic experience. We have found in our practice that learning designers are in need of frameworks to explore and support critical identity processes. This includes a design repertoire that not only encourages and facilitates learners to bring their multiple, competing, and diverse identities with them to the virtual learning space, but also affirms them when they do.

In our own context of online higher education, questions and concerns around identity are particularly intriguing. The interplay between learning identity as a pivotal lens and the larger holistic identity is a strong tradition within adult education and lifelong learning (Erstad & SeftonGreen, 2013): "People must become individuals through constructing or reconstructing their own biographies and life courses" (Glastra, Hake, & Schedler, 2004 p. 294). The college years serve as a time for experimentation, hence the old adage, "give it the old college try." Yet this time becomes the site of identity crystallization, stabilization, and social maturation-"I am such-and-such major," or "I am this-or-that type of person." Lobman and O'Neill (2011) in their exploration of play and performance observed that once people reach adulthood, they tend to relate to individuals as a particular kind of person or someone with a particular fixed set of skills. This mindset leads to narrowly scripted roles for individuals that limit expectations of themselves and others: "In school and in the workforce people are rewarded for who they are and what they know how to do, not for who they are becoming" (Lobman & O'Neill, 2011, p. 10). This concept is of particular consequence for our own online learners, the majority of whom are students 25 years old or older and who are often full-time working professionals and caregivers.

Adult learners bring a rich array of experiences and perspectives, yet due to life commitments and lack of an embodied presence, they often encounter fewer opportunities than their in-resident counterparts to experiment, explore, and build relationships through institutional channels. Often, this lack of embodied presence at a campus, in front of faculty, or in front of institutional decision makers can lead to misconceptions of what and who we "think" these learners are.

By building identity-centered principles into designs, another layer of feedback for learner analysis is created. Stefaniak and Baaki (2013) argue that designers must dig deeper than just understanding what learners are, for example, demographically and statistically, but also understanding who they are in a more nuanced and intentional multi-layered learner analysis. As an alternative to niche or exhaustive learner analysis, Parrish (2014) argues in his article "Designing for the Half-Known World: Lessons for Instructional Designers from the Craft of Narrative Fiction" that instead of questioning data, learning designers might try accepting the half-known nature of the learning experience and "use it to make their designs more expansive, to create compelling learning experiences that draw in students no matter what their definable learner characteristics might be" (p. 262). Here, we argue that across both approaches, learning designers are uniquely positioned by both training and institutional placement to be empathetic advocates who understand and design for learners' identities. …

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