10 October 2013

What are the Practical Implications of Instructional Design at a Wesleyan University?

I've been doing a bit of thinking over the past several days about my job here at Southern Nazarene University. I work as an instructional designer. Honestly, I had no idea what that job should look like when I first started working. I was a practitioner, not really a theorist. Now that I have been working for a while, I have come to understand that as a designer, I fall somewhere in the middle. According to Wikipedia, instructional design is the "practice of creating instructional experiences which make the acquisition of knowledge and skill more efficient, effective, and appealing." This definition originates with Merrill et. al (1996). I probably should have spent some time looking at that before taking this job. I need to be familiar with all of the learning theorists. That group includes the "old" ones: Bloom, Gagné, Papert, Piaget, Skinner, and Vygotsky. I also need to be current in new ideas in learning theory, including the later models from Clark, Marzano, and Sweller. Some of the current models include technology and some do not.

Today at lunch I was visiting with some colleagues and my dean. We were discussing academics at our university. We usually use this opportunity to talk about ways we can innovate but today the conversation took an interesting turn: "What are the practical implications of being an instructional designer (somewhat of a predeterministic mindset) in a Wesleyan-tradition educational setting.

SNU is a private, Christian, liberal arts university-a service of the Church of the Nazarene. If you do not know anything about Nazarenes, we are a Christian (followers of Christ) denomination that rose out of a branch of the Methodists and Pentecostals. We are not quite as liturgical as the Methodists and not quite as "radical" as the Pentecostals (we don't believe you have to have the gift of tongues as evidence of the Holy Spirit). We follow the Wesleyan tradition in that we believe in a life of holiness: an in-filling of the Holy Spirit, also called sanctification.

Contrast Nazarenes with those of the Calvinist tradition. The major difference between Nazarenes and Baptists is that we are Wesleyans and they are Calvinists. We believe that you have "free will" - your fate is in your hands. However, Calvinists believe in the idea of predestination or predeterminism - the idea that events of your life are already determined.

So what's the point? As an instructional designer, one who uses a rubric to evaluate courses, am I giving my faculty free-will in what their course should look like? Or is the outcome of their course predestined to "look a particular way"? Rather, does it even matter? Maybe we are more like the Catholic Church in that we hold the traditions and scriptures in the highest esteem? "My course has always been this way, so there's no way I could change it to put it online! That's educational blasphemy!" As the instructional designer, is there a sense of determinism? Is the course going to turn out such that the free-will of the course designer is lost?

I wonder if my very being here contributes to this problem, raised by Nicholas C. Burbles at the University of Illinois, Urbana/Champaign:
"The search for one best way of teaching has preoccupied philosophers in the West since Socrates. Today this search is more typically couched in the language of scientific efficacy and efficiency. In the process, teaching in many schools is becoming less and less creative, personal, and rewarding. The scope of options for teachers is becoming more constrained; their subject matter and purposes more determined by the decisions of others; their outcomes measured more mechanically and impersonally."
Maybe. Probably. Yes. I feel like I do. However, how do we ensure top quality programs and courses without some kind of oversight and evaluation?

So where do I go from here? How does this question guide my practice? I'm not sure. I would really like to re-design our course evaluation rubric so that it is scored and there would be a minimum score a course would need to "pass" and we would recognize courses with an exemplary score. Would that create a situation in which course designers would not be able to have their "fingerprint" on the course?

Here's a better question: how can I as a teacher (sometimes) not act in a manner that fits with the Wesleyan doctrine? Doctrine states that we are to focus on personal faith and holiness. As a teacher, should I not strive to be my best in my teaching practice (personal faith) and work toward perfection for my in that practice for my students (holiness)? As a christian, I recognize that I am forgiven, not perfect. However, Christlikeness is my goal. I strive to better tomorrow than I was today. I fall short, but that does not mean I should quit striving for the goal.

I would posit that if I am not working to be my best in everything I do, not working to be better tomorrow than I was today, including the areas of teaching and instructional design, I come dangerously close to sin (in my opinion). Maybe my metaphor breaks down at this point. I'd gladly hear some criticism on it; but please be gentle. I'm no theologian. I'm "just a teacher."

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