11 Travelling in Troy With an Instructional Designer

Jonan Phillip Donaldson

Paulo Blikstein’s Travels in Troy with Freire demonstrated how digital technologies can be used as agents of emancipation when grounded in the principles of constructionist learning. Technologies can be used to perpetuate entrenched authoritarian and didactic approaches to teaching, or they can be used as Trojan Horses to liberate learners as they transform themselves into agentic, autonomous, self-directed learners. In my work in instructional design and technology support in many institutions of higher education I have worked on at least five hundred online courses. With the rapid expansion of online learning over the last decade I have witnessed a tendency to translate classes into online modalities with designs closely resembling those of the face-to-face classes. Textbooks become eBooks, lectures become narrated presentations, and paper exams become online exams. Even when multimedia and interactive technologies are used, they are designed to “teach” rather than to facilitate learning. By this I mean that the overwhelming majority of online courses I have seen are designed to deliver content — to transfer knowledge into the minds of students.

The job of the instructional designer is often reduced to that of a technologist and project manager in charge of building online courses which mirror the face-to-face lecture/textbook/exam versions. However, when the design of learning is structured around constructionist principles and authentic problem-based learning, instructional designers become energized and empowered as they unleash the transformative power of digital technologies as Trojan Horses. My journey as an instructional designer (ID) led me to a learning experience design philosophy of building online and digitally-mediated courses in which technologies are used as Trojan Horses for emancipation through constructionist problem-based learning with an emphasis on learner agency, situating learners as designers, and focused tinkering.

Grounding the Designer

Conceptualizations of the nature of learning determine our practices as learners and educators. The two most common conceptualizations can be described according to the metaphors in which they are grounded. The dominant metaphor sees learning as the acquisition of information by learners, or conversely as the transfer of information from external sources into the minds of learners. This conceptualization of learning has been characterized by Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed as a banking approach to teaching and learning, and by Papert in The Children’s Machine as the instructionist approach. Another metaphor is common in the learning sciences and some lines of educational research, a metaphor which sees learning as the individual, collaborative, and collective construction of meaning. This construction metaphor as applied to learning can be traced back to the works of Piaget, Vygotsky, and Bruner. The transfer/acquisition metaphor leads to practices involving textbooks, lectures, exams and prescribed learning objectives. The construction metaphor leads to practices involving collaborative learning, situated learning, authentic problem-based learning, self-directed learning, and creative problem-solving. Critical pedagogy is grounded in the construction conceptualization of learning, and educational practices that facilitate critical consciousness and emancipation are, as Kincheloe argued, “incompatible with a view of teaching as a technical act of information delivery” (Teachers as Researchers: Qualitative Inquiry as a Path to Empowerment). So incommensurate are the construction and transfer/acquisition conceptualizations of learning that Freire stated: “Those truly committed to liberation must reject the banking concept in its entirety.”

Both conceptualizations of learning described above can be found among IDs, but perhaps due to the prominence of backward design and instructional design models such as ADDIE there is a tendency toward the transfer/acquisition metaphor. Most instructional design projects begin with the creation of clear and measurable learning objectives, followed by articulation of the means by which learner mastery of those objectives will be assessed. Only then are learning activities and materials considered. This approach encourages the design of learning around only things which can be “objectively” assessed.

My work as an ID and critical theorist is guided by my conceptualization of learning which is grounded in the construction metaphor. Therefore, my starting place with any instructional design project is a consideration of what sort of learning environment would be optimal in facilitating individual, collaborative and collective construction of meaning. In other words, my design decisions regarding the environment and activities come before decisions regarding learning objectives, assessment and materials. Although extremely difficult in the majority of instructional design projects due to the nature of the academic environment and conceptualizations of learning held by subject matter experts, my approach is not “instructional design,” but “learning environment design.” In the spirit of a learning scientist, I continually experiment with new ways of designing online learning environments which place upon learners the responsibility and authority over decisions regarding learning objectives and assessments.

My involvement in the community of IDs over the years has led me to believe that the majority of IDs have strong grounding in instructional design models, standards and professional community norms. However, the field generally lacks grounding in a conceptual or theoretical framework regarding the nature of learning. One of the most promising frameworks is constructionism which conceptualizes learning as the construction of meaning and development of learners as agents of change.

Design Principles for Constructionist Learning

Instructional design projects usually begin with a meeting between the instructional designer and the subject matter expert — usually a professor or instructor in the contexts in which I have been involved. During this meeting the scope and sequence of the project are discussed, and then the conversation moves to discussion of the nature and structure of previous versions of the course when it was taught in face-to-face contexts. It is at this point that I often say: “Imagine no textbooks, no lectures, no exams. Now what can we do?” Reactions have ranged from horrified disbelief, to mild interest, to enthusiastic embrace.

That question stems from my groundedness in constructionism. Principles of constructionist learning as articulated by Papert flow from a conceptualization of learning defined largely in contrast with “instructionism.” Learning is context-dependent. It is the result of interactions between people and between learners and features of their environments such as tools, resources, language, social structures, and so on. Therefore, the focus of constructionism is on the design of learning environments, not of instructional materials — because learning is not the result of acquisition of knowledge, but the construction of meaning. Assessment is not about mastery of learning objectives, but a reflective practice. Technologies are put in the hands of the learners for the purpose of constructing artifacts for real-world audiences, rather than in the hands of the instructors for the purpose of delivering information. Constructionism provides a set of principles for the design of learning: placing making at the heart of all learning activity, facilitating learner agency, situating learners as designers, engaging learners in designing for authentic audiences, and engaging learners in focused tinkering.


Constructionist learning starts with the proposition that learning is most powerful when learners make things of their own design. The constructed artifacts mirror the construction of meaning occurring in the minds of the learners. The artifacts also serve as tangible “objects-to-think-with” (The Children’s Machine) — tools of embodied cognition.

Learner Agency

In order for the construction of artifacts to facilitate optimal learning, the artifacts must be personally meaningful. The meaningfulness depends on several preconditions. The first of these is the agency of the learner. When learners have autonomy and authority over the goals, processes, roles, and nature of the artifacts, those artifacts take on personal significance. This leads not only to student ownership of learning, but ownership of the artifacts of learning. Artifacts are embodiments of the meanings the learners have constructed, and the act of constructing meaning involves constructing one’s own mind. Therefore, learner agency in constructionist learning leads to ownership and authorship of self.

Situating Learners as Designers

Learners are situated as designers in constructionist learning environments. As designers on design teams, they engage in negotiation of goals, roles, procedures, tools, and meanings. They collaboratively design, prototype, iterate, and deploy their artifacts in the real world.

Authentic Audience

Another precondition to meaningfulness of artifacts is the authenticity of the intended use of the artifact. If learners create artifacts which they know will only be seen by their fellow learners and teachers, construction of artifacts is akin to drill-and-practice activities. Learners need to know that the artifacts they are creating will have real-world impact. They need authentic audiences.

Focused Tinkering

Resnick and Rosenbaum define tinkering as “a playful, experimental, iterative style of engagement, in which makers are continually reassessing their goals, exploring new paths, and imagining new possibilities.” Situating learners as designers fosters a more focused form of tinkering (the book Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom by Martinez and Stager is an excellent deep dive into this concept) which facilitates development of skills characterized by Donald Schön as framing and reflection-in-action.

Focused tinkering provides a means of balancing the product-driven activity of artifact construction with the joy and freedom of exploration: what Seymour Papert (2002) calls the “hard fun” of learning which is painfully absent in courses designed using instructional design models which are obsessed with learning objectives.

Making, learner agency, authentic audience, situating learners as designers, and focused tinkering are the core principles in designing for constructionist learning. But how can we translate these powerful principles into course design work? It is through these principles that a more powerful conceptualization of learning can be applied in the practical work of designing for learning.

Designing Learning Environments

The use of instructional design models leads many instructional designers to focus on the design of learning activities and content. Instructional designers are trained to start all design projects by creating learning objectives, often in the form “after successful completion of this course, you will be able to…” followed by phrases describing observable and measurable competencies. The next task is to figure out how we will assess the degree to which the students demonstrate these competencies, and then the activities that will help students develop the ability to meet the objectives. Finally the instructional designer (usually working with faculty members or subject-matter experts) develops or curates a set of materials like textbook readings, videos, or multimedia content. This process reinforces the tendency to think of learning as acquisition of knowledge or skills.

It is very difficult to swim against the current when the culture of instructional design is dominated by concepts such as alignment. Popular rubrics and standards for assessing the quality of online course designs demand that there be clear alignment between learning objectives, assessments, learning activities, and content. Instructional designers ask “What do we want students to learn? How will we assess how well they learned it? What activities will they do to learn it? What readings, videos, and other resources will they need first before engaging in the activities?” This focus on alignment leads to designs of learning which dictate what students will learn, when they will learn it, and how they will learn it — and limiting student agency to whether or not they will comply. The resulting designs for learning do not allow students to engage in the hard work required for true learning to occur. By predetermining what material is relevant and beneficial, the students deprived of the need for processes crucial to learning including exploration, evaluation, framing, and problematization.

Designing according to the principles of constructionist learning requires abandoning the standards and norms of the instructional design community and shifting the focus from alignment and “instructional” design toward the design of learning environments. Such a learning environment is not a free-for-all cacophony of unstructured explorations. There is structure. The purpose of the structure in constructionist design for learning is different than in traditional instructional design, and therefore the structuring principles are different.

A constructionist learning environment design is structured around students creating authentic artifacts for authentic audiences. What the learners create, how they go about creating, and for whom they create are matters for the learners to determine, often through structured negotiation and collaborative articulation of goals, roles, and processes. Therefore, the instructional designer must provide the tools for collaboration and negotiation, as well as guidance — built into the structure of the course — regarding the processes and skills involved in negotiation and collaboration. Instructional designers can use a number of strategies to design effective environments for learning.

Digital Portfolios

One design strategy I have found particularly powerful is to structure courses around learner construction of digital portfolios in conjunction with group projects. In many of the courses I designed, each week the students individually created digital artifacts related to the topic of the course. They published their artifacts through their digital portfolios, which are websites open to the public. Those individual artifacts were part of a bigger picture because students were simultaneously working with their groups in collaboratively creating a larger work which was deployed (published, implemented or launched) in the final weeks of the course. These larger works have taken many forms, including magazine articles, documentary videos, assisting a library in designing a makerspace and organizing a local conference. The form is always dictated by real-world needs the students identify. The group projects provide the structure for collaborative learning, and the weekly addition of artifacts to the digital portfolios provides the structure for individual meaning-making in relation to the collaborative meaning-making. Throughout these processes, learners are frequently prompted to engage in focused tinkering, reflecting upon their role as a designer, and reflecting upon the relationship between the artifact they are constructing and the meaning they are constructing.

Authorship Learning

Digital technologies have created affordances rarely leveraged in instructional designs. The shift in society from information consumerism to information production by the masses is not reflected in the use of technologies in most learning environments. When leveraged in constructionist learning environments, the power of digital technologies as tools for learner creation and publishing of artifacts can be transformational. For example, in one of the courses I designed the students collaboratively planned, wrote, and published a book. They used the discussion features in a learning management system for planning, Google Docs for collaborative writing, and Amazon’s CreateSpace to publish and sell their book. Through this process they developed new identities as experts on the topic and as published authors.

Learning Environments

Due to the nature of the current structure of academia, the syllabus for a course must include learning outcomes. However, they do not have to be the focus of the course design process. If they are content-knowledge outcomes, they become topics around which learners gather for collaborative construction of knowledge. For instance, in the courses described above there were readings and videos every week, but they were not presented as “content” to learn, but rather as “setting the stage” material. They provided a background, a starting point, and an atmosphere. If the learning outcomes describe skills, the guidelines for the individual and collaborative construction of artifacts emphasized those skills, which also are embedded in prompts for reflective and metacognitive activities.

Designing learning environments — as opposed to designing instruction — requires a particular kind of skill informed by the literature in collaborative learning, engagement, motivation, and metacognitive strategies. The instructional designer must also develop the ability to see all technologies from a unique perspective: not what the instructional designer can do with the technology, but what affordances of the technologies can be leveraged by putting them in the hands of the students for the construction of artifacts with real-world impact.


The journey I have described has not been easy. Cognitive dissonance is a constant companion. I have worked as an instructional designer who rejects the concept of instruction. There have been times when I felt deeply troubled using the term instructional designer as my job title. I am a designer of spaces where communities of learners engage in purposeful construction of meaning and authorship of self and society through collaborative construction of meaningful artifacts with real-world impact.

There is also cognitive dissonance in designing courses where agency is situated in learners who have authority, autonomy, and responsibility — and yet these courses are in academic environments where final grades must be assigned and students have been enculturated into a community where the purpose of everything they do is to earn grades and eventually a diploma.

I have often noticed a disconnect between my conceptualization of learning (based on the construction metaphor) and the conceptualization of learning held by the majority of my colleagues and students — based on the transfer/acquisition metaphor. I find myself forgetting to exercise empathy and consider how the learning environments I design may look from their perspectives. I have to remind myself that people whose conceptualization of learning is based on the transfer/acquisition metaphor may question the effectiveness of course designs which implement collaborative problem-based student-directed learning, just as I question the effectiveness of course designs based on lectures, textbooks, and exams.

Despite the struggles inevitable in my journey as an ID, travelling in Troy has been an immense pleasure. With guidance and inspiration from the experiences of those who have traveled in Troy before such as Papert, Freire, Resnick, Kafai, Blikstein, and many others in the community of learning scientists, I have discovered that a simple set of design principles can guide the work of instructional designers as they design far more than instruction:

  • First, focus on the design of the learning environment, not on instruction. Build up the courage to resist the immense pressure of the dominance of instructional design models and keep the learners at the forefront in all your design moves.
  • Second, design environments in which learners construct meaning through focused tinkering in the construction of artifacts. Think of technologies as tools in the hands of learners rather than tools for delivering content.
  • Third, design environments which shift the authority, autonomy, and responsibility of learning to the learners. This shift will be uncomfortable for some learners, so we must design for gradual scaffolding of learners’ abilities in assuming authority and responsibility.
  • Fourth, situate learners as designers by insisting that the artifacts learners create be intended for authentic audiences and meet real-world needs. Avoid designing assignments which will be seen and assessed only by an instructor, as this undermines the learners’ emerging identities as designers. Instead, design projects which carefully scaffold the design process such as a design thinking model and designerly ways of knowing, and also engage learners in frequent reflection on their processes and identities as designers.
  • And finally, design the learning environment to shift learners’ conceptualizations of learning from the passive and oppressive transfer/acquisition metaphor toward the active, agentic, transformative, and empowering construction or authorship metaphor of learning.

With these strategies in our tool belts, instructional designers can build learning environments that facilitate powerful learning and transform learners into reflective, critical, and empowered agents of change.


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Critical Digital Pedagogy by Jonan Phillip Donaldson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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