Design-y Thoughts

“It’s a bit like arguing where the furniture should go while you’re standing in a burning house.” 

This epigraph comes from a podcast that I listened to while I was on the hotel treadmill this week. Stopped me cold. Or rather, made me press the pause button on the running robot. Yes, I thought. Sometimes that furniture seems so important even when you can smell the smoke and see the flames appearing under the door. My mind went straight to course design and some words I’ve heard from teachers lately.

A very smart instructional designer once told me that a course is like a house. The teacher is in charge of where the rooms are–the architecture of the place for learning–and his job was to help figure out where the furniture should go. I loved that description–it’s so simple and elegant about a job that is hard to explain.

I presented this past week to teachers who are not only being told they need to clean house (bring down the cost) they also need new furniture (course materials) because the house is on fire (initiatives have been announced). I mustered up all the sympathy I have. I cracked a joke. And I was brutally honest about ways that I think they can do all that work without it being as hard as it seems. I try to be that instructional designer-ish person who advises that we can make do with the house we’ve got, and this new furniture, well, it goes quite nicely with some things that already make this house a home.

And every time I share these ideas, there’s one teacher who says, “Oh, this is just like [enter pedagogical theory here from the analogy era here].


Exactly. Analog Theory, Meet Digital Ideas.

It’s like how the kiddies like seeing “avocado crostini” on the menu when it’s just guacamole smeared on bread.


It’s very similar yet different digitally and it’s not that hard. To the adjunct who teaches at three different schools using two different LMSs, the house has been on fire for a long time. They are quite accustomed to the smoke.

But I don’t want to talk about that today. I’m about to go on a bike adventure vacation! Stoke level is high!

Photo Credit: Me, capturing “Rescue” by Nick Cave. Not the Bad Seeds Nick, the American artist that I discovered in Des Moines, Iowa this month.

This week I also reviewed back my notes from five years ago. What I was thinking as an Instructional Designer.

Capital I. Capital D. So brainy.

What I thought was a good plan. Then. What I thought would work with technology. I had this firm belief—and I still do—that faculty who have not taken online classes will only improve their course once they’ve had a shitty experience as an online student themselves. I know some readers will disagree, but I’ve yet to see any training where there is a more powerful return-on-investment (so business-y, c’est moi) than a faculty member who experiences what truly stinks–what truly deeply sucks and feels like a waste of money–as an online student. Until the technology has gotten in the way of their own learning, they won’t change a damn thing about their courses.


Wait. I’m talking to myself. Where was I?

In my notes, and this idea made me laugh at my former self–I had this idea that if I was to ever support an instructor who is using an LMS that rhymes with “crack lord,” I’d buy ten different envelopes that all fit into one another. You know, kind of like nesting Matryosha dolls. I’d ask the faculty members to open the envelope to find their first assignment for the training.

I’d watch them open envelope after envelope after envelope only to find the words “Are there parts of your course where you can reduce clicks for students? In other words, is there a part of your course that you could simplify? Start there. That’s your first assignment.”

MWHAAA HAAA HAA! So witty, Self Five Years Ago! Look at you creating ways for teachers to experience annoying course design! Those teachers would either want to smack me really hard or they would get it. They would GET IT.

Here’s the thing.

I love the idea of having people experience something in order to see a new perspective. I’ve always wanted to do something as creative as Yoko Ono, who once put ladder that you had to climb just to read the word, Yes, in an art exhibit. John must have thought, this is my woman. Yes.

Yes. Yoko, you fucking genius, I thought, when I first learned about that story. When John stood on that ladder, he must have seen the gallery in a new way. When my hypothetical teacher opened up those ten envelopes, she would see that hunting for a folder within a folder in a folder within a folder in an LMS might make a student give up. And not do the assignment. The reading. The door to the house can be impossible to find when you didn’t build the house (the course).


That ladder that leads to a word. To a new idea. That different perspective. It’s never easy.

Okay, thanks for reading. I’m trying to blog at least once a month and I’m running out of days in March, so let me conclude with gratitude to Amanda Coolidge, Robin DeRosa, and Rajiv Jhangiani for citing my work in their talks. What an honor!

Five years from now I’ll remember I saw those tweets while I was in my home office surrounded by my gear in various stages of packing for my vacation when I reread my old ID journals. And I’ll wonder how the hell my camp stove ended up in my box of journals.

And I’ll feel gratitude for this life.

About Alyson Indrunas

Always learning about instructional design, educational technology, professional development, adult education, and writing.
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