Sometimes I want to create a TV game show based off of “Are you Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” called “So You Think You Know Theory and Design?” It would pull in a bunch of online instructors, administrators, and others that always tell me “oh, I know theory and design; I just need to find cooler tools and tech training!” and put their knowledge of online learning theory and design to the test.  Most people don’t really know much beyond what I teach college juniors about theory and design, so it would be hilarious to watch. Well… at least for the instructional designers out there that know this irritation all too well.

The truth is, instructional design is not the way to fame and fortune in Ed Tech. Its not really even the route to getting a lot of people beating down your door for advice (no matter how many times they have epiphanies that sound suspiciously like something someone might have told them already). Of course, some of the problem is just bad marketing, really. Many people have blogged for years about the ideas that were recently referred to as “MOOC 4.0” to little attention, but give it a silly number (that ignores 3-4 years of MOOC history) and suddenly the bloggers lose their minds! :)

The funny thing is, to an instructional designer it doesn’t matter if MOOCs work or not. We know how to make it work: good theory and design. Same thing goes for any concept out there: flipped classrooms, blended learning, you name it. We can already tell you how to make it all work – if you really want it to work. Sometimes you want to ask people: “are you designing the course to make one specific student fail, or are you just aiming for the highest possible failure rate?”

Of course, there are also the times you just kind of want to say “sure, blame the discussion board for the bland responses” and call it a day. You have seen enough new, shiny tools come along to know that by this time next year, people are going to be talking about the boring, rote responses they get to VoiceThread activities. That has happened with every online tool so far, and you know too well how the bad designs and theory used to insert the newest tools into the same paradigm and theory is going to produce the same results. What was that Albert Einstein said about this cycle?

The truth of the matter is that most people in online education have mediocre design skills and minimal theoretical knowledge at best, even after going through a Ph.D. in Education. They think they need more tech training to help them discover that golden child tool they need to revolutionize their classroom. Instructional Designers take one look at their class and know that’s not the case: its about needing better theory and design.

Of course, some bad design is driven by the massive number of students they have to teach, and control over that factor is out of their hands. When administration forces bad contexts on instructors, of course bad design is going to emerge.

But a lot of this goes back to what I have been thinking about Ed Tech conferences lately. To be honest, I was probably going to wind down going to any, because its all the same old, same old: old bad ideas re-packaged as shiny new start-ups with the same bad pitches or old bad ideas repackaged as “latest and greatest” conference sessions.

This was until I went to the OLC Emerging Technologies conference (#et4online). Yes, there were some old bad ideas re-incarnated, but there was also sessions on heutagogy, post-modernism, humanizing the MOOC, and a whole host of other design issues scattered amongst the shiny, new, refurbished dud ideas. So I emerged from that week encouraged to stick to the path of what I know best: learning innovation should be driven by innovations in design and theory (which sometimes means actually doing old ideas that we have ignored all along).

Now, don’t get me wrong: I still like new tools, and think we need to push to build better ones (like the crews behind ProSolo, Reclaim Hosting, Known, and others are doing).

(notice that I listed new tools that are based on theory and design more than hype and buzzwords?)

edugeek-journal-avatarSo that is why I am excited about the upcoming Digital Learning Research Network’s 2015 conference in October (#dlrn15). Many of the people that made #et4online a ray of hope are also getting involved with #dlrn15. The people that did the good sessions at #et4online are putting together proposals for #dlrn15. The Call for Proposals actually uses the word “Sociocultural”! And FYI, my name is on the committee list, but I had nothing to do with the CFP – even though it uses ideas and terms that I have been confusing people with for years.

So maybe there is some hope out there yet on the conference circuit?

(image credit: Sara Karges, obtained from

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