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  The Journey of an Instructional Designer
Interview with Katy Campbell
Associate Dean of the Faculty of Extension
University of Alberta, Canada
Katy Campbell

Ph.D. in Instructional Studies (University of Alberta, Canada). Katy Campbell is Associate Dean of the Faculty of Extension, University of Alberta. She worked as an instructional designer in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta (1983-93), as Assistant Professor in the College of Education at the State University of New York College at Geneseo (1993-95), and as a designer of distance programs at Keewatin Community College in Manitoba, Canada (1995-96). She is currently a Professor in the Faculty of Extension, and she teaches in the Master of Arts in Communications and Technology program. Dr. Campbell has published in many academic journals and in edited books, presented at over three dozen conferences, serves on several editorial boards, is Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Journal of University Continuing Education, and Past President of the Association for Media and Technology in Education in Canada (AMTEC). She is UA program director for the Collaboration for Online Higher Education Research (COHERE), and Co-chair of the Learning Design Working Group, that has worked with IMS Global Learning Consortium to develop specifications for interoperable e-learning designs.

Your research has emphasized the role of instructional designers as agents of social change in higher education. What are you finding?  Are we really change agents?
Let me emphasize that we have been working with instructional designers in higher education contexts, mostly research-intensive universities. So, the context or culture in which they work may be more tolerant to challenge than, say, private industry. That’s speculation, because we haven’t expanded the study to include designers in industry, government, the military, or the voluntary sector. Universities like to think of themselves as sites of transformational learning, and many individuals who work there have deliberately chosen this workplace for opportunities for professional development and continuing learning.

We have found that instructional designers can be agents of change at local (departmental), institutional, community (professional) and societal levels, and that those designers who told us stories of agency shared some commonalities: they tended to be more experienced as designers; they had life histories with “early” exposure to social activism/justice/advocacy, whether these were family members, teachers, colleagues, mentors or supervisors; some had what they described as “life-changing” experiences, for example, spending a year with a youth group in a third-world village; they were able to work with faculty or on projects with which their values were aligned; they saw instructional design as an opportunity for personal learning and for transformational learning for their clients; they described their practice as relational. Some of them had worked with very marginalized communities, for example, political refugees, and had taught ESL. Those who we would describe as change agents talked eloquently about education or learning as having a broader social purpose.

A typical story of practice was told by a female designer who had come to the profession mid-career, after considerable family stress. She worked with a faculty member in theology who was quite opposed to the Internet and its militaristic roots. Not a particularly religious person, she nevertheless engaged him in deep conversations about faith and Catholicism over many months, and they spent a lot of time exploring Web sites with a social justice mission. She went to several Masses at which he was presiding. They eventually designed the course, which was mandatory for preservice teachers planning to teach in faith-based schools, as an experience of worship beginning with entering into a Chapel and completing several “readying” activities. In the end the client was talking about the Internet as a potential tool for peace and community.

Other designers have talked about a moral obligation to expand access to non-traditional learners. We have also found that designers who couldn’t practice in values-based ways suffered “moral incoherence” causing stress and conflict and doubt. We are curious about whether there are developmental levels in agency; if there are gender or cultural differences, whether one’s disciplinary background has an impact, whether designers in industry etc. have the same kinds of experiences/values, how agencies interact, and so on.

If instructional designers are change agents, what should we be doing differently to prepare instructional designers in graduate programs?
Lots. First, we should stop focusing so much on tools, models and tasks and admit that design is down in that ‘messy swamp’ – we tend to give the impression that design is a science that exists on the ‘high hard ground’ (Donald Schon, of course). Knowing the history of your discipline is useful and probably necessary, as you can’t have an identity if you don’t have a background. But, we should think about an integrated curriculum in which, right from the beginning, learners start solving real problems that contain dilemmas, such as ethical dilemmas, and spend structured time reflecting on their decisions and developing personal learning and action plans to pursue areas of doubt or curiosity. I’d like to see a lot of identity work happening, both formal and informal—helping us understand personally why we practice the way we do. I’d pair novice designers with experienced mentors for long periods. A very important issue is inclusion, which is way broader than just accessibility, but considers cultural issues such as gender, age, language, ethnicity, sociocultural factors, geopolitical factors, etc. Wouldn’t it be great if every learner had an internship in a completely different cultural community, even internationally? Examining design theory from the point of view of a critical theorist, for example, through a cultural studies framework, might bump learners out of an ethnocentric perspective. One colleague has her students ‘annotate’ their designs and then return to them at the end of the course pilot and reflect on went well or badly—what could be improved. Spending more time on formative evaluation wouldn’t hurt. We need to model participatory design strategies. And really emphasize team-building and relationship-building skills. I think a design-as-action-research project, or a design-based study would underline designer-as-action-learner and encourage them to think about ways to support faculty for whom spending time in these activities can be a personal and professional risk. In other words, how about taking a scholarship of design approach that might be supported in a community of practice through graduate school and beyond? There are many professional models that we can borrow from, for example lawyers do pro bono work, the health-care sector requires re-accreditation. Speaking of, what would happen if we created something like the “Culinary Institute of America” to accredit instructional designers? These are just a few of my thoughts.

Do you think there's a difference between the study and practice of instructional design in Canada and the USA? If so, can you highlight a couple of the key differences you see?
I’m not speaking from empirical evidence, but my sense is that there are cultural differences. It is something that I want to explore further. For example, I get the feeling that American programs graduate designers with the concept of design as more systematic. Certainly, the doctoral students we’ve interviewed for positions have a very strong research background in experimental design, whereas their Canadian peers have been more qualitative. We don’t have very many specific graduate programs in comparison so many practicing designers, and I’m one of them, have either put together bits and pieces from all kinds of disciplines, or have come through library science, ESL, elementary education, distance education, etc. I don’t really see much flexible thinking on the editorial boards of related journals and there is not yet a strong sense of alternative ways to practice or do research. Finally, the Canadian military is not a big presence or the huge training organization that it is in the U.S. A fair number of your graduates are supported by the military and of course it is a big employer of designers and a site for research. That is quite a different culture! Of course, being Canadian, I have to apologize for everything I’ve said and can’t back up :=).

What is the proper place of systematic approaches to instructional design, compared with emerging thought in our field of study?
Well, I think we should de-emphasize them. Many designers continue to interpret the process as steps that you check off sequentially. Which is not to say that we don’t do a needs analysis, etc. but few of us do it in the ‘right’ order and because we practice in relational and responsive ways often can’t really ‘name’ what ‘step’ that was until later…We don’t find ways to really integrate all of our learning well enough to reflect-in-action with these kinds of approaches. I always start my projects finding ways to connect with my ‘client’ personally and to ask her what her own learning goals are. With one I had coffee with her, took French with her, went to her classes and talked about teaching issues…over many months and that was the work of design. The models start long after that work is underway. If we are so taken with constructivist learning environments, why aren’t we thinking about and representing instructional design itself as a constructivist process?

Your favorite research methodology is narrative. Why?
For a couple of reasons (warning, this is a long shaggy-dog narrative). I was never ‘trained’ as a designer; I was actually a French teacher. During my year of residency in my MEd program, I was assigned to a supervisor, the Modern Languages methods professor, who was interested in simulations. This was in 1981. Over the next two years he started working with videodiscs so I got an introduction to interactive video. After the year I stayed for one short contract after another in the IT centre to help him finish a videodisc on classroom management. The director of the centre called me an instructional designer and assigned me another project on effective questioning with a faculty member, a teacher, and a teacher consultant. I had no idea what ID was, so after each design meeting I’d dash to the library and try to find something-anything- that would tell me what I was doing or had to do next. But, gradually, I realized that in each meeting we had a long conversation about teaching (and asking questions) and the actual design was emerging from that. This was my design practice. Inevitably, since I was working in a university and found my low status (support staff, no doctorate) quite punishing, I started a doctorate. For family reasons I wasn’t able to move from Edmonton, but the University of Alberta had no educational technology graduate program. In the end, I went with a program in Instructional Studies based in the Department of Elementary Education, as the doctoral program had the most flexibility of any other in that Faculty. At the time the department had several new faculty members with growing scholarly reputations in qualitative methodology, including Jean Clandinin, a narrativist.

Early in the program I also was fortunate enough to take a course in teacher autobiography as action research. We did a lot of autobiographical writing about our life experiences on the way to becoming curriculum planners, and I began to think about a designer’s “personal practical knowledge” and how that might influence the kind of designer you’d become. I knew I wanted to explore the experience of ‘becoming a designer’ and the collaborative nature of design based in conversation and relationships, so I approached Jean Clandinin to be my supervisor. At first she turned me down as she “knew nothing about technology.’ It took a lot of convincing her that I wasn’t interested in technology - I was interested in the social process of designing. My dissertation, finally, framed the collaborative instructional design process as ‘transformative social process’ (1994). Narrative is a good fit for me for several reasons, and lately I’ve been doing some autoethnography. Narrative reflects the way I design and the way I examine design. Sharing stories of practice is a transformational experience because as we try to make sense of our experiences in a way that we can communicate them with others we are restorying the events in ways that reflect deeper personal understanding. Storytelling with others is a reciprocal process in which we make meaning, or a new narrative, that in a way is both a cognitive and an affective scaffold to new action. As a feminist, I am always concerned with personal “power,” with identity, with sociocultural context, and with ‘social justice’. Narrative inquiry emerges from what you are most concerned or familiar with and is a powerful way to tease out the idea of multiple subjectivities in different contexts, the core of which are relations with others. Narrative inquiry is critical and should lead to action and change. Besides, who doesn’t find a good story resonant and evocative?

Can you pick out one or two of your favourite stories from your research?
In one study I studied how the core values of female faculty aligned with their decisions about teaching with technology. In the course of the study I talked with about two dozen colleagues, which was a pure pleasure. Many friendships grew out of that and have endured for years. In one of the conversations I was talking to a mechanical engineer and using a new tape recorder borrowed from my husband, who I like to call Technology Guy. We were in a room with high ceilings and a ceiling fan. I’m quite paranoid about not getting stuff on tape so I was constantly checking the recorder, and a good thing that was, because I noticed that the tape kept stopping. Finally, I paused it and the interviewee and I turned it over and over trying to find what was wrong. We couldn’t figure it out, and she was a mechanical engineer! That night I was raging about the whole experience and my husband calmly picked up the recorder and flipped a tiny little switch that was set to “voice activated.” I was pretty embarrassed but you’ve got to learn to laugh at yourself when you’re doing research and using technology to do it!

My grad students are always asking ‘where do you get the questions’? I tell them this story: I published productively out of my dissertation and one day on the way to work I was worrying aloud about what was going to happen when I ran out of things to say. My husband assured me that I was too curious to run out of ideas. At the time I was working directly with faculty struggling with integrating technology-based learning activities, especially asynchronous discussions. Once they left our safe development environment they were getting very little support in their own departments from their Chairs and even from their colleagues, who only understood the lecture approach as ‘real teaching.’ I was teaching my own online course and planned an evening synchronous text chat. Instead of staying at the university I decided to come home and use our kitchen desktop Mac. So there I am madly typing away in the kitchen when my husband and daughter and two puppies burst noisily into the house from an obedience lesson at puppy kindergarten. Great confusion all around – dogs jumping on me and my family trying to tell me about the session, and I’m trying to keep up with the chat. Finally, I loudly insisted that they leave me alone until the class was finished, that I was teaching. They looked at me dubiously and stomped downstairs, dogs yapping happily, and my husband threw back over his shoulder, “You’d better start thinking seriously about the time you spend with your family!” I finished the class and, plenty outraged, went downstairs to take them on for not supporting me while I was teaching. But, of course, a research idea occurred to me. The culture doesn’t understand that even though you are quietly sitting at your desk, typing away, you are completely present in the learning environment and not interruptible. In other words, that is REAL TEACHING, even though it’s not behind a lectern in a classroom. A little study, “The psychosocial issues of the virtual teacher,” came out of that.

My interest in gender issues broadened out to an interest in inclusive design as a direct result of an experience leading a research and design institute for, primarily Muslim, university teachers in Malaysia about 7 years ago. I was doing my usual wander-around-the-room, talk-directly-to-people, invite-challenges style of presenting and it wasn’t going well at all. I just couldn’t seem to engage them. This went on for about a day and a half, and then finally a participant took me aside and told me to get behind the podium and stay there for the rest of the time. It was a matter of status and authority – i.e. I had none unless I was the Expert and my physical position vis a vis the audience was a symbol of that. I’d also made another huge mistake by using the Cancer Society’s “Great Smokeout” website to illustrate message design principles. Again, I was met with stony glares. It took a good friend of mine to point out that one of the images representing the idea of “links” was a string of sausages that a pig was dancing on – so I’d doubly offended everyone by using a image of pork AND by assuming that they would understand such an American metaphor. There were other sociopolitical issues with the site, too. Anyway, this underscored my growing awareness of ‘dominant culture design’ and both research and practice include these issues.

I have such great memories of research experiences. I insist on working with people with great senses of humor so I always have fun doing research. The best part is working directly with graduate students, who I always learn from.

Has it led to any challenges getting your work published in traditional journals? Where have you found outlets for your work?
Yes, I have had great trouble in the past publishing in traditional journals of educational technology/instructional design. This reflects our tradition of cognitive science, and I underline science, and experimental design. I had one paper returned that accused me of tendentious bullshit, another that wondered when it became acceptable to write in the first person, a third that asked how I could possibly “prove” anything with such a method….. Since some of my work has explored gender issues I am criticized for bias and so on. It’s been frustrating because this is from the community who would benefit from alternative points of view. For much of my career I have published on the fringes of the field or not in the field at all – for example in feminist, critical or radical pedagogy, teaching in higher education venues ….I have to say that lately I have had better luck with more traditional journals--either I’m writing better or editorial boards are including more qualitative researchers. Probably both. Also, journals like The Journal of Learning Design are appearing and reflect an opening up to different perspectives and approaches. Finally, it’s possible to take advantage of new ways to disseminate – for example in our “Agent” study we have a blog, I’ve used podcasts, and so on.

What are you on to next? I understand you had a gathering of Canadian instructional design scholars at Pigeon Lake, Alberta. What happened there, and what's next?
Ah yes, the Pigeon Lake Accord. That was a wonderful weekend! With a really short timeline, we invited about 10 colleagues from coast to coast - a mix of scholars and practitioners and graduate students –- to a country inn for a retreat. The Inn is located at a large Alberta lake and the meeting rooms have huge stone fireplaces. We met participants at the airport on Friday night and drove them out to the Inn and installed them in private rooms with fireplaces. Once everyone was settled we met for the evening around the fireplace, drank wine and got to know each other both personally and in some cases professionally. It’s a small ID world in Canada but still I was not aware of the work of a few of our guests. That night it started to snow. There we were, on a ravine lined with birch trees and evergreens, snow gently falling and accumulating on the trees, fire crackling, cozily sharing stories of design. The next morning we found that we were almost snowed in and the storm continued all day Saturday. By the time we were in the meeting room Rick Schwier had set a fire and had shoveled the Inn’s front walkway. For the rest of the time to the Inn’s staff he was “that lovely man from Saskatchewan.” We started the day presenting our emerging model of designer agency and just throwing it open for discussion, challenge and elaboration. Throughout the day we discussed implications of the model for practice, for scholarship and for graduate curriculum development, and explored ways we might bring our separate lines of research together where that made sense. We identified several possibilities and followed up by sharing the notes from the day. Naturally some colleagues were going in different directions, but the bonding was a significant outcome as one of our goals is to try to build a Canadian community of practice. Designers we’ve talked to are just starved for that kind of thing. In any event, we came away with interest in design cultures – what social purposes does design serve in the world, and what can we learn from each other--that Rick Schwier, another colleague and I are trying, around hectic schedules, to develop into a funded proposal. Unfortunately, our guests had treacherous return journeys as highways were iced over and some were closed.

You're interested in different cultures of instructional design – do you mean organizational cultures or world cultures?
I believe that a cultural community can be a nation, social class, religion, or race; a language group, age group, gender group, or group based on sexual orientation; a physical community, for example an urban neighborhood; a professional association, special-interests group, or community (e.g. the disabled), the workplace, or a university (among others!). Disciplines can be described as cultural communities, as well. In taking this broad view of culture, for example, I can include my work with female faculty using technology as well as my interest in designing learning environments that are culturally inclusive. More recently, I’ve been curious about instructional design as a culture and about designers as members of a cultural community. I’d like to explore whether instructional design theory, models and practices are culturally-based in terms of world cultures as well as by design cultures, but on a more micro-level I wonder about gender (e.g. are there gender differences in instructional design values and practice?), sociocultural context (e.g. do designers working in the private sector practice differently from designers in colleges and universities?), and disciplinary background. With three other researchers, I have a research grant awaiting adjudication that proposes to probe deeper into the influences on instructional designers’ construction of disciplinary-based Self and how that is linked to ID practices across the disciplines. I’d love to hear from readers who are interested in these various research lines, or who are doing similar or compatible things and would like to collaborate!

You've been an instructional designer and academic in New York; The Pas, Manitoba; the Director of a large ID unit at the University of Alberta; and now you're the Associate Dean in the Faculty of Extension at the U of A. How did that progression happen?
Ha! Ha! This isn’t such an unusual journey for instructional designers – serendipity leads to what is suddenly a real career! Along the way you meet the right mentors and if you recognize opportunities, which are often disguised, things can happen. I’d been a French teacher and then an instructional designer at the University of Alberta, living on temporary contracts for about ten years, the latter being a spur-of-the-moment decision because I wanted to work on a videodisc project. Actually, my career history looks like a progression, but only in retrospect – living my life forward but only understanding it backwards. Many decisions I made were not career-related, but personal.

I went to a SUNY college in New York because I was almost finished my doctorate and thought I should get a ‘real’ academic job, plus my marriage was over and I needed to get away. I almost went to the University of New Brunswick as a distance education specialist, which is funny because I’m not, but my supervisor Jean Clandinin sent me the posting for the position in New York. I had a wonderful interview and the timing was right - you can’t always just pick up and move to another country – but I had quite a miserable two years. I wasn’t teaching or doing research in instructional design, I was assigned methods classes in elementary education and responsibility for practicums. That was in 1993-95 and I was unaware of the Internet, but a graduate student one day showed me a Web site and it was one of those moments of epiphany.

But in my second year there I started looking for other positions and interviewed at five American and one Canadian university, receiving a few offers. By then I knew that I had to go home to Canada, although the field was very, very small, and opportunities to work in it at that time were scarce. My friend Laurie had been sending me job postings from Canada, however, and one came up for a distance education specialist at Keewatin Community College in the Pas, Northern Manitoba. Again with DE!!?? I had a telephone interview and was offered the job. I called Laurie to give her the good news, but she called me back about 10 minutes later and said, “You know, Craig and I are looking at a map of Manitoba. Do you have any idea where the Pas actually IS?” Turns out that it was a small town where the railroad and the pulp mill were the major industries and it was WAY up North, with about seven hours of driving in the wilderness before getting to Winnipeg, the closest city. But, I packed up the car and my daughter and dog and cat and we went. Our license plate from New York excited a lot of curiosity around town; we were even speculated about on the radio. The job was a contract and non-academic, and the College culture was terribly patriarchal, but it was in Canada. The College was trying to bring various campuses into harmony and also increase access for Aboriginal communities, many of which were fly-in only, so that was the beginning of my interest in designing for cultural inclusion.

While in the Pas I had a mentor who took me around to other institutions in the province, so my networks began to really grow and at one university I saw the beginnings of a centre for faculty who were just nibbling at learning technology, and I began to turn over in my mind the possibilities of collaborative projects guided by designers for faculty learning and culture change. Although I’d really talked about that in my dissertation, I didn’t make the explicit links then. I went back to the head of my department at the College and proposed a visit to institutions in Edmonton, at least three of which had established some sort of model of faculty support. Serendipitously, while at one site, I bumped into Rick Roder, a former colleague, and we ended up dating at a distance. About six months passed, my daughter was completely miserable, and the Pas was a pretty rough place, so I knew we weren’t going to stay very long. And, suddenly, an ad crossed my desk for an instructional designer, a one-year contract, for the “Alternative Delivery Initiative” (ADI) at the University of Alberta. Again, Web-based learning was pretty new and I was no expert, but I was passionate about design and the Initiative involved working directly with faculty, as I had years before at the University of ALberta. And, Rick Roder lived in Edmonton, so I REALLY wanted the job, and I got it! This was the beginning of 1996, and I’d moved five times in three years. My professional association, “Association for Media and Technology in Education in Canada” (AMTEC), in the persons of Rick Schwier and Gary Karlsen, was also wooing me to join the Board but I’d said ‘no’ since I was so isolated and the College administration was very hierarchical and little inclined to support that kind of activity. So, I arrived (with daughter, etc.) in Edmonton in December 1995 and lived in my lake cottage while I built up some cash reserves, commuting everyday to Edmonton.

By mid-1996 the ADI became “Academic Technologies for Learning” (ATL) which, thanks to a timely provincial funding envelope began to grow exponentially. I led a project called the “Partnership” that was focused on faculty learning through engagement in an instructional development project and began to do some research about that. By the end of that year the first ATL Director had resigned (political reasons) and his tenure-stream position became open. At first the Dean of the Faculty, who was a DE scholar, shaped it as a program evaluation expert and I was told I would not be successful if I applied for it, leaving me to wonder again about my future. The Dean was not very impressed overall with instructional designers who he saw as technicians, but after a few months the competition was called off and he told me that enough faculty around the University had asked why the position was not for an ID scholar, so that I could apply, that he reconsidered and the position was re-advertised. I applied for it, sweating bullets, and was successful. I had worried about ‘familiarity’ because all my degrees were from the U of A and I’d spent the first ten years of my design career in the Faculty of Education. I hadn’t been able to move around at that time because I was married to a small business owner who insisted on staying in Edmonton. Luckily, though, with my experience in New York and Manitoba I had enough ‘seasoning’ for the committee to feel confident enough to overlook the education thing. By the way, this is a systemic cultural problem, especially for female academics that are not necessarily as mobile as males systematically going though graduate school. In a few years the Director was on sabbatical and I became the Acting Co-Director with another colleague. Together we started shaping the unit, away from multimedia production and more strongly towards faculty/culture transformation. This caused a lot of conflict in the unit but eventually the technical function fell away, those people were placed in different departments, and replaced with more designers and evaluators, and research associates (graduate students). We began to work more strategically in the institution with teams and programs instead of individual faculty and courses, or portions of them.

In the meantime, our Faculty was undergoing some upheaval and had an Acting Dean. He was research-oriented and we were in transition from a professional, continuing education/community development Faculty to one that was more research-intensive. The Acting Dean offered me a half-time Associate Dean, Research position and exhorted me to ‘grow the research culture.’ Because my colleagues in ATL and I had been positioning the unit as an academic unit we had a head start on that through pan-Canadian and international research partnerships. However, as in many universities, we unhappily got into a power struggle with the campus WebCT group, the administration changed, and ATL was de-commissioned. This happened while I was on sabbatical, so I was effectively left homeless, and our new Dean offered me the full-time position of Associate Dean responsible for both research and academic programs. Practically my first act was to support the re-constitution of an ATL-like unit with some of our former staff, and I’m happy to report that this unit, with an evolving mandate, is going strong. In my position, now, I can wield some ‘moral authority’ around the university by being on senior-level committees such as the Committee for the Learning Environment, the Teaching Learning and Technology Council, the University Research and Policy Committee, the Academic Standards Committee, and so on. Most of these committees direct policy-development and I’m able to get important issues on the table including access and accessibility, support for instructional development, consideration of cultural and diversity issues for both learners and faculty, acceptance of alternative forms of research (e.g. action research), more flexible evaluation models for faculty working on curriculum development, quality standards for blended learning, to name a few--academic-as-activist. For example, I’m currently looking at issues of disabled faculty who are teaching with technology, as a pilot project. I’m also at a careers crossroads right now, or maybe even an identity crisis, wondering whether I want to stay with leadership, be a ‘traditional’ professor, go to private industry….any advice?

Finally, a few morals of the story: serendipity is good, life works out if you stick with your passions and values, community is everything; look for ways to have a social impact!

Educating the Reflective Practitioner
Educating the Reflective Practitioner: Toward a New Design for Teaching and Learning in the Professions, Donald A. Schön

Jean Clandinin, Centre for Research for Teacher Education and Development, University of Alberta

Handbook of Narrative Inquiry
Handbook of Narrative Inquiry: Mapping a Methodology, edited by Jean Clandinin.

Rick Schwier, University of Saskatchewan, Canada

Association for Media and Technology in Education in Canada (AMTEC)

Gary Karlsen, Western Canada for Magic Lantern Communications, Ltd.



December 2006 IDT Record