The 4-day course that I participated in at Digital Pedagogy Lab was Amy Collier’s Design for Change course, and I chose it with the hope that it would help me find flexibility in the fairly strict course structures that I work with (and, in doing so, help me help others find that same flexibility). Amy’s course seemed like the perfect melding of my interests, work, and what I hoped to gain:

Participants in this course will explore and experiment with ways to bring positive change to educational institutions and to our world by engaging critically with digital tools, spaces, and practices.

We would also come out of the course with a toolkit to help us makes these positive changes, and I particularly liked the idea of having a toolkit as a concrete takeaway from the week. What I gained from the course, however, ended up being so much more than flexibility and a toolkit.

First I want to backtrack, though, and give a brief overview of the course structures in which my faculty and I operate. Part of my job involves working as the administrative assistant for UMW’s FSEM (first-year seminar) program. Our FSEM is tied to our Quality Enhancement Plan (a plan that we have to have and execute in order to be reaccredited), so with that comes all of the requirements of the QEP: learning outcomes, learning modules in Canvas, and the sacrifice of content to make room for skills development. The FSEM has a fairly limiting structure, especially for faculty who see the FSEM more as an opportunity to teach interesting content to students (which, at its inception back in the mid-2000s, was actually what the FSEM was for). Due to the demands of the QEP, many of our FSEM faculty now feel severely limited in what they can teach, and they suffer from FSEM burnout.

The other curricular program that I’m involved in is COPLACDigital. In many ways, it is much freer than the FSEM—it isn’t confined to our LMS, there aren’t modules that students have to complete, and we provide a fairly open space (WordPress multisite) for students and faculty to work in. However, COPLACDigital is grant-funded with very specific parameters, which means there are certain components that every single course must cover—meaning our COPLACDigital faculty also have to make some content sacrifices. Morever, as open as WordPress is (especially compared to an LMS), it still has its limitations. Some of those limitations are inherent, but many of them are ones that we (COPLACDigital) have placed upon it, whether practical, for security, or due to past precedent. So, while our COPLACDigital courses are much less restrictive than UMW’s FSEMs, they still come with limitations that can be difficult for our faculty and students to navigate.

In addition to FSEMs and COPLACDigital courses being restrictive to faculty and students, I myself feel limited by these structures, especially when someone comes to me with an idea that doesn’t fit with the predetermined format. For all of these reasons, I hoped that Amy’s course would help me, my faculty, and our students find freedom and flexibility in what we do.

Looking back, I can definitively say that I found the flexibility I was looking for. More than anything, Amy gave us all space. Space in which to think, to critically reflect, to appreciate (ourselves, our faculty, our students, and each other), to learn, and to develop. We all finally had time—four whole days—to think about how we approach design, and I think this time allowed us to free ourselves from the thought channels that we typically travel. And with that time and reflective space Amy gave us, we found our own space—and for me, with that space came flexibility and freedom.

In these new channels, we found questions and values to guide our design. The ones that resonated with me the most are:

  1. Design as if everyone is indispensable.

This notion of indispensability really struck me in a way that I can’t adequately put words to. In a small group with Lindsay and Cathie, we discussed the notion of indispensability and how it can help break the mold that our institutions and courses are stuck in. It injects an intimate, human element into our curriculum that so often seems missing, and it does away with the monotone buzzwords that we all hear: “student-centered,” “accessible,” etc. In forcing us to see all our of students as indispensable, this notions asks a central question:

2. For whom are we designing?

This question is ongoing, and thus must be constantly addressed. And the answer is always evolving—it is not simply, “our students.” The answer is really a set of more specific questions: Who are our students—who are they really? Are they working moms? First-generation college students? Veterans? Full-time students? What is their race? Religion? Ethnicity? Gender? Sexual orientation? What challenges does each of them face, day in and day out? What makes them who they are? What do they need?

Thinking about the indispensability of whomever we are designing for, whatever they need, seemed to grant everyone (designer, faculty member, student) agency—if we think about what each individual person needs as we design, we can give them so many more opportunities than if we just designed for a generic person or group. And with this recognition of indispensability and the granting of agency, we suddenly empower ourselves and our faculty members and our students. We’re suddenly designing and working in spaces where everyone matters and everyone is valued. Where if one person is taken out of the equation, no matter who that person is, then our space and learning experience is drastically altered.

At the end of Amy’s course, I felt connected to and valued by everyone else in my track—but more importantly, I felt value in myself. Seeing everyone else as indispensable meant that I could see myself that way as well—an invaluable part of the design process, and someone with the power and ability to help faculty and students find their own agency. Looking back, I think Amy wonderfully modeled what she was hoping we could all do after DPL. She was our leader, and she asked difficult questions of us. She gave us general guidelines, a flexible structure within which to work, and here and there she shared her own operating principles with us. But overall, she let us guide the track and determine what would be most useful for us. She treated each of us as if we were indispensable, and in so doing, she gave us the ability to see ourselves, our faculty, and our students that way as well.