The (Critical) (Instructional) Design of Digital Pedagogy Lab

Critical instructional design moves toward realizing the possibility for learning that blends a new form of rigor with agency through a practice of inquiry, empathy, and emergence.

The (Critical) (Instructional) Design of Digital Pedagogy Lab

“Critical instructional design moves toward realizing the possibility for learning that blends a new form of rigor with agency through a practice of inquiry, empathy, and emergence.”

These are the sorts of things people say about Digital Pedagogy Lab:

I'm glad this is a community where a large group of people from many backgrounds can laugh together in a positive way.

I felt valued and loved in a way that I have not felt in a long time.

I loved having a space where I could set aside administrative worries and be fully present and in the moment with so many folks all working toward similar goals. I really liked how much of the conference was "analog"—lots of people writing in notebooks and just thinking about TEACHING rather than focusing on a specific bit of software or hardware.

I commend the team on your attention to detail, as well as to issue of inclusion and accessibility. It was both refreshing and encouraging to be guided and enabled with and through this community.

The Lab felt welcoming and supportive. Our professional teaching conference NEVER feels like that. It’s very competitive and hierarchical. So this space felt more communal and revolutionary.

How do you build a space—a professional space, a space where we are both our work and our passion, our scholarship and our questions—where critical pedagogy is not simply discussed, but enacted? What are the procedures, timelines, structures and infrastructures, and logistics behind that space?

In my opening remarks at Digital Pedagogy Lab 2018 at the University of Mary Washington, I spoke about “starting small and staying small.” And by this, I meant that Digital Pedagogy Lab didn’t start off as a big idea. It started off as a small idea. It began with a desire to help teachers who were faced with teaching in an increasingly digital world get their feet under them. When Jesse Stommel and I first conceived the Lab, it was to try to fill a gap in learning and professional development that we ourselves had felt acutely as graduate students and new teachers. We started with a small idea.

And in some ways, the Lab holds to that. While there have been Digital Pedagogy Labs held in four countries, and while participants have come from six continents, the heart of the Lab remains small. We are focused there on the individual, on the exchange of ideas in small groups, in the need for greater intimacy in pedagogy rather than automated “personalization.” We believe that digital pedagogy is, at its core, a habitus. Upon a field where so much changes, and where revelations about surveillance and digital redlining and the tyranny of algorithms and the deep wells of data about us which are being read and used every day, and from which we have a hard time knowing how to protect students—how could teaching upon that field rely on anything but our commitment to it?

But we also believe that teaching itself finds its best, most surprising expression in a kind of guesswork. Audre Lorde says that “It is necessary to teach by living and speaking those truths which we believe and know beyond understanding.” And so we try to imagine a pedagogy which begins someplace beyond understanding. A pedagogy we can approach as a toddler approaches walking: bravely, wobbly, experimentally, and entirely.

I overheard someone say recently that “faculty aren’t students.” I find that idea sad. Who does not want to remain always a learner, undrowned by their expertise, free to imagine new limits for their field and practice? At Digital Pedagogy Lab, we welcome faculty as students, administrators as students, librarians as students… The design of Digital Pedagogy Lab demands that small spaces be preserved, that conversation and dialogue center the day, and that everyone present feel safe enough to abandon the mantle of “expert”—and the competitiveness that can come along with that mantle—and enjoy learning. For five days, to be a student of their own work.

Digital Pedagogy Lab looks from all appearances to be a professional development event replete with speakers and sessions. On par with events like Open Ed and the Digital Humanities Summer Institute. But in fact, the Lab is a classroom. A little, brief school that happens where and when it must, and for whom might need it. For the last three years, during those five days in August, the Hurley Convergence Center on the University of Mary Washington campus has been transformed into a summer camp, where connections can be made, relationships forged, ideas unhatched and tested. But it has also cropped up in Toronto, Vancouver, Coventry, in Delaware and Ohio and Wisconsin. Where and when it is needed.

When I begin planning a new Digital Pedagogy Lab—whether the 5-day summer event or one of the variety of 3-day international events we’ve held—I start from a perspective of critical instructional design. For me, the design of the Lab must feel seamless, effortless, and must center the needs of the participants. They (you) are the learners, each arriving with their own objectives.

And so the design of the Lab follows along the same principles of critical instructional design that I might apply to a classroom or digital learning space. I’ve written before that “Critical instructional design moves toward realizing the possibility for learning that blends a new form of rigor with agency through a practice of inquiry, empathy, and emergence.” Keeping that in mind...


In our article, “Beyond Rigor,” Jesse Stommel, Pete Rorabaugh, and I argue that “An unhealthy attachment to outcomes discourages experimentation.” Rather than rigor arriving out of controlled learning (or learning “management”), Digital Pedagogy Lab aims for a rigor that emerges when an environment is:

  • Engaged
  • Critical
  • Dynamic
  • Curious

The Lab creates a challenging environment for its participants, asking them to push up against their assumptions about education, about “the digital”, and about their own praxis.

Not unlike the “holding environment” described by Heifetz, et. al., Digital Pedagogy Lab provides for a kind of productive disequilibrium, where ideas can be challenged without people being marginalized, minimized, harmed, or disempowered. Out of this, relationships of trust arise, collegiality based on mutual respect and kindness forms, and ideas that have been tested emerge.


The community of Digital Pedagogy Lab is founded on the assertion that each member of the community has the right to their agency. John Holt writes that:

Next to the right to life itself, the most fundamental of all human rights is the right to control our own minds and thoughts. That means the right to decide for ourselves how we will explore the world around us, think about our own and other persons’ experiences, and find and make the meaning of our own lives. (4)

This is the right of agency. It does not give us power over another, but it gives us mastery over ourselves. In other words, agency doesn’t so much exert itself upon others as it does float within the intersection of freedom and authority. Enacting one’s agency is always a balancing act between doing what is within your understanding of your own power and working with the boundaries of others’ understandings of theirs. Agency is cooperative. Freedom delimited by others’ freedoms delimited by yours.

Within the practice of critical instructional design, and at Digital Pedagogy Lab, agency requires community investment. It is a dialogue, a conversation of respect, care, attention, replete with as many moments of listening as speaking.


An assumption that drives critical instructional design is that all knowledge is both the product of and subject to inquiry. While its strategies do not eschew the teacher—for the exact reason that the teacher must ground and foreground the work of a class, and must know the terrain of their subject well enough to help students avoid unproductive failures—but critical instructional design does eschew the “expert.” Traditional education, and too much of education today, assesses student knowledge based on their ability to repeat back what the expert has said. Questioning, criticizing, looking for wisdom past the usual authority—these are rare activities indeed. But critical instructional design, and Digital Pedagogy Lab, insists that “authority” is a shared mantle, and “expertise” communal, arising from discussion, invention, collaboration, as assent as much as dissent.

Into this idea of inquiry, though, we must also allow that personal experience, the narrative behind our scholarship and our experience of education, must be honored as the very material of knowledge production. In other words, our stories are evidence of knowing, understanding, and should contribute to what we consider scholarly. Without narrative, scholarship—both in the form of academic writing, and in the dialogues at gatherings and conferences, and in the voice issuing from behind a podium—becomes stagnant, void of form and meaning. Critical instructional design embraces the individual in their complexity, and nourishes the inquiry that arises from a personal history, a personal interest, a personal perspective.


The idea of empathy is problematic, and so let me break down how both critical instructional design and Digital Pedagogy Lab tackle empathy:


Welcomeness is central to the practice of a critical instructional design, and the creation of any Digital Pedagogy Lab event. While the Lab (or, say a course at a university) may look like a series of steps, blocks of time spent in discussion, study, listening to lectures, committing to collaborations, the truth of design is not in the practiced components, but in the felt components. Welcomeness is the implementation of a comfortable, safe, challenging, adoring, and responsive environment.

At Digital Pedagogy Lab, this shows up as:

  • Food that is free, healthy, safe for people with allergies, intolerances, and preferences, and that nourishes the mind as well as the senses.
  • Spaces that provide for reflection, conversation, collaboration, creation, and retreat.
  • As much as possible, a red carpet rolled out for people of every shape, size, gender (or non-gender), mental and emotional capacity and orientation, educational status, social status, color, belief, background, love, and disposition.
  • Access to water, caffeine, rest, and kindness.


A critical instructional design (and the design of the Lab) does not simply open its arms to diverse voices and populations, it relies upon it. We proceed with the knowledge that there are stories we haven’t heard, and we understand the deficit this has imposed on our own education, our own knowing, our own experience of life. When, for instance, the Lab calls for fellows “from communities that include Black educators, Latinx educators, Indigenous people, people with disabilities, neurodivergent folks, LGBTQ2S people, women, and nonbinary folx, students (undergraduate or graduate), sessional and adjunct faculty, educators from outside the U.S. and non-Western countries, among others,” it is not to mix and mingle or to be politically correct. It is because education—the institution, the community, the process itself—is incomplete without these voices.


Critical instructional design does not design to accommodate, but to embrace. Access must be granted to all, and to that end the design of the Lab is one of active, responsive, engaged opening. As with diversity, the absence of any voice due to inaccessibility is a loss for our community, our institutions, our culture. The Lab ensures that:

  • Physical access to the event is available;
  • Bathrooms are provided for all people;
  • Food is safe;
  • Questions do not go unanswered, or requests unresponded to.
    A learning environment should be challenging, but it should not be inaccessible. Much of the variety of care we must provide cannot be designed for prior to the arrival of our community upon the scene, and so the design of the Lab (or a course or classroom) must be responsive, improvisational, emergent.


It is not possible for anything to emerge if the environment is a hostile one. And, if we are honest, we know that the academy—the institutions where we work as much as the environments of our professional gatherings—is a hostile place; or, if not entirely hostile, the joy of it is perforated by hostility of specific kinds. Sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, paternalism, student and teacher shaming, the ugly fear of and the ugly response to plagiarism (as much as to originality), careerism, elitism, competition for resources and jobs… There are oppressive aspects to every academic position, every academy institution, every academic conference. And if we are not subject to one, then we are subject to another.

For this reason, Digital Pedagogy Lab is not an academic conference. Critical instructional design insists that we design away from oppressive strategies and behaviors in order to create a learning environment where everyone can thrive. As well, in order for a learning environment—be it a classroom, an LMS, or the Lab—to be responsive instead of defensive, nascent instead of aggregate, welcoming instead of inaccessible, there must in the design of that environment be a leaning toward freedom.

Create a space where people feel free to join, free to experiment, free to voice themselves, free to try, free to fail, free to succeed, free to change—and reinforce that space with a foundation of generosity, kindness, care, hospitality—and you create a space where the new, the inventive, the generative and creative—in other words, the necessary—can emerge.

I ended my opening remarks at Digital Pedagogy Lab 2018 by offering the following call:

“I’ve recently been sort of obsessed with reading the work of Maxine Greene, an author and teacher coming out of the critical pedagogy tradition, who speaks about imagination as a key component to change. She writes again and again of the need to imagine things 'as they might be otherwise.' Not to stop at the point where we see things aren’t as we hope they will be, but to plunge forward with daring and to imagine them differently. What is wrong with education today? We could talk about that for hours.

“What do we want education to be? What can it be? What do we hope for? The answers to these questions too often fall upon cynicism, fear, or just plain exhaustion.

“But here, over the course of the next few days, we invite you to imagine. Become playful, hopeful, creative. Imagine things as they may be otherwise. And take the rest of us with you.”

Digital Pedagogy Lab will continue to shift and change, emerge and evolve. Revision is built into its DNA, metamorphosis in its design.