Despite the growing influence of web 2.0 technologies and social media in online learning, there is still a persistent challenge for the educator who is charged with designing online learning. The challenge is to avoid simply replicating what one does in the face-to-face classroom. When one runs into trouble making the transfer, it is sadly too common for the online course to lose out, easily turning into reading texts and writing papers with few other elements. From an instructional design perspective, I see another challenge in both face-to-face and online courses. This challenge is what I call the “role rut.” The role of student and teacher becomes so embedded in our thinking that we often fail to consider a variety of potentially powerful and engaging designs.
With these two challenges in mind, I now turn to the nature of digital culture. In the digital world, roles and identities are constantly shifting as we move from site to personal blog to news blog to video sharing site to search engines. In a single day in the digital world, I may be a student, teacher, researcher, blogger, consumer, mentor, lurker, video producer, team member, and friend. Of course, this same thing is true in the face-to-face world, but these roles are even more fluid online. One can quickly try on a myriad of roles. With this dynamic in mind, I see promising possibilities with an alternate roles approach to designing learning experiences. It is not new or profound, but it does offer a strategy for escaping the ordinary, a way of getting out of those role ruts that are commonplace in online and face-to-face education. The alternate roles approach is a simple thought experiment or challenge: try to design a course, unit or learning activity without using or thinking about the traditional roles: teacher, instructor, learner, student, facilitator, or participant. Instead, design the learning environment with two or more alternate roles. Consider the following possibilities: mentor, boss, coach, guide, expert, consultant, travel guide, assistant, supporter, advocate, leader, mayor, employer, director, manager, owner, administrator, advisor, editor, assessor, professional, team member, player, novice, explorer, tourist, supporter, advocate, member, citizen, investigator, research assistant, researcher, consultant, employee, actor, director, manager, steward, owner, designer, creator, patient, client, offender, defender, author, apprentice, activist, or member.
This is more than role-playing. Role-playing tends to be a single activity in an otherwise traditional teacher/student environment. Instead, this is an exercise in simulation learning, still starting with learning objectives (What do I want them to learn?) but then quickly bracketing the teacher/student roles in lieu of alternate roles. Experimenting with this exercise has been a delightful experience, affording me a fresh and exciting way to think about instructional design in the digital world.