Interview with Dana Milstein, EPIC’s Instructional Designer

Published: August 29, 2018

EPIC is lucky to have instructional designer Dana Milstein on the team to help us envision a better future for pedagogy in the humanities here at UCLA. I sat down with Dana to discuss how she got into instructional design, her work in developing pedagogical tools at UCLA, and the role of technology in this work.

Would you like to tell me a little bit about yourself? What is your background in the humanities and how did you get into doing instructional design work?

Sure, so I completed a Master’s at NYU in Interdisciplinary Studies and finished my PhD at the CUNY Graduate Center, focusing on the relationship between poetry and music. I had a lot of opportunities in graduate school to do various research and teaching fellowships across several disciplines and at different universities, work with instructional technology, and I also started to teach online in 2000. Because I was spread thin like most doctoral students, my teaching style naturally evolved to be adaptive, constructivist and based in gradual release that increasingly gave students more agency and co-participation in designing our course and managing their work. And I found that students enjoyed and most benefited from experimental and immersive learning opportunities, and that got me very heavily invested in using technology in the classroom. I became increasingly fascinated with digital literacy, digital pedagogy, and ways to create authentic experiences for my students.  I completed an Interactive Technology and Pedagogy Master’s Certificate and realized that I was more suited to a hybrid job that blended teaching with instructional design than to a research-intensive, tenure-track position.

What is an instructional designer?

That is a very challenging question! It’s a constantly evolving position, but I think that the best instructional designers are those who have had opportunities to continue teaching, which is a critical part of their professional development. We function somewhat as a “jack of all trades” in theory-to-practice:  we need to understand the nuts and bolts of assessment, pedagogy, campus culture, campus spaces, technology advances, resources, and challenges with inclusion, student privacy, and accessibility. We have to be in the classroom, not just delivering one-off workshops and visits, but actually teaching classes to be aware of how the classroom environment works, the student culture, and even the content and the ways that different departments operate so that we can transform our own approaches as designers. So, something I enjoy doing as an instructional designer is going in to meet with the faculty to hear about what their goals and challenges are for a particular course, what they are envisioning to achieve the desired outcomes, and then to imagine—and that’s my favorite part of being an instructional designer, that creative element—some implementations that I think could potentially be a good fit for that particular faculty member’s course. I then put together a portfolio of suggestions, go over them with the faculty member, and try to achieve those goals through some of those suggestions. Those suggestions can take different forms: It could range from classroom reconfiguration of space and lighting, to field trips and guest speakers, to promoting more inclusive strategies, to developing new rubrics or integrating project-based and service-based learning opportunities, to offering more support for the TAs. In terms of work, it could be lightweight ice-breakers in TA sections through advanced projects that overlap with the faculty member’s research interests, that could eventually require grant funding to give undergraduate students opportunities to participate in building a grant funded project. That tends to be a very rewarding experience, when you can see longitudinally over time how a very small suggestion or an element of support can build into something that’s sustainable and ongoing. The other thing an instructional designer does that I really love is a lot of cross-campus collaboration and partnership building. That’s very critical, so making sure to develop robust relationships with the librarians, campus centers, faculty in different disciplines, and various administrators across campus can all help to enrich what an ID is imagining for a particular course.

Do you see a recent push to move towards digital solutions to instructional design problems and, if so, what do you make of that move?

That’s actually an interesting question and one that came up recently at the EPIC conference [in 2018]. What we see happening is a huge transition and awareness that technology is not the end-all be-all for learning, and can even detract from learning when the technology provides style-over-substance or creates accessibility issues for students. I am personally sensitive to this topic as we now have two decades of research showing that technology offers advantages up to a point and then creates significant barriers. Technology is ideally supposed to offer more accessibility and more opportunities, and initially my passion for technology in the classroom arose because I saw that I had students who were interested in, for example, music, but had never learned to play an instrument, and through certain applications and software they could create electronic music with almost no musical background other than what they felt sounded right. Or, students could build a website with drag-and-drop rather than having to know how to code. But this only works to a point–after that point, software is no longer agnostic or affordable: students working on tablets may not be able to process big data software, the novelty of clickers and social media wears off and even invades their personal use of devices, and their threshold for managing technology disasters peaks. I also worry about “Battleship Education” – what I call a scenario where students are sitting together in isolation, peeking over their devices rather than engaging face-to-face.  I think increasingly what I am seeing for myself as an educator and student (I’m in pre-nursing courses now!) is that it’s important to work with tangible materials. In my free time I’ve moved away from video games and books, and moved towards activities like knitting and Ironman, and this has helped me with executive functioning and completing multimodal tasks that transfer across all areas of learning and skills. If you can’t accomplish something with pen and paper first, then it’s probably not going to transfer well into technology. So, increasingly, I’ve seen that you can build a game or a digital project, but you first will need to work with things like Post-Its and markers and pens and clay and field experience in the real environment before you decide how to capture that and share it digitally with others.

I could see how that could help those with different learning styles. I imagine that if you have a tactile learning style, the digital world on its own could be frustrating.

Yes, that’s another role of the instructional designer: to work with the faculty member and the classroom to figure out what is the student makeup, how do they enjoy learning, and how are they going to be able to make the most of this experience. Ultimately we want learning to be autoletic, so I’m also a huge proponent of something called trans-competency.  I don’t believe in compartmentalizing education and I think that’s one of the struggles in higher-education today. Students go to various classes and acquire a bunch of subject matter expertise, but don’t learn how to combine it all together as part of their autoletic identity. When I go in to consult with faculty I’m very sensitive and attentive to that matter, not only to what subject matter expertise their students need to acquire, but also to what skills faculty want them to carry forward from this course to help them succeed in other classes and then in their bigger life picture. The humanities is very special in that respect because faculty have an opportunity to help students not only gain knowledge, but also to develop their emotional intelligence, their ability to ask questions, their ability to communicate information to other people, and most importantly, the ability to help people make it applicable in their own lives. That is something that an instructional designer is there to help support.