Future-Facing Instructional Design: Restrained Entanglement and Digital Wellness as Best Practice

Educational institutions are entanglement sites (10mins)

It's clear that we're only just starting to understand entanglement and its implications. This point is eloquently made by Danny Hillis in the following video:      

The Era of Entanglement: Humanity Is 'Back to the Jungle'

Danny Hillis discusses the complexity of entanglement.

Here's a couple of questions for you to mull over in your journal: 1. Do you agree with Danny Hillis’ view that our relationship to entanglement is akin to being 'back to the jungle'? Why or why not? 2. How might we absorb new ideas into the system 'without breaking the system and without breaking ourselves'?

Another article that considers what insights we might gain from understanding entanglement is Is Networked Learning Postdigital Education? by de Laat and Dohn (2019). Read this article and then answer the following questions in your journal: 1. What are the four insights on digital learning that are identified in this article? 2. How does an understanding of networked learning shift your perceptions of how you should practice as an instructional designer?

Educational institutions’ selection of technology-based pedagogy is directly related to the pursuit of betterness. There is a growing body of evidence that the use of technology in learning is advantageous to students and teachers, both academically and in terms of accessibilty (Willis et al 2013). Deploying technology-based pedagogies provides a wealth of opportunities for developing relevant and meaningful learning contexts (Harmon 2018). Wills et al (2013) cite numerous studies which showed the efficacy of well-curated digital learning platforms and technology, including a study by Martin-Blas and Serrano-Fernandez (2009), who found that students who incorporated regular use of the digital platform provided academically outperformed students who did not.

Because technology serves both students’ and educational institutions’ betterness goals, educational institutions design their structured learning experiences around the use of technology-based pedagogies. This deliberate and purposeful use of technology leads to the interaction of human (students and teachers) and non-human (technology) actants, which is referred to as ‘entanglement’ (de Laat & Dohn 2019). In this context, entanglement facilitates the opportunity to pursue betterness goals to both students and educational institutions and institutions become ‘entanglement sites’, or places where entanglement occurs. 

Bonus concepts: Connectivism, Actor Network Theory and Technology-based pedagogy

Because this OER is primarily focused on the effect instructional designers can have on the digital wellbeing of the students for whom they design and the level of entanglement they build into their courses, it assumes a working knowledge of a variety of learning theories. Below are a few resources that you may be interested in pursuing in addition to this OER to broaden your understanding of the abovementioned theories. They are not intended to be an exhaustive look at each of these concepts, just a little something to whet your appetite and begin your process of inquiry. As such, the time you take to read and research these is not included in the estimation for the entire OER.

Entanglement in a little more detail

Here, we build on the definition of entanglement used in the introductory section of  this OER. It may be useful to return to it quickly to refresh your memory before you read on.

It's not just computers

It is tempting to view entanglement simply as the obvious interaction between people and their computing devices. For the instructional designer, the most readily identifiable technology with which students are entangled includes their personal computers, laptops and tablets. Some may consider gadgetry and wearable technology such as smart phones or Bluetooth headphones, and others may go further and include anything that connects to the internet.

Sheppard (2013:483) asserts that computing is "leav[ing] the desktop and spill[ing] into the world around us", which is in turn leading to technology becoming increasingly entangled with users' day-to-day lives. He argues that we have a tendency to focus on the interface, or the physical point at which humans and technology connect, as the primary point of entanglement, when in fact entanglement also occurs in far less obvious ways (Sheppard 2013). 

While most students for whom you design will be very aware of the internet and their interactions with it, they may be substantially less aware of their entanglement with the 'Internet of Things' (IoT). This term, coined by Kevin Ashton in 1999, refers to objects that generate data and that can be connected with other such objects through the internet (Ashton 2009), thus making them "readable, recognizable, locatable, addressable and controllable by computers" (Coulton, Lindley and Cooper 2018:5). These networked objects are potent entanglement sites because they not only bring people into contact with technology, they generate and communicate data about that contact, often without the user's awareness. Further, in the "digital-material environment in which we live" (Pink et al 2017:1), everyday experience with the IoT is captured as data and then used by various actors to customise our entangled interactions. This datification of human experience fuels 'smart' initiatives that further merge technology and environment. Technology-infused environments such as smart cities and schools are inherently programmable and increasingly adaptive, using data, algorithms and 'neurocomputational processes' to drive cognitive or brain-like computing (Williamson 2016:81). The more familiar users become with these deeper and less perceptible entanglements, the less novel they become and the more the users' awareness of them drops.  

This obscured entanglement is the hidden-in-plain-sight counterpart to obvious entanglement. Obscured entanglement is increasingly non-optional as our urban environments are augmented with sensors, surveillance systems, smart devices, electronic transactions, and other data-generating technologies that operate beyond our awareness (Sánchez-Corcuera et al 2019).

Controllable or not?

Having outlined that entanglement is far more complex than just the devices students use for study, research and recording, the logical question is 'why has this OER adopted an arguably narrow field of view regarding entanglement when it is clearly so much more?'

The answer is this: the OER purposely refers to technology in broad strokes because entanglement is so complex. While the adoption of cognitive computing is still cost-prohibitive for the vast majority of institutions, the primary points of entanglement that can be controlled or mandated in instructional design are those devices that the students use to access their structured learning experiences. Presently, they are still primarily desktop computers, laptop computers and mobile devices such as tablets and smart phones. Most other 'mundane' entanglement sites (Pink et al 2017:2-3) students engage with are not controllable by educational institutions or their instructional designers to any large extent.

Obscured entanglement is covered in this OER to raise the awareness of instructional designers who, in seeking to reduce the level of their students' obvious technology exposure, may set activities that switch one entanglement site for another. 

Activity 4: How entangled are we? (10mins)

Let’s return to the piece of courseware you were analysing in the previous section. You are going to look at the mandated level of entanglement for your two key stakeholders built into this structure learning activity.

  1. Take a page in your journal and divide it down the centre with a pale dotted line – we recommend using a light yellow or pink. In the centre of one side of the page, write ‘Students’ and on the other side of the page, write ‘Teachers’. Encapsulate your title in some sort of border like you did with the previous stakeholder mapping activity.

  2. Identify all of the activities that these stakeholders engage in over the course of the learning experience that will bring them into contact with digital technology. Write these activities in bubbles all around the half of the page dedicated to that stakeholder. For any activities that the students and teachers undertake that will bring them into direct contact with each other (synchronous or asynchronous), place the bubbles containing those activities along the dotted line at the centre of the page. For example, internet research will probably be undertaken by both stakeholders but will not bring them into direct contact, and should therefore appear on both sides of the page in separate bubbles. However, using an online discussion forum will be done by both parties and will bring them into direct contact with each other, so this should be placed along the dotted line in the middle of the page.

  3. Complete your entanglement diagram by running a line between the centre title and each of the bubbles that relate to it.

    Engagement questions: 1. What is your reaction to the complexity of your entanglement diagram? Is it more or less complicated than you expected? 2. How much does your current model of entanglement for this structured learning experience bring the human actants into contact with each other? 3. Would a change to this structure benefit either stakeholder? Why or why not?

What this diagram might look like when complete.
ExampleWhat this diagram might look like when complete.

of what this diagram might look like when complete.

Who decides on the level of entanglement?

This question is a little more complex than it appears. Determining who decides on the level of entanglement hinges on the concept of mandated entanglement.

It is indisputable that students decide on the level of engagement they devote to the structured learning experiences they consume. This means that to a certain extent, it is the student who decides how entangled they will actually experience. However, while the educational institution cannot compel a student to meet the requirements for successful completion of a structured learning experience, they do control the level of mandated entanglement. This means that it is the institution that decides how much digital technology the design of the course requires the students to use if they wish to meet a course's minimum success conditions.

As architects of entanglement-based structured learning experiences, Educational institutions bear some responsibility for all outcomes of this process, both positive and negative. Unfortunately, the current debate in technology-based pedagogy is primarily focused on the achievement of betterness for institutions and students and lacks substantive debate around whether the degree of entanglement designed into learning experiences has an impact on the wellness of the entangled student. There is little consideration of what constitutes ethical or safe practice in entangled learning design or how to educate students on digital wellness to assist them to navigate their entangled learning experiences safely. We will dive into these concepts more in Section 4.

Activity 5: How much entanglement is mandated and what effect might it have on students? (10mins)

This activity builds on Activity 3 in the previous section.

  1. Review the analysis of your chosen piece of courseware from Activity 3 and, on a fresh page in your journal, list the digital technologies and platforms you have identified that the students use as they work through the learning experience.

  2. Think about the weekly commitment you anticipate to each of these digital technologies. Quantify it in terms of time and multiply it out for the duration of the course.

    Finally, think about the following engagement question: 1. Was the amount of digital technological exposure to the student different than you thought it would be? Why or why not?

Too much tech (5mins)

The University of Edinbugh, with the goal of creating a vision for the future of digital education that was based on values, ran The Near Future Teaching project between 2017 and 2018. You can read about it here. One of the insights about technology that arose from this project was about the technology saturation students were experiencing. Here is a short video, published on the Near Future Teaching website, that was produced as part of the project:

Too Much Tech by Michelle Gallagher available at https://media.ed.ac.uk/media/1_yarp4yxl.CC-BY

An engagement question for you: What stood out to you most about this video? How does it influence your approach to designing, now and in the future with emerging technology?

Time for a break! Step away from the computer...


Ashton, K. (2009). That ‘Internet of Things’ Thing. The RFID Journal accessed at http://www.rfidjournal.com/articles/view?4986.

Coulton, P., Lindley, J., & Cooper, R. (2018). The Little Book of Design Fiction for the Internet of Things. Retrieved from https://www.petrashub.org/the-little-book-of-design-fiction-for-the-internet-of-things/

de Laat, M. and Dohn, N. B. (2019). Is Networked Learning Postdigital Education?. Postdigital Science and Education, 1(1), pp. 17–20. doi: 10.1007/s42438-019-00034-1

Harmon S.W. (2018) Technology, Society, and the Future. In: Persichitte K., Suparman A., Spector M. (eds) Educational Technology to Improve Quality and Access on a Global Scale. Educational Communications and Technology: Issues and Innovations. Springer, Cham

Martin-Blas, T. & Serrano-Fernandez, A. (2009) The Role of New Technologies in the Learning Process: Moodle as a Teaching Tool in Physics. Computers & Education, Vol. 52, pp. 35-44.

Sánchez-Corcuera, R., Nuñez-Marcos, A., Sesma-Solance, J., Bilbao-Jayo, A., Mulero, R., Zulaika, U., . . . Almeida, A. (2019). Smart cities survey: Technologies, application domains and challenges for the cities of the future. International Journal of Distributed Sensor Networks, 15(6), 1-36.

Shepard, M. (2013). Minor urbanism: Everyday entanglements of technology and urban life. Continuum, 27(4), 483-494.

Willis, C., Kestell, C., Grainger, S., & Missingham, D. (2013). Encouraging the adoption of education technology for improved student outcomes. Australasian Journal of Engineering Education, 19(2), 109+. Retrieved from https://link-gale-com.ezproxy.is.ed.ac.uk/apps/doc/A355310198/AONE?u=ed_itw&sid=AONE&xid=a6ed5ced

Williamson, B. (2017). Computing brains: Learning algorithms and neurocomputation in the smart city. Information, Communication & Society, 20(1), 81-99.

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