Graduate School, Issues in Instructional Design

Instructional Design and Our Bodies

When working or learning online, you can start to feel sort of disembodied, and to think of your colleagues, classmates, or students as sort of disembodied. But we’re not. We all have bodies, even when we feel disconnected from them. This beautiful blog post by dancer and educator, Jessica Zeller, got me thinking about how we as instructional designers acknowledge or neglect those bodies in our work.

I was drawn to Dr. Zeller’s blog due to my own background in dance. I began dancing a young child and, for a time, dreamed of becoming a professional dancer. By college, my interests had begun to change. I explored other possible career paths and dancing gave way to other physical pursuits. I eventually fell in love with capoeira, which I practiced until an injury forced me into a more sedentary lifestyle. Recently, I’ve become active again in hiking and backpacking.

Now, like many other people, I’ve been pushed by COVID-19 back into that more sedentary lifestyle. Closures and restrictions have made even relatively safe activities like hiking more difficult, and many other options for staying active nearly impossible. Even the movement of day-to-day activities like shopping and commuting has become limited and, as Dr. Zeller says, full of hesitation.

Throughout the decades I spent involved in intensive physical activities, I’ve experienced a number of injuries, from relatively minor bruises and pulled muscles to more severe broken bones and torn ligaments. None of those activities, however, was ever quite as hard on my body as sitting in front of a computer for several hours a day. Eye strain, neck pain, stiff joints, deteriorating posture. Every day that I sit at my desk, I become a little more uncomfortable in my own body.

The dangers of sitting are well documented, as is the advice about ergonomic work stations and taking walks. It’s good advice, but let’s face it, not everyone has the money or the space for an expensive office chair or a standing desk. When you live in a tiny apartment, that hourly walk to the kitchen quickly becomes boring and counterproductive. And I haven’t even touched on the mental and emotional pitfalls being so sedentary.

But what does all of this have to do with instructional design? In my opinion, a lot.

When I was a teacher, every lesson included at least one activity in which students were required to get up out of their chairs and move their bodies. This could be as simple as standing up and stretching at the beginning of class. That little bit of activity would inject energy into the lesson and get students focused and engaged.

In a face-to-face classroom, it’s relatively easy to find ways to incorporate a little bit of movement, but in an online classroom, it’s harder. Activities and interactions almost always require teachers and students to interface with a computer screen. Meanwhile, instructional designers sit down at our own computers to work on our next course.

These challenges are amplified, as Dr. Zeller points out in another gorgeous post, by systemic inequities that put some students at a disadvantage. We can’t assume that all students will have the bandwidth, privacy, or space to engage in physical activities that we assign in online classes. Inevitably, when we ask students to move away from their screens and back into their bodies and their spaces, inequities will be exposed.

So here’s my question: How do we, as instructional designers, create content that gives students the opportunity to move while they learn? How do we put learners, teachers, and ourselves back into our bodies?

Feature image by Sonia Sanmartin on Unsplash