Tools That Teach: Lessons for Critical Instructional Design

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In mediated teaching and learning, skeuomorphism helps educators map ritualized pedagogies into new learning contexts. Higher education learning designers are best equipped to lead the way in recognizing, leveraging, and resisting skeuomorphism when it perpetuates problematic rituals.

Tools That Teach: Lessons for Critical Instructional Design
Credit: kanok.pohnly / © 2021

Repeating a skill until it is mastered and becomes a ritual or habit is not entirely dependent on a person's willpower or determination. The design and interfaces of the tools people use can encourage ritual formation—both desired and undesired. Indeed, through their design, some tools can actively teach people how to use them or provide a sense of familiarity so that users are encouraged to try them.Footnote1 Using physical traits and cues in the design of a tool or object to give users a sense of familiarity is referred to as skeuomorphism (pronounced skew-oh-morph-ism). Skeuomorphism can be seen, for example, in mechanical pencils that are designed to resemble wood pencils. Many electric cars have a front grille so that they look like gasoline/diesel vehicles. These design features are not necessary for the object to function, but they give users clues about what the object does and how it works. The function of a wood-like mechanical pencil might seem obvious today but imagine when the mechanical pencil was introduced. Making it look wooden attempted to communicate what the user should expect: a pencil—not a pen or a marker or something else.

Skeuomorphism in Action

In the digital world, skeuomorphism was a key strategy in the design of the first wave of smartphones. Early iPhones were filled with skeuomorphic design touches: the notepad looked like a real legal pad, the calendar looked like a physical calendar, and the contacts app looked and functioned like a physical address book. The 2D screen attempted to mimic many things about the physical objects it was replacing. This was intentional. Apple designers wanted to use familiar objects to teach users how they were meant to treat this new tool.Footnote2 In 2013, after six years of using a heavily skeuomorphic interface, Apple changed the design of the iPhone to the much flatter, more modern (and now contemporary) user interface that we recognize today. Branding and consumerism aside, this design shift was also intentional. Apple had taught people how to use its iPhones and iPads, so the skeuomorphic callbacks to the physical world were no longer needed. Users know what a calendar app is, how contacts work on a smartphone, and how a digital photo album behaves.

The Apple interfaces from 2007–2013 are excellent examples of what applied skeuomorphic design looks like. During this same time period, many of the online teaching tools that users depend on today were also going through their adolescence. And while most learning management systems (LMS) do not actively employ skeuomorphism in their visual appearance, nearly every aspect of online teaching and learning includes ties to the physical world. Instructors can create assignments and quizzes in the LMS, the Moodle LMS allows instructors to organize materials into "books," and the name of the Blackboard LMS implies how instructors and students are supposed to interact with it at its most basic level. Many naming and design choices like these are meant to familiarize instructors and students with the functionality of the tools and to provide reference points for meaning.

When Rituals Are Useful and When They Are Not

A skeuomorphic approach to new designs has a few unintended consequences. First, while providing a familiar reference point is helpful for teaching people where to start, it can result in overreliance on the rituals that people create when they are learning. Rituals can help people ease into a new paradigm, but they can also hold people back. For example, while a notepad on an iPhone mostly corresponds to the form and function of a real-world notepad, this analogy starts to break down with more complex concepts such as assignments in an LMS. On a very basic level, turning in an LMS assignment is akin to placing a finished essay on an instructor's desk at the end of class: the LMS serves as a location for students to submit their work. This comparison works when thinking about how an essay assignment would be submitted in person, but is an assignment really an assignment if the material being collected is audio, video, or collaborative works that have only ever existed digitally? In addition, other online teaching processes try to mimic the real world too closely. Consider, for example, the process for collecting an assignment from a student, giving feedback to the student, returning the assignment, and providing another opportunity for the student to resubmit the assignment with revisions. Conducting this process online is generally more complicated in most LMS environments than it would be in person. Instead of simply handing back a physical document with some comments, educators have created a system where everyone involved needs to manage sharing permissions, gradebook settings, and other aspects that are consequences of applying physical analogies to digital environments. This can result in instructors adhering to strict rituals if they do not genuinely understand why the process is set up a certain way, and any small change in the operational steps (such as an update to the LMS that moves options around) can break the ritual.

Breaking the Limits of the Design

The second unintended consequence of applying physical structures to digital spaces can occur when the digital tool is limited in some way by the constraints of what is technologically possible at the time of its creation. These limitations can persist across iterations of the technology long after the original limitations have been overcome. An example of this can be seen in the structure of telephone numbers in the United States. In their original form, telephone numbers were tied to physical locations (rather than to people). So, for example, instead of dialing a number, a person would pick up a telephone handset and immediately tell a switchboard operator what number they wanted to reach. Eventually, dialing was introduced and, as demand for phone numbers grew, the numbers were lengthened—from between three and five digits long to seven digits, and then, with the addition of area codes, to ten digits. Today, telephone operators are no longer needed to physically connect calls: a smartphone can be used to reach any number in the world, and the call is relayed digitally across what is more analogous to a computer network.Footnote3

Today, the same phone number structure is being used even though it is no longer explicitly necessary. A shorter alphanumeric code could more easily identify another person and would provide many more combinations to work with. The phone number structure made sense at the time of its creation, but phone numbers were bound by the limitations of the technology at the time. While these limitations no longer apply, the rituals that have formed around this way of organizing communication dictates its continued use, and for most people, the ritual is not inconvenient enough to justify changing it.

When to Leverage Skeuomorphism and When to Resist It

Similarly, the technological limitations that were present when online learning was introduced have continued to influence online learning practices today. One of the most common examples of this is the lecture style of instruction. Lectures have existed for much longer than modern audio-visual aids or interactive materials have. Early incarnations of the LMS would not have allowed for much more than passive interaction with the materials (such as early message boards), and certainly, the high-speed broadband connection needed to facilitate other activities was not as widely available as it is now. These technological limitations were reasonable barriers at the time; however, the online learning landscape is not nearly as limited today. Yet many instructional designers and educational developers continue to see faculty sticking to the model of replicating passive lectures online.

Research examining the barriers that educators face when learning how to teach online reveals that ritualized pedagogies were a type of troublesome knowledge that interfered with changes in practice.Footnote4 For a forthcoming research article, learning designers, academic technologists, and educational developers submitted case examples of ritual knowledge that were present in their work with faculty learners, including ways that some faculty clung to practices that had become routine, such as utilizing discussion boards but not crafting effective prompts for generative discussions or uploading PowerPoint presentation files and lecture notes to the LMS rather than reimagining learner interaction with content in an online learning context.Footnote5 These rituals are everywhere, and while they are problematic, they are also enabled by skeuomorphic elements in the virtual learning environment.

Zoom's videoconferencing platform is an example of this dilemma. This technology (and others like it) allowed learners and educators to transfer the physical classroom into a virtual space so that those who were not experienced with or adequately prepared for asynchronous online teaching and learning could maintain some academic continuity during the coronavirus pandemic. Videoconferencing quickly became an integral part of pandemic life. In fact, it became as essential for digital life as email or office productivity software. While Zoom existed before the pandemic, its surge in popularity resulted in the rapid addition of new features and adjustments (such as basic security measures to prevent Zoom-bombing). More recently, however, Zoom updated its interface to include an immersive view, where meeting participants appear on the screen situated in a common physical location. It included "classroom" and "lecture hall" options that positioned students in obedient rows, with a front-of-the-room and a back-of-the-room, and allowed all participants to view the configuration from the instructor's perspective.

Figure 1. Screenshots of Zoom immersive view classroom (left) and auditorium (right) learning spaces (May 2021). Images courtesy of Lorna Gonzalez.
Left image has bright blue chairs and colorful walls. Right image has gray chairs and wood walls.

While the novelty of this update garnered some initial enthusiasm, the learning-design community lamented this unnecessary skeuomorphic design feature because it failed to imagine that learning could be more than horizontal rows of filed and sorted student faces or a teacher-centered experience—arguments that have already been made by other experts in the field.Footnote6

There are lessons that can be gleaned from an awareness of skeuomorphism in new teaching and learning contexts. While skeuomorphism enables certain types of behavioral changes by allowing those who are experiencing the changes to cling to some semblance of familiarity or ritual, it also prevents deeper, more fundamental intellectual advances that may be necessary to prevent and repair harm, as well as to truly and radically innovate for equitable, learner-ready experiences.Footnote7 At minimum, teaching and learning professionals should have an awareness of—and at best be critical and active about—recognizing and resisting skeuomorphic elements that shepherd them into a particular, ritualized way of teaching and learning that is not based on what they know about how people learn. The good news is that this is what learning and instructional designers do: "[they] understand digital space. They understand learning. They understand teaching. And they understand technology."Footnote8 They are capable of recognizing skeuomorphism and leveraging it when it helps to facilitate faculty development for mediated teaching and learning. But they are also well equipped to push back on skeuomorphism through the lens of critical instructional design when those elements function to perpetuate pedagogical rituals that no longer serve students.Footnote9

The following four simple recommendations can help to safeguard against troublesome ritualized pedagogical practices:

  1. Educators: Be aware of the routines that advance your teaching philosophy and those that impede your development. Beware of the way unexamined rituals can be leveraged by those with power to steer you away from or toward your values.
  2. Learning Designers, Technologists, and Educational Developers: Engage in critical instructional design and understand that there is no values-free technology.Footnote10
  3. Higher Education Institutions: Leverage your instructional design assets to achieve your institutional mission by understanding their value and purpose.Footnote11
  4. Academic Technology Companies: Build stakeholder feedback into your roadmap so that it reflects the needs (and not just the familiar rituals) of the users as well as the valuable expertise of those who are experts in teaching and learning.Footnote12

Educators are tasked with balancing many demands on their time. It is natural, therefore, to develop routines or heuristics to navigate these demands, especially when they may be in an area that is not the educator's primary expertise. Sometimes the tools purposefully cue educators to act or think a certain way through their design. By working as a team, educators, learning designers, institutional leaders, and academic technology providers can critically evaluate the routines that are used in the classroom to ensure that they align with the intended mission and values of the institution and alter tools to encourage equitable, socially just, and effective teaching. Each of these stakeholders brings unique and important contributions to the team. Learning designers, technologists, and educational developers should consider how their strengths are particularly well suited to identifying helpful and harmful routines and then act accordingly in the best interest of students.


  1. Donald A. Norman, The Design of Everyday Things (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013). Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. Abbas Vajihi, "Why Apple Products Feel So Intuitive," Mac O'Clock, Medium (website), July 15, 2020. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
  3. For an interesting description on the development of area codes, listen to Adrianne Jeffries, "A Conspiracy Theory About Area Codes," March 9, 2021, in Under Understood (podcast), MP3 audio, 41:40. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
  4. David Perkins, "The Many Faces of Constructivism," Educational Leadership 57, no. 3 (November 1999): 6–11. Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.
  5. Lorna Gonzalez and Christopher S. Ozuna, "Troublesome Knowledge: Identifying Barriers to Innovate for Breakthroughs in Learning to Teach Online," Online Learning Journal 25 (forthcoming). Jump back to footnote 5 in the text.
  6. Ajaay Srinivasan, "Best Immersive View Scenes for Zoom [Download]," Nerds Chalk (blog), April 27, 2021; Lucy Biederman, "Goodbye, Zoom Fatigue," Inside Higher Ed, March 31, 2021. Jump back to footnote 6 in the text.
  7. Amy Collier, "Inclusive Design and Design Justice: Strategies to Shape Our Classes and Communities," EDUCAUSE Review 55, no 4 (October 2020): 12–23. Jump back to footnote 7 in the text.
  8. Sean Michael Morris, "Instructional Designers Are Teachers," Hybrid Pedagogy, April 12, 2018. Jump back to footnote 8 in the text.
  9. Jessie Stommel and Martha Burtis, "Counter-friction to Stop the Machine: The Endgame for Instructional Design," Hybrid Pedagogy, April 27, 2021. Jump back to footnote 9 in the text.
  10. Ibid. Jump back to footnote 10 in the text.
  11. Joshua Kim, "As Many Instructional Designers as Librarians," Inside Higher Ed, March 25, 2019. Jump back to footnote 11 in the text.
  12. Jaime Hannans, "Reduce Performance Anxiety for Nursing Students While Improving the Feedback Iteration," PlayPostit: Interactive Video (blog), February 3, 2020. Jump back to footnote 12 in the text.

Christopher S. Ozuna has previously worked as an instructional designer and is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Lorna Gonzalez is the Interim Assistant Director of Innovation and Faculty Development and a Lecturer at California State University Channel Islands.

© 2021 Christopher S. Ozuna and Lorna Gonzalez. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY 4.0 International License.