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“I Can Do Things Because I Feel Valuable”: Authentic Project Experiences and How They Matter to Instructional Design Students

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Abstract

This paper examines how authentic project experiences matter to instructional design students. We explored this through a single case study of an instructional design student (referred to as Abby) who participated as a member of an educational simulation design team at a university in the western United States. Our data consisted of interviews with Abby that we analyzed to understand how she depicted her participation in this authentic project. In general, Abby found her project involvement to open up both possibilities and constraints. Early in her involvement, when she encountered limitations she did not expect, those constraints showed up as most significant and she saw the project as a place of disenfranchisement that highlighted her inadequacies. Later, in conjunction with changes in the project structure and help from a supportive mentor, she reoriented to the possibilities her participation made available, all of which disrupted the cycle of disenfranchisement in which she seemed to be caught. Abby saw more clearly opportunities that had previously been obscured, and she became one of the project’s valued leaders. We conclude by discussing implications of these findings for understanding how authentic project experiences can fit into instructional design education.
The Journal of Applied Instructional Design, 10(2) 1
“I Can Do Things Because I Feel Valuable”: Authentic
Project Experiences and How They Matter to
Instructional Design Students
Jason K. McDonald & Amy Rogers
This paper examines how authentic project experiences matter to instructional design students. We explored this
through a single case study of an instructional design student (referred to as Abby) who participated as a member
of an educational simulation design team at a university in the western United States. Our data consisted of
interviews with Abby that we analyzed to understand how she depicted her participation in this authentic project.
In general, Abby found her project involvement to open up both possibilities and constraints. Early in her
involvement, when she encountered limitations she did not expect, those constraints showed up as most
significant and she saw the project as a place of disenfranchisement that highlighted her inadequacies. Later, in
conjunction with changes in the project structure and help from a supportive mentor, she reoriented to the
possibilities her participation made available, all of which disrupted the cycle of disenfranchisement in which she
seemed to be caught. Abby saw more clearly opportunities that had previously been obscured, and she became
one of the project’s valued leaders. We conclude by discussing implications of these findings for understanding
how authentic project experiences can fit into instructional design education.
Introduction
Our purpose in this paper is to explore authentic project
experiences in instructional design education. As Lowell
and Moore (2020) summarized, such experiences are
meant to help students “hit the ground running” (p. 581),
preparing them for the rigors of professional practice
upon completion of their academic training. Prior
research has pointed towards a number of benefits they
can have to accomplish this purpose. Studies indicate
authentic projects help bridge the gap between classroom
and workplace as they provide natural interactions
between students and professional colleagues (Kramer-
Simpson et al., 2015), expose students to the constraints
and challenges of work settings (Herrington et al., 2003),
and present opportunities to practice design in potentially
demanding circumstances (Miller & Grooms, 2018).
Our interest in authentic project experiences centers on
how they matter to instructional design students as part
of their education. But whereas prior studies—both within
instructional design and in other fields—have researched
student perspectives to develop insights into what they
think about authentic projects (Dabbagh & Williams Blijd,
2010; Hynie et al., 2011; Miller & Grooms, 2018; Vo et
al., 2018), our concern was somewhat different. We
studied the issue from a practice-oriented point-of-view
(Nicolini, 2012), attending to different modes of
engagement that are opened up to students through
authentic project participation, including how students fit
into project environments and what can be learned about
how projects matter by depicting this fit qualitatively. To
explore this in richness and depth, we carried out a single
case study of a student involved in an authentic project at
the culmination of her Master’s program in instructional
design. Our inquiry focused on three questions: How did
the student’s authentic project participation matter to
her? How did her project involvement fit into her
education? And what can be learned about student
involvement in authentic instructional design projects by
studying this fit?
Literature Review
The expectations that clients, team members, and other
stakeholders have about what instructional designers do
can lead to challenges for novices in the field.
Instructional design is a complex profession, requiring
designers to cope with uncertainty (Ertmer et al., 2008),
make frequent judgments (Gray et al., 2015), and adapt
formal models or theories into practical action, with little
time for reflection (Ertmer et al., 2009; Yanchar et al.,
The Journal of Applied Instructional Design, 10(2) 2
2010). All of these can be difficult for new practitioners to
manage, leading to work-related stress (Fortney &
Yamagata-Lynch, 2013), and requiring employers to
invest in on-the-job assistance (Stefaniak, 2017). The role
of an instructional designer can also be very ambiguous,
leading to additional stress if designers’ expectations of
their role are misaligned with those with whom they work
(Drysdale, 2019; Radhakrishnan, 2018). In addition,
instructional designers are often expected to be proficient
in a wide range of skills that go beyond the actual design
of instruction, including project management, building
professional relationships, responding to shifting
priorities, and promoting or defending their role to
colleagues (Schwier & Wilson, 2010).
These needs have led to calls for more authentic
experiences to be integrated into instructional design
education, as a means for preparing students for the
rigors of professional practice (Bannan-Ritland, 2001;
Larson & Lockee, 2009; Lowell & Moore, 2020). Long a
part of learning in many fields, authentic project
experiences can vary in scope, ranging from class
assignments based on true-to-life scenarios (Herrington
et al., 2003), to working on client projects as part of
coursework (Lowell & Moore, 2020), to internships where
students work for an extended period of time and with at
least some degree of autonomy (Johari & Bradshaw,
2008). They can be primarily teacher-directed, student-
directed, or exhibit a mix of oversight methods (Aadland
& Aaboen, 2020).
Regardless of scale or the name by which they go,
however, authentic project experiences share at least
some commitment to a learn-by-doing philosophy, as
described in theories of experiential learning (Kolb,
1984). Their benefit is often framed in the opportunities
they give students to practice design in real
circumstances (Miller & Grooms, 2018), or at least
circumstances that closely model real situations
(Herrington et al., 2003). They allow students to
collaborate with clients and disciplinary specialists
(Kramer-Simpson et al., 2015; Lei & Yin, 2019), often
exposing them to constraints they might face in on-the-job
settings (Herrington et al., 2003). Projects can help
students develop specific skills they will need upon
entering the workforce, such as leadership and
communication (Hynie et al., 2011). In many ways, the
value of authentic experiences is the balance they provide
between offering students a “dose of reality” about
professional practice (Hartt & Rossett, 2000, p. 41), while
at the same time being a reasonably safe environment
where they can reflect on, and learn from, failures they
might experience (Kramer-Simpson et al., 2015).
Research indicates there can be challenges with
authentic project experiences, however. Especially in
their more unstructured forms they likely require
effective mentorship on the part of instructors or other
experts to help students translate the experience into
productive growth (Heinrich & Green, 2020; Johari &
Bradshaw, 2008). Also, if the project is significantly
beyond students’ skills, they might not provide a
sufficient return on investment to the person or
organization providing the experience (Hartt & Rossett,
2000). The value of authentic projects can also be limited
if students are not willing to fully immerse themselves in
the learning task, especially those that might be
structured around more simulated scenarios (Herrington
et al., 2003). And students might have expectations about
the experience that are unmet—such as the nature of the
work they will be doing, their role on the team, or how
effective the experience will be—leading to frustration or
disillusionment (Dabbagh & Williams Blijd, 2010).
To address these possible shortcomings, scholars have
studied authentic project experiences in instructional
design education from a variety of perspectives. Some
research has been more conceptual, such as Bannan-
Ritland’s (2001) review of what she called the principles
of “action learning” (p. 37), which she illustrated by
describing examples of how authentic project experiences
can align with those principles. This type of research also
includes Miller and Groom’s (2018) articulation of a
framework for integrating authentic projects into
instructional design curricula. Other researchers have
focused on the varying perceptions of those participating
in authentic projects. Dabbagh and Williams Blijd (2010)
found that students generally viewed authentic projects
as a positive contribution towards their education, in
spite of moments of “anxiety and confusion” that often
accompanied their immersion in the project environment
(p. 6). From another angle, Hartt and Rossett (2000)
focused on the perspective of those providing authentic
project experiences. They studied to what extent
students’ work provided a return on their organizational
investment, and found that in many cases students
provided meaningful value and the overall experience was
positive for the organization. Finally, other researchers
have focused on guidelines for designing particular types
of authentic projects, such as Stefaniak’s (2015) focus on
service-learning experiences, Johari and Bradshaw’s
(2008) study of project-based learning in internship
programs, and Lowell and Moore’s (2020) exploration of
authentic projects in online environments.
Our study aims to contribute towards this body of
literature, focusing on authentic project experiences as a
rich phenomenon that can reveal unique insights when
examined from the perspective of the “concernful
involvement” of students participating in projects
(Yanchar, 2015, p. 110). We did not solely focus on what
authentic projects accomplish from an external point-of-
view, such as the educational outcomes instructors might
want them to provide. Nor did we focus only on the
The Journal of Applied Instructional Design, 10(2) 3
subjective perspectives that students might have about
authentic projects. Instead, we studied how students
were involved in, and engaged with, project work from a
practice-oriented perspective (Nicolini, 2012), to more
fully understand how authentic projects matter to
students as seen through their responses to project
experiences. This can generate knowledge about the
nature of student involvement in authentic projects as
well as how authentic projects fit into instructional design
education more generally (Yanchar & Slife, 2017).
Method
To address our research questions we chose a case study
methodology. Our case is that of an instructional design
student involved with a team-based project, designing
simulations to teach cybersecurity at both the high school
and college level. Throughout our report we will refer to
her as Abby. We chose a case study because it would
allow us to explore Abby’s practical involvement with this
authentic project in detail, providing insight into her
participation by taking the world seriously as she
experienced it (Packer, 2018). Our purpose was not to
test a hypothesis about authentic projects, nor to
generate universal laws or principles about how they fit
into instructional design education. We also did not
attempt to evaluate the effectiveness of the team with
which Abby participated. Rather, we aimed to understand
authentic projects in a new, and perhaps unfamiliar way,
as we became attuned to the details of Abby’s experience
over the course of about a year. We were also interested
in the discriminations she made in response to project-
related events, including her affective responses to both
positive and negative situations. This type of research
allows readers to become “affectively reoriented to the
world,” meaning “that we think differently about the
world, . . . that we feel it differently, [and] see it
differently” (Wrathall, 2011, p. 170). Throughout our
research we assumed a view of people and their practical
involvement as found in the writings of Dreyfus (1991),
Packer (2018), and Yanchar and Slife (2017), based in the
philosophy of thinkers such as Heidegger (1962) and
Merleau-Ponty (1964). In this perspective, “humans are
fully embodied, engaged agents . . . situated in a lived
world of significance,” which allows for theorizing into
human activity that does not “invoke a more fundamental
reality of causal forces assumed to control . . . human
participation” (Yanchar & Slife, 2017, pp. 147–148).
The context of Abby’s involvement with this instructional
design team was grounded in her pursuit of a Master’s
degree in instructional design from an R2 university in
the western United States. This university enrolled about
34,000 students (31,000 undergraduates and 3,000
graduate students), and employed over 1,000 full-time,
tenure-track faculty. The team included members from all
of these groups – professors (including this paper’s first
author), undergraduate, and graduate students, from the
fields of instructional design, information technology, and
creative writing. The professors were supported by grants
they had received to study simulations in cybersecurity
education, including a large NSF grant. All of the
students were part-time employees. Abby, who had been
a member of the team for about 12 months, was involved
for at least three additional reasons: the project fulfilled
an internship requirement for her Master’s degree in
instructional design; she was using the project as the site
of her thesis research; and the project gave her
opportunities to complete various assignments for classes
in which she was enrolled. According to Aadland and
Aaboen’s (2020) taxonomy, Abby’s involvement would be
characterized as student-directed. She was primarily
responsible for ensuring her participation met her
educational goals, and her work was not specifically
designed to serve her needs. While Abby did receive
oversight from professors associated with the project they
did so in their capacity as project supervisors and not as
her teachers.
Our data were drawn from our multi-year, in-depth study
of the team with which Abby was involved. Our full
corpus of data consisted of interviews with team
members, transcripts of team meetings, field notes
generated by researchers, and artifacts the team
produced during the course of their work. From this data
we segmented out observations and interviews in which
Abby participated over the course of approximately one
year, along with related field notes produced by the
researchers during the same period. The researchers
observed Abby in team meetings held every 1 – 2 weeks,
and the first author conducted discussions with her every
2 – 3 weeks. Some conversations lasted a few minutes
while others were an hour or more. The specific quotes
we use in our report to illustrate Abby’s involvement with
the project were drawn from two formal interviews the
first author conducted with her towards the end of the
study, each lasting approximately 45 minutes. These
interviews were audio recorded, then transcribed for
analysis.
Our analysis method was drawn from Packer (2018).
Packer’s approach relies on careful analysis of the words
and other linguistic conventions research participants use
to relate their experiences. The goal is not to summarize
people’s experiences into a set of codes or otherwise
abstract expressions that can be generalized across
situations. In contrast, his method is meant to generate
an empirically based interpretation of the local, practical
work in which people engage to account for themselves
and their situation. The results of such an analysis are
typically ethnographic in character, although they are not
full ethnographies since they are centered around
participants’ self-reports rather than including
observations or artifact analysis. There are reports that
The Journal of Applied Instructional Design, 10(2) 4
Packer called, “a way of seeing the world that follows
from [interview participants’] way of being in the world”
(p. 472). Further, it is often the case that the usefulness
of these studies is at least partially found in their
uniqueness. Rather than being valuable because they are
universal, such research is meant to provide a distinctive
vantage point from which to view a phenomenon—a view
that can reveal fresh insights about common things.
To achieve this outcome we conducted a hermeneutic
analysis based on close readings of our data. This analysis
centered around the effects Abby’s interviews had on our
understanding of her project experience (Packer, 2018).
We started by articulating our initial understanding of
each transcript (done individually by each author and
then in discussion together). We then engaged in the
following steps recommended by Packer, focusing not on
any inherent meaning in the words of the transcript but
attempting to articulate the effects they had on our
understanding. In each transcript we identified: (a) the
context of the interview – its background, purpose, and
facts it contained about Abby or her participation in the
project; (b) gaps in Abby’s report, where she seemed to
be making assumptions or taking for granted certain
conclusions; (c) the tropes and structures through which
Abby communicated details of her situation as well as her
affective responses to her circumstances; (d) the
chronology of Abby’s experience—especially breakdowns
in her experience—and how she talked about herself as
an agent in these events; and (e) any explicit knowledge
Abby identified as important to understand her story. At
each stage we recorded evidence that supported our
interpretation of Abby’s claims, any disconfirming
evidence or examples, the effects our readings were
having on our understanding, and additional questions
raised by that phase of analysis. Through hermeneutic
comparison of each of these parts with the whole
transcripts, as well as the whole with the individual parts
(Fleming et al., 2003), we crafted an account that
provided “a new way of seeing” (Packer, 2018, p. 149) the
research issues of our study, while remaining true to the
details of Abby’s experience.
While this method allowed for a detailed examination of
Abby’s mode of engaging with the project—including her
own complicity in creating that mode of engagement
(Packer, 2018)—we acknowledge that it does come with
some limitations. Abby’s reports undoubtedly reflected
her own biases, and the project itself also afforded
certain ways of participating better than others. So we
recognize that other instructional design students may
see and experience their authentic project experiences
differently than did Abby, as well as respond to events in
a different manner than she did. So our findings do not
generalize to every situation educators might encounter.
Nevertheless, there is still value in understanding the
experiences of one student to the depth we provide here.
Even single cases can uncover new possibilities or reveal
uncommon or unfamiliar aspects of the world –
possibilities and aspects that might remain hidden when
using research methods that summarize the detail of
large numbers of students (Stake, 1995). They can also
suggest certain things that must be taken into account if
one were to develop broader, more generalizable theories
or frameworks, recognizing that if events happen even in
one case they are legitimately part of the world,
regardless of their frequency (Flyvbjerg, 2001). It is these
types of findings that we aimed to generate through our
study.
Findings
As Abby described her involvement with the simulation
project, she depicted it as a place of both possibility and
constraint. As she initially explored the project space she
encountered considerable freedom, and she believed
these opportunities would allow her to meaningfully
contribute towards ensuring the simulations would
achieve their intended outcomes. But then Abby
encountered limitations to her participation that she did
not expect. The significance of these constraints started
to eclipse the opportunities she had seen, and the project
started to show up to her as a place of
disenfranchisement that highlighted her inadequacies.
Later, in conjunction with changes in the project
structure and help from a supportive mentor, Abby
reoriented to the possibilities available and disrupted the
cycle of disenfranchisement in which she seemed to be
caught. She saw more clearly opportunities that had
previously been obscured, and she became one of the
project’s valued leaders. These stages are summarized in
Table 1, and are further developed in the sections that
follow.
Table 1
Summary of Abby’s Involvement in an Authentic Project
Experience
Abby’s involvement How Abby’s involvement was
significant
Abby encountered initial freedom,
with few firm expectations and
many opportunities to pursue
what she thought was important.
Abby believed she developed a
unique point-of-view on the project
that would help her make a
meaningful contribution.
Abby encountered limitations; she
did not have the skills to
implement her ideas for
improving the simulations, and
teammates often told her that her
suggestions were not the team’s
priorities.
Abby felt like she had been boxed in
and disenfranchised. She felt
inadequate and started to pull away
from full participation.
Abby received help from a
supportive mentor, and was given
new opportunities to lead out in
aspects of the project’s
development.
Abby reoriented towards the
possibilities the project offered her;
as she reengaged she became one of
the project’s valued leaders, seeing
even more ways she could be
meaningfully involved.
The Journal of Applied Instructional Design, 10(2) 5
Abby’s Initial Involvement – Few Firm
Expectations and a Unique Point-of-View
Abby’s initial engagement with the team looked as if it
would serve mutually beneficial purposes. From Abby’s
point of view, joining the project gave her an opportunity
to pursue a research interest that would ultimately
become her thesis – how to better attract high school
girls to STEM careers. On the team’s part, they wanted
Abby to oversee what she called the simulations’
“education-oriented” components. Her first assignment
was to develop learning outcomes for each simulation.
Abby was also tasked to develop teacher support
materials to accompany the simulations; while students
were meant to complete each one on their own (as a unit
within a larger class on cybersecurity-related topics), the
team wanted to provide teachers with enough support to
feel confident they could answer any student questions
that might arise. And finally, because Abby had some
training in instructional video production, the team
anticipated that she would oversee the production staff
who would develop each simulation’s video elements
(however, this was not scheduled to begin until a few
months after Abby was hired, and so it did not influence
her initial participation).
As Abby’s involvement with the project deepened, she
became aware that the nature of her work differed from
other students. While others were required to provide
tangible evidence of their progress on a regular basis,
Abby’s responsibilities did not come with the same
amount of oversight. She generally followed her own
schedule, and was rarely asked to report the status of her
work in the same way as others. If something was not
completed on time (such as the learning outcomes for a
simulation phase), the rest of the team was told to move
ahead, adjusting their work when Abby was finished.
Relatedly, Abby also noticed that her deliverables differed
from those of other students. Their work products were
almost exclusively concrete – written narrative elements,
files for UX elements, or code to run the simulation. Abby,
in contrast, while producing a few tangible artifacts (e.g.,
worksheets for teachers), found most of her work to be
conceptual, such as writing learning outcomes that might
influence the form the narrative or user interface took,
but that did not show up in the simulations directly.
Together, these conditions created an environment where
Abby initially felt free to pursue whatever work she
thought best. She said that she felt “less tethered to one
particular expertise,” and although she was assigned
certain tasks she did not feel bound to any certain
process for completing them, nor did she limit her
involvement to only those areas to which she was formally
assigned. For example, she took it upon herself to
complete one of the simulations on her own, from start to
finish without the answer key – something no one else on
the team had done. She told us this was because “I’m
more responsible for what the student experience is like,”
and “I feel like it's my job to make sure that the students
have the scaffolding that they need, that they’re
accomplishing the tasks, [and] that the tasks are
meaningful,” even though no one told her so explicitly.
Additionally, Abby assumed responsibility for evaluating
the simulations’ usability. She told us that watching
students actually using them helped her generate insights
for improving the team’s work. From her observations,
Abby “could tell… if they thought [a simulation] was
strange, or it rubbed them the wrong way.” She also
observed what she called students’ “emotional reactions”
to their experience, “if [this student] liked it or [another]
didn’t,” that further informed her view of the
project. Helping professors with their research into the
simulations helped her develop additional ideas for
improving them, as well.
Abby told us she initially believed that because these
assigned and assumed responsibilities were unique
compared to what her teammates were doing, she
developed a “different perspective,” regarding how to
design the simulations so they would achieve their
intended outcomes. She saw a “vision” of the project that
was not “necessarily easy for everyone to see.” She told
us that, “because I’ve been involved in the research . . .
and, like, going through it in classes, and trying to really
understand the students’ experience, I think I’m more
connected with that aspect.” She identified this as a
distinct opportunity she had to contribute to the project
team, “conveying that vision,” as she called it, and
sharing her unique outlook with others – one that they
were not in a position to see on their own.
Abby Encounters Limitations to Her
Involvement
As Abby became more involved with the team, however,
she told us that her working environment began to show
up as more and more limiting, and that the project
started to feel like a place of constraint. She slipped into
a pattern of yielding to others to shape the simulations’
direction, and eventually saw fewer opportunities to act
on her own. As we undertake to describe this, we
recognize the potential irony – one might think the
environment Abby initially described, where she was
largely able to decide when and how she would engage,
and where she was bringing unique insights back to the
team, would be a space of accomplishment. But in
actuality she began to depict her participation as
characterized by constraints and limits. As we will show
later, Abby was eventually able to reorient and reengage
with the project in a more freeing manner, but at least for
a time nearly the opposite occurred, and she talked about
herself as if she had been boxed in by obstacles that had
been placed around her.
The Journal of Applied Instructional Design, 10(2) 6
Yet this was not merely her private interpretation of the
situation that she was able to overcome only by adopting
a better attitude towards what seemed to be constraining
forces. Rather, the project itself had real features that
afforded themselves towards courses of action that were
more limiting than freeing. As Abby pursued these she
did so as if she were taking a path of least resistance – a
path that, although it was the easiest, was nevertheless
one that she moved into (although she avoided admitting
that to herself at the time). Correspondingly, when we
later describe the positive changes in Abby’s
participation, we will show that while it was true that it
did include a change in how she approached her
circumstances, it also reflected a change in the project
structure so that it afforded itself towards more liberating
possibilities on Abby’s part. So we are careful not to
portray Abby as either choosing on her own to see the
project as a confined space, or as being forced into a
constrained role by deterministic, environmental forces
outside of her control. Abby’s interviews invited us to see
how the way she fit within the project’s structure made it
easy for limitations to show up as relevant, while at the
same time recognizing that the concrete ways those
limitations mattered to her, and how she chose to cope
with them, were equally important in defining her
experience.
Being boxed in
Abby told us about two, interrelated factors that together
showed the project as a space where she was boxed in,
with limited options to meaningfully participate. First, as
noted earlier, there was a contrast between the nature of
Abby’s work and that of her teammates. Abby told us that
others offered what she called “tangible” contributions
towards the simulation’s final form – the form students
would actually experience. This included the simulations’
code, the graphic design that gave them visual
representation, and the creative writing that brought
each simulation’s story to life. Abby, on the other hand,
defined her contribution as, “helping people do what they
need to do.” She seemed to draw a distinction between
the work others did—creating the concrete and visible
building blocks that one could point to in the final
simulation—and the work she did, which was conceptual,
in the background, and useful to the extent that it helped
the rest of the team do their jobs better.
While in the abstract Abby talked about such
contributions as having “value,” actual examples she
shared reflected a more conflicted tone, because most of
her ideas required someone else to actually give them a
perceptible form. For instance, she told us that she
accepted responsibility for whether students were
successful in learning from the simulations, “if people are
experiencing [poor learning outcomes], then I would
maybe feel, like, maybe that’s on me.” But she also said
she had not created anything that students would
encounter directly to help them achieve those outcomes,
nor did she have the ability to do so. “People aren’t going
to be, like, ‘oh, Abby built this or did this.’ . . . I’m not
doing anything right now that’s going to be a tangible
thing.” The nature of Abby’s involvement meant that
without help from her colleagues, what she designed
would not be used by students. And it seemed this began
to overshadow the importance of any concrete materials
she was producing, such as her teacher support
materials. After initially describing that she was working
on them, and while we know from our observations that
she completed the assignment, she did not bring them up
again and did not mention deriving any satisfaction or
sense of significance from their completion.
Alone this may not have meant much to Abby, other than
occasional hints she offered about how she would have
enjoyed the recognition that accompanied the
simulation’s concrete development. But Abby also found
that her teammates could be reluctant to accept or
implement any suggestions she provided. Through her
research, usability testing, and personal experience
completing them, she generated a number of ideas for
how the simulations could be improved. And at least for a
time she would bring her ideas back to the rest of the
team. But often their response was her suggestions were
either too difficult or were not their current priority:
I’m, like, “hey, I really think we should change this.” And
I feel, like, sometimes people are, like, “that’s kind of
hard and we don’t necessarily want to do it.” So then that
value doesn’t necessarily come to fruition.
Abby offered multiple examples. A particularly illustrative
one concerned the team’s focus on building women’s self-
efficacy to pursue a cybersecurity career:
I really feel like putting students’ names in
[the simulation] would be really helpful.
We’ve used Junior because that’s just an
easy way to program it. And that rubbed
me the wrong way when I got on,
especially thinking if we’re trying to
target girls. Like, so, here’s me putting my
researcher hat on. I know we want to help
girls feel more, like, identify with this
better. And I’m thinking, no girl has ever
been called Junior as a nickname. . . I
tried it out with my sister, and my sister’s,
like, “Junior, what, is that me?” So, I can
hear this from the students. I’m thinking
from my research mind, “this is not good.”
I talked to [the lead professor], he’s, like,
“oh, yeah, students identify better if their
name is there.” Then when I take that to
the team, they’re, like, “oh, that’s going to
The Journal of Applied Instructional Design, 10(2) 7
be a lot of work.” So, how much do I push
it?
The result of dismissals such as these was a growing
sense on Abby’s part that what she wanted to contribute
was not as needed as what her team members offered.
Not only did it appear that they valued different outcomes
than her, but she also concluded that she did not have the
ability to influence the direction the simulations would
take, “I’ve kind of let the developers do their thing . . . I
didn’t see myself to be in a position to tell them
anything.” She often described the simulations’
development as occurring around her, where she was
aware of what was happening, but they were not
something she was directly helping. Over time, she saw
fewer opportunities to engage in ways that would change
the project’s trajectory, including changes aligned with
what she learned through her research into the
simulations’ educational effectiveness.
Growing disenfranchisement
Given that Abby needed cooperation from her teammates
to implement her designs, their dismissals hurt her
deeply, “why be on a team if you’re not doing anything?
So, it kind of made me—if I’m not really doing much, then
I just kind of feel pointless. Well, maybe I shouldn’t be
here.” We use the term hurt intentionally. Similar to how
a physical injury can become inflamed and sensitive, and
the afflicted area becomes too tender to tolerate an
otherwise benign touch, or bear what would otherwise be
one’s ordinary weight, Abby’s growing sensitivity to her
limitations led her to pull away from other team members
to avoid difficult interactions. She particularly became
attuned to, and even defensive about, potential offenses
on the part of her teammates (whether intended or not).
One example occurred when new writers were hired to
complete the simulation narrative. Abby told us that as
they were beginning their work she tried to show them a
set of scripts she had consulted on with the previous
writers:
I was trying to point out, “hey, look, we
did a lot of work on this last spring. We
might want to look in this folder because
somebody already wrote a bunch of
scripts. We don’t need to reinvent the
wheel.” And [one of the writers] told me,
“well, yeah, but we’re master’s students,
and so we probably can do a better job.”
Abby continued, “that response just felt like it was
dismissing what I was trying to say. So, instead of
listening and validating. . . like, ‘tell me more,’ it was just
dismissing.” Abby told us that by this she meant that she
thought the writers were both dismissive of the work that
had been done as well as of her attempts to have a
conversation about it. Additionally, she was particularly
bothered that at least one writer did not seem to
understand that she was also a graduate student, “[the
writer said], ‘well, I’m a master’s student.’ Okay. So am I,
but I won’t mention that.” Abby found the experience
quite disheartening, telling us, “I was so frustrated,” and
describing how afterwards she started to withdraw from
fully participating. At one point she told us that her
response was, “all right, I’ll step aside.” At another time
she described it as, “okay, I’ll back out of your way.” Both
phrases seemed to suggest Abby’s sense of resignation
and defeat.
In talking about incidents like these, Abby seemed to
describe the project as being a place of
disenfranchisement, depriving her of opportunities to
offer meaningful contributions, and where she had been
judged as inadequate to contribute anything of substance.
The positive aspects of her participation, which earlier
had seemed so fulfilling, receded into the background.
She started to primarily focus on her limitations, even
going so far as to tell us, “I didn’t really feel like I had
anything that I was doing. . . [For a semester] I was
hardly assigned anything. Yeah, I was like a bump on a
log.”
As we analyzed other events Abby talked about, however,
we saw that while it was true that her contributions could
be discounted, at the same time she started to pull away
from the project as well. This also reduced the extent to
which she was actively involved. In the face of rejection it
seemed that Abby generally stopped putting herself in the
position of being rejected again. At one point she even
seemed to openly admit this, saying, “[I] was, like, not
super engaged in what was going on.” She described one
instance, during the time she was “frustrated that no one
was valuing what had been done last spring” (meaning
when the new writers had abandoned the existing
scripts). One of the professors asked Abby to work with
the same writer who had been particularly dismissive to
update some of the material students would initially
encounter when using a simulation. Abby described this
as another case of work she had previously completed
being dismissed without actually examining what had
been done, “I was like, ‘it’s all there, we did this, look at
this.’” In response to the request, Abby told us that, “I
refused to help. And so instead of being involved, I just,
like, checked out.” Out of these difficult interactions a
vicious circle seemed to emerge. Abby thought her
contributions were being rebuffed, and she responded by
pulling away. But this meant she had fewer opportunities
for meaningful involvement, which further darkened her
mood. As she became more discouraged, the actions of
her teammates tended to show up as if they were
The Journal of Applied Instructional Design, 10(2) 8
intentionally slighting her work. Whether they actually
were or not, the result was the same; Abby became
sensitive (or perhaps overly sensitive) to saliences that
appeared slighting, which, in turn, fueled a further sense
on her part that she was not needed.
Interestingly, even though Abby told us that for a
semester she “was hardly assigned to anything,” based on
team meetings we observed during that period this
appears to have not actually been the case. We watched
Abby participating in project decisions, taking
assignments, and being treated by others as a full
contributor to the project. Yet we do not interpret Abby’s
insistence that she had nothing to do as her trying to
mislead us, or that her memory was flawed (although we
acknowledge both of these as possibilities). Rather, since
when she was not talking about her disenfranchisement
she occasionally brought up other ways she was involved
during this same period, it seems more likely that when
she talked about not being assigned anything she was
trying to communicate the affective quality of her
experience instead of the literal facts of the situation.
Saying that she was, “a bump on a log,” or that, “[I] didn’t
really feel like I had anything I was doing,” were her
attempts to point out what was significant about her
circumstances. What seemed to matter most was that she
saw herself as not being a contributor, and that she did
not see the simulations being improved because of her
work. Yet, as we have emphasized, this sense was not
solely created by either the events around her, or by her
beliefs and attitudes about those events. It seems to be
better characterized as a way of engagement that was
jointly produced both by the situation Abby found herself
in as well as how she attempted to cope with what she
experienced.
Abby Moves from Disenfranchisement to
Valued Project Leader
Despite her growing discouragement, Abby did not
completely abandon her membership on the team. When
we asked why she identified at least three aspects that
continued to draw her in. First, notwithstanding the
difficult interactions Abby had with some teammates,
others had become her friends, and she described a
“connection with certain people I was working with” that
she wanted to maintain. She also seemed to fall into
something of a sunk cost fallacy, telling us, “I was
involved when it started. . . I guess I felt some level of
investment and commitment.” Finally, she would
reminisce about the sense of belonging and being a
contributor she once experienced, and hoped that she
could recapture it in some form, “we were excited about
this idea that we [came] up with. . . . So I guess I cared
about being on the team and I wanted to be productive
and useful.” These largely emotional factors—all
mattering to Abby in different ways and providing her
different motives for wanting to participate—were
significant enough to tether her to the project even as so
many other aspects continued to push her away.
Alone, however, these commitments did not actually
change anything in Abby’s situation. While they inclined
her towards at least some association with the team, she
still remained mostly disengaged until three, somewhat
intertwined features of the project structure also
changed, that together seemed to open up possibilities
that Abby found less constraining. The first was that a
certain professor who was sensitive to helping students
have good experiences began to assume a more
prominent role as the team began working on a
simulation for which he was the subject matter expert (we
will refer to him as Eric). Abby told us that Eric “makes
[her] feel valued,” and, “he just totally built me up.” The
second factor was Abby enrolled in a project management
class that required her to be a “scrum master” for a
product team (a project management role found in agile
approaches to product development). Abby asked Eric if
he would allow her to complete her assignment for the
simulation he was overseeing, “I need this experience, so
I emailed Eric, like, ‘hey, do you think I could be scrum
master on our team?’” Eric’s response was, to Abby, very
enthusiastic, “immediately he started referring to me as
the scrum master.” She further commented, “he’d, like,
let me lead in meetings,” and, “the way Eric is, like,
promoting me and what I can do, I think I [now] have
more of a leadership role.” Finally, development reached
the point that video production began, and Abby said she
also felt valued because, “[team leaders] put me in charge
of the videos and actually said, ‘Abby’s responsible for
this,’ and, ‘go to Abby.’”
As Abby pursued the new assignments and opportunities
these structural changes opened up, the character of her
participation changed as well, reorienting from a sense of
disengagement to one of more complete involvement. She
became more attuned to possibilities in her situation, as
suggested by her comment that, “I can do things because
I feel valuable.” To illustrate she provided a number of
examples of not only the new work she was doing but also
the change she experienced in the character and quality
of her participation.
One change was that even though the work Abby did
during this period continued to be intangible and largely
in the service of teammates doing concrete production,
she began to describe it as adding value, as opposed to
her previous sense that her work was not needed. For
instance, even though Abby did not produce the
simulation videos herself, she did take the initiative to
recruit, hire, and support the videographer with little
oversight or direction from those supervising her. Of this
she said:
The Journal of Applied Instructional Design, 10(2) 9
I think we're all excited about the videos
right now because we have [our
videographer], who's, like, our – he's
going to make it cool. He's going to make
it cool. We have actors that we're excited
about . . . [The videographer] interviewed
them and sent me the videos and all these
people are going to be so fun. . . So, I
think I'm excited about the production,
and we're shooting on Saturday, so it's
like the big thing right now.
The difference in Abby’s tone as she described her
support of the videos was striking. Whereas her
comments about previous events could reflect a sense of
despondency, when she described her leadership over the
video production—even though she was not directly
shooting the videos herself—she spoke with a sense of
enthusiasm that suggested she was more confident about
her place on the team than she felt before.
A related change was that difficult interactions with
teammates that had previously bothered her so much,
seemed to recede into the background of her experience.
She told us, “now I feel a lot more respected and capable
and less impacted by those types of situations. So, I’m not
as worried about that now.” Even though she told us
there were still hard conversations or challenging
problems to address, her sensitivity to them diminished,
and she talked about them more dispassionately than she
had before.
And finally, as Abby began acting as the scrum master
she started to see things about the project she had not
noticed earlier. In particular, her experience of being
disenfranchised no longer appeared to be so unique. She
started to get a sense that the overall project had been
“stuck.” She told us, “there hasn’t been a whole lot of
organization in getting stuff done,” and seemed to
indicate that from the perspective of her new role she
could see that she had not been the only person
frustrated because they felt like they were not
contributing, or that what they were doing did not matter.
But realizing this did not lead to her to slip back into
discouragement. Rather, she seemed more attuned to
situational possibilities for how she could lead out and
help the team make better progress, like enforcing daily
status updates, planning agendas for project meetings, or
contributing new design ideas that could create
additional project momentum.
By the time of our final discussions with Abby she
appeared to have largely overcome any sense that the
project was boxing her in. Neither was she as
discouraged as she had been earlier. But she did not just
perceive different things about the simulations, her
teammates, or her own work. She was involved in the
project in a completely different way, more as a valued
leader than as an occasional contributor. This does not
mean the project has become trouble-free. As mentioned,
after being placed in a leadership role Abby could see
project shortcomings she had not seen before, and even
while we were interviewing her she had questions about
whether the simulations were as effective as they could
be at achieving their outcomes. But Abby seemed to
approach these challenges from a position of self-
possession, rather than disenfranchisement or doubt. She
became a leader not only because she had skills to help
her lead, but because she started to respond to
circumstances like leaders respond, as suggested by her
comment:
I’m involved in lots of aspects of lots of
things. . . When things are brought up [I
think], “oh, yes, I have something that I
want to bring up for the team to think
about.” . . . I have more to contribute
because I’m more involved.
As we have emphasized, this seemed to be due to
opportunities Abby was given as well as her own
willingness to accept those opportunities and make
something of them. Whereas before she experienced a
vicious circle of further and further disengagement, she
now seemed caught up in a virtuous circle. Others’
willingness to believe in her and give her new ways to
contribute opened a space for her to act. Accepting what
they offered reignited her enthusiasm, and her improved
mood showed her even more opportunities for
involvement. Abby herself seemed to recognize the
change, telling us, “there’s just been a huge contrast”
between times that she was so hurt by actions of her
teammates that she was willing to step away from active
participation, to the time of our interviews where she was
being told by her colleagues, “Abby’s so important on this
team, Abby’s involved, Abby does everything, Abby does
more than the professors.” When we shared that this was
also reflected in our own interviews with other team
members, and that they were equally telling us how much
she was contributing, her response was, “wow, that’s,
wow. That makes me feel like I want to do even more!”
Discussion
Our interest in studying Abby’s case was to explore how
her authentic project involvement mattered in her
instructional design education. Analyzing her interviews
provided us “a fresh way of seeing” (Packer, 2018, p. 148)
what it could entail to be a student involved in this form
of learning, which we summarize as three insights. First,
Abby’s account contributes towards the literature
recognizing that even though authentic project
The Journal of Applied Instructional Design, 10(2) 10
experiences can have clear advantages, they also may not
always be unambiguous goods in students’ education.
Second, we suggest that a reason for this is because the
outcomes of authentic project experiences do not solely
lie in any intrinsic properties of the opportunities
themselves, nor in students’ personal attempts to make
meaning out of those opportunities. Avoiding a
dichotomous distinction between situation and student
provides a clearer view of how authentic projects become
a learning space when students engage in the practical
work of fitting themselves to the affordances such
experiences offer. Finally, we learn from Abby’s case that
challenges accompanying authentic project experiences
can be mitigated, but doing so will likely involve
cooperation from those with the ability to adjust the form
and structure of an experience, as well as the
participating students themselves.
Authentic Project Experiences May Not
Always be a Pedagogical Good
For Abby, participating in the simulation project allowed
her to apply a variety of skills in authentic settings and
offered her unanticipated leadership opportunities, but
also challenged her self-confidence to the extent that she
nearly abandoned her involvement. This duality suggests
there can be tensions in authentic project experiences as
a pedagogical strategy, and they may not always be
unambiguous goods in students’ education. This aligns
with findings from prior research. While researchers have
described a number of benefits these experiences can
provide (Johari & Bradshaw, 2008; Miller & Grooms,
2018), the literature also recognizes that the very
authenticity of these experiences can create complexities
with which students may have a difficult time coping
(Dabbagh & Williams Blijd, 2010; Hartt & Rossett, 2000).
They may find themselves tangled up in binds they do not
yet have the ability to unravel on their own.
Our study extends this literature, not only by drawing
attention to the forms potential complexities could take,
but also by showing at least some ways that students
might affectively respond if complications arise.
Highlighting both potentialities seem important to help
educators address challenges they might face when
implementing authentic project strategies themselves.
For instance, one reason project involvement was not an
unambiguous good for Abby was because when her
teammates were reluctant to implement her ideas, their
dismissals showed up to her as obstructing her ability to
meaningfully contribute. But while her views were
certainly understandable, they were also not unavoidable.
We can imagine how it may not have mattered as much to
other students if they were challenged as Abby was, or
how they might even have been energized by the need to
find ways to better persuade their colleagues. So in her
case, for educators to understand how to help Abby have
a better experience they would have to pay attention to
the situational affordances as well as the relevance of
those affordances to her. Yet we are aware that Abby’s
experience only highlights some of the difficulties that
might create strains for students involved in authentic
projects. So we encourage continued research into other
possibilities authentic project experiences might open up,
especially research that explores challenges that can
accompany the approach.
Authentic Projects Become Learning
Experiences through a Reciprocal
Relationship Between Student and the
Project World
As just mentioned, and as we have described throughout
our report, Abby’s experience was born out of real
situational affordances, as well as how she negotiated and
navigated those affordances. This seemed typified by how
she described how her mode of engagement changed
after Eric appointed her scrum master, “I can do things
because I feel valuable.” In Abby’s world, she not only felt
more or less valued based on what she was able to do, but
she also felt more or less capable of acting depending on
how valuable she felt. Her experience seemed
characterized by reciprocality. She had to respond to
features of the environment outside of her control, but
her responses altered the project context and changed
what type of involvement was available to her moving
forward. Focusing only on one side or the
other—opportunity or Abby’s attitude—seems insufficient
to understand either Abby or the project itself. What
transpired cannot be reduced either to the influence of
environmental forces acting upon her, or her private
processes of constructing meaning out of her experience
(see Wrathall, 2004). It seems more accurate to attempt
to unify what was provided from both Abby and from the
project space, “not [as] sharply distinct, self-sufficient
states or separately existing ingredients, but [as]
essentially interwoven aspects of a single, unified
phenomenon. . . More like two sides of a coin or two
dimensions of a figure” (Carman, 2020, p. 77).
Recognizing this provides a more comprehensive way of
understanding authentic projects as learning experiences.
Abby’s account indicates that neither a view of learning
that locates it primarily in environmental influences or
one locating it primarily in individual processes of
meaning-making is sufficient. For instance, while she
clearly had to respond to environmental factors in her
journey towards becoming a project leader, Abby cannot
be portrayed as someone who learned leadership only
because her actions came into alignment with a set of
standards or norms provided by her environment – a view
implied by theories that define learning as the result of
processes of socialization and enculturation (cf.
Matthews, 2016). And while she clearly had to interpret
The Journal of Applied Instructional Design, 10(2) 11
her situation and decide what events meant to her, she
also cannot be portrayed as having learned leadership
only because of personal, internal changes to her
knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, or skills. Equally important
were the changes to what Yanchar et al. (2013) called her
“embodied familiarization” (p. 219) with the project,
meaning how she was able to practically comport herself
to fit into the space provided by the real, situational
demands of her work. Abby learned from her project
experience as she became more capable of “meaningful
engagement” with what had previously been foreign. She
became more “accustomed” to, and “familiar” with, how
to navigate the very practical concerns her situation
required (p. 220).
This is a view that transcends reductive attempts to
locate learning primarily in one type of cause or another,
either cognitive or cultural. It shows learning as a process
of developing a practical stance towards the world – in
Abby’s case a stance taken by instructional designers.
Certainly this stance includes learning new skills or
developing a new identity, but is not defined by these
features alone. It also includes how the world feels as one
inhabits it, such as how the project felt to Abby when she
was disengaged, or as she re-engaged (cf. Dreyfus, 1991).
It entails how one anticipates, and becomes sensitized to,
saliences in the world, such as how Abby as a project
leader could see the team was not as organized as she
once thought, and how this drew her attention towards
opportunities that might have otherwise remained
unnoticed (cf. Wrathall, 2004). It encompasses how one
becomes resolved to act in response to opportunities the
world offers, such as how Abby accepted the
responsibility to plan project meetings so they would be a
better experience for everyone involved (cf. Dreyfus,
2017). In this view, authentic projects fit into
instructional design education not because they provide a
single cause of learning, or even a group of causes, but
because they contribute towards “shifts in how the world
shows up, how learners fit into the cultural contexts of
life, how they engage in practices, and the stands they
take on matters of significance” (McDonald & Yanchar,
2020, p. 643).
Educators and Students Jointly Improve
Authentic Project Experiences
These views suggest a new way of understanding events
that might arise during students’ participation in
authentic project experiences. Individual project events
will not necessarily be good or bad because of any
intrinsic properties they possess, because their value is at
least partly found in how students respond to them. While
it is true that project experiences can be well- or poorly
designed, their design itself is only a starting point for the
evolution of the experience that will occur as actual
students get involved. But neither is it correct to say that
any given event is neutral—with its learning value
created by students themselves—since individual events
will open up certain possibilities while at the same time
closing down others. So it is still incumbent on those
planning authentic experiences to “offer compelling
beginnings” in projects that students “may be persuaded
to pick up” as they engage in the project space
(McDonald, in press). If authentic projects are not
effective because of their inherent properties,
instructional design educators and students can at least
work together to make them effective by attempting to
improve how students fit into them. This implies that
educators may be able to help students break out of
negative cycles of participation as they alter conditions in
the environment and as they point students’ attention
towards new possibilities that might be opened up by the
improved conditions.
Prior research suggests practical ideas that educators
can consider for accomplishing this, including: cultivating
meaningful relationships between students and mentors
so that students come to trust the guidance they provide
(Michela & McDonald, 2020); ensuring the designs of
project environments do not inadvertently discourage or
punish students for expressing their independence (Johari
& Bradshaw, 2008); providing students frequent
opportunities to reflect on their experiences and whether
those experiences are leading to desirable ends (Bannan-
Ritland, 2001); and ensuring regular evaluation is part of
authentic project environments so necessary adjustments
to structures or relationships can be made (Larson &
Lockee, 2009). We recommend additional research be
conducted to develop other design guidelines that are
consistent with our findings.
But as our study emphasizes, when challenges arise
during authentic projects it is likely not the sole
responsibility of any party alone to mitigate the problems
– neither the educators planning the project nor the
students learning from it. This is not because either side
can be relieved of responsibility, but because both sides
are likely contributing something towards the unfolding
situation (for good or bad). Challenges may have as much
to do with what stands out to students as important about
their involvement as they do with any objective factors
within the context itself, although situational factors
would certainly contribute towards what students could
see. So neither side’s efforts alone will be sufficient to
alter the circumstances. On the side of the educators,
while they can set up any number of conditions, they
cannot set up how students respond to the conditions
they provide. On the side of the students, no matter what
attitude they bring into a situation, they may still find
conditions that stifle their contributions or otherwise
impede their capacity to act in alignment with the
practical stance the authentic project is meant to make
available. So cooperation from all sides will be needed to
The Journal of Applied Instructional Design, 10(2) 12
address authentic project challenges – those with the
ability to adjust the form and structure of an experience,
as well as the participating students themselves.
Improving the student experience will jointly be a matter
of changing what opportunities the environment provides,
and of students becoming reenergized as they anticipate
anew the potential futures such opportunities could
unfold. But educators cannot pick up the possibilities on
behalf of students directly. Ultimately, as it was for Abby,
students have to accept the changes they are offered, and
make the project personally relevant in a manner that
improves the quality and character of their participation.
Conclusion
Our purpose in this study was to explore how authentic
project experiences matter to instructional design
students. Through a case study of how an instructional
design student, Abby, depicted her experiences as a
member of a design team, we came to understand how (a)
authentic projects may not always be unambiguous goods
in instructional design education; (b) how this is so
because authentic projects become learning experiences
through a reciprocal relationship between students and
the project; and (c) how because of this, educators and
students must jointly cooperate in improving authentic
project experiences. Of course, more research is needed
to more fully understand how authentic projects matter to
instructional design students. But our initial exploration
here at least illuminates how part of their significance lies
in the range of practical and affective responses students
might have to them. We hope that further research will
continue to focus on these relationships between students
and the project experiences in which they participate,
seeing them as important not because of what they do to
students, but also because of what students are able to
meaningfully contribute towards the experiences
themselves.
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