Towards Socially-just Design Through Ethical Decision-making

EthicsInstructional DesignSocial JusticeDecision-making
The deficiencies of instructional design models are that they do not explicitly provide guidance on how to address systemic implications of design decisions and activities. Decision-making is an activity in which instructional designers engage continuously throughout their design projects. The purpose of this chapter is to provide an overview of an ethical decision-making process. Recommendations are offered on how instructional designers can address ethical decisions and their consequences in their design practices.


Decision-making is an activity in which instructional designers continuously engage throughout their design projects. Studies examining instructional designers report that they make decisions involving how best to deliver instruction, instructional sequencing, and assessment strategies (Kenny et al., 2005; Kumar & Ritzhaupt, 2017; Rowland, 1992; Wedman & Tessmer, 1993). While these examples are somewhat generic, upon deeper examination, they become more complex depending on several factors that may influence the learning environment.

Most situations in which instructional designers will find themselves involved are ill-structured (Jonassen, 2000). Ill-structured problems may have multiple possible solutions, and these solutions, in turn, may require several interrelated decisions (Jonassen, 2012). Depending on the complexity of the problem and the amount of time allowed for instructional designers to make decisions, they may follow two primary decision-making processes. Normative decision-making involves an individual considering multiple options and weighing the advantages and disadvantages of each option before arriving at a decision(Jonassen, 2012). Naturalist decision-making processes are often referred to as dynamic processes as they are contextually embedded and often require individuals to make prompt decisions (Klein, 2008; Stefaniak, 2020).

Recognizing the complexities inherent in decision-making for ill-structured problems, opportunities for gray areas emerge, posing questions about whether the decisions made and implemented are optimal and equitable (Lin, 2007). When we consider designing instruction that is socially just, we must ask ourselves:

The extent to which questions like the ones mentioned above are addressed is often determined by the time allocated for a project, access to appropriate technological resources, money, and the design team’s expertise. While studies have been conducted to gain a better understanding of how instructional designers manage constraints and make decisions during their projects (i.e., Boling et al., 2017; Hoard et al., 2019; Zhu et al., 2020), little emphasis has been placed on the extent to which an ethical lens has been applied to their design decision-making.

In recent years, there has been an increased push among scholars in educational technology to place learners at the forefront of our design practices to promote inclusion, equity, and accessibility (Bradshaw, 2018; Gray et al., 2022; Kimmons, 2020; Moore, 2021). Upon further exploration into the deficiencies of current instructional design practice, there is opportunity for the field to shift its focus to address the overarching question: Are we doing what is best for our learners?

In a paper examining how needs assessment strategies need to be reevaluated to promote equity in instructional design, Stefaniak and Pinckney-Lewis (in press) note that several instructional design models suggest a paternalistic approach in which instructional designers identify problems and determine which needs are worth exploring. This approach suggests that designers impose solutions on the learning audience with little consideration given to their actual needs. These challenges are further exacerbated in other phases of the instructional design process, as noted by Moore (2021). By adopting a more empathetic approach to designing assessments and considering the conditions that influence our learners, instructional designers are better able to collect contextually relevant information that can inform updates to the design process.


Ethical decision-making models have been proposed throughout the past several decades to support individuals as they engage in decision-making. The fields of medicine and human counseling have placed importance on how these models can support practitioners as they interact with patients and clients. It is important to note that ethical decision-making models are not intended to make ethical decisions for individuals. Instead, they are meant to lay out a process to guide individuals through decision-making to help them identify areas of ethical concern (Keith-Spiegel & Koocher, 1985).

To advance this question with our learners in mind, several scholars have raised concerns that our field has ignored socially just practices (e.g., Benson et al., 2017; Bradshaw, 2018; Dickson-Deane et al., 2018; Gunawardena et al., 2019; Moore, 2021). Moore (2021) suggested that existing instructional design models are not the ones we need. With most models being developed in the 1970s, many of them lack specific guidance to address accessibility, equity, and inequalities that are prevalent in learning environments. Rieber and Estes (2017) noted that accessibility is minimally addressed or ignored altogether in our instructional design models. In a paper examining the instructional design and technology timeline through a social justice lens, Bradshaw (2018) calls for more attention to be placed on critical gaps in the field that hinder learner performance.

Looking at issues related to inequities and oppression in our field raises the question of whether these issues could be mitigated if designers had the tools that they need, such as training in design practices that account for multiple stakeholders of a project, learners with diverse needs, and strategies to modify instruction to meet the individual needs of the learner audience. Could some of these issues be avoided if we teach designers to approach their design through an ethical lens? As Moore (2021) notes, ethics are not addressed in our instructional design models, which often lay the foundation and guide the instructional practices of novices in our field. While she has called upon the field to take deliberate action to examine our design practices through an ethical lens to support learners across a variety of contexts, further attention is also needed to explore how designers engage in ethically sound decision-making processes.

It is important to note that instructional design models are not inherently bad. They provide guidance on the fundamental mechanics of the instructional design process (Dousay, 2018). However, the deficiencies of these models in our field lie in their failure to explicitly provide guidance on addressing the systemic implications of design decisions and activities (Stefaniak & Xu, 2020), ethical approaches to solving instructional problems (Moore, 2021), and inclusive and accessible design practices (Bradshaw, 2018; Rieber & Estes, 2017).

Our field can ameliorate these challenges by helping instructional designers become more cognizant of their decision-making practices. If instructional designers are taught how to become more self-aware of the decisions they make throughout their projects and emphasize the importance and need of ethical decision-making, they can still benefit from using existing instructional design processes and models to guide their design work.

This chapter provides an overview of an ethical decision-making process. The various types of ethical decisions are reviewed in relation to instructional design practices. Recommendations for future research on instructional design practices support continued discussions on how instructional designers can intentionally integrate ethical decision-making into routine design tasks.

The Process of Decision Making

Decision-making is the process of making a choice by identifying a decision, gathering information, identifying possible solutions, considering the advantages and disadvantages of each option, and selecting a resolution to move forward (Skyttner, 2001). “A ‘decision’ is a commitment to a course of action that is intended to yield results that are satisfying for specific individuals” (Yates, 2003, p. 24). There are a variety of decisions an individual may make. These include choices, acceptances/rejections, evaluation, and constructions (Yates & Tschirhart, 2006). Table 1 provides an overview of what these types of decisions may look like in instructional design, as depicted by Stefaniak (2020a).

Table 1

Decision Typologies as They Relate to Instructional Design

TypeExample of Instructional Design Decisions
ChoicesAn instructional designer has been asked to help a local museum develop learning materials for their patrons. During their brainstorming meeting with the museum staff, they discussed the possibility of using audio headsets, mobile learning, QR codes, online learning modules, and face-to-face training programs as training options.
Acceptances/ RejectionsAn instructional designer submits a proposal to present their project at a national instructional design conference. Reviewers responsible for reading the proposal must decide whether to accept or reject the conference proposal.
EvaluationAn instructional design firm in a metropolitan city meets with a not-for-profit organization to discuss their training needs. During a few initial conversations, the firm realized that their client would not be able to pay the typical fees they charge for their instructional design services. The CEO of the instructional design firm sees the impact that the not-for-profit has made in the local community and decides that they can offer a few of their services pro bono.
ConstructionsAn instructional design program discusses the options for offering two special topics courses to their students in the upcoming year. Program faculty discuss possible topics and discuss which ones might be of the most interest to their students. During their discussions, they identify potential course instructors and look to see how this might impact regular course offerings and instructor assignments.

Decision-making, regardless of the type of decision, can be categorized according to two processes: rational or dynamic. Rationale processes typically take more time as an individual engages in eight steps (Jonassen, 2010; Klein, 1998):

  1. Identify the problem
  2. Establish decision criteria
  3. Weigh decision criteria
  4. Generate alternatives
  5. Evaluate the alternatives
  6. Choose the best alternative
  7. Implement the decision
  8. Evaluate the decision

A dynamic decision-making process is often more time-sensitive, where an individual makes decisions quickly based on contextual factors influencing a particular situation (Klein, 2008). When engaged in dynamic decision-making, individuals are more apt to conjecture and make decisions based on their knowledge and expertise, the information they have available at that particular time, and within the constraints inherent in the situation (Murty et al., 2010).

A majority of instructional design problems are ill-structured (Jonassen, 1997) and call for dynamic decision-making. Upon examining how instructional designers engage in conjecture, Stefaniak et al. (2018) have offered the following definition for design conjecture in instructional design:

the ability to form an opinion based on constrained information and resources to design solutions that take into account systemic factors influencing an environmental context (p. 59).

While there is growing interest in studying how instructional designers engage in decision-making (e.g., Boling et al., 2017; Demiral-Uzan, 2015; Gray et al., 2015; Korkmaz & Boling, 2014; Stefaniak et al., 2022), very few have examined the ethical nature of decision-making (Tzimas & Demetriadis, 2021; Gray & Boling, 2016; Lin, 2007).

Ethical Decision-Making

Moore and Ellsworth (2014) express concerns that the field of educational technology has approached ethics in instructional design from a peripheral view. While educational organizations such as the Association for Educational Communications and Technology have a code of ethics, there is a paucity of research examining what these ethical practices look like in the field nor mechanisms for how ethical practice can and should be carried out in instructional design activities (Moore, 2021).

In a review examining ethical decision-making models to support counseling practices, Cottone and Claus (2000) identified nine models that address ethics within their process. While there are slight differences in the number of steps, the common processes inherent in these models include identifying the problem, defining potential issues, consulting ethical guidelines, considering possible consequences of each decision, estimating the probability of desired outcomes, and deciding on the best course of action (Correy et al., 1998; Keith-Spiegel & Koocher, 1985; Steinman et al., 1998). The steps outlined in these frameworks suggest a linear approach that aligns with rational decision-making processes (Klein, 1998). Recognizing that the majority of instructional design decisions are dynamic in nature (Jonassen, 2012), guidance is needed to understand how steps toward ethical decision-making can be woven into existing dynamic decision-making processes inherent in instructional design.

Ethical Decision-Making in Instructional Design

In her paper, The Design Models We Have Are Not the Design Models We Need, Moore (2021) calls for members of our field to explore possible solutions that deliberately address ethics (and the current lack thereof) in our current design practices. While I agree with Moore (2021) that there is a clear absence of the acknowledgment of ethics in our existing instructional design models, I want to proffer an approach that does not call for the development and plethora of new instructional design models.

Rather than proposing the conception of a new instructional design model, I want to offer the suggestion that we keep our instructional design models intact and instead provide an overlay model that supports ethical decision-making to guide instructional designers through their activities. In doing so, the overlay model would support the non-linearity and iterative nature of instructional design (Jonassen, 2008). Therefore, I propose that instructional designers be guided through how to integrate the following ethical decision-making process into their design activities:

  1. Interpret the situation
  2. Establish the parameters of the problem
  3. Identify potential issues
  4. Consult ethical guidelines
  5. Generate possible solutions
  6. Consider possible consequences of each decision
  7. Choose a course of action
  8. Implement the decision
  9. Evaluate course of action

Taking into account that instructional designers make decisions throughout the instructional design process, these suggested steps for engaging in ethical decision-making may be applied at multiple decision points. The following sections briefly overview these nine steps and offer examples of how they may be woven into various decision points. It is important to note that these guidelines are not meant to be interpreted as a linear process. Instead, various steps may be revisited as the instructional designer undertakes a recursive and iterative approach to design.

Interpret the Situation

Most practice-based ethical decision-making models recommend that the first step in decision-making is to identify the problem (e.g., Corey et al., 1998; Forester-Miller & Davis, 1996; Steinman et al., 1998). In Tarvydas’ (1998) decision-making model, project identification is framed as an interpretation of the situation. I have intentionally followed Tarydas’ (1998) approach to interpreting the situation because it suggests a broader view of the situation and context. This approach supports the discourse that has discussed the relationship between the designer, their learning audience, and the situation.

Tymchuk’s (1986) model refers to this initial phase as determining the stakeholders. I resonate with this phrasing because it is common practice to identify the stakeholders when conducting a needs assessment in instructional design (Kaufman & Guerra-Lopez, 2013; Selmer, 2000; Stefaniak, 2021a; Watkins et al., 2012). Determining the stakeholders entails considering all individuals or groups who may be involved or impacted by the decisions made and solutions implemented within the community.

While this step in the decision-making process should be iterative throughout the project as decisions are continually made, it is most likely that interpreting the situation would occur during the needs assessment phase. It is also important to note that needs assessment should be implemented as a means of validating the identified or perceived problem (or need). This process should extend beyond the learner analysis to support a more comprehensive understanding of the situation (Stefaniak, 2020b).

Establish the Parameters of the Problem

Instructional designers inherently establish parameters of their projects, whether consciously or not. We are accustomed to navigating our design process to accommodate design constraints imposed by our learning audience, additional stakeholders, and the overall system. An instructional designer embarks on designing their solution during these initial decision-making phases. Their process is often described by the design field as a co-evolution (Maher et al., 1996; Dorst & Cross, 2001). The co-evolution involves the designer continually “re-interpreting a design problem in the light of an exploration of possible solutions” until a good fit emerges (Dorst, 2019; p. 60). While I labeled a step in the ethical decision-making process as generate possible solutions, the process of establishing the parameters of the problem initiates this co-evolution process.

Within this step, it would be beneficial for an instructional designer to acknowledge the realities of the situation. Based on the information obtained while interpreting the situation, the instructional designer should identify the relevant constraints that impact their project. This practice essentially involves the instructional designer establishing a bounded rationality to progress with their design (Stefaniak et al., 2020).

Establishing a bounded rationality is the process of utilizing available information, one’s cognitive abilities and limitations, and time to make decisions (Simon, 1969). Within bounded rationality, individuals make decisions while recognizing that optimization may not be feasible (Cuofano, 2021). Instructional designers can benefit from establishing bounded rationality when approaching their design and ethical decision-making by acknowledging their design environments’ inherent limitations, risks, and uncertainties. By doing so, they can effectively manage their design space.

Identify Potential Issues

Within this decision-making phase, instructional designers should identify any anticipated challenges that may arise in the environment. These challenges may include issues or limitations initially identified during the needs assessment phase when interpreting the situation and identifying key stakeholders associated with the project. Examples of potential issues could include members of the learning community having inadequate access to learning materials, socioeconomic issues impacting a learner’s ability to participate fully in an instructional experience, or a lack of resources that hinders the implementation of suitable solutions to address needs.

Consult Ethical Guidelines

Most practice-based ethical decision-making frameworks in the counseling field recommend that practitioners consult with the profession’s ethical guidelines while engaging in decision-making. The same expectations should be adhered to by instructional designers. While instructional designers do not have to go through maintaining certifications and licensures the same way counseling or medical professionals have to, they should consult ethical guidelines to inform their decisions. The Association of Educational Communications and Technology (AECT) developed a Code of Professional Ethics (2020) designed to inform design practice.

Moore (2021) notes that why a code of professional ethics exists, not all designers know how to integrate these standards into their work. She notes that this is largely due to the absence of ethical considerations in our existing design models. I echo Moore’s (2021) sentiments and add that a lack of ethical decision-making frameworks to guide instructional designers is another area of concern. This paper aims to join Moore and suggest that instructional designer preparation include an intentional focus on AECT’s Code of Professional Ethics (2020) and provide them with strategies to ensure these standards are addressed in their design praxis.

Generate Possible Solutions

Once the instructional designer establishes a bounded rationality to support the management of their design space and consults with ethical guidelines, they should generate multiple possible solutions before selecting one to implement fully. This approach also supports the concept of ideation recommended in the design thinking philosophy (Razzouk & Shute, 2012). Considering the realities that instructional designers regularly engage in design uncertainty (e.g., Jonassen, 1997; Tracey & Hutchinson, 2016), the need for ideation is even more prevalent as an instructional designer establishes a bounded rationality to address design optimization.

There is a scarcity of studies examining ideation in instructional design (Stefaniak, 2021b). It is important to note that other studies have demonstrated that instructional designers often face challenges with generating ideas when confronted with uncertainties and design constraints (i.e., Hoard et al., 2019; Stefaniak et al., 2018, 2022). These findings highlight the importance of supporting instructional designers in navigating the co-evolutionary process of negotiating between the problem space and solution space (Dorst, 2019).

Consider Possible Consequences of Each Decision

As an instructional designer engages in ideation and generates multiple possible solutions, they consider the possible consequences of each decision. The level of their understanding of the environment and situation will greatly drive their awareness of consequences. Examples of some ethical consequences that an instructional designer may face while identifying an optimal solution may include, but are not limited to:

At this stage, an instructional designer fully becomes aware of the ambiguity associated with ethical decision-making. This further reiterates the need for instructional designers to approach bounded rationality with an understanding that optimization is often out of reach when decisions are needed (Gigerenzer & Selten, 2001). Economists have suggested that emphasis on achieving optimization should be abandoned, and a bounded rationality should be assumed (Laville, 2010).

Choose a Course of Action

Upon considering possible consequences of each decision, the instructional designer should finalize their decision. Ideally, their decision is grounded in sound design principles, adheres to ethical standards, and poses limited risks to the learners and the learning environment. The instructional designer can then proceed with planning once they have committed to moving forward with a particular course of action.

Implement the Decision

Implementing the decision could mean several things in the instructional design space. It could mean moving forward with designing interventions as well as moving into the delivery and facilitation of instruction. What is important to note is that decision-making does not stop once a course of action has been decided upon or enacted. Dynamic decision-making is iterative and recursive (Jonassen, 2008; Klein, 2008).

When implementing the decisions, instructional designers should continuously survey the environment where decisions are being implemented to respond accordingly and promptly should modifications to any decisions be warranted. While dynamic decisions require continuous surveillance of the environment and local affordances, attention must be given to how this impacts a focus on ethics. Further exploration is needed to understand how instructional designers are modifying decisions in situ.

Evaluate the Course of Action

The instructional designer should evaluate the success of their decision upon implementation. At this time, they should scan the environment to determine the extent to which the solution meets the needs of the learners and other stakeholders associated with the project (Stefaniak, 2021a). Evaluation of ethical design decisions should not be completed at the end of a project; rather, it should be ongoing as the instructional designer engages in iterative design. When evaluating the course of action, the instructional designer should examine the extent to which the solution addressed the needs (or problem) initially identified at the beginning of a project, the extent to which there may be ethical consequences with the implemented decision, and whether the current course of action needs to be modified.

Future Explorations and Conclusions

The purpose of this chapter is by no means intended to provide a definitive solution for addressing ethical decision-making in instructional design; rather, it is intended to contribute to the discussion to support the momentum of efforts exploring socially just design practices. Gray and Boling (2016) examined ethical commitments instructional designers make as part of their design work through the lens of several case studies published in the International Journal of Designs for Learning. The scholars looked for instances where instructional designers noted or demonstrated their ethical commitments and values in everyday practice. More case studies are needed to understand how instructional designers engage in ethical decision-making, what types of instructional strategies support socially just learning, and what types of support are needed by professional organizations to guide ethical development among instructional designers.

 As more emphasis is placed on the role ethics plays in instructional design, research is required to better understand how ethics integrates into interactive design processes. The following questions should be considered to continue the discussion and exploration of how developing an awareness of ethical decision-making can support instructional designers:

Developing an understanding of how instructional designers incorporate ethics into their decision-making will contribute to advancing research on ethical design practices. It will also help to identify areas where support can be provided to instructional design students in their professional development.

I am skeptical that additional instructional design models are needed; rather, I think we should place more emphasis on training instructional designers on how they engage in ethical decision-making models within various decision points in the instructional design process. While helping disciplines (e.g., counseling, medicine, allied health, social work) have several practice-based ethical decision-making models, the field of learning, design, and technology warrants similar attention. If a primary goal of instructional design is to facilitate learning and improve performance (e.g., Richey et al., 2011), then it is imperative that we have the necessary infrastructure to guide ethical development among instructional designers.


Zhu, M., Basdogan, M., & Bonk, C. J. (2020). A case study of the design practices and judgments of novice instructional designers. Contemporary Educational Technology, 12(2).

Jill E. Stefaniak

University of Georgia

Jill Stefaniak is an Associate Professor in the Learning, Design, and Technology program in the Department of Workforce Education and Instructional Technology at the University of Georgia. Her research interests focus on the professional development of instructional designers and design conjecture, designer decision-making processes, and contextual factors influencing design in situated environments.

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