Situational Awareness in Instructional Design

As we think about the work of creating appropriate, proper, and reasonable educational technology, our decisions and actions are often biased by the perspective of our position. Educators are biased towards ease of use and effectiveness for teaching; technologists are biased towards reliable, robust, and secure computer systems. School leaders are often concerned primarily with budgets. The most efficacious decisions are made, however, when all participants seek to develop situational awareness. As I explained in by 2015 book:

When interpreting the generalities about human learning and the local instantiations of classroom design in light of the other and reconciling each to create working hypotheses, educators can make decisions that are biased. When educators develop situational awareness, they attempt to distance themselves from the problem and understand it from different perspectives or from a more objective perspective.

Situational awareness emerged as an important habit of mind for computer systems engineers as personal computers were entering the mainstream of business logistics and many business processes were first computerized. Landauer (1996) described the situation that was typical in the early years of software and information interface design: “a system is developed that performs, in a strictly technical sense, many functions imagined useful. Then an interface, a set of controls by which people can make it work, is attached” (172). When the function and interface imagined and designed by the engineers was implemented, however, the computer systems frequently failed to perform as expected. The typical response by engineers was to blame the user, when in reality the system was often to blame. ICT designers quickly adopted situational awareness when designing systems. With that awareness, designers seek to accommodate users’ habits and needs and systems in which users adapted to the processes limit by and necessitated by the technology.

Situational awareness can be adopted by designers of any systems, but is particularly useful when designing solutions to wicked problems. Mehlenbacher (2010) observed,

situational awareness thus embodies perceptual, cognitive, and situational abilities enabling people to see what is important in a given situation, to integrate the dynamics of the situation into a meaningful set of goals, and to project future states from one current state” (39).

This requires planners to focus on the essential factors of the activity at the center of the design process, and ensuring that those factors are addressed. In the ICT-rich classroom, situational awareness will be a collaborative endeavor as many stakeholders are involved. Technicians must ensure that the computers can function and access necessary resources and educators must understand how to operate and use the systems designed by the technicians. Through this awareness, educators and technicians create more usable systems; also school and technology leaders meet the facilitating conditions necessary for creating and sustaining ICT-rich learning environments.


Landauer, Thomas. 1996. The Trouble with Computers: Usefulness, Usability, and Productivity. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Mehlenbacher, Brad. 2010. Instruction and Technology: Designs for Everyday Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.