The Real You: Design as an Act of Authenticity


Jason Drysdale, Ed.D., Director of Instructional Design and Program Development, University of Colorado Denver

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I have a confession to make: I’m a little (just a little) gullible. I have a tendency to believe whatever people say when it is about something with which I am largely unfamiliar. For example, a colleague of mine is a plant aficionado; I do not have a green thumb. She could easily tell me that the piranha plant from Super Mario Bros. is real, and I would be inclined to believe her. This is not an actual conversation that happened, though it certainly could have been. But hey! That’s me. I’m okay with it, and my colleagues know it, even if they rib me about it a little from time to time.

I’m proud that my colleagues know this silly quirk, because it means they know me—the real me. Authenticity is vital for building lasting, meaningful work relationships (George, 2010). It’s true of partnerships between faculty and instructional designers, just as it is between students and faculty. Knowing each other, and being truly known, helps to put relationships at the center of our work, and trust and caring at the core of our organizations.

Authentic leadership starts and ends with knowing yourself—not just through personality tests and work style indicators—and with trusting that your colleagues will honor and value the real you. It’s a bold act of trust and courage, to be yourself, but one that also empowers and encourages others to follow suit (Baer, Duin, & Bushway, 2015). It’s also an act of leadership—and make no mistake, instructional designers, just like faculty, are leaders (Brigance, 2012).

Instructional design in higher education can be a delicate dance of vulnerability. It’s not just an objective, staid application of “best practices”: it’s a step into the unknown with the hope that you will emerge together, changed, and that your students will do the same. Faculty and instructional designers alike are putting themselves out there for the sake of our students. Success, for all of us, leans on our ability to trust and to care for each other exactly as ourselves. Design is an act of authenticity when we put relationships at the center. When we know each other—and know our students—trust, caring, and learning are immeasurably possible.

Authentic leadership theory is a huge part of my philosophy as a designer and leader. It heavily influenced the development of the Collaborative Mapping Model (CMM), which I developed to help designers and faculty collaborate intentionally, combining two unique and valuable frames of expertise to make something incredible together (Drysdale, 2019). This is relationship-centered instructional design: an approach that positions people and building relationships as the heart of instructional design, rather than the development of products or adherence to strict processes.

We will be exploring authentic leadership and other key concepts in relationship-centered design and the CMM at a couple of upcoming OLC events. First, there will be a breakout group at the ID Summit at OLC Accelerate focused on collaboration with faculty. Second, I am developing and teaching a new one-week workshop through the OLC Institute for Professional Development called Relationship-Centered Design: Strategies for Authentic Collaboration with Faculty. I hope to see you at one or both of these events!

So: now you know I’m (just a little, seriously, it’s not that bad) gullible, and why I’m proud and okay to share it with you. Use your powers wisely…I’m trusting you!

Dr. Jason Drysdale is the Director of Instructional Design and Program Development at the University of Colorado Denver. As an instructional designer, technologist, and researcher in online learning leadership, Dr. Drysdale is an advocate for intentional design, authentic and collaborative leadership, and is a believer in the magic that happens when you trust and care for your students and colleagues. Jason’s research interests include leadership in higher education, instructional design, organizational structure, collaboration, and online learning. He is a native of St. Louis, Missouri, and now lives in Denver with his wife Courtney, kids Clark and Lucy, and their Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Kingsley. Jason is a guitarist/singer/songwriter, avid video gamer (favorite games are Xenogears and Final Fantasy 7), and a mega fan of J.R.R. Tolkien!


Baer, L. L., Duin, A. H., & Bushway, D. (2015). Change agent leadership. Planning for Higher Educational Journal, 43(3), 1–11. Retrieved from

Brigance, S. (2011). Leadership in online learning in higher education: Why instructional designers for online learning should lead the way. Performance Improvement, 50(10), 43–48. doi:10.1002/pfi.20262

Drysdale, J. (2019). The collaborative mapping model: Relationship-centered instructional design for higher education. Online Learning, 23(3), 56-71. doi: 10.24059/olj.v23i3.2058

George, B. (2010). True north: Discover your authentic leadership (Vol. 143). San Francisco, CA: Wiley.


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