Each month, this series features an interview with a member of the Digital Pedagogy and Media team. Broadly, our team has expertise in instructional design and pedagogy, multimedia production, and animation and narrative storytelling. We all have interests and expertise that we bring to the team, including the use of digital tools for instructional purposes, negotiating digital identities, studio models for teaching and learning, universal design for learning and inclusive design, digital language pedagogy, digital privacy and self-defense, and more. If you have questions, connections, or would like to partner with a Digital Pedagogy and Media team member on a project, please get in touch!


Introducing…. Sonja Burrows, Instructional Designer


How did you get here? What types of education and experiences did you need before starting your job?

I think what can happen to a person like me — someone who loves school and learning a great deal — is that you can end up spending many years of your life as a student, collecting degree after degree until you could possibly wallpaper a small bathroom or closet with credentials. I hold a BA in English from the University of Pennsylvania, an MA in Teaching from the School for International Training, an MA in Spanish Literature from the University of Oregon, and a PhD in Romance Languages (Spanish and Italian) from the University of Oregon. I also have a small collection of certificates I have earned and trainings I have completed over the years, most of them related to language pedagogy which truly lies at the heart of what I do professionally. In all honesty my education and training did not logically lead me to instructional design; rather, I followed my passions and academic pursuits down many avenues, and figured out somewhere along the way that no matter what I was doing, I was involved with instructional design — not only related to language learning but also to an expansive array of fields over the years. I am a big geek when it comes to learning design!

In spite of all of this formal training, I think the most formative learning experiences for me occurred outside of the walls of the various academic institutions where I earned degrees. What changed me the most, and deepened my understanding of humanity and the world, were the years during which I lived and taught overseas. After college, I taught in five countries outside of the US — traveling many places and spaces in between, both alone and in the company of the person who would eventually become my spouse. These years of hands-on cultural immersion, language-learning and language-teaching, self-reflection and cultural awareness-raising, changed me in deeper ways than any degree ever could. I carry this awareness with me every day, in everything I do both as an instructional designer and as a human being. I strive always to see what is beyond the walls of the immediate reality, to understand how vast and different and wonderful and often uncomfortable the world can be outside of the familiar.

What does a typical day/week at work look like for you?

Because my work at Middlebury is largely project-based, there is no typical day or week for me, which is fine because I like it when things change and keep me on my toes! The common thread weaving together my work is a culture of partnership which at best includes a sense of collaboration, passion, possibility, patience and curiosity. I love working with people who are excited to both envision and operationalize new learning environments, and to push out of their own comfort zones to innovate and try new things. I often partner with teams of people — faculty, leadership, programs — over the course of many months to design and create digital spaces that help them achieve their learning outcomes. I am particularly inspired when this work encompasses language-learning, cultural immersion, global awareness, and self-reflection; much of the most exciting work I have accomplished at Middlebury has involved meaningful professional partnerships with language pedagogy entities at our institution such as the Language Schools, the Schools Abroad, the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, and various language departments at the undergraduate College. I have also been fortunate to work on projects which bring together various constituents from different parts of our institution so as to create opportunities for professional collaboration and coherence across programs and faculty at Middlebury. Making cross-institutional connections in this way is a common theme in the work I do.

Most days I don’t notice how many hours I work, because I enjoy what I do and it doesn’t feel like work but rather like creative expression — at its best, learning design is a form of art. I work in a location non-specific capacity, which means that I am not always physically on campus because my partners are often elsewhere — either within our beyond the US — and we collaborate primarily across distance using digital tools like Zoom, Slack and yes, even good old email! This way of working and collaborating can be challenging, but if done with intentionality, care, and consciousness, can truly succeed.

Describe a project that you’ve been working on

Right now I am inspired to be collaborating with Deniz Ortactepe, Associate Professor at MIIS who works in language teacher education, on a pre-service connection space for language teachers enrolled in her course entitled Language Teaching for Social Justice. Together Deniz and I are creating a digital space with a full installation of WordPress on the MiddCreate platform where students in her course can connect, reflect, and complete assignments for her seminar. The project speaks to me on many levels, most notably because I deeply value the important work of language pedagogy to recognize, name and eliminate the systems of oppression and inequality through meaningful language education that aims to raise social justice and equality for all.

What is one common misconception about your work?

To be honest there are many. Most people seem lost when they first hear my job title, and because of that I’ve grown adept at delivering what my dad calls the “airplane speech” in which you describe what you do in 2 minutes or less to a total stranger, someone with no background or context in your field. I think part of what is confusing about instructional design is that people who themselves are immersed in this field are beginning to change their own definition of instructional design. So, the misconceptions exist both within and beyond the professional community. Am I a web designer? Not really. A technology expert? No. Am I who you call when you can’t get your equipment to work properly in your classroom? Nope. Do I have all the answers for you about how to best use the LMS? Most definitely not. The thing about instructional designers is that we actually do all of these things, but we do so much more. We are great at trouble-shooting tech issues with people, at building meaningful web presences, at finding answers to issues with Canvas. But these skills are part of a larger set which encompasses a willingness to give primacy to learning in digital spaces, to find answers about teaching and learning with technology, and to do so from a frame of mind which includes a simple willingness to try new things, to make mistakes, learn from them, and apply those lessons in the next round. Being an instructional designer is about using common sense to think about how people learn and how to cultivate their learning both with and without digital tools.

What about your job gets you excited to come to work every day?

I love working with amazing Middlebury folks from all over the globe. In a given month I might have the good fortune to talk to and work with faculty, staff and leadership from Turkey, India, Germany, Brazil, Japan, Russia and many places in between. I hold deep value for these collaborations and frankly I get such a kick out of connecting across borders in this way while standing in my kitchen or office in this tiny corner of the Earth called Middlebury, Vermont. It’s a thrill to keep my global awareness alive through meaningful collaborations in this way.

Digital Pedagogy and Media team pedagogical vision statement

We believe that learning communities are built on a foundation that recognizes the humanity of teachers and students, and that learning works best when the diversity of learner backgrounds and experiences are acknowledged, respected, and welcomed; that learners need to be safe, cared for, and confident in order to fully participate in any learning experience. When these needs are met, learners can be invited out of their “comfort zone;” we believe that a playful approach can mediate the space between safety and risk. When learners are supported to build expertise and take ownership over their own learning, we believe that learning is identity-changing. These beliefs guide us toward intentional design of learning spaces that are inclusive, equitable, supportive, authentic, and generative.