Every day, millions of students log onto a learning management system. Too often they find syllabi that are inconsistent with the actual course contents, disjointed activities, and links that require them to navigate a complicated maze. More times than not, colleges and universities assume that they have a great online learning product and maintain that they just need to execute better strategies to sell it. In reality, the need lies in the investment of the product itself.
The academy is full of subject-matter experts. That’s great, if passing information to students is the goal. But the goal ought to be loftier than that. If the learning management system is a mere repository of information, students will be passive recipients of knowledge. In contrast, a system that invites students into a highly collaborative community is one that encourages them to generate and analyze ideas and to share ties to real-world contexts. This type of environment connects people and ideologies in ways that can significantly shape and change their worldview as they challenge existing cognitive schemas. As the cognitive domain is affected, there is the potential to expand out from personal change to ubiquitous change. And, dare I suggest that this is the type of learning that taps into the affective and even spiritual domains, impacting people in their deepest parts? From a holistic perspective, all facets of the individual influence the way he or she interprets and applies knowledge. Adolescence and emerging adulthood are typically credited with the stages of development invoking crises of identity, but human wrestle with their interpretations of the world and how they impact the core of their being throughout their entire lifespan.
Online education is on a spectrum with “mechanical” on one end and “relational” on the opposite end. It can be as mass produced as Ford’s Model T or it can be as personalized as the custom made license plate on the back of it. Online education is a competitive market that ought to be customer-driven. Those who reengineer their processes involved in the delivery of online education based on that premise will thrive. Those who do not will fail to understand and meet the needs of people who are looking for a high-quality education that warrants its financial investment by meeting some essential expectations. These include the following: Convenience in a fast-paced and dual earner society, engaging and relevant education that allows for them to see where their intended career goals meet, and personable faculty and staff who see them as individuals with unique roles to play in the world using education as a means to meet that end.
So how can colleges and universities develop online courses that accomplish these goals? Investing in instructional designers can play a key role. Contrary to popular belief such designers are not in the business of changing content, as they understand that the faculty members are the experts on that. Rather, instructional designers exist to help subject-matter experts deliver content in ways that resonate with the learner and minimize learner distractions and frustrations. Instructional designers can help ensure that syllabi and course contents are congruent, that the navigation of the course interface is intuitive, that learning objectives align with course activities, that assignment expectations are clearly communicated, and that courses do not have the appearance of being thrown together in a hurry. They exist to ensure that the customer, or student, is the primary focus. An online course is not simply about the content; arguably, it’s also about how the content is designed and delivered.
Instructional designers not only help subject-matter experts produce excellent courses, they can also champion faculty training initiatives so that courses are logistically sustainable as online teaching techniques evolve and emerge, and they can also design training programs with the goal of increasing performance for support staff involved with supporting the customers. Building an online program with the help of instructional designers can improve the product, position a college for continuous development in a world where technology changes rapidly, and build an organizational culture that adopts a “customer-first” mentality. These constitute the greatest needs of the online learning movement today.
Most people would argue that their most teachable moments are not usually when they are downloading scores of PDFs from the Internet. Their worldview is not typically shaken by reading the latest news on Twitter or reading alone in a corner at Starbucks. Their best thoughts and ideas have come after having hallways conversations with colleagues, and their most memorable learning has taken place through relationships with others. Knowledge retrieval happens most frequently in the same context in which it was encoded. That context often involves human interaction, or some kind of meaningful activity. Special attention needs to be given to how this transfers to the online medium. This is why instructional designers are essential. They take content and bring it to life. They take a learning management system and turn it from a website into an online classroom. That’s what students expect: They want to log into a community. If they just wanted information, they could use Google for that. Colleges that understand the importance of good instructional design are more likely to produce an online product that retains students.
Another important role of instructional designers and educational technologists in helping online students succeed involves tracking and analyzing student activity. The online learning platform is full of data, and it would behoove administrators to use it to make data-driven decisions about how to reevaluate and modify the product to meet the students’ needs.
When it comes to online education, instructional designers are the game-changers. Whether or not they are utilized and the extent to which they are utilized can make or break one of the most crucial outcomes in higher education: student satisfaction. An investment in instructional designers is an investment in the product. Rather than focusing on the marketing while the product is suffering, invest in the quality of the product and then let the marketing fall into place. This is the key ingredient to the next breakthrough in online education. When it comes to breakthroughs, online education is long overdue. Such breakthroughs are not unthinkable, yet they seem to emerge very slowly.
We all strive to create effective online learning content and experiences for students. Yet, when we are teaching content to students and designing our online course, it’s so easy to overwhelm students with lists and folders of materials, cross-links and multiple links, and giving them everything we ever wanted to them to know about our subject. I know I’ve been guilty of over-supplying the information and options in the past. We just have so much we know about the subject and after all isn’t our role to teach and share what we know when we are doing instruction?
Interestingly, one of the consistent complaints we hear from students when we survey them in regard to the learning management systems, be it Blackboard or Canvas are: problems with navigation and knowing where to go first in the course, where to find something, or which links to use.
Actual student feedback comments from past surveys:
- “Things are to scattered. Easy to loose track of where something was. Some things are everywhere you look and others are hidden.”
- “It was hard to figure out how to submit assignments… so I would suggest making it easier and in one place. I just found it difficult the way either my teacher set it up as, or how the website was set up.”
- “Collaborative group work was hard to manage. Not everyone knew where to look for our shared documents we were using.”
Now, various learning management tools take different approaches, some are better or cleaner than others; but we always have a certain amount of customization we can use to tailor the course how we see fit. How do we do that best?
One approach is to look at online courses you like or that are set up as “best practice” examples and borrow some ideas on course set-up. Taking part in workshops and sharing about online course design is certainly another approach. Many of you have likely used both.
Let me offer another approach, slip on a different pair of shoes and think like a student. You do it now without realizing it when you participant in our IMPACT course redesign program through the Blackboard content, complete an online MOOC or participant in any other online course for professional development. I have had amusing comments from my IMPACT faculty, who sheepishly admitted they were short on time to complete their weekly online readings and activities. One of them said he felt like one of his students must, by quickly scanning down the page to see just what he “had” to get done for the session today. So, if we are looking for shortcuts at times; what of course are the students doing? If we aren’t sure what to do first and poke around when we are in an online course for the first time; what are students doing? The same, I would imagine. I don’t think we can write it off as students are being lazy when we are all challenged with time constraints and try to maximize our time on tasks.
While we like to give many options and much information, it’s best to help learners maximize their time on tasks too. So as you set up your entire course or a partial amount of your course online, think like a student.
Look at the course like you are viewing it for the first time. Using the ‘student view’ options provided are useful for this as well. Consider, is it glaringly clear where the student should start first? Is it without a doubt, clear what is required weekly and where items are found in the menu or content arrangement? Have you pared down content to focus on what the student ‘must know’ and moved additional ‘nice to know’ information into a reference area; so, they are not bogged down completing weekly tasks? How will they communicate with you and with other students? Ask a student to test drive your course and provide feedback.
To get started with assembling and arranging your content, here is a link from our ITaP Course Design Web page: http://www.itap.purdue.edu/learning/cdm/index.html#faculty or email our team at firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy thinking!
This Spring, I made a decision to enroll in a Blended Learning course sponsored by EDUCAUSE called “Becoming a Blended Learning Designer”. This MOOC requires participants to complete the course in six weeks, and during that time participate in discussions, blogging, and readings.
As I went through the readings for the first week of the class, two lines stuck out to me:
“Blended learning is not simply adding an online component to a face-to-face course. Technology in a course should be used wisely – to facilitate student learning.” (Thompson, 2015, p. 7)
I’ve seen cases all too often where faculty members try to add technology in to the course because they’re trying to meet a need. They know they should be adding technology but they’re looking to add something that may not always be the most practical or the most appropriate for their class. Some instructors I have worked with have looked to using the LMS to replace in-class quizzes, for example. Great idea in theory, but they were not prepared for some of the variables:
- Students trying to use smartphones or tablets to take the quiz (when the LMS doesn’t necessarily support this well)
- Students taking the quiz with other students
- Students using their notes/books for the quiz
The instructors in these cases were thinking it would be simple to replace their low-stakes quizzes with ones that could simply be taken online. But they wanted a full replication of the in-class experience, one that mitigated “cheating” (or as some prefer to call it, “collaboration”).
For me the first part of a blended learning course is determining which parts should go online, and which should not. It should be a careful, deliberate process that seeks to allow technology to assist in teaching, not trying to force technology into a role that faculty may regret later.
If you are looking to redevelop your class, consider applying for the IMPACT program by visiting http://www.purdue.edu/impact. If you know what tools you want to use and need help getting those tools integrated into your class, contact us at email@example.com.
Thompson, K. (ed.). (2015). BlendKit Reader (2nd Ed.). Retrieved from https://blended.online.ucf.edu/blendkit-course-blendkit-reader-chapter-1/
Student-centered learning looks at where students are when they enter the classroom and attempts to customize teaching to allow students some freedom in choosing how to learn. This kind of teaching allows instructors to free themselves from the traditional lecture and allows them to change the learning space to one that best fits the needs of the student. Students are led to what they need to know instead of listening to someone tell them and they can become actively engaged in their learning.
What has been for some, a liberating style of teaching and learning, frees instructors by allowing them to lead the adventure instead of dispensing it. It is not unusual for instructors to struggle with the transition in the beginning and many feel as if they are giving up some control, which is not inaccurate. However, giving up some control allows students to become actively engaged. Learning can reach new heights without limit. More focus is often put on the quality of students questions instead of the quality of their answers. Higher order thinking skills are engaged since students are able to keep moving towards a goal, work together, ask questions and build on what they know. According to John Dewey in his book entitled How We Think, he notes deep thinking takes time and cannot be expected to happen when prompt answers are required (Dewey,1910). Student-centered learning allows students to make those higher order connections by giving students time to explore and be actively involved in their learning.
This change in the dynamic of the classroom can often intimidate those new to the process, but I liken it to a typical lab experience often seen as a normal part of many lecture courses. That shift instructors feel when they go from lecture-based courses to a lab class is the shift they are referring to in student-centered instruction, switching from dispenser to facilitator and learners going from passive to active learning. Most of the instructor’s work happens before the lab begins with perhaps a pre-lab, setting up the equipment, making sure students stay on task by outlining lab report requirements and having students turn in documentation showing what they have done. This is student-centered learning. The instructor set up the experience and then sits back and let them experience it. There is no lecturing during a lab, yet students learn. Learning through active engagement helps students better relate what they are doing to what they already know resulting in higher levels of retention and comprehension (Angelo & Cross, 1993).
Although not a new concept, some may struggle with the shift to the student-centered approach. Taking this familiar concept and applying it to the lecture part of a course is something many might find foreign. Many others have found it worth their time in making the transformation in everything they teach because many students are more engaged and respond much better to being an active participant in their learning. Other students though who were counting on putting in seat time for another lecture series while chatting on their phone, napping or doing other things have been found to resist the expectation they engage. Each instructor needs to decide what is best for their learners, but keep in mind there is no one right way to create a student-centered environment. Your subject material, student population, and personal comfort level should all be taken into consideration.
The IMPACT Program at Purdue University provides resources and support for instructors to redesign their course in a student-centered way. The comfort level of the faculty member is of utmost importance and nothing is imposed without the instructor initiating the desire for change.
On April 10th, IMPACT will be hosting Eric Mazur who will be talking about how he transformed his course from lecture to student-centered. Faculty, staff, and students are invited to attend.
Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers.
Dewey, J. (1910). How We Think. New York: D.C. Heath & CO.
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