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Higher Ed Online Learning May Have a Design Problem

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Take the things you love most about teaching: interacting with students, great conversations, and get rid of all that. Then take all the stuff you hate about teaching: the late night emails, questions about when stuff is due, and multiply that by 10. That’s what it’s like.

I heard this quote from a faculty member about – you guessed it- what it’s like to teach an online course. My brow furrowed a bit at the time. But the seriousness of this comment only just hit me. This professor is not alone in his feelings. I’d wager there are a lot of other faculty members who feel the same about teaching online. And to that, I can only think:

Instructional Designers have got to be on the front lines of solving this problem.

Why ID?

I think that instructional designers are poised to help with this, mostly because I think that this aversion to online is a function of design.

I was able to attend an AMAZING session at work a couple of weeks ago, a part of an online/hybrid design institute we’re piloting. And we had an awesome faculty member present along with folks from many different teams in our organization on student engagement in online hybrid. Those folks showcased and demoed how, with good design, engagement was more than possible, it became expected. it became a norm.

Faculty asked some important questions, but at the same time, the type you would expect to hear: “How do you deal with students who don’t want to participate?” And I love that the faculty member was able to say (and the session did a great job of reinforcing) that what’s essential is that the faculty have to be involved and present in the online space, nurture community, understand discussion forums as a democratization of access, as well and model engagement. If they couch it in terms of “Your responses are shallow,” or “No one’s been posting,” then engaging in discussion begins to feel like a burden. Instead, the suggestions were that faculty should first, ask good questions; next, prompt and respond to student responses; and last, be comfortable with people participating at different levels. Faculty also need to assess themselves. If they aren’t engaging, then how can they expect students to?

The presentation team also discussed engagement in assignments. They showed us some awesome examples from other faculty that included authentic work like contributing to efforts to transcribe important letters and contributing to Wikipedia. I don’t know about you, but I would be so excited as a student to know that this assignment for which I was receiving class credit, was also work that went out into the real world.

Okay, Great Session. I get it. But What’s an ID to Do?

What this session meant for me was that as an ID, I needed to do more to help faculty understand what they could do to have a really awesome online teaching experience.

One of the most important first things may be setting expectations. As an organization, and individually as an ID, we(I) need to help faculty understand the amount of work it takes to make an awesome and engaging course. Engagement doesn’t just happen. And to be engaged with, you have to engage (social media 101, right?).

Next, we(I) also need to offer solutions: ideas about how to work engagement into assignments, crafting good questions for discussion forums, making a plan to schedule in engagement in those forums. It think that implementing the design thinking approach will help me to gain some empathy for the faculty experience while also allowing opportunities to educate on designing and running an online course effectively and push back on this idea that online courses can’t be engaging. An essential part of this will be to offer solutions at varying levels. One of the things that I’m learning is that we have folks who are ready to jump in and try stuff (folks I’m on board with) and folks who are downright argumentative and resistant (folks I’m not very good with). We need to offer solutions for people who maybe need to dip their toes (what’s the smallest possible thing we can try?) as well as for people who are ready to go big.

None of this is or will be particularly easy for me, but it was an incredibly important thing to learn about and consider.

[On a side note, we also discussed how teacher presence, and particularly, how a teacher responding to a particular comment could affect students. Some research here: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360131514002723. One idea I’m favoring (along with setting expectations, of course) is the PBS Idea Channel approach. If a faculty member didn’t want to negatively affect the conversation or didn’t feel they had time to peek into each group, making a comment response video at the end of a discussion period would be an amazing way to create unique content within a course (such that it only applied to that course run) and engage with the students by showing both personality and that the teacher was actually reading and valuing comments.]

Have you experienced this attitude of online learning as a burden? Do you agree that design can help solve the problem? Let me know in the comments.

2 Comments

  1. Ashley
    October 11, 2016 - Reply

    Hi Kristin, I really enjoyed this post. I especially liked your point about making a plan to schedule engagement in the forums. I think many people who are new to online but experienced in on-ground are stuck in the mentality of “my class meets for three hours a week, and that’s when the engagement happens,” but don’t know how to translate that kind of rigorous pre-scheduled format into a space where students are posting at different times. At my institution, we actually don’t have any guidelines for faculty engagement once the course is built, but I’ve found anecdotally that the ones who are engaging often in discussion forums are motivating the students to post more, and the conversation is really elevated. That modeling of engagement seems to work very well. I agree that this definitely needs to be a part of the ID process. Thank you for the insightful post!

    • October 11, 2016

      Thanks so much, Ashley! How are you guys coaching faculty towards this engagement modelling? I know one of the tough things is often that ID services, even within higher ed, are sort of on-demand and that deep consulting-type relationship where it’s a two-way street of honoring each other’s expertise and trying experiments may not be present.

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