The COVID-19 pandemic pushed many teaching institutions to online environments to engage with their students. To different degrees, they all found it challenging, from large universities to an independent piano teacher down your road.
Arguably, until 2020, the vox-populi had it that the traditional, full face-to-face teaching offered the best experience for students, with some blended learning here and there. Recent reports tell us about the struggles of academics to adapt (Antunes et al, 2021), about the relationship between perceived effort of learning online and on campuses (Deslauriers, 2019) and even how students from some courses might prefer face-to-face learning (Abbasi et al, 2020).
Yet, the previous ‘normal’ must be put in perspective given the extreme circumstances we have all witnessed. If you were facing a sudden flood in your town or village most people would use sandbags and any means possible to keep the water of their house, expecting it to subside in a few days. But what if the water kept rising and showed no sign of subsiding? Would you then need to pay more attention towards dwelling designs that are versatile and work over water?
If we think of universities fighting against a ‘flood’ of Covid 19, we can see that simply moving lectures on to Zoom and sharing PowerPoints with students will not be enough given the longevity of the situation.
Making conscious choices when designing learning and teaching really can create a new way of living (or teaching in this case) that takes place over the flood water making sure you don’t end like Leonardo DiCaprio in a cheesy movie. In that process of designing the learning, some essential questions are:
- What is a good student learning experience?
- What do the students need for learning?
- When do they need it?
It is only fair to acknowledge the effort that many academics are already making to pivot into online teaching and learning experiences. And it is because of them that many of the answers to the questions above we can find in existing scholarly research. This, in turn, also brings to light that we cannot take for granted what has been taking place thus far (this is to say that one-hour long stand-up-and-talk lectures might have been the comfort zone for many, but that does not mean it is the ideal for the students today). Indeed, sometimes one might encounter difficulties when inviting practitioners out of their comfort teaching zones. Why should we disrupt traditional forms of teaching and challenge ourselves to do better? Well, for the same reason that we would need to design more versatile, long-lasting and sustainable architectures that are prepared for constantly changing and unforeseen challenges of diverse nature.
Some institutions and teachers have been working this way since before the pandemic in learning designs that contemplate new, flexible, different and technology-enhanced forms of teaching, learning and engagement (I could quote several examples here, from universities of Derby, Northampton, Coventry, College London amongst others as well as institutions in the private sector, such as Pearson). Institutions and professionals that had been discretely developing their online learning offering, now find an opportunity to further test and invest in their course design, building learning experiences from the ground-up, creating better solutions. And there resides a cornerstone that explains why we need learning designers now, which I will talk about in more detail in a later publication.
Although I can’t fully answer the ‘essential’ questions I’ve posed above within this short piece, I’d like to share some basics that should be considered:
- What a lecturer explains or instructs in class with a simple gesture or body language is not grasped from behind a screen, so it must be explicitly explained in diverse formats on the screen. The communication channel could be potentially narrower than a face-to-face experience and the room for free interpretation can bring confusion and frustration both to students and teachers. Instructional designers live in this space.
- The above is married with effective visual communication and consistency in the navigation of the learning space (i.e. user experience and user interaction) and learning materials. Graphic designers live in this realm to a great extent.
- Live session via MS Teams or Blackboard Collaborate are effective to engage with students in fluid dialogue, like seminars, but are not effective for ‘delivering’ content as in one-directional lectures (why attend a live session for material I can read about? Or even watch a recording at my convenience?).
- Activity design is a key element that needs to rely on both points above, and make explicit connections with learning objectives, so that students are in the driving seat once they have gone through the learning materials. In a face to face setting, this could be second nature (as suggested in the first point of this list), but online students would not benefit, for example, from instantly teaming-up with peers sitting next to them in a classroom to do an activity and instead need a clearer path of instruction.
All points above have to be considered as a whole coherent piece in which teaching is not about ‘content delivery’ but about designing a good learning journey that offers variety in student-student, student-content and student-tutor interactions (Anderson, 2004) and variety in activities.
Learning designers bridge this gap through co-design and collaboration between academics and other design experts mentioned in the above list. It is therefore important to acknowledge that creating online learning experiences is not simply about replicating existing face to face provision (which has its own set of challenges and needs to be scrutinised accordingly) but requires investing a fresh design effort to create something that is fit for purpose and responds to specific challenges and opportunities.
Anderson, T. (2004) ‘Toward a theory of online learning’, in Theory and Practice of Online Learning, eds T. Anderson & F. Elloumi, Athabasca University, Athabasca, Canada, pp. 33-60.
Abbasi, S; Ayoob, T; Malik, A; Memon, S.I. (2020) Perceptions of students regarding E-learning during Covid-19 at a private medical college. Pakistan Journal of Medical Sciences. 36 (COVID19-S4).
Antunes, V.T; Armellini, A; Howe, R. (2021) Beliefs and engagement in an institution-wide pedagogic shift. Teaching in Higher Education.
Deslauriers, L; McCarty, L. S; Miller, K; Callaghan, K; Kestin, G. (2019) Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 116 (39), pp. 19251-19257