Tips, Tricks, & Trends in Instructional Design (Part 2)

DSC_0040-001By Eric Hudson, GOA Instructional Designer

Tips, Tricks, & Trends in Instructional Design (Part 2): Designing with the Student Experience in Mind

Millions of words have been dedicated to understanding young people. Terms for who they are and what they care about abound: Millenial, Digital Native, Generation Y, etc. While these terms may be memorable, they are not particularly useful when it comes to teaching, especially online, where a teacher’s assumptions about students can negatively affect his/her effectiveness. Coming to understand and eventually empathize with a real student experience will enhance your teaching and course design. This first-person account of one tenth grader’s online education experience attests to the importance of an online teacher understanding the lives of his/her students. By making the learning experience of their courses engaging, fluid, and manageable for the student, teachers will find students not only learn and perform well, but also make more meaningful personal connections.

  • Good instructions anticipate questions: Online teachers typically will not be present when introducing tasks to students. Students in an online course — accustomed to raising their hands or dropping by their teacher’s office — might not know where to turn if the task isn’t clear to them. Thus, clear and thorough instructions for online tasks both small and large are critical. The best instructions I saw covered the “5W’s and 1H”; they anticipated typical student questions: What am I supposed to do? For whom or with whom am I doing it? When am I supposed to do it (this is especially important when designing an assessment with multiple steps)? Where do I turn it in? How will I know I’m doing it correctly?

  • Visuals matter: Students are accustomed to a teacher guiding them through course material, using verbal and visual cues to offer real-time reinforcement and correction. As children of the 21st century, they are also accustomed to fluid, engaging online experiences; they are not well-trained in overcoming technological obstacles. As course designers, teachers must create clear learning paths that students can navigate mostly on their own. Simple tips like avoiding long chunks of text; using elements like videos, imagery, and other media to make the page appealing; and organizing the lesson and the course in a way that makes the proper order of lessons and tasks self-evident are challenges the online teacher must tackle after he/she had decided what material to cover.

  • Understand the multitude of ways students communicate: We assume that “connection” is equivalent to “synchronicity,” yet young people prove us wrong every day. They are accustomed to asynchronous communication (texting, social media), and online teachers can use that to their advantage to avoid the logistical challenges of constantly trying to connect via phone or video chat. Discussion forums, collaborative documents, or social media can be as rich and lively as a real-time conversation.

  • Simply including a discussion forum doesn’t mean there will be discussion: While students may be accustomed to short and informal communication via text or social media, they need coaching and inspiration when it comes to meaningful asynchronous discussion. Consider two prompts: 1) “React to the article’s ideas about deception” and 2) “When is deception an appropriate tool in psychological research? How do you justify it?” The second prompt demands the students take a position, that they invest in and defend their positions. Beyond crafting a good prompt, the teacher must combat a student’s natural tendency to do “just enough” and be explicit about his/her expectations for what happens after that first post: How often is a student expected to return? How long will this discussion be “live”? What makes for an effective, constructive response to a classmate?

  • Set agendas for synchronous conversations: Video chats are an amazing tool, but they are not perfect recreations of brick-and-mortar classrooms — the technology might have delays, social awkwardness can occur when students are not chatting regularly, and spontaneous and improvisational comments are less common. Teachers can make video chats more productive by setting agendas and giving students tasks to accomplish during the conversation.

  • When teaching the course material, don’t forget to teach the tech: Our teachers make use of a wide variety of excellent tech tools: wikis, collaborative documents, video chats, and digital editing software, among others. We wrongly assume, however, that students already know or can easily intuit these resources. Students may be nimble with technology, but only certain kinds. They also have come to expect technology to be easy to use. An unanticipated struggle can eat up much of a student’s time and motivation. Whether teachers include an instructional video, a presentation, or even simple but clear written instructions, they must provide their students with the right resources to help master relevant technology.

  • Keep student “clicks” to a minimum: It is difficult to keep online students focused on a single task if that task involves multiple files and tabs or windows. Utilize tools like hyperlinks and embed features, and avoid unnecessary file downloads and multiple trips to external websites. Keep learning paths as clean and straight as possible.

  • When possible, include exemplars: Because of the asynchronous schedule of an online course, students will need plenty of information to use as references when completing assignments. Presenting models of good work to students can often save time when drafting instructions and anticipate questions that will pop up as the student works.

  • Students crave feedback and connection; give it to them! Giving regular, meaningful feedback is one of the most challenging — and most important — aspects of online teaching. Students especially want those small, low stakes forms of feedback (the equivalent of a smile, a pat on the back, or a spontaneous hallway conversation). Instead of simply reading and grading a discussion forum, contribute regularly to it. Instead of simply emailing graded assignments back, take five minutes to post an informal video response to student work. Instead of developing generic emails, use your students’ first names in every interaction. Teachers who manage this challenge well are teachers who understand the student’s wish to engage not just the course material, but the person behind it.

For a student, the online learning experience will often look different from his/her brick and mortar learning experience, and effective instructional design springs from imagining and empathizing with that student. Small, intentional adjustments can make an enormous difference in your student’s engagement with your course.