What Faculty Need to Know About ‘Learner Experience Design’

Somewhere between our collective obsession with predictive analytics and infatuation with adaptive learning, higher education wonks and practitioners are making time to deconstruct the quality attributes of online courses. The online “quality” debate stems, in part, from explosion in institutional demand for online experiences and resulting pressure on faculty to design and facilitate online courses.

Forced to quickly get up and running with online classes, faculty—and the instructional designers who help them make the transition—often resort to checklists to create the bare minimum of what’s required to build a “quality” online course. The ID ticks off the boxes for alignment of learning outcomes and accessibility and sends the faculty on his or her way to teach the course. But in our rush to get online, are we losing something fundamental? Does our current quality evaluation ensure a wonderful learning experience?

The emerging field of Learner Experience Design or LX design is about balancing the need for quality course design with the central role of human interaction in online learning. It’s a collaborative process that engages faculty in the design and improvement of online courses. But LX design doesn’t have to be daunting or complicated. Here are three big LX ideas for faculty who may be new to online learning, and hope to create and facilitate more humanized online learning experiences.

Relationships Matter

Learning is about personal relationships. Deep learning doesn’t happen through reading or rote memorization online any more than in the physical world. It is the experiences and meaningful conversations (or maybe human interactions) within a course that enable students to critically reflect, and deepen their learning. All too often, online students feel isolated, which can decrease motivation and increase attrition.

When learning occurs entirely through computer-mediated instruction, professors often overlook simple steps like asking participants to introduce themselves. Details like asking your students to create a video introduction to a class can have a powerful impact. Video-based introductions can help develop a community of learners more quickly than simply posting text on a discussion board. Students who are in courses with introductory videos have been shown to actively participate in online discussions very early in the course. And research shows that learners who are more engaged and have higher levels of interaction, have higher success rates.

Tech Should Increase—Not Replace—Social Interaction

Social interaction plays a fundamental role in cognition, especially in online mediums. Some technologies enable social interaction while others purposefully remove it. Millennials gravitate toward tools like SnapChat because they incorporate a human dimension and connectedness that text-based tools don’t. And in an online course, technology must play a role in fostering student-to-student, student-to-instructor and student-to-content interactions during break out groups, interactive polls or back channels.

New technologies promise a more adaptive and personalized learning experience. However, many are coding the human element out of learning. In a recent article on EdSurge George Siemens notes that while adaptive technology in large online or blended courses make learning more efficient, they’re perpetuating an outdated form of learning. Siemens cautions us on the negative effects of using technology without applying a human touch: “While machine learning and automation are obviating the need for learners to memorize content and develop routine skills, current edtech solutions still focus on helping learners develop these capabilities. Instead, they should drive students to hone their uniquely human traits—the ones that will help them thrive in an increasingly automated world."

Walk In Students’ Shoes

Participating as a student in an online course makes you a better online teacher—whether those experiences were good or bad. Preparing to teach online is not just about technology, it’s about pedagogy and communications online. Taking an online course provides faculty with the experience of being an online student. It is helpful to see the reasoning behind and/or “10,000 foot” view of the online environment - a sort of metacognition. It also provides opportunity to connect, collaborate, and communicate with peers (other faculty) to share and evaluate online teaching strategies and techniques.

Finally, don’t give up. It takes continuous improvement to get it right. The very best online experiences, like analog learning, are improved and iterated upon over time. Don’t be afraid to revisit design considerations after you learn more about what works and what doesn’t—for both the instructor and the students. Check in with your students during the course, and take time for critical reflection. Quality is about much more than checklists. Engagement is about more than data. We hope that as more faculty understand, and embrace, the field of LX design, both faculty and students will have more rewarding and meaningful online learning experiences.

Patrice Torcivia (@profpatrice) works on working on the design, production, and support for CornellX MOOCs, online courses and digital initiatives at Cornell University. Whitney Kilgore (@whitneykilgore) is the chief academic officer at iDesign.

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