​What Makes a Smart Course ‘Smart’?

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In the technology world, “smart” is often synonymous with “better” or “more advanced.” We speak of smartwatches, smartphones, and smart TVs. These are smart because they can connect to the internet and generally do more, or do something better, than their traditional, often analog counterparts. Smart devices create opportunities for interactive and, in some cases, autonomous operation. Peripheral connections through Bluetooth and Wi-Fi enable devices to track our movements and communicate faster to improve our productivity, fitness or health.

So it stands to reason that using the term “smart” to describe the application of technology within college courses might have a similar connotation. Online courses are “smart,” one might assume, because they use technology to improve educational outcomes or, at least, create new efficiencies or extend the abilities of faculty and students.

Yet, while technology exists in the world of higher education, it’s not clear that technology is actually making courses smarter. And in our rush to move courses online, we’re all too often putting innovation ahead of pedagogy.

In the early days of "course cartridges”—an LMS feature that allowed instructors to plug published content right into their courses—online courses were essentially digitized versions of static (textbook) content. Print content was uploaded and accessible via the LMS, where faculty could view discussion prompts and suggestions. A few trees were saved, but courses weren’t any smarter.

So if automation and interactivity differentiate a smart phone from a phone, what makes a course “smart”? What attributes of course design and applications of technology transform outcomes and impact, as opposed to gratuitous investment in technology for technology’s sake? It turns out that what makes a course smart isn’t necessarily the use of impressive technology or data; it’s about the way technology enhances the practices of good teaching and learning. Here are four key attributes of a smart course:

Learner-Centric Design

Smart courses aren’t just about simple plug and play or digitized textbook content. The smartphone generation expects a level of engagement from software-based learning experiences that require deliberate design. For instance, think about the tremendous improvements in user experience between programs that run on Windows 95 and modern iPad apps.

Smart courses reflect the shift toward an emerging field called Learning Experience Design. Professional courseware design teams made up of subject matter experts, instructors, front-end software developers, and multimedia producers work together to develop courses that are rooted in applied learning science. A learner doesn’t waste time trying to navigate the course, but instead spends all of their time learning. Smart courses draw the learner in with an elegant user interface and engaging experience, with guiding learning that replicates the way a student might interact with an instructor.

Designed Adaptivity

Adaptive technology that depends on algorithms alone is insufficient to foster learner-centric design. After all, one can use the phrase “adaptive” to describe the California DMV computer-based exam because an algorithm dynamically selects the next multiple choice question based on the user’s performance thus far. Is that adaptive? Yes. A good experience? Hardly so.

Like great teachers, thoughtful instructional design teams see patterns in how people learn. They understand where students may struggle and build in adaptive feedback to provide real-time support. They know that students learn by doing, and so they provide interactive widgets or simulations for students to explore.

Technology can make courses smart when it is used to support the learner in the same way a personal tutor or teacher would: by providing additional scaffolding around concepts that a student is struggling with and guiding a student to a deeper understanding of material.

Smart courses also employ “designed adaptivity,” where faculty and designers determine rules that drive feedback and content sequence in lessons based on student performance to ensure students receive the right information at the right time.

Emphasize Learning-by-Doing

Both in the classroom and online, courses are engaging when they encourage active learning, and allow students to interact with material in a meaningful way. This may be analog (doing experiments in a lab, for example) or digital (participating in simulations, taking a virtual field trip, responding to interactive content).

Learning-by-doing has powerful implications, particularly in science courses that are, all too often, stumbling blocks for students. Consider the case of Lone Star Community College in Texas, where faculty members are using technology to guide students through an exploration of the Earth, moving them to understand the basics of biology. Students participate in simulations, get tested for understanding, are encouraged to reflect on what they learn, and collaborate with others during their journey.

Enable Feedback Loops and Continuous Improvement

Perhaps one of the most defining attributes of smart tech is the insight generated by data. The data collected from a smart course informs ongoing improvements. A smart course enables course designers and educators to iterate their design, responding to student feedback or data gathered during a student’s use of the course. Analytics and the product evolution they enable are, therefore, critical to defining a smart course.

At Arizona State University, designers are using analytics generated as students progress through an online general science course to study the patterns of particular student subgroups. They’re A/B testing which activities have the biggest impact on individual students, and then making adjustments to the course accordingly.

Technology may be the medium, but the method is what really makes a course “smart.” To unlock the benefits of “smart tech” in higher education, we must focus on the method. Entrepreneurs, administrators, technologists, and faculty must work together to design for digital, while creating experiences that are adaptive, hands-on, and responsive. And the work does not end there. Just like a smartwatch should encourage a positive change in physical activity, a smart course must prompt continuous improvements in the teaching and learning process.

Dror Ben-Naim (@DrorBenNaim) is the founder and CEO of Smart Sparrow and a professor of practice in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University.

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