Instructional design


My priorities for online course design


1. Significant, meaningful learning outcomes

I believe in designing for significant learning. That is, creating learning outcomes that go beyond students’ short-term recall of the course content.

Following L. Dee Fink’s model for learning outcomes in Creating Significant Learning Experiences, I believe designers need to work with instructors to establish course outcomes (and then activities and assessments) that include all of the following—and not just the first category:

  • Foundational knowledge
  • Application through real tasks
  • Integration with other areas of knowledge
  • Personal changes in attitudes
  • Learning about how to learn

“What do you really want a student to have gained from this course a year after it ends?”

The question could sound cynical, but it’s not; it’s about focus and mindfulness in design. Great professors bring meaning to their courses, although often not in a way that’s written down in the syllabus. A good instructional designer helps to build that meaning into the course design so it’s still there when the course goes online. This makes the course more engaging and allows for better, more accurate assessment of student learning.


2. Rich, authentic tasks and materials

The best courses (online and in the classroom) are those built around problems, projects, and tasks instead of lectures.

The closer to reality the task and the materials are, the easier it will be for a student to take their knowledge and skills out of the classroom with them. The richer and more immersive the information is, the more discerning and focused a student will have to learn to be.

Questions about transfer seem to haunt every article about adaptive multiple-choice tests and other new technologies. Roger Schank’s project-based constructivist approach seems a little too pure to ever apply meaningfully in a school or university. But one point he makes over and over, such as in his book Lessons in Learning, E-learning, and Training, does make absolute sense to me: 

If students perceive their work in a class to be all about getting a good grade on a multiple choice test, mostly what they’re really learning how to do is to study for a multiple choice test.

An online course platform—like a lecture hall—often bears little resemblance to real life. The key is to purposefully include authenticity as much as possible: in tasks, data, materials, and structure. And online communication and collaboration is now a part of so many professional and academic fields that there’s already an array of authentic online tasks for just about everything.

Primary sources and real-world practice are the stuff of meaningful activities and assessments.


3. Connection, collaboration, and community

The biggest danger of an online class is the potential for students to feel isolated and to disengage. It’s not doomed to be that way, though; people communicate and form communities online constantly. A course that promotes those natural kinds of interaction can be every bit as engaging as a face-to-face course (or more so).

The first key is to help students make initial personal connections. Many online courses begin with some sort of “post a short bio” activity, which I think is absolutely worth the time. (Of course, such an activity could be opened up to more creative possibilities.)

Then, as the course progresses, you can use small-group activities to let students learn from each other and engage in peer review. This works particularly well with ill-defined authentic tasks.

Last, create an environment where your students can interact as a community. Require class-wide discussions and encourage students to share comments and questions with each other. Don’t be afraid to let the class work through questions as a community before you intervene.


4. Personal approach and supportive feedback

A professor’s syllabus and lecture notes can be as dry as a technical manual. That’s OK in a face-to-face course because the professor’s real interaction with students is usually a great deal more personal and engaging. In an online course, though, students interact with their instructor largely through text: syllabus, website, discussions, exercises, and e-mail.

Even the most effusive write-ups of research on e-learning and online learning always include some sort of caveat that boils down to this:

Students don’t engage well when they feel like they’re learning from an exercise book or a robot.

Really, though, there are simple ways of making things sound less robotic and dry–methods that have been used by orators, marketers, and educators for as long as people could talk. It’s about personalization.

Write in second person (“You will see that…” or “Write a paper on…” instead of “One will see that…” or “Students must write a paper on…”). Use contractions. Basically, write as if you were speaking directly to your students. Don’t be silly or creepy, of course, but just make sure you sound like a real person who’s talking to another real person. Be yourself and don’t be afraid of letting your personality come through.

The way you write can give students enthusiasm and confidence.


5. Authentic or homemade images and multimedia

When people think of e-learning, they think of those terrible HR tutorials they have to take at work–the ones with the bland stock photographs of corporate office workers in various poses.

I really believe that the minute a student (or employee) starts a tutorial and sees those bad stock photos, they roll their eyes and turn off their attention. It’s another personalization issue—they get the feeling they’re learning not from a human instructor but from a corporate database.

I think images can be powerful in online learning: to engage, provoke, explain, tell stories, and suggest metaphors. In my experience, the best images are ones that seem carefully chosen or created just for that course or tutorial. Not bad cell-phone pictures, not slick stock photos, but thoughtful homemade images. (When people ask for examples, I usually grab a recent New York Times Magazine, which has images for each story that are thought-provoking, full of character, and not too slick.)


6. Purposeful, guiding user experience and graphic design

In an online course, the student’s mental picture of the class is probably the website they’re doing their work on. That seems bland and un-engaging, but it presents a number of opportunities for course designers.

First, the layout of the website and materials can be used as a tool to convey a cohesive narrative for the course. You can group activities and materials together visually, show hierarchies of information, and turn a syllabus into a visual timeline or mind map.

In addition, depending on the limitations of the platform, you have opportunities to add rich media to the course site. For example, you could embed tutorial videos right into a page next to the assignments they support. You could also put an evocative full-bleed image on the site each week aligning to the discussion for the week.

The possibilities are tremendous—and are so far usually underused. An online syllabus could be a powerful and meaningful guide for students.


7. Stories

The research and analysis about the significance of narrative and storytelling (see Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal for a compelling popular-audience overview) is convincing because it’s so easy to observe in our own lives. It’s also easy to see the value of story in learning. At a high level, it’s how we remember things. It’s also one of the best ways to get people’s interest.

Stories can be used to great effect in online courses in many ways. I’ve seen many courses that were really engaging because of overarching narratives that held the activities and assessments together. Individual assignments, too, can gain tremendously from a concrete, realistic story. Finally, the most engaging videos and multimedia pieces are ones that tell stories: interviews with real people, realistic case studies or scenarios, and interactive simulations with a story and real data.


8. Thoughtful, holistic analysis and evaluation

My last thought about instructional design is what I think is the difference between competent design and great design: You have to approach instructional analysis (at the beginning) and evaluation (in the middle and at the end) with mindfulness and a respect for learning as a complex system.

Learning theory—behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism, or whichever other—is always imperfect and incomplete. Complicated instructional design processes, too, can be comprehensive but still let you come up short. Like ecosystems or human biology, the way we learn is too complex to boil down to simple rules or to understand with slivers of data.

I believe that instructional designers do their best work when they design around authentic, meaningful tasks. That’s the kind of learning that involves critical thinking, creativity, and practical application. Parsing these tasks into tiny particles and designing (and collecting data) for each can be a dangerous proposition–it’s only useful if you really understand the complexities of the mind and the nuances of the subject matter. Sometimes, I think, designers can focus on micro-design without noticing that the pieces don’t add back up to the real tasks and understanding.

The lesson, for me, is to trust real life and big-picture over individual pieces of data, and to be humble and careful when I approach new subject areas. And especially be humble about instructional design, which we’re still learning to do well.