When we conceive of teaching, it’s easy to see faculty minted with PhDs as knowledge sources who lead learning experiences. While this conception served past educational models well, for digital learning, it’s helpful to think of faculty and instructional designers as conjurers practicing our art with an external medium: the learning management system (LMS), which should inspire students and guide them. When the LMS is designed intuitively and intentionally, many predictable online teaching issues disappear, and students perform better.
When you take time to design the LMS intuitively and intentionally, many predictable online teaching issues disappear, and students perform better.
Preparing the Stage: Designing Student-Centered Courses
Online students need to feel invested. For this reason, we often turn to andragogy (Knowles), learning design, and adult learning theory as we develop online courses. By enabling students to make informed decisions and allowing them to make reasonable choices within an organized learning environment, we help students gain self-worth and derive personal agency. The self-selection process thus often inspires them to become doers, not just top-performing students who complete their assignments, but also good citizens who learn that acting and following through makes a tangible difference in their everyday lives.
Today’s digital courses are often student-centered for practical and philosophical reasons. Faculty and instructional designers build courses rich with multimedia content, interactive activities, and imaginative exercises to accommodate different learners, to inspire active learning, to stimulate higher-order thinking, and to satisfy demanding students. Designing courses so students apply content to new learning situations and using authentic forms of assessment for demonstrating mastery, faculty and instructional designers offer holistic ways of evaluating learning.
By enabling students to make informed decisions and allowing them to make reasonable choices within an organized learning environment, we help students gain self-worth and derive personal agency.
For example, with nursing courses, we often include case studies with real-life scenarios on relevant topics that require collaboration from the instructional designer, the subject matter expert, and a multimedia expert. Similarly, in a finance course, to incorporate authenticity and student-centered learning, we can ask students to think about their dream home and create an assignment where they generate amortization tables with interest rates on 30-year and 15-year loans and calculate monthly payments. By planning carefully and thinking creatively, we express belief in students and empower them. When we design asynchronous, student-focused courses that require active learning, we acknowledge the busy lives our students lead and the flexibility they need to learn.
Focusing on student success, online faculty and instructional designers collaborate to create the best learning experience possible, but no matter how many hours we plan and no matter how skilled we are at classroom management, the online experience rests on how students interact with the LMS. For this reason, it is wise to spend most of the pre-class prep time focusing on how the course orients students.
For instance, if you know students have a major project due with video recordings, then consider having it due over a series of weeks. In the first week, you can provide an overview to the assignment. In the second week, students can submit their outlines for feedback. For the third week, students can submit an annotated bibliography. You can continue like that until the assignment is fully produced and lead students through a large assignment in stages. If you plan carefully and construct an LMS that guides students, it will have huge payoffs, including far less time managing the course, greater student satisfaction, and greater student success.
If you plan carefully and construct an LMS that guides students, it will have huge payoffs, including far less time managing the course, greater student satisfaction, and greater student success.
Engaging Students: Orienting with the LMS through Design
Rather than inundate students with detailed introductions, give them a laundry list of expectations, or flood them with content, our best strategy is to engage students and orient them with the LMS through design. When we do that, our students thrive, and we all win. It takes time, advance planning, and collaboration with IT professionals. But the rewards are worth every moment we take to learn a new digital tool or deploy a creative exercise that enables students to assume the responsible role we’ve dreamed they could play.
Good design creates something that both engages and leads; well-designed courses orient students through their structure, organization, and aesthetic. Aim for simplicity and efficiency, always keeping the user experience and students’ needs in mind. Draw students in, get them hooked, and help them feel comfortable. If that happens, then many time-consuming classroom management issues will disappear, the quality of discussions will improve, and students will exercise personal agency. There is a great case to be made for following the same basic LMS design and deploying syllabus templates and LMS templates for all courses within a department, college, or program. Such alignments create comfort and familiarity for students, and that comfort translates into an easy orientation.
Finding a course easy to navigate means students with families, jobs, and fulltime school schedules can manage time efficiently while appreciating the many ways their school meets their needs.
Finding a course easy to navigate means students with families, jobs, and fulltime school schedules can manage time efficiently while appreciating the many ways their school meets their needs. So, design can communicate the persona of the institution and provide the care and investment learners need to flourish. Interestingly, by designing the LMS with the intuitive experience of the end-user in mind, we make it easy for other faculty colleagues to step in and take over. With an intuitive LMS as guide and source of inspiration, learning is ready to happen with anyone, anywhere, anyhow.
Waiting for the Performance to Begin
Online students play lifetime roles; they are the stars. We sit in the audience, having constructed the stage, the set, the walls, the props. We man the lights and flood the performing space and watch while they learn. Ultimately, we encourage, coach, and applaud as a digital pageant unfolds through the art of filament and light.
After your pre-semester online course planning ends, spend time rethinking things. Instead of seeing yourself as a sage on the stage, imagine yourself as conjurer who has created a fantastical form for interactive learning. In your physical absence, the LMS awaits your students, who will appear, light onto the stage, and shine.