A Bridge to Better Learning

My brother said something to me when I was young and he was teaching me to bowl. As the family watched me roll gutter ball after gutter ball he came up behind me and said, “that ball is going right where you throw it.” When I think of the experiences our learners have—whether they continue and succeed or give up—I often think, “what is it about the way we’re designing this experience that is causing this to happen?”

In higher education, that isn’t the default way of thinking for many educators: if students aren’t successful it’s generally because “they aren’t trying hard enough” or “they didn’t ask for my help.” Even more so in an online environment, the instructor needs to be attuned to what is happening and how their intended experience may be different from the reality for the learner.

Fortunately there are tools that aid in evaluating what the learner experience really is. In the face-to-face environment, it’s sometimes hard to truly know who is struggling in real time—whether the learner in the middle of the room who seems to be nodding at your presentation is really engaged, or daydreaming about what s/he will be doing later. In the virtual space, if the experience has been engineered right, the instructor knows how long the learner has been in the learning resources, which concepts they are struggling with, what supports have been most effective in helping them succeed, and more.

I don’t use terms like learning engineering or content architecture lightly. Creating an effective learning environment is no less challenging than designing or building a bridge. This is true for many reasons, not the least of which is this: human behavior is just as formidable as steel and concrete—but it's far less predictable. And so, like building a bridge, natural science is essential but social sciences and the humanities come into play as well. I worked at Six Flags in college and it was always fascinating to listen to the park designers study the difference between how they had designed the park for people to move about and engage and the reality of what they actually did. We see the same thing when we study our learners’ actions in user experience labs, and like those Six Flags planners, we are constantly observing and listening to improve upon the experience and help more learners be successful.

The online learning environment requires courage, humility, empathy, and above all the ability to listen to a lot of stakeholders that are not traditionally empowered in the classroom. Whenever we are designing learning experiences we bring in practitioners from the field to partner with our academicians in determining what knowledge, skills, abilities, and dispositions (KSADs) are necessary for the profession these learners are about to enter. When we begin to design the experience, our faculty and subject matter experts partner with experts in learning science/engineering, assessment, and user experience to build the most effective environment and experience. Most students who don’t succeed don’t do so because of non-academic reasons. It’s not that they can’t get the content; rather it’s generally that life gets in the way—issues such as financial aid, hunger, mental health, work, family life, diversity/equity/inclusion, and so much more. Particularly for nontraditional learners, it is not always an easy thing for an instructor or an institution to truly accept that they will never be more than the third highest priority in a learner’s life, situated neatly behind family and work. But it’s true.

As a national leader in online education and online learning experiences, we constantly have to guard against ego, the natural tendency to fall back on tradition during stressful challenges, or, worse, the assumption that because things worked out in our previous design iteration, that we got it right. The last is the most dangerous, because higher education is a dynamic space right now. Who our students are, the technologies by which they engage, the jobs they will aspire to acquire—all of this is changing so rapidly that solutions are like sandcastles on the beach as the tide comes in.

In the short term during this current crisis, it’s great that our higher education institutions are looking for ways to ensure that students are able to keep learning, and that online modalities are a part of that. I would encourage those instructors who really want to do it well to not look at it as “better than doing nothing,” but, even as they work to complete the current term, to use this opportunity to learn both the advantages and challenges that come with online education. Hopefully, more and more instructors and institutions become part of the community and the conversation that works tirelessly to marry new ways of learning and engagement with truths that have already stood the test of time.

Academically Speaking Blog

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