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Consciously Designing an Online Environment for Every Learner’s Needs

The EvoLLLution | Consciously Designing an Online Environment for Every Learner’s Needs
When the online environment has intention behind its design, students benefit first and foremost. But be mindful of how much you’re putting out there, as too much information can be as useful as too little.

In wake of the pandemic, higher education has come to understand the value of online education, but there’s more work to be done for online education to reach its full potential and serve learners (and faculty) who haven’t experienced it before. In creating high-quality online programming, it’s important to be mindful of all learner demographics and to meet them where they are, providing equitable and accessible education. In this interview, Christina Amato discusses the infrastructure needed, how institutions can leverage their current digital resources and the importance of designing an online environment for all learners.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How do students benefit from engaging in consciously designed online programming? 

Christina Amato (CA): Consciously designed online programming means that we intentionally strive to make online courses and lessons dynamic, learner-focused and based on the highest quality standards and principles of universal design (UDL). Online courses are more than just a repository of course materials: they become living, vibrant spaces for connection, learning, and dialogue. Consciously designed learning can reduce the anxiety some students experience around generalized stereotypes of online learning (“I’m left on my own to learn,” or “I can’t study this subject online”) by providing a clear, deliberate pathway guided by purposeful faculty-to-student and student-to-student interaction, data and design expertise on how students learn best in virtual spaces.

When best practices of online course and program design are deployed, students benefit first and foremost by experiencing a quality learning environment. They gain confidence in their skills as an online learner, while also expanding their knowledge and mastery of their course material and program. It doesn’t feel like a chore or a marathon; it’s simply built into the learning experience of the classroom. Retention of learning will increase, and ultimately students will be more successful in completing courses and programs.

At Sinclair, we measure success through course surveys, student satisfaction surveys, and tracking course and program outcomes. We take our student feedback seriously, and over time, we build that feedback into our online design and future course revisions. Our online courses parallel face-to-face courses in success rates–another very important metric we use to determine if students enjoy the same quality experience in online courses as they with on-campus courses. A fall 2019 survey also told us that 90% of nearly 800 students who responded feel online courses at Sinclair help them to graduate on time, or faster. These are important pieces of data and feedback that validate how students experience the benefits of well-designed online courses.

Evo: What are the elements of a strong and well-designed online infrastructure?

CA: The foundational elements of well-designed online infrastructure are explored a little bit above—student experience and quality of the learning environment are number one. By using quality design elements in the course, the student gains competency in the virtual environment and also progresses through the course seamlessly, which enables them to avoid distractions from technology issues and focus on learning. What does this look like in practice? First, consistency across courses for core elements of each class: the syllabus is always in the same place and contains the same kinds of information for every course; the layout and flow of every course is the same–students never have to search for information; learning resources are always located in the same place, and units, topics, and assignments have similar flow.

Layout and consistency design basics are critical to universal design, but there are other foundational elements in strong online programs. The following are design practices of UDL in use at Sinclair and are incredibly important to ensuring a diversity of learning opportunities and experiences, and also inclusivity in online environments.

Multiple means of engagement: ensuring all learning styles are accommodated by including a variety of lessons and assessment types

Multiple means of representation: empowering learners in accessing and processing information by providing alternative means of receiving information, inclusive and accessible use of symbols and supporting language

Multiple means of action and expression: providing options for how learners demonstrate their knowledge and expression in interactivity.

Additionally, some colleges, including Sinclair, have taken the extra step of creating and implementing accessibility and equity rubrics customized to their own college environment. UDL creates the foundation for equitable, accessible course design, but at our college, we wanted to expand on these concepts to create a culture of cohesion and accountability in designing courses for all learners. In practice, this includes design that requires the following:

  • Learning activities that demonstrate that diverse ideas and perspectives are valued
  • Course communications and activities that enhance and facilitate personal connections among students and demonstrate that the instructor cares about each student’s participation and success
  • Course activities that facilitate students connecting course content to their own lives in a personal way

This is just a sample from our equity and accessibility rubric, but there are great best practices developed and shared by Peralta College.

Each of these principles and rubric components challenges us to think about the what, why and how of learner experience and engagement. What’s been proven effective? How do we know all learners are engaged and have equitable opportunities to be successful? Utilizing UDL and/or a course design rubric moves us from good intention in course design and delivery to best practice as a standard in all courses.

The course experience is just one aspect, though. Online infrastructure extends to training for both faculty and students, and students expect that services are seamlessly delivered online as well. It is not enough to assume faculty, staff and students will simply find their own way when complex technology systems are involved. At Sinclair, we require faculty to take basic training to teach online, with progressively advanced training scaffolded throughout their advancement as online instructors. This includes training for online pedagogical tools but also additional training and development when faculty want to develop online courses for the first time.

We also provide training for those who want to become certified in online course quality assurance. “How to Succeed Online” is a free mini-course required of all students before they enroll in online courses for the first time. This mini-course orients the student to the learning management system, including hands-on assignments, like how to send course emails and submit assignments to Dropbox. We find this required pre-requisite mini-course decreases students’ online learning anxiety and helps them be prepared to learn on day one of the semester without having to worry about learning the system, too. Sinclair also maintains Help Desk availability for all students, faculty and staff from 6 AM to midnight, seven days a week. We’ve found that accessing help at the point of technology struggle or breakdown is very important to keeping students on track.

Finally, providing online services like financial aid, advising and registration, is important, as they act as companion virtual services. If students study online, they tend to expect their services to be online, too. 2020 has certainly been a year of growth for most colleges and universities in this respect. Being required to migrate the delivery of education and all of its accompanying services and resources in such a rapid manner helped many of us innovate, try creative solutions and carefully listen to what students need from us in this new environment.

Evo: What are the challenges in rolling out an online infrastructure across the institution? 

CA: Challenges are abundant in rolling out robust online infrastructure. Ensuring all systems “talk” to one other is critical but also difficult. Student information systems, customer relationship management systems and learning management systems are just a few examples of systems that cut across the institution for different functions. Each contains important puzzle pieces of serving students in some capacity, but often these are “legacy” systems, and connection among them is not a given.

Other challenges include the cost of building and maintaining infrastructure, finding the talent and expertise needed to build and sustain these systems, and providing the necessary onboarding, training, and ongoing development typically required to utilize online systems. A big challenge can be individuals—faculty, staff, or students—who express reluctance to or anxiety about technology. In cases like this, it takes time, patience and a thoughtful strategy. Understanding fears or technology gaps from the perspective of the technology user—faculty or student—is critical to knowing how best to serve them. Tools and training should only be built or used with intentional and clear pathways and goals for the user. Otherwise, it may exacerbate technology reticence.

Finally, an ever-important consideration and challenge is ensuring that in the effort to be more technologically efficient, savvy, and service-oriented, we don’t forget the access issue. Not all individuals—even faculty and staff—have access to good hardware and high-speed internet. Identifying who lacks access to technology ensures that a plan can be developed to ensure no person is left behind.

Evo: How will the transition to the online environment in wake of the pandemic influence the broader acceptance of online education?

CA: I suspect that the pandemic will have complex effects on technology and online education acceptance. In one respect, this is definitely an opportunity to demonstrate the power of online learning: nearly anything can be taught in part or wholly online. The potential to innovate and try new things we previously thought impossible is just incredible. A recent survey of 350 faculty at Sinclair told us that overwhelmingly the events of 2020 have propelled them into greater comfort with technology and an improved outlook on online education’s capabilities.

With this opportunity though, comes risk. If the transition to online education is handled poorly, hastily, and without a broader focus on quality, there may backlash against online education being substandard or lacking. I think one of our most important roles as online educators then is to take the gift of this moment for online education and approach it with the utmost effort and respect. Ensure that what is offered to students reflects the best of we have to offer, and make sure our faculty and students equally have the support they need to be successful in this environment.

For students, I believe the blending of the virtual and in-person campus will enhance their navigation of college life. If we’ve done a good job in this transition, students will hopefully be able to seamlessly shift between seeking what they need in-person or online, create and maintain relationships with their faculty and support staff that segue between both spaces, and most importantly, they will be able to learn successfully in any environment.

Evo: How can institutions leverage their digital resources to create a seamless student and staff experience? 

CA: One of the most important components of seamless student and staff digital experiences is simply being mindful of what and how much we put out there. By that I mean, it’s easy to assume that the more we offer, the more students, faculty and community will know, whether it’s digital library resources, online content, training, or webpage creation. But if it’s too much text, too much information, too much of anything, it’s human nature to disengage. The digital resource becomes useless. A recent example comes to mind: our training for first-time online instructors was an organic product built over years of lessons learned in online education.

A couple years ago, we realized we had only added to that training, never taking anything away, and the training became bloated. Information was difficult to find, duplicative, and our faculty consistently told us that it was too much. We streamlined the training, and before we knew it, 40% of the content had been rewritten, removed or absorbed elsewhere. The layout and design were made more intuitive, and the pace was customized. We received outstanding feedback from faculty when the changes went live, and our completion rates are much better. It was a cautionary tale for us to remember that digital resources are only as good as the strategy, organization and attention they receive!

Another effective strategy we’ve used in leveraging digital resources more effectively across broad groups of stakeholders is creating communities of practice. We bring together diverse groups to study, research, collaborate, make recommendations and generally learn from one another. A good example is our effort around open textbooks. We have many different stakeholders, each who “owns” a piece of OER efforts. The library, IT, eLearning, faculty, students and others are all impacted by how the college utilizes OER materials and textbooks. In creating communities with all of those constituencies represented, we can tackle big questions and challenges around OER adoption and gain broad perspective and feedback.

A final approach we’ve adopted is making sure digital resources that live outside of classrooms (library, career, advising, employer, and other resources) are integrated back into the classroom in specific ways.  Rather than static lists or layers of tabs to external resources in the LMS, we try to integrate resources more thoughtfully into course units and assignments. A link to a career, library, or other service resource means more when it’s delivered “just in time” and integrated with course material.


This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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