A revised methodology of instructional design for online learning

While not an entirely new educational concept, online learning is one which has received much attention recently. Early instructional design models were based on an interactive design model (Sims & Jones, 2003) which at times could prove to be very inefficient. As the field has continued to progress, many additional models and methodologies have been utilized as foundations for instructional design for online learning. While I recognize that many existing techniques and processes have proven successful, I contend that current methodology can be revised to ensure that primary emphasis is placed on learners and the learning process rather than focusing on the technology used. Modification of current methodology will require active leadership at the highest possible level (Rogers, 2000).

A myriad of crucial elements must be considered when designing online instruction, including: learning design, interface design, interactivity, accessibility, assessment, student support, and utility of content (Sims, Dobbs, & Hand, 2002). While the combination of these issues creates a seemingly daunting task for any instructional designer, effective and successful online instruction, “facilitates collaborative learning, active learning, and independent learning and exceeds the traditional classroom in its ability to connect students and course materials on a round-the-clock basis” (Riedling, 1999).

Relationships between teacher, learner, content, and fellow learners should be among the first elements to be considered (Sims & Jones, 2003) as learning processes are established to facilitate these desired interactive learning experiences. Effective implementation of online learning environments requires a paradigm shift from “teaching” to “learning” (Rogers, 2000) in which the instructor doesn’t view himself as a dispenser of knowledge but rather a facilitator and guide in addition to providing learners with introductory information necessary to begin the learning process. I agree that online learning, “be conceptualized as an environment that integrates collaboration, communication, and engaging content with specific group and independent learning activities and tasks” (Sims et al., 2002).

Another key to any instructional design effort is to have a clear process and team approach linking members of the development team with educators (Sims & Jones, 2003). The focus of these efforts should always be on the students, providing them with both support and critical thinking strategies which will foster success in any context (Sims & Jones, 2003). The participants of the instructional design process such as the educational designer, faculty, and the development team (Sims & Jones, 2003) have an important role in ensuring that the learners remain the focus of the development. While the level of influence for the various team members in this process changes at various phases (Sims & Jones, 2003) their commitment to the success of the learners should remain constant.

Proactive evaluation, described by Sims, Dobbs, Hand (2002) should be another design attribute as participants in the design process develop an understanding of essential elements of the successful learning environment. Strategic intent is a key element of any online pedagogy, as the purposes for online instruction are clarified.
I believe we must be mindful of both methods and media as both influence the way individuals learn today (Kozma, 1994). While a variety of media and methods can be utilized in delivering instruction (Clark, 1994), these learning tools must never usurp the instructional objectives or learner needs. The learners needs, context requirements, and teacher constraints should be focused on before selecting a delivery strategy (Riedling, 1999).

Much is yet to be learned about online learning environments both in terms of effectiveness and achievement outcomes (Sims et al., 2002). The undeniable fact exists that a student body requires diverse learning experiences to target a variety of learning styles (Franklin, Peat, Lewis, & Sims, 2001). As the needs of the learners are kept in proper perspective as a high priority for instructional designers, online learning solutions can be utilized to provide these varied learning experiences.

References

Clark, R. E. (1994). Media will never influence learning. Educational Technology Research and Development, 42(2), 21-29.

Franklin, S., Peat, M., Lewis, A., & Sims, R. (2001). Technology at the cutting edge: A large scale evaluation of the effectiveness of educational resources. Paper presented at the World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications.

Kozma, R. B. (1994). A reply: Media and methods. Educational Technology Research and Development, 42(3), 11-14.

Riedling, A. M. (1999). Distance education: The technology – what you need to know to succeed, an overview. Educational Technology Review, 1(11), 8-13.

Rogers, D. L. (2000). A paradigm shift: Technology integration for higher education in the new millennium. Educational Technology Review, 1(13), 19-33.

Sims, R., Dobbs, G., & Hand, T. (2002). Enhancing quality in online learning: Scaffolding planning and design through proactive evaluation. Distance Education, 23(2), 135-147.

Sims, R., & Jones, D. (2003). Where practice informs theory: Reshaping instructional design for academic communities of practice in online teaching and learning. Information Technology, Education and Society, 4(1), 3-20.

Key success factors on an online learning community

A successful online learning community does not simply come into existence by chance. Rather, it must be carefully crafted in light of a myriad of philosophical, technological, and practical issues. While the context, content, and learning strategies are all important tangible considerations for any designer to consider (“Building online learning communities,” 2000), essential theoretical and pedagogical elements must also be considered. While the development of an exhaustive list of these success factors is beyond the scope of this assignment, several important elements will be briefly discussed.

General approaches and skills to the online learning community must be considered early in the development process. Palloff & Pratt (1999) list several foundational elements to any successful online learning community, including: access to technology, guidelines and procedures, participation, collaborative learning, and evaluation of the learning process. Technology access refers to the importance of all learners having equal access to necessary computer resources. Guidelines and procedures should be “loose and free-flowing” (Palloff & Pratt, 1999) yet at the same time provide a framework for successful completion of objectives. Buy-in from participants is certainly crucial and minimum levels of participation should be agreed upon. Any lack of participation or presence within an online community can, “critically influence how people behave online, form impressions of others, and negotiate common ground” (Preece, 2000). An atmosphere of collaborative learning should be fostered through the development of a “level playing field” (Palloff & Pratt, 1999) by which all learners should feel comfortable to share openly. Participants should be encouraged to provide feedback to one another on a continual basis (Palloff & Pratt, 1999). Additional foundational keys to consider when developing successful online learning environments could include: “honesty, responsiveness, relevance, respect, openness, and empowerment” (Palloff & Pratt, 1999).

Ultimately, usability and sociability ingredients are the foundational building blocks for a thriving online community (Preece, 2000). As developers consider not only desirable content but also find out who the users will be but what their expectations are (Preece, 2000) they will be equipped with the foundational understanding necessary to begin the community development process. As online community is truly about people rather than simply technology, the needs of the target learner population must be of paramount importance before any decisions regarding technology are made (Preece, 2000).

References:

Building online learning communities. (2000) Retrieved May 9, 2004 from, http://www.elearningpost.com/elthemes/comm.asp

Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (1999). Building learning communities in cyberspace: Effective strategies for the online classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Preece, J. (2000). Online communities: Designing usability, supporting sociability. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons.

Online learning as a suitable environment for collaboration

Online learning provides an engaging and interactive means through which collaborative learning can take place. Learners are provided the opportunity in an online context to interact with the course content, instructor, and fellow learners through technology which is uninhibited by geographic or schedule constraints. Capella University serves as a prime example of the diverse student body that is possible though online learning. These online learners represent a wide variety of cultural and professional backgrounds. Each possesses a unique perspective and mix of expertise which ultimately benefits all the other learners.

Several modes of online communication exist including synchronous and asynchronous. Asynchronous discussion allows the learners to come together to dialogue as well as complete course assignments (Hofmann, 2003) while synchronous communication is crucial for, “establishing team roles, responsibilities, goals, deadlines, and for resolving differences of opinion.”(Curry, n.d.). The current Capella learning platform, Learning Space, supports only asynchronous communication. Students and instructors can log-in to their learning portal after supplying their username and password to view course schedule, media, course room, or learner profiles. Within the online course room, students and instructors can discuss in an asynchronous format the content of each learning unit. This is truly where the collaborative learning takes place, as students and faculty share their insights from the required reading, questions they may have, and even work they are completing towards meeting the course objectives.

As compared to other learning platforms available, Learning Space is quite archaic at best, and provides a cumbersome set of tools for the learner to navigate. For example, the platform does not keep a record of the previously viewed messages. This forces users to try to keep some kind of manual record of their status in the course discussion. Such frustrating intricacies of an online collaboration methodology can be solved through software enhancements to provide users with an easy-to-use mode for collaborative learning. I’m excited to learn that Capella is keeping these user issues a priority and is making upgrading to a more enhanced learning platform this summer. From my knowledge of the WebCT Vista platform, this will be a wonderful improvement for learners and faculty alike!

While the technology which enables online learning is the mode by which this learning methodology is possible, it is important to remember that the quality of the online learning environment is dependent upon the quality of the instructional design (Hofmann, 2003). The engaging collaborative format possible through the online context provides rich constructive learning opportunities for students.

References:

Curry, D. B. (n.d.) Collaborative, connected, and experiential learning: Reflections of an online learner. Retrieved May 2, 2004 from, http://www.mtsu.edu/~itconf/proceed01/2.html

Hofmann, J. (2003) Building success for e-learners. Retrieved May 2, 2004 from, http://www.learningcircuits.org/2003/jul2003/hofmann.htm

Accessibility in e-learning

Dr. Norm Coombs’ presentation on Good Distance Learning Principles describes EASI’s (National Center for Accessible e-learning) concern that students and professionals with disabilities have the same right to access information technology. Dr. Coombs has been a long-time leader in the field of distance education and accessibility issues. He is visually impaired and presents a very enlightening presentation regarding the importance of accessibility issues in e-learning at:

http://www.easi.cc/media/csundl.htm

I found several of Coombs’ points to apply directly to the staff development efforts that I am involved with. First of all, the idea that, “distance learning is not always at a distance” (Coombs, n.d.). Through the needs analysis that I conducted, I found that my volunteers, even while they all live within a fifteen minute drive from the church, would rather have the availability of participating in learning without having to travel to another location, no matter how short the distance may be. The globalization of our society as a whole I believe has a lot to due with this, as people enjoy the conveniences of everything from banking to ordering a pizza, all from the comfort of their home. As I seek to develop accessible staff development opportunities for my volunteers, the online format has proven to be an advantageous option for many adults who serve in our ministries.

As I continue to study successful models of distance education, I have become a firm supporter of Coombs’ statement that, “I urge all distance learning teachers not to try to repeat and replicate what you do in the classroom” (Coombs, n.d.). Distance learning models can provide revolutionary means by which constructivist methodologies can be utilized. This engaging learning environments can far surpass the quality of a traditional lecture-based teaching. I must admit that currently our volunteer development classes have been primarily instructivist in nature, despite my attempts to add collaborative activities to the short workshop times. I look forward to experimenting with much more collaborative environments possible via the online format.

One final key which I really identified with was the necessity for online instructors to be accessible and approachable. While these are attributes that any instructor should seek to develop, I believe they are increasingly important for online instructors. As Coomb’s mentions, a tendency exists for new online learners to feel detached from the learning environment. Online teachers must see themselves as facilitators, or “hosts” as Coombs’ mentions, and be willing to take extra steps in remaining visible and accessible within the online classroom. A simple email can make a big difference in communicating to a learner that s/he is important.

Distance learning certainly has many means of applicability, whether it be to facilitate learning across the street or around the world. As online instructional designers we should not limit our viewpoint of online instruction to such huge contexts that we overlook the myriad of more localized ones which are just as important.

– Jason