With the growing demand for online training and changes to our routines related to social distancing in response to COVID-19, it is important that both public and private institutions seeking to generate training solutions maintain certain considerations front and center when designing, developing and implementing their online courses.
This post is not an ABC of instructional design models for online courses, rather it is a compendium of educational recommendations based on e-learning trends for those teams charged with the production of online courses. That is why I avoid the practice of how-to and rather plant the following ideas with an emphasis on the competencies and soft skills that professionals need in their daily work.
Go ahead, stick these reminders around your desk or on your monitor!
1. Inclusive lens on gender and diversity
This is not merely a trend, the considerations of gender and diversity must be regarded as a baseline requirement, commitment and need for every institution and specialist in e-learning. First, take a look for gender equity in the language used, in the heterogeneity of the team of thematic experts for the course, in the cases or activities that are designed, and especially in the orientation given to the course content regarding gender equity.
Secondly, promote the inclusion of diverse ethnic and racial groups, as well as visibility of other minorities or identities who are commonly left invisible in course designs.
Anyone working on the instructional design of a course must look beyond its immediate context and think about the multiple actors who will be learning with learning resources, as well as the messages they are getting regarding these important topics.
2. Sustainable Development Goals
More and more, institutions are making efforts to support at least one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) defined by the United Nations.
It is important that we ask ourselves the following questions from the moment an analysis of training needs is made (stage in which the problem to be addressed, the audience, the learning objectives, among other aspects are identified):
- What SDG would this course align with?
- In what way could we contribute to promoting some of its goals?
- Can this approach be incorporated in a cross-cutting way?
While a course will not solve an SDG, it can be a great contribution toward promoting more people to engage with them, join the cause, and even support finding and creating solutions that may be helpful.
Learn more about the SDGs here.
3. Soft skills
“Soft skills are the hardest to develop” is a phrase we constantly hear and reaffirm when looking to implement them in online courses, especially when it comes to self-directed courses.
The development of soft skills has become a necessity. These skills are in great demand in the labor market and therefore by extension, in trainings. Therefore, while it might seem complicated to accomplish in a virtual setting, it is important to identify (along with the team of subject matter experts) what soft skills participants need to complement the hard skills the course is focused on developing. This will help with incorporating learning resources that promote them.
For example, in a project management course, it may also be advisable to emphasize the importance of effective communication, team leadership, active listening, or change management skills, to name a few.
The topic of accessibility can be viewed from different angles. On one hand, based on the devices from which the content is accessed. With the increase in the use of mobile devices or smartphones, we must think of resources that are responsive and useful on all devices. For example, there are activities that are easy to perform from a desktop or laptop, but that in a smartphone are complicated due to the screen size or because of differences between the web version and the mobile application version.
On the other hand, accessibility is understood as the reduction of the digital divide for people with disabilities. Although some technology makes this difficult, we can look for design options that take into consideration the online experiences of an audience with different capabilities, for example, placing subtitles to videos or podcasts, incorporating an on-screen text reader, using standards for texts presented in HTML as well as in PDF documents.
The more accessibility features and options you consider in your course design, the more of society will appreciate and benefit from it.
This is a term that comes from the Quality Matters quality standards of MarylandOnline, Inc., and by this we mean the balance and direct relationship between five key elements of an online course:
- A. Learning objectives
C. Learning activities
Something that an instructional designer should always watch out for is that any resource that is designed in the course is in accordance with the learning objectives. This will greatly help to maintain a quality regarding the didactic aspects of the course and must be seen reflected in elements B, C and D, but also the limitations or characteristics of the digital tools to be used must be taken into account.
When designing a course, it is essential to focus on a primary target audience, and to design the content and activities toward specific objectives identified for that audience’s learning needs and development. It could be a mistake to begin designing a course only considering available content, without first taking the objectives into account. Even if you have a book or a series of resources that are already published, start from the characteristics and needs of the audience.
A very useful technique for this is to make a profile of one or two people to whom the course is directed: age, tastes, interests, job, family, leisure time, academic training, etc., and start from this base to think about the best ways to address them. If possible, consult directly with potential users.
7. Participant’s effort
Aligned to the recommendation to put the participant at the center of the course design, another crucial point is the time that the course should spend weekly for the review of the materials and the realization of course activities.
The audiences are very varied and there are those who can dedicate more than 10 hours a week to a course like others that can dedicate five or less, so a balance between the hours of effort required is recommended.
There are different reasons why a participant starts and concludes or otherwise abandons an online course, more so when it comes to MOOC. For this reason, it is of great importance to define engagement strategies that can help keep participants engaged with the course and their learning.
We seek that engagement through challenging learning activities, networking opportunities, and practical activities that allow the development of relevant and applicable skills along with learning resources with good audiovisual quality and content. It is also possible to search for engagement through other strategies focused on communicating with participants, on timely follow-up, or using incentives or strategies such as gamification.
Each decision made in this regard will have to be according with the needs and characteristics of the project in which you carry it out.
9. Learning resources
The most common learning resources that are developed for online courses are videos, readings and evaluation questionnaires. These are still very useful as they allow to effectively communicate the relevant content. However, it is advisable to consider some other types of resource that will create a more dynamic experience for the participants and thus not fall into the design of monotonous courses.
Day by day, we can find new tools on the web that can be embedded in an online course and we can consider other resources such as infographics, case studies, challenges, surveys, interactive videos, games, among a variety of resources that serve as reinforcement activities.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the tools to keep participants engaged with the course is the communication you have with them, and this tends to vary from the type of course, when you have a tutor, this person is in charge of communicating with participants and supporting them. But in other modalities where this actor is not available, you can look for new ways for this interaction, for example, designing specific messages according to the progress of each participant, reminders of important dates or weekly accompanying messages, among others.
The main idea of this is not to leave participants alone and to support them as much as possible to manage their times so that they achieve the objectives of the course.
With these ten post-its recommendations, I seek to share some of the experiences and good practices we have accumulated in the IDBx program of the Inter-American Development Bank, in the pursuit of developing MOOCs to strengthen skills in the Latin American and Caribbean region.
Our team invites you to explore the courses offering available on the edX platform and continue your professional development.
By Pablo Alejandro Olguin Aguilar, instructional design consultant for the IDBx online courses at the Inter-American Development Bank
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