The growth of online learning provides many exciting opportunities as well as challenges to instructional, interface and web designers. Unlike the traditional, face-to-face classroom, in which the instructors have control of their environment, online classroom depends on the learning style, experience and discipline from the students.
As witnessed in our class discussion on various online learning web sites, each student has different learning styles. While one prefers watching video, the other prefers visual animation. While one prefers hands-on learning, the other prefers reading texts. The best way for me to learn is to turn my assignment into a real-world project. For example, when I wanted to learn MODX, a content management system, I did so with a client project. Reading online tutorials and books were informative, but I learned much more when building the site. Last semester, my classmates and I created marketing materials (posters, brochure, email newsletter and a landing page) to promote the graphic design graduate program at George Mason University School of Art.
The advantages of online education are instant access to resources and information. Learning is a collaborative effort in a student-teacher relationship rather than the teacher is the center of attention in a traditional setting. In contrast, the lack of face-to-face engagement puts a huge constraint of online education. In “Curtailing Dropouts at Online Universities,” Brian Burnsed cited:
A study released [in October 2010] by professors at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Ga., indicates that online students that commonly used retention strategies such as friendly E-mails from professors aren’t enough to keep the students from giving up and dropping out. “Students’ expectations are misaligned with what online learning actually is,” says Elke Leeds, assistant professor of information systems at Kennesaw State and one of the study’s authors. “They come in thinking that it’s easier. While it can be more convenient, the truth is you have to be self motivated; you have to be dedicated.”
Without a doubt, effective online education depends on learning experiences. As designers, we play an important role in shaping the experience. We need to take usability, accessibility and content strategy into consideration. We need to present the information not only in a logical way, but also in an engaging way. Most important of all, we need to take ful advantage of the web’s capability to deliver our materials. For example, we should embrace the fluidity and flexibility of the web in designing our courses. Our contents should be accessibility not only on desktops and laptops, but also on mobile devices. Content strategist Karen McGrane has a great piece in A List Apart on content parity titled, “Windows on the Web.” She writes:
When people start a task on one device and then complete it on another, they don’t want different content or less content, tailored for the device. They want the same content, presented so they can find it, navigate it, and read it. They imagine that their devices are different-sized windows on the same content, not entirely different containers.
Our job as instructional designers is to provide a good experience in delivering our materials to students who want to learn or complete the assignments across multiple devices. That is the future of online higher education.