Online learning needs a makeover as demand continues to grow

Online courses can become very large, and the instructional designer must assess which components can work well with 1,500 students and which won’t.
Darcy Hardy
Darcy Hardy
Darcy Hardy Ph.D. is Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs at Anthology as well as an award-winning distance and online learning professional who has worked as a higher education administrator, as an IPA with the Obama administration and as a board member in state and national associations.

While getting its start more than three decades ago, the movement toward online or distance learning in new programs, course offerings and class sizes has accelerated exponentially since the COVID-19 pandemic. At Virginia Tech University, for instance, three percent of undergrad classes were taught online before the pandemic. By the fall of 2022, that percentage more than tripled to nearly 10 percent, and class size has grown substantially—sometimes to thousands per class.

But delivering a quality educational experience online requires much more than simply converting offline materials to online resources and uploading videos. Across the globe, higher education institutions work tirelessly to build and maintain a record of excellence for quality educational experiences, and that same effort and strategic mindset should be applied to online education.

A great online learning experience is not just using a set of technology solutions like a learning management system (LMS) or an electronic correspondence course. As demand for online learning continues to grow, institutions should step back to intentionally and thoughtfully develop and re-evaluate the strategy, design, interaction and evaluation from all sides of the institutional equation.

Beginning with an institutional vision. Why online?

Institutions must understand and develop a clear vision about why it’s undertaking online education. It is no small task as the effort requires additional funding levels, instructional designers, teachers and teaching assistants, technology and hosting and more, with the participation, support and buy-in from both departmental and overall leadership.

Is the effort undertaken to bring in more tuition? To expand the institution’s reach to other locations? To stay competitive with other institutions?

Understanding where the institution wants the effort to be in three or five years and how it is going to meet the students’ needs through proactive support is paramount. What measures will be taken to ensure student outcomes—which can be substantially different for online education than in-person classes—reach stated and clear expectations?

For all these reasons, organizations looking to offer quality education online need to secure the services of pedagogical experts, such as instructional designers. Current teachers might get the training to serve in these roles, but online education is an entirely different modality than in-person and requires different course designs, management and assessments.

Just as a would-be customer might switch from one online retailer to another in a few minutes, so can a student easily switch to another educational institution’s online offering. Once online, the course enters a competitive environment different from in-person courses.

How will it scale?

With the help of instructional designers, one of the first critical decisions will be to determine how a specific element will scale. Online courses can become very large, and the instructional designer must assess which components work well with 1,500 students and which won’t. This requires systematic instructional design.

For instance, what are the best methods in ensuring teacher-to-student or student-to-student engagement and dialogue are effective if there are hundreds of students?

Discussion boards can be great if well organized and managed, and video conferencing tools and instant chats make real-time interaction possible. But these communication tools can also be frustrating and ineffective when they don’t readily offer useful information or the faculty aren’t present to initiate and advance the dialogue. Working with and training faculty, instructional designers can help enhance student engagement and a stronger exchange of knowledge and provide some social coherence to the online class.

Scale also becomes a factor in the distribution of class materials. When in digital form and online, they can be distributed quickly and cheaply via an extremely large “shelf space.” An instructional designer will optimize that capability by selecting the best material for online use and digital display and organizing it most efficiently.

Designing for effective learning

Engaging interactive online and hybrid experiences like quizzes, demos, interactive videos or educational games, if well-designed and implemented, can be very effective educationally.  But they also can be a waste of time if left unattended or done asynchronously without faculty involvement and management.

Granular data from lesson progress can be monitored and fed back so difficult lessons can be repeated or tackled from other angles, a key benefit for formative evaluation.

Another key factor to consider is the availability of a teacher or teaching assistant for in-person or online office hours, an availability that can be better managed if critical data insights are utilized. For instance, historical data about student time on weekly given lessons might indicate that teaching staff needs to be prepared for lots of questions about an upcoming lesson or data might be analyzed to determine which portions of a class or program should be offered in-person vs. online.

All these factors impact the most important question: was the university successful in developing a substantive, high-quality learning experience that meets the needs of the students, the institution and its faculty?

The answer largely depends on how well the factors guiding online education delivery are employed. Addressing the online learning vision and strategy and instituting dedicated policies, instructional design and student support at scale determine success in meeting the central goal to build, sustain and grow a successful online or distance learning program.


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