It’s finally taking shape – my e-learning initiative! I now have the title (see above), a solid framework to build on (see Google Presentation), and a clear sense of how to structure, deliver, and adapt this e-learning initiative to meet the needs of its target audience.
It’s taken almost a year since the pilot was conceived to get to this stage, but I believe that the time spent on “learning the ropes” was necessary. I wish I had taken the “Designing and Delivering e-Learning Environments (DDELE)” course last semester (although I believe it wasn’t offered then); because the combination of theory and application covered in the course provided the crucial baseline knowledge and skills that someone like me, with little to no training in instructional design, sorely needed.
Having designed many face-to-face training programs in the past, I had suspected that the online equivalent of program design and development would be more complex than it looked. I didn’t know that it would be so much more complex.
I had often considered online programs, particularly asynchronous ones, to be easier to handle than its face-to-face counterpart, not less because I am more comfortable behind a computer screen than I am in front of people. What I had not anticipated was my own ignorance of the paradigm of online learning, which diverges from the traditional learning archetype in significant ways. Far from merely the obvious differences (i.e. online vs. face-to-face), the disparity lies also in their conceptual premises. For one, face-to-face learning is instructor-driven (the instructor maintains primary control over content and activity delivery, time, and pace); while online learning is learner-driven (where the learner controls content consumption, participation, time, and pace). This distinction in orientation alone strikes at the heart of how content and activity is designed, delivered, and adapted in a learning environment. In addition, elements of community and collaboration are central aspects in online learning design, something that we tend to take for granted when designing face-to-face programs.
As a result, I found myself in a completely different ballpark; where my experiences with program design and development became “as relevant” as comparing apples to oranges; and my focus shifted from building on existing knowledge, skills, and experience to learning many things from scratch. Instead of concentrating solely on how to design better, deliver better, and adapt better; I now have to consider how to incorporate mechanisms, approaches, and strategies toward creating an environment that enables learners from diverse backgrounds and with diverse learning needs to make more meaningful learning decisions. The thought of how unpredictable a learning environment like that can be is intimidating enough. Managing expectations and communicating intent have now become ten times more challenging.
The DDELE course has helped me see, perhaps clearer than ever, that a lot of thought goes into every design element in an online learning environment. While each element is structured toward engendering a particular outcome, the intention behind them is not always apparent to users. This is perhaps why online courses have always seemed deceptively simple – so much goes on behind the scenes that escapes users at the front end. For me, this has far-reaching implications for design work. When designing face-to-face programs, the physical constraints of the environment dictates the parameters of the design. You work with what is available – from the range of meeting venue (classroom, conference room, hall, etc.); to the hardware set up (projector, audio, etc.); and other physical constraints. This limits the design framework somewhat; but on the plus side, you rarely need to think about what your audience will need to bring with them, except themselves. With an online learning environment, you have a lot more flexibility to choose your own “constraints”; just know that you’ll have to consider not only the requirements at your end, but also your audience’s individual and institutional contexts. You’ll also have to take responsibility for the choices you make.
This is why assignments such as the ones that involved researching, selecting, and defending the choice of the platform for our e-learning initiatives are imperative in helping students like me think through these issues. I started with an idea of the kind of platform that would be ideal for this professional development initiative. I experimented with some of the platforms that my classmates have researched, and finally settled on CourseSites. In the past, I would have justified my choice based on how well I perceive the platform would suit the vision I had of my e-learning initiative. The assignments, as with all DDELE course activities, challenged me, however, to articulate the conceptual premises that support my choice. I found myself consciously evaluating why I needed certain features (and not only because they seem “cool”); how they have the potential to promote or inhibit key features of e-learning such as equity, collaboration, and accessibility; and which among the constraints of the various platforms were deal-breakers and which I could live with. It is this level of intentionality involved that separates evidence-based design from design based solely on intuition and judgment.
What’s most challenging (and I’m sure I’m not alone in this), is in finding that ultimate balance among finesse, functionality, and feasibility. This applies not only to framework design, but also to content development. From the many online courses that I’ve taken, I’ve seen several substantively exciting activities receiving lukewarm responses either because the platform used were not easily (or rather, instantaneously) accessible, or the instructions were less than clear, or simply because they were a little more time-consuming than the regular 5-minute posts. On the other side of the coin, I’ve also seen many relatively simple and straightforward activities eliciting strong participation even though I’d personally thought that they did not really provoke deeper reflection and learning.
While it is certainly not possible to please everyone, finding this balance is not only essential for delivering a rewarding online learning experience; it also concerns design ethics, something that I wish the DDELE course had covered more extensively. Through the assignments and the weekly discussions, some issues on ethics were explored, albeit only on the surface level. Yet, the opportunity to facilitate a team activity, as well as to observe how other teams facilitated theirs, reinforced the intricacy of finding this balance. In fact, I learned a lot about “what works” from seeing and experiencing what didn’t work. Most of the time, what didn’t work was due primarily to poor communication of instructions and expectations; delayed response to request for support; or a lack of timely feedback. Get down to doing it and you’ll learn just how difficult it is trying to put all the appropriate design elements in place!
In this respect, none of my other online courses had challenged me to constantly recalibrate my thinking on design and learning as much as the DDELE course had. It was particularly helpful that the instructor, Prof. Donna Schnupp, took a lot of effort to consistently walk us through the purpose of a particular approach or strategy. These evidence-based practices were also constantly reinforced because she modeled them throughout the course. In addition, the course’s textbook, Palloff & Pratt’s Building Online Learning Communities: Effective Strategies for the Virtual Classroom was a pivotal resource for me, as it explored in detail the vital elements of a virtual learning environment, and how they differ from those in a face-to-face classroom. I think the course has equipped with a more informed understanding of what it takes to design and deliver a successful online learning environment. I’m a lot more confident now with implementing the pilot module in the Summer of 2014. I feel positive moving forward simply for having a framework nailed down. Although it still seems like an ambitious undertaking, and I can never feel like I’ve learned enough unless I’m prepared to deliver a foolproof product (the OCD at work); I remind myself that this is supposed to be learner-centered, that there will come a time when taking the first step means being able to test the pilot design; and that the endeavor will allow me to acquire valuable data to inform future design.