Engaging online learning programs are built with empathy for both the teacher and the student--and the best online course design makes this a priority

Effective online course design starts with people

Engaging online learning programs are built with empathy for both the teacher and the student--and the best online course design makes this a priority

The shift to virtual learning in early 2020 put a spotlight on online course design, with all its flaws and inconsistencies. But there are good examples of effective online course design. First and foremost, engaging online learning programs are built with empathy for both the teacher and the student. If this foundational design philosophy is missing, engagement rates and true learning plummet.

As learning experts, we’re aware of new types of learning that are a leap for those who don’t say the word “pedagogy” every day. There’s a world where AI, analytics, micro-credentials, mixed reality media, and more all mingle for the good of advancing learning. Sometimes, we succeed in encouraging educators to try some of these new things that can move the needle for their learners. However, it can be tricky getting there.

Often, success lies on a narrow path. It starts with the emotional intelligence to examine multiple points of view. For example, the campus distance learning administrator who seeks input and feedback from teachers and students before mapping a virtual learning framework. Or a teacher who imagines what it’s like to be a student who is struggling as they plan their online course. Caring enough to examine multiple viewpoints leads to amazing learning.

Online course design should be highly personal to subject matter experts and faculty. It should represent them and their commitment and service to their learners–at times, their life work. With this comes a high expectation to honor the work. But good online course design means reviewing all work through the eyes of the end-user and making recommendations to ensure the good intentions of the course translate into engaging learning.

Effective learning designers do their best to show, not tell, clients that taking another look at their work through the eyes of others will yield even better learning experiences. They show what their ideas will actually look like. They do what they promise. They must sincerely listen and get to know educators, because the essence of learning design is empathy, the understanding of the material, the subject matter expert’s learner, and the subject matter expert themself.

Outside of COVID-19, this is why an important approach is one that many in edtech have moved away from as they seek to scale, leading with people. Often, the best online course designers send embedded teams on location with clients to smell the air and get a feel for their culture, quirks, and uniqueness. When the pandemic shut down the world, special efforts had to be made to do this remotely.

This caring for partners is a type of emotional labor, but it’s where success lies, though not simply all in the day-to-day minutia of the work. Discussions of learning goals and learning activities, collecting content, writing, and building media are certainly core elements to good learning design. Yet, there is something more.

Inevitably, when scaling learning, challenges arise. There’s an inconvenient request or a last-minute change that cascades and grows exponentially. It requires extra time, extra budget, extra emotional energy, and can be, frankly, painful. This is the moment to lean into empathy, to do those extra or painful things with others in mind.

The time it takes in the process can lead to a greater ability to scale and a broader audience to reach. These days, a genuine, outward focus on others is a huge differentiator that is crucial to growth.

Most importantly, keeping in mind that there is a learner at the other end of every engagement helps online course designers stay focused on making courses better. Often, the learning experience is one of the most memorable things in a student’s life, fueling their hopes and dreams. Good design starts with care–caring for clients, teachers, and learners.

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