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Online Course Design in 2021: Meeting the Needs of Tomorrow’s Learners

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2020-12-10T13:12:48+00:00December 10, 2020|

The characteristics, needs and preferences of online students are changing. When it comes to online course design, higher education institutions are struggling to keep up with this rapid evolution. As we embark on 2021, it’s critical that online learning designers evolve beyond traditional development approaches.

It’s important to understand and embrace the priorities of a more demanding student population in order to enable higher levels of student success and satisfaction in the online classroom. In order to do this, there are a few factors to consider.

5 Factors to consider when designing engaging online courses

The modern-day college student has far different needs and preferences than their counterparts did a few years ago. Institutions must keep these things in mind when designing online courses in order to deliver a high quality learning experience.

1. Mobile device compatibility

Students use their mobile devices for everything from shopping to exercising to banking – there’s no reason they shouldn’t also be able to access their learning. Generally speaking, learning management system (LMS) companies have done a relatively good job of making sure their products function properly on mobile devices.

But, as learning designers, it is up to us to consider the content we are loading into the LMS to ensure it will translate smoothly to a mobile device. For example, if the content is full of Flash elements that aren’t mobile friendly, or is full of imagery that doesn’t resize effectively for a mobile screen, then it lessens its value in these mobile environments. At the same time, rather than structuring content in a series of short pages that students click through, creating a single, long-scrolling page might be more compatible with all devices.

Designers also need to think about the assignments and assessments themselves. If a student’s primary device is mobile, you may need to rethink assignments that require tools such as Word, PowerPoint or Excel – and a laptop or desktop computer. A better approach might be a presentation that a student can record using their phone’s camera and upload to the LMS.

Ultimately, no matter which approach you choose, it needs to be tested in various environments. Look at your course on your phone. Make sure it is a good experience. If the LMS has a mobile application, make sure you review the course both on the app and by logging in directly to the LMS.

2. Access to information

Today’s online students expect to take ownership of their learning experience, which is another critical success factor. They want to know exactly where they are and how they are doing at any given moment throughout their program.

To make this possible, designers need to think strategically about course structure. Aim to create a clear learning path through each module that has built-in guideposts so students know what work has been completed and what is left to do. Further, leverage the capabilities of your LMS to mark course sections as complete so students have a clear visual indicator of what they have done.

Also consider how your assessments are distributed throughout the course. Relying on one high-stakes, end-of-course assessment does not give students much opportunity to monitor their progress and make adjustments along the way to improve their standing. A more effective approach may be to use a course-long project consisting of multiple project deliverables that are due every week (or at regular intervals) throughout the term.

And don’t forget that today’s students like to share their successes, so consider ways you can build in opportunities for them to do that. Utilize strategies such as awarding digital badges for accomplishments in the course, allowing them to be pushed to sites such as LinkedIn or Facebook for their social community.

3. Many ways to learn

There really isn’t such a thing as a “traditional college student” anymore. This is even truer in the distance education space, where virtual learning options make higher education more accessible than ever before. Today’s online classes are made up of students from all backgrounds, ages and life experiences.

Accordingly, course designers are now faced with the challenge of ensuring programs are meeting the needs of such a diverse audience. These students recognize the investments they are making and demand that their learning meet their unique needs – so institutions must step up to that challenge.

Catering to the needs of this broad audience requires flexibility, adaptability and extreme thoughtfulness from both the designer and subject matter experts. They must address multiple intelligences, learning preferences and learning styles. The same learning objective must be covered in multiple ways, including traditional readings, interactive online experiences, video lectures, learning-by-doing and synchronous sessions. Every student should be able to find a form of content delivery that works best for them in order to feel their needs are being met.

4. Relevant material

College students today are hyper-focused on their return on investment, so they will have little patience with coursework that seems unrelated to their long-term career goals. With this in mind, academic programs must be designed around clear objectives that tie directly to professional success. Faculty designers should work together to ensure students can intuitively see the relevance of every lesson and assignment and how it will support their future career.

We’re not suggesting that higher education simply become job skills training. Given the impact of technology on all of our lives, the liberal arts are more important than ever. But you must demonstrate to students how traditional liberal arts learning outcomes – such as critical thinking, collaboration and communication – will be vital to their long-term career success.

5. User experience

This generation of college students lives in an online world. They use virtual tools for nearly every aspect of their lives, so they’ve formed firm expectations about the online user experience, level of engagement and sense of community.

Even though it may not be a fair comparison, students will inevitably measure your institution’s online learning experience with the same standards they have for news, social media, gaming or retail websites. But most schools are failing to meet these student expectations.

Relying on an individual faculty member to do their best building a course in the LMS and leveraging the technology tools is not enough. Faculty need support from learning designers and other experts – like media developers and video production teams – to build engaging, intuitive courses that satisfy today’s students.

Further, institutions should invest in a comprehensive learning technology ecosystem that is centered around the LMS but also leverages technologies such as web conferencing, video streaming, lecture capture, online library databases, simulations, virtual labs and more.

Focus on the future

The evolution of higher education isn’t stopping anytime soon, and with this growth comes unexpected challenges. But these challenges shouldn’t evoke fear – this is an exciting time for our industry. We have the opportunity to meet the needs of both our current and future students.

It’s all about meeting them where they are, providing them with the trainings they need and the experiences they expect. We just need to make the commitment of time, energy, effort and resources to do it!

Check out our infographic to learn more about what it takes to create a well-rounded distance learning environment: “How to Create a Positive Student Experience in an Online Environment.”

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About the Author
Dave Lungren
Dave Lungren is the Vice-President of Content Solutions with Collegis Education. Over the past 17 years, he has worked with more than 30 institutions on the design, development and deployment of online and hybrid programs.