Intentional learning design
The Educationalist. By Alexandra Mihai
Welcome to a new issue of “The Educationalist”! Two years into the pandemic (that’s a phrase I never thought I’d use), it’s important to slow down for a moment and take some time to look back and take stock of our experiences with teaching and learning online. We- individually and institutionally- now have the opportunity to build on the lessons we learned during the pandemic and design courses and programmes based on a genuine blended learning approach, by making good use of the various formats and modalities. This is something I’ve been thinking, talking and writing about a lot in the past months, so I want to use this opportunity to bring everything together in one piece, including what I consider to be the 10 most important aspects of intentionally designing learning experiences supported by technology. And because in the past two years I’ve curated resources on all those topics, you can find the relevant links under each step. As usual, I hope you enjoy reading this and I am hoping to open a discussion on how we imagine post-pandemic Higher Education and what we can actively do, starting right now, to get there. Have a nice week!
Intentional (blended) learning design beyond the pandemic
While a pandemic can hardly be characterised as a moment filled with positive experiences and suitable for learning, I did notice some silver linings regarding the role and practice of teaching, as well as the engagement with technology. And I think acknowledging them is a good place to start in our endeavour to refresh and redesign teaching and learning practices for the post-pandemic Higher Education landscape.
First and foremost, I noticed more engagement with teaching in general. The emergency mode forced us to re-evaluate our approaches and methods and, even though we were not able to make big changes, we did start to engage with the learning design process at a deeper level (e.g. thinking about how to better connect with students, how to design engaging activities, how much time and workload is needed for a given task, etc). Moreover, we started to see the value of working in teams, with faculty colleagues, but also with learning designers and learning technologists. This new form of dialogue around teaching, taking various forms from spontaneous exchanges on social media to well-organised learning communities, is in my opinion the most important gain from the pandemic and I do hope it will continue and be reinforced in the future. Last but not least, we need to acknowledge that emergency remote teaching was an opportunity (albeit a forced one) for many teachers to become more familiar, through first-hand experience, with digital tools and platforms that they had not really engaged with prior to the pandemic, or were even opposed to trying. While the experience hasn’t always been positive and it is certainly far from a sound online learning approach, the exposure to technology creates the premise for a more mindful integration of various formats and media beyond the pandemic.
It is therefore time to build on this momentum and think about the next steps, with the aim of building a sustainable and pedagogically solid educational offer, purposefully embedding different online and on campus spaces and modalities.
Let’s start with a definition. By intentional learning design I mean designing learning experiences:
Focusing on the “why”: ensuring that any decision taken at the design stage is aligned with the overall narrative of the course and, more precisely, with the learning objectives; this requires self-reflection, at least some knowledge of the main pedagogical principles, attention to detail and openness to see learning design as an iterative process and not a box on a checklist;
Focusing on students’ experience: designing a course/ programme that is well tailored to students’ needs; this requires knowing your students well, making your design choices explicit to them and involving them in an ongoing dialogue.
While this definition can be used for any type of educational experience (on campus, online, blended, hybrid, etc), for the instances where technology is involved, in any format, I would add a third element, namely: a critical eye on the use of technology tools. This implies familiarity with the tools you intend to use, a thorough evaluation of the extent to which they can help students reach the learning objectives and, importantly, a reflection on any ethical implications the use of these digital tools can have on your students.
While I prefer using “intentional learning design”, I think concepts like “mindful learning design” or “sustainable learning design” are equally suitable to cover the aspects I mentioned above. While the design process always has (should have?) an intention at its core, I chose to emphasise the intentional element here as I believe it to be of crucial importance when moving from a forced, emergency remote teaching design, with little time to reflect and very reliant on technology, to a post-pandemic landscape that we are now in a position to shape.
Intentional blended learning design in 10 steps
Get to know your students: this is easier said than done. This process needs to be intentional. It’s important to create opportunities for students to express their identity, their thoughts and to reflect on their learning. It’s equally important to know how to listen, how to pick up on the small nuances, in a non-judgemental way. Remember: you need this information to create and adjust your course to their needs. You can read more about training your empathy and why this is important for course design here.
Focus on the learning not on the tools. Think of technology as an enabler: how can it help students achieve the learning objectives? This really depends on each context, so it requires a personal reflection (at course level) and, ideally, a dialogue with peers (at programme level). When thoughtfully embedded in the design, technology can facilitate the learning process by providing flexibility in time and space and it can also support students in making connections, both between the concepts they learn and with the “outside world” (e.g. experts, practitioners). The most important thing is to use each space and modality (on campus, online asynchronous and synchronous) to its strengths. If you are interested in how to make your synchronous online sessions more effective and engaging, here are some tips and resources.
Learning as a flow. Effective learning design is not only about building meaningful and engaging activities. It is also about connecting them with each other, transcending media and modalities, with attention to the moments of transition. Getting the structure and the sequencing right is key to this process. One design approach that can help with that by providing a visual overview is storyboarding; you can find more about it here. Estimating time on task is closely linked to the course design process; find some useful tools and resources on this topic here. And if you are interested in a microlearning approach, learn more about my metaphor of learning as a kaiseki meal here.
Teacher presence. While this is something we take for granted when we are in the classroom, presence in the online (or technology-mediated) environment is not as straight forward a concept. We can’t be as spontaneous and can’t rely on visual cues or body language. But there are many ways in which technology can enable us to guide our students and scaffold their progress through the course. You can read more about an intentional approach to teacher presence here.
Designing a space for learning. For a change of perspective, it may be helpful to think for a moment about designing a learning space instead of designing a course. Let’s focus on the space where learning takes place. This can be formal or informal, or both. It can have individual and collective components. It can be online, face-to-face or a mix of both. While you think of how you would like this space to be, find some inspiration about designing online learning spaces here and about how we can redesign learning spaces post-pandemic here (including a crowdsourced exercise with ideas and pictures).
Designing opportunities for interaction/ engagement. One thing we became more aware of during the pandemic is that even though it may seem so in the physical classroom, engagement does not always come naturally, spontaneously. We need to design opportunities for interaction, using various methods and tools. The aim is to scaffold students’ learning also when we are not around, allowing the learning process to continue, seamlessly, beyond time and space constraints. Find some examples of asynchronous online activities here.
Designing opportunities for feedback. Effective feedback is an intrinsic part of learning, not always- and not only- linked to assessment. We need to see feedback as a continuous flow, a dialogue between us and our students, that is meaningfully embedded in the fabric of the course. Course design is very important in creating a variety of feedback opportunities. We can design different task patterns that enable students to reflect on and incorporate the feedback at various points throughout the course/ programme. You can read more and find some valuable resources on feedback here.
Designing opportunities for reflection. The move to online teaching made us focus more on filling up every moment with “meaningful” content, often forgetting that learning is more than being continuously “on”, ready to actively engage. Learning also needs time. Time to absorb, to process, to listen, to think. For students, reflection is an extremely important- though often underestimated- element of the learning process. Read some tips for meaningfully embedding moments of reflection in your course here.
Communication: Teaching is about communication at least as much as it is about content, tools or methods. While we're busy designing our courses, we tend to take communication for granted. But in order to create a coherent narrative of our course and take students along with us on a journey, we need to deliberately create a communication strategy. You can find some ideas and resources here.
Share and learn from each other. Last but definitely not least, it’s important to work together with peers, to reflect together and share our experiences. Read more about building faculty learning communities here and Sanna Eronen’s reflections on peer support here. If you are interested in co-teaching and team teaching, fond some ideas and resources here.