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The role of instructional design and tech in online learning

By Yasaara Kaluaratchi

Instructional design and technology have been in the spotlight more than ever before due to the sudden change in the mode of delivery in education with the current pandemic. Most instructors and students had to adapt to teaching and learning completely online within a short amount of time. Holly Owens, a senior instructional designer with extensive experience in the education sector, provided some insight on this topic.

Defining instructional design and development

In the early 1900s, Thomas Edison envisaged that visual systems would change the entire school systems. He stated: “It is possible to teach every branch of human knowledge with the motion picture.” Instructional design and development dates back to World War II when specific skills and tasks needed to be taught to thousands of people within a very short time span. Complex processes were broken down to simple tasks for soldiers to comprehend and perform better. Thereafter, the advancements in instructional media and learning theories contributed to the development of instructional models and designs. Research suggests that there are three major components of instruction: instructional methods, instructional conditions, and instructional outcomes. An extended framework of these three combined comprises organisational, delivery, and management. Owens added: “Instructional technology to me is the thought you put behind producing a product or a course in which your students or learners are going to engage in.”

The role of technology 

Technology provides the support for the development of engaging and effective learning experiences. The use of audiovisual elements is imperative for a successful and embedded teaching process. “Edtech tools can be used to enhance the pedagogy or the content to engage your students on another level. Instructional design is the thought process behind how you’re making things and exploring training opportunities. The technology comes next. What type of learning management system (LMS) are you using? Are you planning to use interactive platforms such Nearpod or Yellowdig to supplement your courses? These are some of the questions which come into play when talking about the role of technology from an educational perspective,” noted Owens. Thus, when designing instructional material, it is beneficial for educators to sharpen their skills on the various types of technologies which can be used to enhance the pedagogy.

Factors to consider when designing content

Designing content to suit diverse learners is a task which must be carefully curated by instructional designers and educators. Owens added: “I think it’s important to look at the bigger picture, like backward design. Think about what your endpoint is and work backwards from there. You kind of maybe put the cart before the horse but you have to think about the steps the learners need to take to reach the objectives. Instructional design includes mapping out the progress of students, setting the goals and objectives, designing the assessments activities and the resources that are needed. The medium that is used must be considered whether it’s synchronous or asynchronous. You have to evaluate the technology you plan to use and the purpose you want your learners to accomplish. 

“I love technology but it comes secondary to pedagogy. Feeling comfortable, safe, and confident in your classroom is important for an educator. Thereafter, you can add in the technological activities. For an online classroom there are so many different tools. I would say it’s important to set up a routine. For example, you could have a warm up session, have a discussion about what your students are feeling, including emotional intelligence; having formative or summative assessments during the week would be applicable. Educators can create a cadence or format for their lesson and plug in where technology fits best. For a project that my students are working on, for instance, I break down the components throughout the unit and use technology creatively. Google Docs can be used for collaborative activities; I use Yellowdig to have conversations and create a community. I think it takes a lot of thought for educators to set those up. 

“For younger students, it’s important to think about the objectives of the lesson as well. Seesaw is a popular app which is used for interactive learning. The ABCmouse app can be used for reading and math. An application such as Happy Color where you colour by number is also quite interesting. It would be good to get the students outside the digital space rather than letting them sit in front of a screen throughout the lesson. GooseChase can be used to create scavenger hunts for kids. The scavenger hunt can be at a higher level or lower level depending on their age. Parent support can be obtained for very young students. A science lesson can be made interactive by asking them to find different types of leaves or flowers and adding a tool like Google Lens to identify the flower or plant would make it very attractive.

“We want our lessons to be sparkly and fun but sometimes it does not go the same way. Therefore, educators must evaluate and reflect on the lessons which will help them to do better the next time. Getting feedback from the students would also be helpful to improve the lessons. Through my experience an older student’s attention span on a specific task would last for about six minutes. It would be about three to five minutes for younger students. Hence students need to have activities which redirect them to different tasks from time to time.”

Challenges faced when designing instructional material 

“People have the misconception that the material used online and face to face is the same. When designing material for online lessons, it must be reconfigured and reevaluated. A great lesson in the classroom doesn’t always translate to a great lesson in the online space. One of the biggest challenges would be to revamp the lessons which were done face to face in an online setting. Another challenge is the engagement; getting the students excited, having their attention, and motivating students. For instance, if the students do not have their video on, the teacher would not know what the student is doing. We can get ‘Zoom fatigue’, so it’s important to strategically set up breaks during online lessons. Making sure that emotional intelligence and mental health is considered is also important.”

In conclusion Owens stated: “Educators, learners, and parents must support each other. There is a large community of instructional design and instructional technology. A wide range of resources are also available. Therefore, if educators feel unsupported, reach out; there is always someone willing to help you. Online educators are doing an amazing job. We need to understand that this is a huge change for a lot of people and to adapt to change takes time. It takes implementation and support. It’s important for educators to give themselves some grace. I would request learners and parents to give some grace to the teachers and not expect them to be 100% on point all the time. This is a community effort and we are all in this together.”

Holly Owens is a Senior Instructional Designer at Academic Partnerships. She has over 15 years of experience in education in various roles, including high school educator, instructional technologist, and podcast host. Her business, Jolly Holly Ed Services, offers professional services in instructional design. Holly has a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees and is currently pursuing her doctorate in Education Administration and Leadership at Touro University Nevada.

(The writer is reading for her doctorate in education. She has over a decade of experience in the education sector as a lecturer, mentor, and facilitator specialised in educational psychology, currently serving as the Director of Academics at Prospects Academy, Colombo, Sri Lanka)

Pic caption: Senior instructional designer Holly Owens