Bold Design and the Online Learning Experience

Best practices in online teaching and design tell us a few things about how a course should work. Courses should be consistent within each program and among different programs to give institutions a unified look and feel.[1] Courses should be more than file repositories followed by multiple-choice assessments. Materials should be easy to find and instructors should create areas that promote community and relationships.[2] Online courses should not be “digital versions” of the face-to-face model, and instructors should not think of online design as “putting their course online.”[3]  On the contrary, courses are more effective when viewed as a redesign and redeployment of the same ideas for the online modality.[4]  Each of these design recommendations has, over time, become well-established practice and has helped institution after institution launch successful online programs.

The nut that remains most difficult to crack is that of student attention. The ebb and flow of student attention over the course of a semester is, to no one’s surprise, an ongoing reminder of how priorities can change, how work and family lives can prohibit extended engagement and how – despite the best intentions of an instructor – some teaching strategies simply don’t reach every student. Nowhere is this more evident than in online courses, where attrition is high and where students routinely report feeling isolated, overworked and underappreciated.

Course Concept and Design as Engagement Tools

Where student priorities and personal lives are concerned, perhaps there is little at the design and execution level that can be done to strengthen their commitment to coursework. On the third point, though, that of teaching strategies, there is plenty that can be done during the concept, design and creative phases of course building to keep both students and instructors challenged.

In the foreword to a 2018 study on digital learning, Lou Pugliese of Arizona University addresses this challenge by imagining a bright future in which digital learning embraces new techniques – specifically those related to technological advancements – and is able to shake up pedagogical approaches:

The maturity of digital technologies has supported innovations in instructional design that allow institutions to address the main challenges that modern learners encounter on their academic journeys. Advances in adaptive learning and artificial intelligence have begun to transform the learner experience in ways we never imagined possible. And yet the most promising byproduct of digital learning may be an explosion of data that indexes learner behavior and is opening doors to pedagogical innovations rooted in an unprecedented understanding of the learning science.[5]

This kind of optimism is exactly the kind of thing that designers and instructors ought to try and channel when it comes time to build and deploy their offerings. The stumbling block has often come as traditional instructors undertake the transition to the online modality. By no fault of their own, boldness of design is relegated behind other teaching and learning imperatives such as effective content, rigorous assessment and a responsible workload. In most cases, the steepness of the learning curve prevents the kind of creativity and ingenuity instructors enjoy in their face-to-face courses. The challenge, as more and more institutions offer online content and as more and more students come to expect it, will be to continue to prioritize content, assessment and workload while promoting bold design to an equal footing. When online learning is not a differentiator in and of itself, the differentiators need to be created.

The Power of Experiential Learning

So now, having established the best practices for course design, the next questions ought to be about making the experience of the course stand out, and how to do that without sacrificing other design imperatives such as consistency and utility. But a course needn’t be overly complicated for the sake of showing off technological capabilities. While “personalized learning” and augmented reality or virtual reality are alluring, they may be cost prohibitive for many institutions. A more budget-friendly approach might include blogs, wikis, virtual field trips, polls and surveys, video announcements and feedback, guest lecturers or shared workbooks.

With such tools, designers and instructors are empowered to use the technological advances Pugliese champions in ways that augment the teaching and learning experience. This may present a learning curve for institutions, but may also signal a turning point for programs that are willing to push ahead and invest in progress. 

Consider this from the same 2018 Arizona State study into digital learning:

"Although overall post-secondary enrollment is declining at an annual rate of 1% to 2% and the number of students taking all of their courses on campus has declined at an annual rate of 2.5 percent over the past four years, online learning remains a bright spot: the number of students taking some or all of their courses online has grown at a 5 percent annual rate during the same period, according to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS).[6]"

Moreover, 2017 IPEDS data shows that the trend is only picking up steam. Whereas 67 percent of undergrad students and nearly 62 percent of their graduate counterparts are fully residential, the long-term outlook is favorable toward fully online and hybrid programs (relative to 2014 IPEDS data, the 2017 study indicates a nearly 5 percent growth in the percentage of students with at least some distance education as part of their undergraduate degree).

The competition for students over the next 5 to 10 years, when some 50 percent of students might be expected to take online courses, is very likely to lean heavily on the quality of the online programs rather than the availability. A mature market for online courses will certainly exist, and students will certainly have their pick of programs that can check the boxes for online best practices. The value-add that will convince students to enroll will come by way of course and program design, and will be the product of program faculty and design specialists willing to push the envelope.

Personalized Learning Gaining Ground

The strategies that will drive the next wave of online programming will be those that enable learning communities to reach higher; to design and participate in completely new student experiences. The likelihood increases daily that machine learning and augmented reality will become part and parcel of the online learning experience. Personalized learning driven by software and algorithm shouldn’t feel like science fiction. In fact, adaptive courseware, which is based around predictive analytics and guides students along personalized course paths, already exists and is finding wider implementation at undergraduate institutions. Synchronous online sessions can be held anywhere when you can use virtual reality as a teaching tool, and assessments can truly be meaningful when the student is able to demonstrate knowledge through project-based work instead of answer a question about it.

Of course, there is always a trade-off when discussing the practical vs. the ideal, but boldness in design asks that instructors adopt a new lens when beginning a new course build. Instead of asking what should be done, or what the course should look like, asking about the best student experience may lead them toward a course that exhibits all the best practices but also takes advantage of the innumerable capabilities of online coursework.

Additional sources:  
[1] Swan, K., Shea, P., Fredericksen, E. E., Pickett, A. M., & Pelz, W. E. (2000). Course Design Factors Influencing the Success of Online Learning. Retrieved from

[2] Dykman, C. A & Davis, C. (2008) Online Education Forum – Part Three A Quality Online Educational Experience. Journal of Information Systems Education, 19 (3). 281-289

[3] Creasman, P. A. (2012). Considerations in Online Course Design. IDEA (52). Retrieved from 

[4] Fischer, M., & Baird, D. E. (2005). Online learning design that fosters student support, self-regulation, and retention. Campus-Wide Information Systems (22)2. 88-107. Retrieved from

[5] Bailey, A., Vaduganathan, N., Henry, T., Laverdiere, R., & Pugliese, L. (2018, March). Making Digital Learning Work. Retrieved from

[6] Bailey, A., Vaduganathan, N., Henry, T., Laverdiere, R., & Pugliese, L. (2018, March). Making Digital Learning Work. Retrieved from

Lorenzo, G. (2012). A Research Review about Online Learning. Internet Learning 1(1). Article 5. Retrieved from

McGivney, R. J. (2009). Adult Student Persistence in Online Education: Developing a Model to Understand the Factors that Affect Adult Student Persistence in a Course. Dissertations. 49-56. Retrieved from

Carter, J. (2018, April 23). Study: Online learning improves retention, graduation rates. Retrieved from

About the Author

Jonathan Kinsey

Jonathan Kinsey is an instructional designer with Collegis Education and holds a Bachelor of Arts in secondary education from Hope College in Holland, MI and a Master of Fine Arts in literature from DePaul University, IL

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