LEARNERS AT THE HEART OF ONLINE COURSE DESIGN
Kokila Ravi, Georgia State University
While we have always known that learners are at the center of the teaching learning experience, this course has brought about a new awareness in me about the value of understanding learner characteristics and needs while designing an effective online learning environment. Two resources as well as class discussions helped shape my views in this regard. Cennamo and Kalk (2019) analyze the needs and characteristics of learners, the implications of this knowledge in designing learning experiences, and outline how outcomes, activities, and assessments in online courses are designed for the learner. Nada Dabbagh (2007) elaborates on the specific characteristics of online learners and demonstrates how exploratory and dialogical models work best for current learners who are essentially heterogeneous and diverse and very savvy with technology tools.
In the chapter “Learner Needs and Characteristics” (Cennamo and Kalk, 2019, p.30) the authors identify five learner related tasks in the instructional design process. They are: Define, Design, Demonstrate, Develop, and Deliver. The learner is central in all these phases. The online learner profile has changed significantly in the last twenty years from an adult learner working in isolation and self-investment to a younger learner who is comfortable with all forms of electronic communications. Online courses thrive on a co-operative learning environment and share the belief that knowledge is a “shared intellectual capital” (Dabbagh, N., 2007, p. 219). So, it is critical that the design process includes a carefully structured needs description that includes the specific scope of knowledge or skills base that learners need to achieve in addition to a detailed analysis of learner characteristics. I understand how valuable this knowledge is in designing the learning environment, activities, assessments, and peer grouping, so the course becomes relevant and effective. Currently, we seem to utilize the “one size fits all” approach to learning but that may cause boredom to some and challenges to others. What students already know and where there are in the learning spectrum is another key piece in this puzzle. Once we establish a baseline, it becomes easier to lead the students through the various steps of the learning process. Cennamo and Kalk establish that motivation, cognitive and physical abilities, and prior knowledge all factor into the instructor’s understanding of the student (p.36). The complexity and level of learning materials are dependent on the knowledge level of learners and the instructor must use a variety of ways to reach students at both ends of the spectrum.
Today, distance education population is becoming increasingly heterogeneous or diverse and embraces various cultural and educational backgrounds. Students are drawn to distance education because of the flexible course delivery models and are charmed by the new technologically enhanced learning environments. The full potential of collaborative learning is utilized and a co-operative learning environment is nurtured in this course design. Nada Dabbagh (2007) identifies online learner characteristics as comfort with written communications, savvy with technology and web applications, possessing self-discipline and self -initiative, capable of self-monitoring and self-management. In addition, online learners must possess social skills so that they can utilize the most valuable resource in the course, their peers. Since online learners are known to be self-motivated learners, there is a very good opportunity to learn from each other. They need to master the art of conversation in the online world and also to build on each other’s strengths. Nada Dabbagh (2007) believes that it is essential for online learners to develop two types of online learning environments – pedagogical and exploratory. Both learning systems are founded on Constructivist learning theories. The exploratory learning design utilizes multimedia, hypermedia, digital media, graphics, and many audiovisual tools. Webquest is an interesting assignment tool that can be used in this design process as it offers a scaffolded learning environment to study. The dialogical model emphasizes conversations, collaboration, and negotiation techniques. Social networking sites, discussion boards, and other collaborative tools are utilized in this course.
While I am aware of various tools in the learning management system that engage learners intentionally to build knowledge and cultivate learning, I learned about two platforms that I intend to use in my online courses. Multiple User Dungeon or Multiple User Dimension (MUD), which is a complete virtual world in which you become the body of a character you use to navigate that world; different people use this world at the same time and explore together; a Multi-user dialogue environment where users have multi-user space with a central theme, characters, and artifacts. Multi-user Object Oriented (MOO) environment, which is called MOOs allow learners to experience virtual worlds as players of a game or explorers of a theme; MOOs make use of multimedia while MUDs make use of text based learning; MOOs developed into social spaces more readily used as virtual classrooms.
Cennamo, K., & Kalk, D. (2019). Real world instructional design: an iterative approach to designing learning experiences. New York: Routledge.
Dabbagh, N. (2007). The online learner: Characteristics and pedagogical implications.
Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 7(3), 217- 226.