As technology continues to advance, so does the way we learn. Online learning continues to grow in popularity, with most educational institutions now adopting a strategy of extending their offering of online courses and programmes. However, while online learning puts studies within reach of more students, it is not without its challenges, which too often lead to the loss of time and money for unsuccessful students.
It is therefore incumbent on institutions to ensure that while they grow their offering, they also grow their student support, over and above the quality of the academic offering, to enhance the chances of student success, an education expert says.
“One of the major obstacles with online learning is ensuring that students remain engaged and motivated throughout the course. Without the structure and accountability of a physical classroom, it can be easy for students to become disengaged or fall behind,” says Cymbeline Harilal, senior Instructional Designer at The Independent Institute of Education, SA’s leading private higher education provider. She further states that having an Instructional Designer as part of the programme development team will go a long way towards achieving the aforementioned goals.
Instructional designers are the professionals responsible for designing and developing education and training materials. It is a highly technical role, and is, incidentally, a rapidly developing career field flowing from the growth in online education across South Africa and the rest of the world. However, too many educational institutions merely transfer their contact learning materials onto an online platform and call that an online programme, bypassing the unique challenges of online learning and the important contribution of instructional designers.
“Instructional designers play a crucial role in designing courses that are not only covering the theoretical aspect of such a course, but which are also engaging and interactive, and therefore the quality of the work of an instructional designer and the rest of the programme development team will have a fundamental impact on the quality of a programme and, by extension, the success of the students enrolled in the programme,” Harilal says.
A successful online learning programme has to be focused on much more than simply academic content, and instructional designers play a pivotal role in this regard.
“Online learning should provide the ability to personalise the learning experience. Instructional designers can create tailored learning paths and experiences that meet the unique needs and preferences of individual learners. By leveraging technology and data, instructional designers can improve student outcomes by ensuring that student progress can be tracked, areas of strength and weakness identified, and course content adjusted accordingly,” explains Harilal.
“Additionally, it is important to cater to students with different backgrounds and learning styles, by employing various strategies such as designing interactive activities, using varied questioning techniques, and enhancing collaborative online networking. These efforts create an inclusive learning environment that promotes shared learning among students from diverse academic, cultural, gender, ethical, and ability backgrounds.”
Furthermore, instructional designers are equipped to support predetermined outcomes by engineering the design process while allowing room for exploration, inquiry, and project-based learning, says Harilal.
“Through teamwork and diversity, instructional designers can help develop critical thinking, resourcefulness, and innovative problem-solving skills. This approach facilitates the student’s journey of discovery and innovation, enabling students to find solutions to problems and work collaboratively with their peers, even remotely, leading to a sense of fulfilment and an empowered future.
One of the main benefits of online learning is its accessibility. With just a click of a button or tap on a screen, students can access course materials, submit assignments, and engage with their peers and instructors from anywhere in the world. This level of flexibility and convenience is particularly valuable for individuals who may not have access to traditional classroom settings due to geographical, financial, or other limitations.
But the accessibility and convenience of online learning must be matched by successful student outcomes.
“Instructional designers play a key role in designing effective and inclusive online learning modules, and it is imperative that educational institutions invest in appointing instructional designers to create high quality online programmes.
“By incorporating technology and design thinking principles, it becomes possible to cater to students with different backgrounds and learning styles to ensure that online learning is accessible and engaging for all.”