The other day, my six-year-old asked me what the word “industrious” means, and I was overcome with pride and, moments later, mild panic as I tried to answer his question and couldn’t clearly articulate the meaning of the word.

This experience ended well (thanks, Alexa), but prompted me to think about how often we use words without fully understanding what they mean. We don’t question the meaning of these words when they are used in our work or daily interactions. We may use these words ourselves on occasion–or with regularity–but when we stop and try to define these words, the proper associations and descriptions don’t come immediately to mind.

In my work as an instructional designer, it’s common to talk about universal design or inclusive design, and in many cases, to use these descriptors interchangeably, when talking about design that is usable by a wide range of people. To a lesser extent, accessibility is used in a similar way, but, I think, our shared understanding of this term is more reliable.

For this blog post, I would like to spend some time defining and distinguishing these terms and grounding them in a historical context to more fully convey the nuances and layers of meaning ascribed to each term. I’ll wrap up with some strategies for designing courses to better meet the needs of all learners.

Accessibility

According to the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), “Web accessibility means that websites, tools, and technologies are designed and developed so that people with disabilities can use them.” It’s clear from this definition that accessibility is intended to address the needs of users with disabilities, so let’s consider disability. 

Prior to 2001, the World Health Organization (WHO) defined disability as a personal health condition. This definition placed emphasis on the individual. However, in 2001, the WHO redefined disability as a mismatched interaction between a person and their environment. This new definition places emphasis on the environment, rather than the individual. As a result, the onus is no longer only on the disabled individual to manage their health condition; rather, those who have influence over the environment need to make changes to the environment to better accommodate everyone who is interacting with it. In our case, the learning environment is the web, or more specifically, online courses. 

Unlike the other two design approaches we’ll consider, accessibility is intended to address the needs of users with disabilities. Another distinguishing feature of accessibility is that it describes an end goal. Our web content should be presented in such a way that the end result is an accessible website or technology. While this post will not go into the how of making web content accessible, here are some elements you may be familiar with: alternative text (alt tags), headings (H1, H2, H3, etc.), color contrast, captions and/or transcripts, reading order, keyboard navigation, and descriptive URLs are all examples of accessibility elements. All of these elements define what our design should look like, not how to get there.

Another distinguishing feature is that accessibility is required by law. We won’t delve into the specifics here, but it’s important to recognize that accessibility is a legal compliance issue.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

While accessibility addresses specific features of a website or online learning environment, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) takes a broader approach. UDL guidelines still emphasize accessibility, but the emphasis is not solely on making disability accommodations or complying with the law. The goal of UDL is to provide the greatest degree of access and usability for the widest range of individuals.

UDL includes a framework with three general principles, each of which includes multiple guidelines and checkpoints for actual practice. A UDL approach is structured and practical and, similar to accessibility, UDL defines an end goal: a product that is usable by the widest range of individuals possible. The framework, however, emphasizes the design, which is only one aspect of creating an online course.

To broaden our understanding of UDL, it’s important to understand that UDL emerged from universal design, which is an architectural concept. Architecture, unlike the web, is physically fixed, and as such, the emphasis is on a single design that works for everyone. 

Inclusive Design

While UDL emerged from architecture, inclusive design was “born out of digital environments,” and, while architecture is fixed, the web is flexible and ever-changing. As such, inclusive design emphasizes flexibility and process. Inclusive design is iterative. With an emphasis on iteration and process, inclusive design cannot be separated from the lived experience of actual users. In other words, if the users (in our case, students) are contributing to and evaluating the design, then we can no longer separate the design and delivery–the creation and facilitation activities.

With a focus on process, inclusive design emphasizes co-creation and frequent feedback from multiple developers as well as end users. In particular, seeking contributions from excluded communities during the entire design and evaluation process is critical to an inclusive process.

Unlike accessibility and UDL, inclusive design is focused on process and iteration. To help illustrate how we see these three design approaches working together, my colleague, Elisabeth McBrien and I created the figure below (figure 1).

Three circles. The outer circle represents inclusive design. The middle circle represents UDL. And the smallest circle represents accessibility.
Figure 1. An inclusive design process will always include UDL and accessibility as end goals.

We see accessibility compliance as core to any design. UDL goes beyond the requirements of accessibility to meet the needs of all users. In an inclusive design process, UDL and accessibility are always the end goal, but inclusive design emphasizes the importance of feedback and iteration. We can always improve and we always have more work to do.

In Practice

Now that we have a better understanding how accessibility, UDL, and inclusive design work together to contribute to a learning environment that meets the needs of all learners, how do we apply them and improve? Ecampus has many guidelines and templates that help us to meet the goals of accessibility and UDL, but how can we be more inclusive throughout this process? 

Here are some inclusive approaches that you might consider integrating into your course facilitation and teaching:

  • Build rapport with students. This is accomplished by infusing instructor presence whenever possible. Respond to Q&A questions and emails within 24-48 hours. Share resources. Deliver feedback promptly. An important element of rapport and presence is showing your personality, so consider using video to welcome students and to encourage them throughout the course.
  • Solicit feedback. One of the easiest ways to solicit feedback from your students is to use a survey. Keep surveys short and consider asking students to share in a few words how the course is going or what they find most challenging.
  • Establish clear criteria and structure. Rubrics, templates, examples, and consistent naming and organization of course materials are just a few ways to provide clarity and structure.
  • Acknowledge student contributions. Praise is an instant confidence booster. Do you have a student–particularly, an underrepresented student–who did an exceptional job on one of your assignments? Let them know. Consider sharing their work as an example–with their permission, of course.
  • Feature counter-stereotypical examples of people in your field. One common barrier to success for underrepresented students is that they don’t see themselves reflected in a particular discipline. Make sure your readings, examples, and other course materials represent a variety of identities. If there’s a lack of diversity in your field, find a way to acknowledge this to your students.
  • Promote student agency and autonomy by giving them choice, whenever possible. Providing choice and promoting agency allow students to connect your course to their own experiences and values.
  • Emphasize real world applications of course work. Often, we assume that our students understand the purpose of course activities, but this is not always the case. Sharing real world applications will help students to see the value and greater purpose of their studies.

Final Thoughts

We’ve covered a lot in this post, and I hope that we’ve come away with a better understanding of disability, accessibility, Universal Design for Learning (UDL), and inclusive design. One of the most important takeaways is that inclusive design is an ongoing process of feedback and iteration. As our student body changes, so do their needs. In an upcoming blog post, Elisabeth McBrien will share more details about student needs and how you might use student personas to design more inclusively.  

As we continue the challenging–yet meaningful–work of creating welcoming online learning environments, it’s important that we have a shared understanding of what that work entails, what work we have done, and what work we have yet to do.

Resources

  1. Appert, L. et al. (2018) Guide for Inclusive Teaching at Columbia. Columbia University: Center for Teaching and Learning.
  2. Gannon, Kevin. (2018) The case for inclusive teaching. Chronicle of Higher Education.
  3. Hogan, Kelly A. and Sathy, Viji. (2019, July 22) “Want to Reach All of Your Students? Here’s How to Make Your Teaching More Inclusive: Advice Guide.” Chronicle of Higher Education.
  4. The inclusive design guide. Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University. CC-BY 3.0.
  5. Inclusive Teaching: Supporting All Students in the College Classroom. EdX course from Columbia University.

Introduction

For those who work in higher education, it may not come as a surprise that the field of instructional design has grown in tandem with the expansion of online programs and courses. Evidence of this growth abounds. While the discipline of instructional design has expanded rapidly in recent years, the history of instructional design is not well known by those outside of the field.

This post will cover a brief history of instructional design with a particular emphasis on design: What influences design? How are design decisions made? How has the way we approached design changed over time? We’ll also consider how instructional designers actually design courses and the importance of course structure as an inclusive practice.

Instructional Design: Theory and History

Every instructional design curriculum teaches three general theories or theoretical frameworks for learning: behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism. While an instructional designer (ID) probably wouldn’t call herself a cognitivist or a behaviorist, for example, these theories influence instructional design and the way IDs approach the design process.

The field of instructional design is widely believed to have originated during World War II, when training videos like this one were created to prepare soldiers with the knowledge and skills they would need in battle. This form of audio-visual instruction, although embraced by the military, was not initially embraced by schools.

B.F. Skinner
“B.F. Skinner” Portrait Art Print
by Xiquid

In the 1950s, behaviorists, such as B.F. Skinner, dominated popular thought on how to teach and design instruction. For behaviorists, learning results in an observable change in behavior. The optimal design of a learning environment from a behaviorist perspective would be an environment that increases student motivation for learning, provides reinforcement for demonstrating learning, and removes distractions. Behaviorists are always designing for a specific response, and instruction is intended to teach discrete knowledge and skills. For behaviorists, motivation is critical, but only important to the extent that it elicits the desired behavior. 

Cognitivism was largely a response to behaviorism. Cognitivists emphasized the role of cognition and the mind; they acknowledged that, when designing learning environments, there is more to consider than the content to be learned. More than environmental factors and instructional components, the learners’ own readiness, or prior knowledge, along with their beliefs and attitudes, require consideration. Design, from a cognitivist approach, often emphasizes preparedness and self-awareness. Scaffolding learning and teaching study skills and time-management (metacognitive skills) are practices grounded in a cognitivist framework.

While cognitivists emphasize the learner experience, and in particular, acknowledge that learners’ existing knowledge and past histories influence their experience, the learner is still receiving information and acting on it–responding to carefully designed learning environments.

Constructivism, the most current of the three frameworks, on the other hand, emphasizes that the learner is constructing their own understanding of the world, not just responding to it. Learners are activity creating knowledge as they engage with the learning environment.

All–or nearly all–modern pedagogical approaches are influenced by these theoretical frameworks for learning.

Design Approaches

A single course can be seen as a microcosm of theoretical frameworks, historical models, and value-laden judgements of pedagogical approaches

Learning theories are important because they influence our design models, but by no means are learning theories the only factor guiding design decisions. In our daily work, IDs rely on many different tools and resources. Often, IDs will use multiple tools to make decisions and overcome design challenges. So, how do we accomplish this work in practice?

  1. We look to established learning outcomes. We talk about learning goals and activities with faculty. We ask questions to guide decision making about how to meet course learning outcomes through our course design.
  2. We look to research-based frameworks and pedagogical approaches such as universal design for learning (UDL), inclusive design, active learning, student-centered design, and many other models. These models may be influenced by learning theory, but they are more practical in nature.
  3. We look to human models. We often heed advice and follow the examples our more experienced peers.
  4. We look to our own past experiences and solutions that have worked in similar situations, and we apply what we learned to future situations.
  5. We make professional judgements; judgements rooted in our tacit knowledge of what we believe “good design” looks like. For better or for worse, we follow our intuition. Our gut.

Over time, one can see that instructional design has evolved from an emphasis on teaching discrete knowledge and skills that can be easily measured (behaviorism) to an emphasis on guiding unique learners to actively create their own understanding (constructivism). Design approaches, however, are not as straightforward as simply taking a theory and applying it to a learning situation or some course material. Instructional design is nuanced. It is art and science. A single course can be seen as a microcosm of theoretical frameworks, historical models, and value-laden judgements of pedagogical approaches–as well as value-laden judgements of disciplinary knowledge and its importance. But. That’s another blog post.

Design Structure to Meet Diverse Needs

Meeting diverse needs, however, does not necessitate complexity in course design

If learners are unique, if learning can’t be programmed, if learning environments must be adaptable, if learners are constructing their own knowledge, how is all of this accommodated in a course design?

Designing from a modern constructivist perspective, from the viewpoint that students have vastly different backgrounds, past experiences, and world-views, requires that many diverse needs be accommodated in a single course. Meeting diverse needs, however, does not necessitate complexity in course design. Meeting diverse needs means that we need to provide support, so that it is there for those who need it, but not distracting to those who don’t need it. Design needs to be intuitive and seamless for the user.

Recent research on inclusive practices in design and teaching identify structure as an inclusive practice. Design can be viewed as a way of applying, or ensuring, a course structure is present. In that way, working with an instructional designer will make your course more inclusive. But, I digress. Or, do I?

Sathy and Hogan contend, in their guide, that structure benefits all students, but some, particularly those from underrepresented groups, benefit disproportionately. Conversely, not enough structure, leaves too many students behind. Since many of the same students who benefit from additional course structure also succeed a lower rates, providing course structure may also help to close the achievement gap.

How are We Doing This?

The good news is that Ecampus is invested in creating courses that are designed–or structured–in a way that meets the needs of many different learners. Working with an Ecampus instructional designer will ensure that your course materials are clearly presented to your students. In fact, many of the resources we provide–course planning templates, rubrics, module outlines, consistent navigation in Canvas, course banners and other icons and visual cues–are intended to ensure that your students navigate your course materials and find what they need, when they need it.

References

Icons made by phatplus and Freepik from www.flaticon.com are licensed by CC 3.0 BY

Boling, E., Alangari, H., Hajdu, I. M., Guo, M., Gyabak, K., Khlaif, Z., . . . Techawitthayachinda, R. (2017). Core Judgments of Instructional Designers in Practice. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 30(3), 199-219. doi:10.1002/piq.21250

Eddy, S.L. and Hogan, K. A. (2017) “Getting Under the Hood: How and for Whom Does Increasing Course Structure Work?” CBE—Life Sciences Education. Retrieved from https://www.lifescied.org/doi/10.1187/cbe.14-03-0050

Sathy, V. and Hogan, K.A. (2019). “Want to Reach All of Your Students? Here’s How to Make Your Teaching More Inclusive: Advice Guide. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/interactives/20190719_inclusive_teaching

Tanner, K.D. (2013) “Structure Matters: Twenty-One Teaching Strategies to Promote Student Engagement and Cultivate Classroom Equity,” CBE—Life Sciences Education. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3762997/

First, let’s start by considering the characteristics of effective feedback in general. What comes to mind?

sound waves

Perhaps you hear in your head (in the authentically authoritative voice of a past professor) the words timely, frequent, regular, balanced, specific. Perhaps you recall the feedback sandwich–corrective feedback sandwiched between positive feedback. Perhaps you consider rubrics or ample formative feedback to be critical components of effective feedback. You wouldn’t be wrong.

As educators, we understand the main characteristics of effective feedback. But despite this fact, students are often disappointed by the feedback they receive and faculty find the feedback process time consuming, often wondering if the time commitment is worth it. As an instructional designer, I hear from faculty who struggle to get students to pay attention to feedback and make appropriate changes based on feedback. I hear from faculty who struggle to find the time to provide quality feedback, especially in large classes. The struggle is real. I know this because I hear about it all the time.

I’m glad I hear about these concerns. I always want faculty to share their thoughts about what’s working and what’s not working in their classes. About a year or two ago, I also started hearing rave reviews from faculty who decided to try audio feedback in their online courses. They loved it and reported that their students loved it. Naturally, I wanted to know if these reports were outliers or if there’s evidence supporting audio feedback as an effective pedagogical practice.

I started by looking for research on how audio feedback influences student performance, but what I found was research on how students and faculty perceive and experience audio feedback.

What I learned was that, overall, students tend to prefer audio feedback. Faculty perceptions, however, are mixed, especially in terms of the potential for audio feedback to save them time.

While the research was limited and the studies often had contradictory results, there was one consistent takeaway from multiple studies: audio feedback supports social presence, student-faculty connections, and engagement.

While research supports the value of social presence online, audio feedback is not always considered for this purpose. Yet, audio feedback is an excellent opportunity to focus on teaching presence by connecting one-to-one with students.

If you haven’t tried audio feedback in your classes, and you want to, here are some tips to get you started:

  1. Use the Canvas audio tool in Speedgrader. See the “add media comment” section of the Canvas guide to leaving feedback comments. Since this tool is integrated with Canvas, you won’t have to worry about upload and download times for you or your students.
  2. Start slow. You don’t have to jump into the deep end and provide audio comments on all of your students’ assignments. Choose one or two to get started.
  3. Ask your students what they think. Any time you try something new, it’s a good idea to hear from your students. Creating a short survey in your course to solicit student feedback is an excellent way to get informal feedback.
  4. Be flexible. If you have a student with a hearing impairment or another barrier that makes audio feedback a less than optimal option for them, be prepared to provide them with written feedback or another alternative.

Are you ready to try something new? Have you tried using audio feedback in your course? Tell us how it went!

References:

Image by mtmmonline on Pixabay.

Note: This post was based on a presentation given at the STAR Symposium in February 2019. For more information and a full list of references, see the presentation slide deck.

 

So, you’re thinking about offering virtual office hours in your online class. Your instructional designer is thrilled! Virtual office hours are a great way to promote social connection and build community with your students.

But, you’re nervous. Maybe you’ve tried offering virtual office hours before. Maybe you’ve heard from colleagues that students aren’t going to show up to your office hours. Maybe one student will show up. Maybe five. Or three. Or none. Maybe you’re not sure how to prepare. You want your students to come with questions. Maybe your students will come with tons of questions. Maybe they won’t.

Just as you can’t–or shouldn’t–teach an online course in the same way that you would teach an on-campus course, you also shouldn’t structure your virtual office hours in the same way you structure your face-to-face office hours. On-campus students already have face time with you and their peers in class. If your on-campus students come to your office hour, it’s likely because they have a question for you. Online students may have other reasons for attending your office hour. Given, not just the different modality, but the different reasons online students choose to attend an office hour, virtual office hours implemented into a primarily asynchronous online course, require thoughtful planning.

The research article, “Live Synchronous Web Meetings in Asynchronous Online Courses: Reconceptualizing Virtual Office Hours” (Lowenthal, Dunlap, & Snelson, 2017) explores how to successfully conduct online office hours in primarily asynchronous online courses. The article focuses on group office hours, but synchronous student-student and instructor-student interactions are worth considering as well. While I would encourage you to read the entire paper, I’d like to summarize some of the “implications for practice” highlighted in the article. The paper includes 21 implications for practice. Here are a few to consider for your online course:

  1. Rebrand your office hours. For better or for worse, we all have preconceived notions about what an office hour entails. Be thoughtful about your goals for the virtual sessions, renaming them to reflect how the time will be used, the level of formality, or the structure. Examples from the research article include, “Happy Hours, Coffee Breaks, Afternoon Tea, Bat Cave…Around the Campfire….Consultations, Design Studio, Conference Room, Headquarters, and Open Space.” (188)
  2. Schedule them in advance–ideally at the beginning of the quarter–and vary the days and times to accommodate different schedules and timezones. Providing ample notice and opportunities on various days and times is especially important as online students are often juggling home, work, and school responsibilities.
  3. Provide reminders via email or announcements.
  4. Prompt students for questions prior to the live sessions.
  5. Then, record the live session. That way, students can still ask a question, have it answered, and watch later if they’re unable to attend the live session.
  6. Post the recording in an announcement, so that it is easy to find.
  7. Start the session with an ice-breaker.
  8. Consider offering some brief direct-instruction or inviting a guest speaker.
  9. Incentivize students to attend by making the experience engaging and relevant–and giving them an agenda before the session.

While virtual synchronous interaction isn’t usually required in Ecampus courses, it is an option that, when thoughtfully implemented, can enhance the teaching and learning experience. If this is an approach that you’re interested in exploring, reach out to your instructional designer, and they can help you implement it in a way that is equitable for all students.

References:

Lowenthal, P. R.; Dunlap, J. C. & Snelson, C. (2017). Live synchronous web meetings in asynchronous online courses: Reconceptualizing virtual office hours. Online Learning 21(4), 177-194. doi: 10.24059/olj.v21i4.1285

Image credit:

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash