Online Education

Instructional Design: more than just captivating courses

By August 5, 2014 No Comments

In the recent HEMJ post Assess for Success, we explored the need for colleges and universities to assess their internal capacity before launching new online degrees. Specifically, we noted three core operational areas, seen at left: Marketing, Recruiting, and Instructional Design.
In this article, we’ll explore instructional design in greater detail. Loosely defined as the systematic process by which instructional materials are designed, instructional design in this context relates to the ways in which courses are designed and delivered for electronic, at-a-distance consumption. We won’t delve into the science of learning theory (though it’s hugely important), focusing instead on how good instructional design positively impacts not just pedagogy, but marketing and retention as well.
Instructional design is unique among the operational areas because it directly impacts the very core of the academic enterprise. Marketing and recruitment are important: absent success here, there will be no students to teach. However, they are administrative functions, conceived, planned, executed, and evaluated by administrators. Instructional design, contrarily, sits at the potent nexus of professors, pedagogy, and technology.
In the nascent days of online learning, a static syllabus and PDFs posted in the LMS, augmented by videotaped lectures, constituted instructional design. And because online course delivery was so cutting edge, that was good enough—the medium was the wow factor, not necessarily the content. But with the twin developments of improved technology and a more sophisticated audience, this archaic approach is no longer tenable in the crowded online degree marketplace.
Online students in 2014—whether an 18-year-old undergraduate taking a summer course from mom’s basement, a 36-year-old single parent sneaking in some course reading at lunch, or a globe-trotting CEO pursuing her executive MBA—have more sophisticated expectations. They want content-rich, multi-media courses that engage as well as, if not better than, face-to-face delivery. And they demand that this content be captivating and delivered efficiently (no buffering), any time, and on any device.


The advent, and now expectation, of mobile platform delivery has simultaneously untethered learning and increased demands for anywhere, anytime content.  Not only must course content be powerful and compelling, now it must be easily accessible while commuting on the subway, flying to Munich, or waiting in line at the DMV.
The role of technology in this transformation cannot be underestimated. Broadband Internet access has literally opened the pipes to heretofore unimaginably rich content. For example, an online robotics course that once relied on one-dimensional drawings can now have three-dimensional simulations augmented by video demonstrations and an embedded quiz. Ancillary readings from journal articles or websites can be right in the LMS, instantly accessible to augment the core content.
In part due to this technological leap forward, instructional design has evolved from the PDFs and videotaped lectures of yesterday to what Kevin Johnson, co-founder of IN THE TELLING ( refers to as a “transmedia storytelling experience.” His firm has catapulted the quality of online courses in a way analogous to going from a room-hogging black-and-white console TV to a 90” high-def, Internet-enabled LCD TV hung artfully above the fireplace. IN THE TELLING deploys a four- or five-person crew to create Hollywood-worthy online courses, with excellent results and reviews from both students and faculty members.
Instructional design is both art and science, and even gifted designers need academic training to master the complex interplay between educational theory, online design and technology. What’s more, online courses need to be vetted to ensure quality and must also comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). So while a professor may be a subject matter expert (SME) in, say, accounting theory, this expertise does not make her an instructional designer. Therefore, any institution building online courses needs well-trained instructional designers to help the SMEs. Larger universities may have an instructional design team, but smaller colleges are less likely to do so. Talented instructional designers are in great demand and command salaries that many institutions may not be willing or able to meet.
Numerous for-profit companies offer instructional design services. We highlight IN THE TELLING here because of its excellent production values and dedication to cutting-edge content, but there are many others available, easily found through a simple Google search.
We hypothesize that excellent instructional design carries ancillary benefits beyond just captivating courses and, judiciously deployed, may enhance the marketability of an online degree program. Many universities offer a sample online course on their web sites, and a compelling course will trump a boring one every time. Enrollment advisors should walk prospective students through the sample online course during the recruitment process, and this introduction to content-rich, user-friendly courses may help sway prospects to pick your program over a competitor.
Similarly, we hypothesize that high-quality course design can positively impact student retention. One university partner of IN THE TELLING, for instance, reports its highest student retention in those online courses with ITT content. While by no means a scientific study, this anecdote does suggest a positive correlation. We suggest that in the future, universities should assess the value of high-end course content in its end-of-course evaluations. Alternatively, the university might consider an online survey of all online degree students to better understand how instructional design impacts overall student satisfaction.
Instructional design is an integral part of every online degree and, as such, deserves to be closely explored and carefully managed. Enriching online degrees with well-conceived, content-rich courses can pay big dividends in attracting new students, engaging current students, and possibly helping improve retention as well.

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