Universities need strategic investment in learning design

Digital learning has leapt from an often secondary concern to a core strategic issue for higher education institutions over the past six months. COVID-19 has been the catalyst for the potential digital transformation of higher education, sparking an intense period of reorganisation that will surely be followed by necessary innovation and investment.

Learning management systems (or LMSs), which have acted as content storage and distribution systems, have supported face-to-face interactions for many years. But these systems, based on often decades-old technology infrastructure, have been forced centre stage with the advent of COVID-19.

Now, urgent attempts are being made to couple them with newer generic communications technologies as institutions race to answer the challenge of increasing their online learning provision without losing the quality and engagement seen in face-to-face teaching.

There is, however, a growing realisation among many institutions’ executive teams, information technology specialists, educators and, of course, students that the changes demanded by COVID-19 have merely served to highlight the need for a far more strategic approach to digital learning.

In many ways, universities stand at a fork in the road.

On one hand, they can begin, as the pandemic fades, to return to ‘normal’ – delivering the traditional learning and community experiences to the groups they have long served.

On the other, the opportunity in the alternative route is a deliberate fusion of physical and digital learning with purposefully chosen education technologies designed to enhance the quality of learning (not just to store documents). This requires both careful technology choices and a proactive approach to learning design.

Digital natives

The forces driving this choice are manifold and deep rooted. For a start, students’ and educators’ relationships with technology in everyday life have changed profoundly. Newly enrolled students are usually digital natives who are accustomed to hybrid lifestyles in which the face-to-face world is comfortably blurred with digital experiences. They are likely to compare your technologies to their latest banking or social app.

Technology has become deeply rooted in our culture and expectations of technology experiences are high. E-commerce, social media, gaming and other leisure applications are designed for humans first – they are intuitive and what digital designers call ‘low friction’, which means they are easy to use.

The socio-economic and cultural profile of those who can and should go to university is also changing profoundly. This creates the need for far more hybrid forms of education that wrap around the individual rather than jar with the realities of their lives.

However, taking this route forward is as much about encouraging and enabling educators to embrace learning design as it is about deploying new technology.

Implications for learning design

For institutions choosing to invest strategically in hybrid or more flexible learning to enhance what they can deliver to students and the overall performance of the university, learning design becomes a key part of the process.

The objective is to use technology to create an environment in which students feel seamlessly connected to their peers and educators.

To achieve this requires a systematic and imaginative approach to redesigning course modules. Simply migrating established practices onto digital platforms without adapting the design and delivery approaches is not enough. It requires real, systematic and imaginative transformation, which demands an adjustment in professional development and staff confidence to shift to new ways of online teaching.

Through designing pedagogies for digital, an online community can be developed purposefully.

For example, a good learning design model should combine both synchronous and asynchronous learning experiences so that students are able to get that campus feeling even when studying at home or from their student accommodation.

Achieving this could take a variety of forms, but would likely include copious hours of professional development, firstly for staff, who, in this model, would need to shift from sage on the stage to online pedagogue.

Secondly, external partnership would allow institutions to combine the actual transformation processes with developmental activities for staff. Another option would be the internal appointment of new teams of learning designers, user experience experts and those well versed in creating communities online – no mean feat for an academic institution.

The barriers to change

For many educators, their role revolves around the lecture and tutor group and students traditionally have judged the value of their education on the quality of this performance. The actual structure and modes of interaction have often been left unquestioned or unexamined for long periods.

Learning design has not held a significant enough role within institutions to challenge the status quo in a systematic way. The options of partnership or internal appointments mentioned above should be considered as ways to resolve this problem.

One of the biggest hurdles universities face is encouraging understandably sceptical academics who perhaps lack the time, confidence or knowledge to embrace digital learning, so whichever route is chosen, robust professional development is clearly needed.

According to the UK’s Jisc 2019-20 Digital experience insights survey,74% of teaching staff in UK colleges and universities said they had never taught in a live online environment before lockdown and only 20% gave personalised digital feedback. This is unsurprising, as only 34% of teaching staff said they had had regular opportunities to develop their digital skills.

The fundamental issue often boils down to the time investment educators need to make in using learning technology.

The idea of spending 80-plus hours learning how to transform a module or course in a system that feels as if it has too many clicks, options and hidden corridors to go down is not attractive to those who want to get on with teaching and research.

New technologies can reduce this, but without strategic investment in learning design, this will not be enough to ensure that the change is sustainable and impactful.

Many industries and areas of life, from retail to government, are undergoing digital transformation. It has perhaps taken COVID-19 to force the issue in higher education. Universities now have an opportunity to make a similar paradigm shift but must consider the needs of their students and academics as paramount if they are to create meaningful change.

Dr Philippa Hardman is VP of Learning at Aula.