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Reimagining digital learning

digital learning
Photo by Oleg Illarionov on Unsplash

From emergency remote teaching to quality online learning, it’s time for digital first learning design – by Prof. dr. Frank Gielen, Education Director, and Anouk Gelan, Sr. Digital Learning Designer at EIT InnoEnergy.

Why should education go digital-first? COVID-19 has profoundly disrupted education with universities being forced to take a quantum leap into digital learning delivery. EIT InnoEnergy recently launched the concept of digital-first education, building on proven principles of online and face-to-face education as well as the lessons of mobile-first user experience.

In 2010 Eric Schmidt, then CEO of Google, announced at the Mobile World Congress that the company would be focusing more on mobile users in their design practices. With 51% of global access to the internet being mobile in 2019, away from just desktops, his decision was a smart one.

Certainly, the transition was not immediate. Regular websites could be viewed on mobile devices but with a mediocre user experience; intermediary solutions were then put in practice to make websites originally designed for desktop use accessible for mobile users via responsive design.

So, what is the relation to online learning? We are not suggesting all education should move to mobile, but there is an interesting parallel between the mobile-first strategy and the evolution of online education.

Students today find and share information in digital ways. They communicate with each other, with faculty staff as well as with friends and family via online apps. As the number of students who have online learning experiences grows, we have reached the same turning point that Eric Schmidt identified 10 years ago: it’s time to design learning for a ‘Digital First’ experience. Digital first learning design means designing learning experiences by starting from the benefits of digital or online learning, and complementing that with the best of face-to-face education. It leads to a better learning and teaching experience overall, by integrating the best of two worlds.  

It’s true that the COVID crisis has forced universities to take a quantum leap into the digital delivery of learning activities. Emergency solutions were put in place to replace classroom lectures with remote lectures. However, what happened in most places was copying the traditional format of 1 to 2 hour lectures to an online environment using videoconferencing systems with question and answer sessions at best. All of a sudden, teachers found themselves in their homes talking to a screen for several hours a day. Soon, symptoms were reported of “zoomed out” teachers who felt they were delivering “a lot of the energy of face-to-face” without receiving “many of the psychological rewards of face-to-face”. Students also reported feeling exhausted spending long hours staring at their screens or struggling with increased workload associated with long lectures, many assignments and little instructions and feedback.

The face-to-face education model cannot just be transposed to online

In this context, the learner experience was suboptimal. Students know that, “unlike a brick-made lecture hall, an online platform is capable of much more, yet none of its capabilities are being utilised.” A risk identified by many learning designers and education technologists is that the sudden increase in usage of videoconferencing tools will end up encouraging traditional formats of “teacher-centered learning”.

A quality learning experience online should be designed for the native capabilities of the internet, and face-to-face education designs should take into account the strengths of teachers’ and students’ physical presence in a campus and research/laboratory environment. Online learning environments are excellently suited for active learning, self-paced learning, repeated practise with immediate feedback, peer learning, both synchronous and asynchronous teacher-learner or learner-learner interactions, reflection and discussion assignments or group work on projects, challenges, research projects. Why not think of more advanced AR or VR environments? For example, EIT InnoEnergy introduced its Battery Bash VR game where students learn to safely design battery packs without causing electrical shortcuts or wasting wrongly soldered battery cells.

Let’s apply these lessons to digital learning:

  • Mobile first = content first, go back to the essentials: what is it learners should be able to do after they take your course? Then prioritise the content and skills best suited for online, and those for face-to-face (or synchronous remote in case of limited campus access).
  • Keep the user in mind: what are the learning outcomes and how are they relevant for your learners and their context; integrate problems or examples related to real-life issues
  • No unnecessary development: resources are limited so creating online learning resources should be well justified and weighted against curating existing public, open or colleagues’ contents.
  • Avoid large chunks of content: long videos and texts don’t work well online. Rework learning contents in smaller chunks to create progressive learning steps and create short videos where your tutorial presence creates added value.
  • Mobile-first design “paves the way to a better desktop experience as well”: smart digital first design will also improve the overall effectiveness of a course as it implies applying sound, proven pedagogical principles for both learning modalities. After all, the internet is not as forgiving for bad teaching as a closed classroom environment.
  • Adapt to a digitalised reality: the way we process information, communicate and learn has simply changed. The education sector will not escape digital transformation.

Of course, the recent crisis did not allow education organisations to do much more given the circumstances, but it should be a turning point, and a time for designing a more long-term strategy for higher education.

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