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Learning Online Learning Systems

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An empty traditional classroom with a blackboard, teacher desk, and rows of student desks
Learning Online Learning Systems

If I haven't already, I'm going to date myself a bit with this post. The reason is because this week I want to talk about how the classroom has changed throughout my life. And with it, I want to share some thoughts I've been having this week about what those changes mean for online educators and students.

When I first started school, way back in the 70's, classrooms were all set up the same. On one wall was a long blackboard. In front of that, was a large teachers desk and chair. Rows of small student desks followed. When I first went to college in the 90's, there was little difference. Some of the blackboards were replaced with whiteboards by then and some of the rows of desks were replaced by rows of seats on risers in some of the larger classes.

For two decades, there was basically no change in the concept of a classroom for me. Then the Internet happened. By the end of the 90's, students could earn a college degree without ever stepping foot on a campus. The classroom became ethereal, mobile, and private. Access to education that had previously been limited by geography, finances, and even health or abilities, expanded. Live hours away from campus? No problem. Need to work full-time and do schoolwork in late evenings and weekends? No problem. Contagious or living in a protective bubble? No problem.

It sounded great, but something got lost along the way. The content was delivered. The assignments given. The tests scheduled. But the classroom? It disintegrated. And with it the connections to others.

A classroom with decorations and supplies
Personalized classroom

The classrooms of my childhood represented individualized spaces. The teacher set the tone, the layout of the space, and the decorations on the walls. It was a space that didn't afford anonymity for the students, and was an opportunity for the teacher to share their passions, energy, and personality. To this day, if you go into any K-12 classroom, you're likely to see a personalized space. Teachers pride themselves on their spaces and understand the environment greatly impacts student engagement and performance.

In my experiences in college, the personalization of the classroom was less common, since typically professors shared classrooms, but the professor's office was where their personalities came out. One of my favorite things about visiting various professors' offices was learning more about them through the things they had in their offices. Books on their shelves. Pictures on their walls. Plaques and nick-nacks. Plants. Clutter. The absence of these things. It all helped tell a story of who the person was. I always enjoyed discovering how much a professor's office did or didn't align with my assumptions about them I'd developed from class.

A woman sits at a desk with a laptop open, behind her is a bookshelf full of books
Your space speaks too

Our identities are expressed by the things we do, the things we say, how we say them, and the choices we make about our appearance. But they're also expressed in how we design our environments. Physical classrooms and physical presences allow instructors a path by which to express themselves and connect to their students, as well as a way to encourage students to connect with each other. That too often gets lost in online courses. In some schools, administrative decisions prevent or limit faculty personalization. And in schools without administrative restrictions, too many don't take advantage of the digital tools. Perhaps they don't see the benefit for the added work. In my experience, many simply don't know how or where to add personalization in their LMS, or learning management system, where the course is delivered.

I've been thinking about this a lot this week as we've been studying LMSs. We've been encouraged to consider an empathic approach to online course development. In other words, we're supposed to imagine our own butts in the digital seats of the online classroom and consider what we'd need to feel connected and supported.

For me, the first thing I need is a personalized course. I get the appeal and even the necessity for some elements to remain consistent between courses. Consistency helps manage learner expectations and reduce cognitive load. But if I take two courses from two different instructors, the courses should feel different. And not just because of the subject matter. To connect, I need to feel the instructor's presence in some meaningful way. Perhaps it's through the graphical display. Perhaps it comes through as humor in the lecture notes. Perhaps it's from pictures or videos of the instructor. Or perhaps it's through live office hours. However it's done, I need to experience something uniquely representative of the instructor in the course. Otherwise, if they are truly replaceable without any loss to the course, it begs the question, why do I need an instructor for this at all?

The second thing I need is good intentional design. Design skills today feel very different from design skills 50 years ago because the tools of design have drastically changed. What could be done in the 70's with construction paper and tape in the physical world now require some mouse clicks and drags, and perhaps a few keystrokes here and there, to reproduce in the digital world. But when you remove the mechanics of how the design is developed, and just focus on the design itself, the skills needed then and now are actually identical. Colors, shapes, lines, and patterns -- those are the timeless tools of design. For me, a course should be visually inviting. There should be symmetry, clarity, whitespace, and color contrast. It should have a minimalist style to reduce visual clutter. Actions I must take should be distinguishable from actions that are optional.

A notebook rests on a desk, on the notebook are sketches of a design
Some tools of design are unchanging

The third thing I need is sensible organization. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to find something in a disorganized system. Meaningful groupings of content can be highly beneficial to help not only organize content, but demonstrate contextual relationships. The ordering and labeling of content should be sufficient to provide a course outline at a glance, wherever possible. One of my pet peeves is that often courses are organized with modules labeled for each week, such as Week One, Week Two, etc. In theory, this is meant to help everyone keep up with where the content is located that they should be reviewing each week. I think it's really just to help the instructor. As a student, I see it as a wasted opportunity, and a decision that often creates frustration later in a course, especially when it's time to review. If you're trying to study for your finance final and need to review the steps for calculating an interest rate in a compound interest equation, was that in week 3, or week 5? If you're taking a 16-week course, they all start to blur quickly. If, instead, each week is labeled for the type of content included, it helps students make sense of contents and find what's needed quickly. A blend of the week number along with a content description is the best of both worlds, but the headings can get long and be difficult to read on mobile devices.

Weekly Wrap-Up

Before this week, I already had a bit of practical experience working within multiple LMSs. Not only that, I have a pet project in the works that's focused on designing a better LMS because I, as a designer and a student, have felt caged by all the ones I've worked with. So, this week, I spent time thinking about how to use existing LMS technology better, and how an LMS could be better. I found myself questioning if the real issue I was trying to solve with my "better LMS" is even really an LMS issue at its core?

Hands on a laptop keyboard
Digital classrooms need decorations, too!

I do think as educators, we have to create our digital classrooms with as much care and attention as we do our physical classrooms. Perhaps, with more care and attention. We also must be willing to dive in and learn the tools of delivery we've been given. This is the nature of the beast. The world is always changing. Technology is constantly evolving. Communication tools, especially, are improving the ways we can connect to others. There is nothing static in education. Since connection is such an important metric for online education success, communication tools are not one of the technologies we can slack on learning. Empathic courses require great communication. And in the 21st century, great communication requires mastery of key technologies. The LMS is one of many.

I ended up with more questions than answers this week. That's the desired goal in education. It shows learning is occurring. It just doesn't always feel like it.


All images contained within this post are courtesy of Media from Wix.

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1 comentario

17 oct 2023

I can certainly identify with more questions than answers.

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