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Not My First Rodeo, But Still a New Ride

Cowboy on a horse holding a lasso
Not My First Rodeo, But Still a New Ride

I took a break from the blog posts to focus all my attention on a capstone project to design an online course. As an online instructional designer, this is something I've done numerous times. But this time was different.

This time, I got to make all the decisions.

Well, mostly.

My course did have to be graded against the Quality Matters rubric. Fortunately for me, I would have chosen that rubric anyway. It's hard to build a bad course using that rubric as a guide. Major kudos to the QM team for developing that resource and standard.

Lesson #1 - Stakeholders Matter

A group of adults meeting around a table
Listen to all the voices in the room

Overall, it was a rewarding experience to be in charge of everything. I got to wear the hat of the SME, or subject matter expert. the instructor, the administrators, the students, the designer, the builder, and the evaluator.

So often in the real world of instructional design, there are at least half a dozen other stakeholders that have specific and often competing requests for any given course. It can feel like the majority of the ID's job is to keep the peace and mediate the best possible solutions. Inevitably, it becomes common practice to place more importance on some requests over others, and often, the one doing the requesting has a big impact on that importance. The ones signing the checks often get what they ask for, first.

But this time, I had none of that. When the SME in me wanted to include a section on practical application that wasn't in the original set of learning objectives, all the other stakeholders in me understood the importance of that request and the benefit the learners would receive. In fact, the designer in me got motivated by the SME's request and decided to rework several other assignments to compliment the addition better.

The main lesson I learned from wearing all the hats is to listen to the various stakeholders even more. Sure, not all suggestions or requests they make will be winners. Tradeoffs must be made. But at the end of the day, each stakeholder is usually advocating for the things they believe are important.

Lesson #2 - Students Matter

A group of adult students listening to an instructor
Never forget the goal!

Once I had all the power to weight the requests as I wanted, I realized how much easier it was for me to develop with a student-first mindset. For each option, I asked myself how it would add value for the student.

  • Was this going to improve the experience for the student?

  • Would this make them more likely to engage with the content?

  • Would this make them more likely to comprehend the content?

  • Would this make them more capable of demonstrating mastery of the content?

If the answer was no, I could quickly discard that option and move on to those options that improved the value. As I struggled with competing interests and goals, this focus on the student-centric design became the judge and jury in my metaphorical design team meetings.

Lesson #3 - Designs Matter

Various art supplies arranged in colorful rows
Connecting through style

I think my favorite part about having all the control was not being limited by anyone else's style guide. The designer in me got a chance to play with color, layout, and other stylistic choices. I got the final say on whether images were centered or left justified, whether video players were embedded, the colors and weights of borders, and a host of other considerations.

In effect, I got to design my own style guide. Previously, I have always been restricted to someone else's style guide. I often wanted to design things differently, but was limited to choices I didn't make.

The key takeaway I got from being in charge of the design is that there are tons of ways any design can be made to be effective. I must have changed the style of various elements dozens of times. Each time, it was acceptable. Some changes were improvements. Some, not so much. But each change always had a ripple effect in the overall design effectiveness. What made it most effective every time was consistency. The repetition of style elements throughout a course provides visual anchors that reduce cognitive load.

I learned I like to be in charge of the final design. I not only enjoyed watching it evolve into something more polished, I also enjoyed making those kinds of efforts for the students' experiences. It made me feel more connected to the students. I've been on the receiving end of courses that had no stylistic designs and those that made the attempt, however successfully. I always appreciated the effort when it was made.

Lesson #4 - Experiences Matter

A woman sips coffee while looking out at a city street
Make the most of every moment

This wasn't my first time designing a course and God-willing, will be far from my last. And to be perfectly honest, I wondered at the start of this program if I'd get much value out of this part of the process. It would have been easy for me to just throw together a quick course that met all the requirements and call it a day. I could collect my 'A' and move on to the next class.

But I'm not on this earth to call it a day, and I'm not in this course to get a grade. I'm here for an experience. God created me for a purpose and surrounded me with every influence I'd need, both the good ones and the bad, to drive my passion to improve the experience of learning for others. This course is an experience in my journey, and I'd only be cheating myself and future students out of something if I didn't pour myself into this project.

When I look at this world, I see billions of students. We are traveling through space soaking up experience after experience. We each get a finite set of them in this life. Some are chosen for us. Some we choose. All can teach us something.

When I'm creating a course, I like to think of the students that will spend one of their experiences in my course. I want them to be better for it. I want them to take what they learn and make the world better with it. I want the experience to matter to them.

That is what I do. I design experiences that matter.

My Experiences in this Program

All this talk of experiences leaves me with one final question. How have my experiences in this program changed me?

Here's a few ways this experience has changed me.

#1. I look forward to my discussion assignments each week.

If you have taken online courses in higher ed, you may be struggling to believe this one! This program got them right. There's no citation rules. Each prompt is personalized and addresses some aspect of faith and our calling in this world. It's a group of colleagues sharing ideas and talking to one another. It's intimate and encouraging, and gives a deep sense of connection in what too often feels like a disconnected world.

#2. I want everyone to master generative AI.

Generative AI tools, such as ChatGPT, are game changers for the world. Can they be used irresponsibly? Yes. But when they aren't, when they are used to push us further than we can go alone, I get excited at the possibilities that await. I got to explore these tools throughout some of my research and assignments in this program and know firsthand that digital literacy must now include mastery of these tools.

#3. I have an increased appreciation of reflection activities.

I used to think these assignments were added when they couldn't think of anything better to do. In fact, I resisted using them in the courses I designed. I've seen firsthand in this course how well they can serve students.

#4. I believe personalized learning should be the standard in higher ed, not the exception.

Adults walking out of a university
We all know what we want

We're adults. We probably know what we want to learn and what we care about. I used to think it was more important to be pushed to things outside my sphere of interest. Now, I think it's more important that each student have a meaningful experience, and the easiest way to achieve that is to let them decide what is meaningful.

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