Effective online courses are developed with specific learning objectives in mind. What does the learner need to master? What knowledge, skills, and attitudes (KSAs) are meant to be acquired or enhanced? How will learning outcomes be measured? These are questions that should be answered at the start of the course development process.
Instructional designers can then turn to a number of pedagogical best practices, such as whole-part-whole learning or narrative learning techniques, as framework for their efforts. The process then generally includes a review of the course by subject-matter experts and testing by selected learners. Revisions are made, and the course is deemed ready for launch.
Giving learners access to a new course triggers the most important part of the continuous improvement cycle. Continuous improvement (CI) is defined as the ongoing effort to improve products, services, or processes. As students complete embedded assessments and ask questions and make comments through varying feedback mechanisms, we can begin to see what’s working and what’s not. Parts of the course may not meet student needs. Learners may be confused by the way difficult content is presented, or they may need more examples or more practice.
Art and science
Responding to this feedback with continuous improvement involves both art and science. The science is the analysis of both direct and indirect learner response to the course. Direct reaction comes in the form of questions about the content and in post-course evaluations and surveys. The indirect learner response surfaces in a series of other measures: the length of time students spend taking the course, completion rates, scores on quizzes and tests, and whether learners can apply their new-found knowledge or skills. The art comes in reviewing this sometimes scattered, contradictory, and incomplete feedback and deciding where changes or revisions in the course may be necessary.
The goal is to improve the course so that it better aligns with learners’ needs. It shouldn’t be approached as a mechanical process because the instructional designer or course developer must place the feedback in proper context. Some feedback will reflect a student’s learning style—for example, some learners ask for more text, others audio, some prefer video instruction—and it’s important to avoid overreacting. At MindEdge, we look to maintain balance in the way content is presented and to give learners options so that it remains an appealing experience to students with differing learning styles.
The CI process is iterative by nature. We expect to make changes in a MindEdge course after it is first introduced to students, and that philosophy helps us avoid counterproductive perfectionism. As Mark Twain once noted: “Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.” We may not get the applied pedagogy right the first time, but we’re confident that over time we will.