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Use an experience design lens to focus on learners

Interview with Kristi Straus, Program on the Environment, by Laura Swartley, Continuum College

How can we strive to guarantee online learners have as great a learning experience as face-to-face students do? How can we ensure the learning outcomes are comparable?

These were central questions in a collaborative translation of a successful classroom and hybrid course, Environment 100, to an entirely asynchronous online experience for Summer 2020 learners.

I worked closely with Dr. Kristi Straus, associate director and associate teaching professor of the Program on the Environment; and, starting with the already dynamic content of the course, we applied principles of learning experience (sometimes called LX) design.

What is LX design?

Learning online brings different demands on attention, cognition, and interaction than in-person learning. LX design:

  • blends principles from user experience (UX)/human-computer interaction (HCI) with outcomes-focused pedagogical methods;
  • prioritizes interactive learning and connective opportunities; and
  • might deploy a design thinking-influenced process that starts with empathy and moves to define, ideate, prototype and test the learners’ experiences in the context of their learning outcomes.

In short, LX design focuses on many psychosocial aspects of the experience of learning while still focusing on outcomes. Its hallmark is its learner-centered approach.

Key learner-centered considerations:

  • Cognitive load: How design enables a learner to attend to germane ideas during an online learning moment.
  • Engagement and motivation: How activities connect to learners’ intrinsic reasons for taking the course and/or provide supportive, extrinsic encouragement towards internal motivation; how the learning flow invites learner inputs and actions rather than passive consumption.
  • Social aspects of online learning: Elements that encourage and support learner communication with peers and instructors; and how the use of the tools and design can activate organic learning.
  • Accessibility of content: Ensuring any visual or audio aspects of the online course include meaningful explication and context for all learners.

How can instructors apply LX design?

Kristi and I worked together (partially remotely through the early lockdown of COVID-19) to translate the course’s content into an engagement-oriented learning flow infused with critical moments for reflection and learner-to-learner connection.

Specifically, we designed content pages to help students practice synthesizing information and analyze visual data. We incorporated dynamic knowledge checks and moments of reflection within multimedia elements (videos, on-screen learning objects). These practices help learners make connections and prepare to answer the critical thinking-focused questions on exams of complex topics like the carbon cycle and the science of climate change.

In any course, pedagogy can be approached through the learner experience lens:

  • Ensure content pages don’t tax the learner’s cognitive load capacity. Help the student focus on what’s germane.
  • Break down video lectures into digestible (5-10 minute) segments.
  • Create a “flow” of learning with an invitation to engage. Ask the student to take in new ideas, then apply or do something with them.
  • Add in-video knowledge checks and moments of reflection.
  • Make sure content items are accessible – with a good rationale, descriptions of visual information, and clear formatting for screen readers.

Anonymous feedback from evaluations for Environment 100 told us that students appreciated the reinforcement in the learning content’s interactive layers and that the learning flow (reading followed by chunking content into a cognitively manageable sequence interspersed with questions) made complex content less overwhelming.

What about learning outcomes?

Kristi and I looked closely at comparative learning outcomes and wanted to discover what we could improve for the future. My questions and her answers:

LS: Can you describe your incoming expectations for bringing the course into the asynchronous format with instructional design and media, and then how it worked?

KS: I was VERY excited about the opportunity to work with the Continuum College professionals! Although I think a lot about pedagogy, to have a professional course designer co-create this course with me and a team of videographers and video editors – supporting this course as a fully asynchronous learning experience was awesome. That said, I was very skeptical about student learning without the two-hour weekly quiz sections – I thought that this was a VITAL component of ENVIR 100. Based on your feedback about equity and best practices in online learning, I was willing to try the entirely asynchronous approach – and it was great.

Students really understood this complicated content – were able to make connections across disparate topics and write eloquently – in their papers, their required twice-weekly discussions, and even on short answers in exams. My expectations were that students would not learn as much in this version, but I was very happy with their learning – note that this is not research-based, just perception based at this point, but I think their answers and ability to make connections equaled or even exceeded that of the previous quarters!

LS: What’s the mission/goal of this course and its role in the program?

KS: The mission of this course is to improve environmental literacy at UW – we aim to facilitate student learning about environmental problems and solutions. To really understand these problems and appropriate responses, students learn the science behind the problems as well as how individuals and societies respond to those problems. We also think a lot about equity and justice. This class is solutions-oriented – always encouraging students to think about appropriate responses to the challenges we face while giving students practice with environmental communication and critical thinking skills with iterative writing assignments and a team project.

LS: After this first experience teaching in this modality, what are your questions and thoughts about the future of this course?

KS: I am excited to teach ENVIR 100 this spring. The PoE faculty are still deciding whether we will run this with or without the synchronous sections – or possibly, allow students to choose between these options. I have questions about whether the pattern I *think * I saw – that students did just as well on the short-answer portion of the exams, holds up when we look at the numbers. I am also curious about whether the asynchronous format provides enough opportunities for students to collaborate and discuss responses to environmental challenges with each other across disciplines.

LS: What are your hopes for the future of this course and of asynchronous online learning, in general, considering this moment in history, when we are all learning at a distance?

KS: My hope is that this asynchronous version course is just as effective at helping students to understand the complexities of the human-environment system – so that we can provide this flexibility to students and provide better access to environmental literacy for students in a variety of circumstances. My hope for online asynchronous learning, in general, is that faculty and students continue to get better at using our online tools for effective engagement across disciplines, collaborative work, and deep learning.

Interested in how asynchronous offerings improve access and how to design it effectively?

About the contributors

Kristi Straus is associate director and associate teaching professor in the Program on the Environment and the recipient of a 2017 University of Washington Distinguished Teaching Award. She is passionate about environmental conservation and effective teaching of environmental topics for students of all ages.

Laura Swartley is a senior instructional designer with Continuum College, UW. She is driven by a commitment to the learner experience and to facilitating the best translation possible from the classroom to an online learning environment.