5 Digital Education Best Practices to Build Your eLearning Strategy Around
Digital education is leading the way — and not only in the classroom. From businesses teaching their employees, to mature learners getting a second chance at a degree, to providing innovative learning opportunities for professional development and continuing education, digital education is changing the way we learn in an ever-changing world.
Of individuals who took the initiative to join MOOCs (massively online open courses), 23% already have a post-graduate degree, which means that the demand for further learning is there and often self-motivated.
Source: The Economist
Everything is ‘digital’ now, anyway: Shopping experiences through e-commerce, marketing initiatives through online ads, and ordering food that arrives at your doorstep with a few taps of your smartphone.
But these are all one-off functions that don’t require focused attention, right? Learning, on the other hand, requires deep focus — and, certainly, a digital classroom couldn’t encourage the same level of attention, could it?
According to McGraw-Hill Education’s survey of 1,700 college students:
- 85% of students use mobile devices to study — which is up 40% since 2013
- 77% of students say adaptive technology has helped them improve their grades
- 62% of students say that technology helps them feel better prepared for classes
- 48% of students say that technology also helps them save time on assignments and learning
All successful eLearning courses, however, call for a standard set of best practices to ensure that these numbers are a typical experience for all digital learners.
Let’s take a look at five digital education best practices, as well as a few tips to keep at the forefront when planning and creating a successful online learning experience.
What does a digital education eLearning strategy involve?
Digital education requires a manageable blend of best practices that, when put into place, can spell success. Skip these, however, and you risk interrupting the process of critical thinking, learning and self-led learning.
1) Keep it streamlined
Don’t make the mistake of overwhelming your prospective learner. To promote a thorough and rewarding learning experience, you want to make sure that the material you provide is focused and on topic.
It’s the courses that license a comprehensive library, affording their students an ‘all-access pass’ to library materials and resources, that end up with completion rates of 10 to 15%. Instead, a well-structured digital education eLearning strategy requires materials that focus the learner’s attention.
Learners require the right amount of information (usually less is more and well-summarised), served at the right moment in the learning experience, which helps them to build on their knowledge sustainably. To be able to understand which resources and materials make the cut, you’ll need to:
- Know the experience level of your learners
- Determine, or set the expectations for, a learner’s time commitment to the course and then offer resources that match that
- Decide on the learning objectives for the course and then provide learners with the digital resources that help them achieve these
2) Offer support right from the start
At the beginning of a course, online learners will need to know what to expect concerning communication and support. The commencement modules, as well as interactions, will set the tone for student-to-instructor communication as well as peer-to-peer communication.
Chat rooms, forum threads, topic responses, study groups, email and video chats are just some of the tools you’ll need to outline and set expectations around. Designers of digital education eLearning strategy should also assign ‘mods’ or ‘admins,’ who are responsible for leading some of the learning discussion.
Instructors and/or course designers should take the opportunity to educate their learners about the learning objectives, what are appropriate forms of communication and what a foundation of success looks like. Remember that the introduction to communication only happens once; it’s important to get it right.
3) Focus on learner-centred design
Design can lead choices and guide experiences. One of the best ways to simplify and even enhance the learning process for online students is to use design as a tool. Beyond simply offering relevant and focused resources and materials or digital assets, instructional designers should focus on the interaction and experience of a course.
This means designing easy-to-access portals of information, tabs that link together hierarchically, or discussion forums that provide the opportunity to reference materials in a separate frame or window.
Besides these, learner-centred design can also offer multiple learning opportunities in diverse settings, including:
- Using live sessions and group video chats to increase discussion and sharing on specific topics for students in various locations
- Build and create opportunities for in-person meetings (using tools like ‘MeetUp’ or ‘Facebook Groups’) for those students who happen to be located close to each other
- Choose an online platform that hosts a “news feed” of updates from fellow students, almost like a social network
- Create specific materials for issues or questions that occur over and over again
Like communication precedents, eLearning strategies should also make these ‘design-centred’ approaches a habit, tying them into the regular expectations of students. This allows students to look at these learning opportunities as a standard part of the workflow rather than ‘optional’ add-ons.
4) Encourage leaders to be teachers
Digital learning is not only the trifecta of course materials, instructions and tests. eLearning indicates an end-to-end experience that ‘digitises’ essential components like communication, collaboration and leadership.
What was once a physical, in-classroom environment, in other words, has had to be cleverly and expertly translated, via design and digital tools, to the online world. However, something that doesn’t change is the need for relationship-building and engagement.
Online classes and eLearning strategies that are successful, plan for student-led opportunities. This is especially useful in situations where students become leaders or teachers themselves. Through student-led discussions, presentations or even online seminars, there is a real opportunity for students themselves to rigorously test the efficacy of what they’re learning and their understanding.
As we know, teaching anything requires an even deeper level of understanding. As such, being called to teach and explain a concept to another can actually aid a student in gaining more than just a perfunctory understanding.
Suddenly, the learning becomes meaningful and intuitive. It stops being about regurgitation and memorisation and starts becoming about the connection of concepts.
This sense of ‘connection’ is then further heightened because a student who manages to accurately ‘teach’ his or her fellow students feels, in and of themselves, like leaders or ‘experts’ within a topic. This further cultivates a sense of leadership as they take their learned skills to the outside world.
5) Practice may make perfect but measuring matters more
Learning relies on habit and the consistent practice of the learning process. But, at its very core, learning anything new is a developmental effort. Steadily and progressively, learning milestones are built, one on top of the other.
So what happens to the developmental process when it ‘goes digital’? In digital experiences, the face-to-face component is effectively removed. Now, that doesn’t mean engagement can’t occur or that relationships cannot be authentically built in a digital space.
However, in the place of human-to-human interaction, there needs to be two levels of measurement. One is an ongoing level of evaluation or measurement of the learning objective and the second is evaluating the student’s level of engagement, incentivising them to do more.
Every digital education strategy needs to develop a structure for the measurement of success. Evaluations need to consider:
- Whether students have been exposed to the platform before and therefore only have to focus on learning the materials or whether there will be a double learning curve that may slow down their learning development significantly
- Adapt all evaluation materials and questioning formats to suit digital experiences and test-taking
- Choose an online delivery system that has built-in analytics, tracking such information as how much time students spend in the ‘virtual’ classroom, time spent watching the content, number of times resources are accessed and how many assignments get done. This can provide important context for further improvement, making future course delivery even more successful
- Carefully plan timing and triggers for course delivery. While some students prefer self-paced, easily accessible lessons, other prefer a ‘drip’ methodology and learn best when they’re able to only access the next module upon successful completion of the previous one.
- Program objectives are the backbone of the structure of eLearning. Make sure that students are very clear on what the deliverables are, when evaluations take place, how much they’re worth and what students will need to be successful in studying for them
Evaluating the engagement levels of students while going through the course calls on two main things:
1. Culture of the classroom or subject-niche: Are there standards of teaching and learning that come along with the subject you’re planning an eLearning experience around? If so, you’ll need to consider what these standards are and incorporate them. For example, a science-based MOOC might ask for labs to be undertaken. Or a business or project-management course might call for students to work together on a course-long mock business setup. Course creators should focus on the culture of the subject matter and bring these into the digital learning experience.
2. Big-Picture objectives: How do the course objectives hook into the broader context of what a student can expect once they leave the course? It’s important, here, to tap into a student’s deeper and often more emotional motivations. For example, for a student, the completion of the course could mean working towards a more substantial degree, a higher-paid position or the chance to take what they’ve learned and put it into action right away (as with a business course).
Tips to create a successful interactive eLearning experience
Going digital offers a distinct chance for course strategists to get creative with their structure and methods. The key here is interaction: Interaction and engagement cannot be taken for granted in a self-paced, digital environment.
It’s not so much that students need to be continuously monitored or prodded. That level of micro-management doesn’t work either. Instead, students need a guided experience, much like a tour of a museum that leaves them with highly informative content. Except, the difference here is that it’s occurring (mostly) from the comfort of their own devices, anywhere around the world, and there will be several evaluation points through the course of this ‘guided experience’.
It’s why testing UI and UX is an essential component of instructional design as well as eLearning strategising. Any course structure that is planning for success should think about whether their final proposed outline actually fulfils each of the following tips.
Focus on high-quality and engaging content
This goes back to the whole, ‘less is more’ and ‘keep it simple’, reducing access to all materials and resources, in favour of highly focused delivery of content. And, to keep things focused, content should be high-quality and engaging.
What does this mean? Well, the occasional textbook scan, article and PDF report is unavoidable. But course instructors can get creative with the sources of information, tying in gamification and challenges into the learning process. For example, a course instructor could ‘challenge’ students to read an article and find two to five related pieces that help in answering a discussion question for the readings that week.
High quality and engaging content types can (and should!) also include multiple forms of media. Reading is one way to learn and access new information, but students should be encouraged to access outside sources that are just as high quality and promote the practice of the skills they’re learning that week. For example, a programming course could start with a concept, run through several examples and then give the student an online resource link for free where they can create their own ‘mini-project’.
Exploration doesn’t only mean curiosity. Within the context of digital education, exploration comes down to the physical interaction and the course’s design: Are links related to each other and are several sections easily accessible? Is there a clear hierarchy for access and is there a mix of visual, text and audio-visual materials? Are downloadable sheets readily available within the actual lesson or module? Are there completion rewards? Students are curious at the start so make sure to capitalise on this.
Curiosity can also be leveraged in the learning process. Since students need to interact with the objects and screens in front of them, use the course design to set up communication, interaction and evaluation expectations.
Provide integrative scenarios based in reality
Businesses love case studies: It gives them real and tangible use cases that they can psychologically project their own apprehensions and then success on.
Students learning new concepts are the same — to be able to promote their learning and actually help them intuitively absorb information, you’ll want to draw on material that is impactful. And nothing is more impactful or unforgettable than real-life examples and scenarios.
Remember, this is less about convincing a student as to the verity of a concept and more about showing them that this learning material has use. Bring in statistics, quotes, real problems and authentic solutions to that problem that drive the point home: this skill is applicable. To promote interaction, pull in video, images and audio content.
Tap into emotional responses
You don’t need to go for viral videos or ‘shock value’. While it may elicit an emotional response, that sort of response is only a distraction. Instead, you want to tap into a student’s deeper emotional motivations for taking the course. For example, if one of the motivations to complete this course is as a prerequisite to something more advanced, try and tie the promise of this progress into the course. If one of the deliverables is to be able to put these practices into place and experience profit, use examples that feature this.
Keep a beautiful design at the centre of everything
Today’s online course portals should help you with major functionality and design issues. They should have a clean and straightforward user interface that incorporates learning of the platform into the learning of the materials. On-boarding should be comprehensive and easy, and should also include direct access to a knowledge base.
Besides this, the eLearning platform should include support for digital assets and files, audio recordings, video uploads, lectures, powerpoint presentation and slide decks, interactive or fillable PDFs, discussion forums, mock quizzes, or even a ‘raise hand’ function for office-hours, guest lecturers, hot seats and test prep sessions.
Promote group collaboration
The best way to learn is to not operate in a silo. However, with so many different learners, with varying styles of learning, working digitally, in various time zones, across the globe — is this possible?
Can group collaboration be supported? Is group work feasible?
Course creators can handle this issue creatively in several ways. For example, course participants can be put into sub-groups based on geography or time zones so that they can set up a video chat session easily. There should also be mandatory group discussion questions that call on the participation and commenting of everyone within a group, at least once. Course creators can impose such criteria as ‘Must reference two of three readings’ or ‘Must provide three external links to real-world examples’.
The Outcome of a Smart eLearning Strategy
When you bring all of these elements together for digital education, you won’t just offer learners a great course. You’ll be providing an educational experience that helps students apply what they learned to reach their next goal.