Effective Online Learning Design Must Start With Empathy

A shift to virtual puts course design in the spotlight.

GUEST COLUMN | by Michael Atkinson 

The shift to virtual learning this year has put a bright spotlight on online course design, with all its flaws and inconsistencies. But there are good examples of effective learning design. First and foremost, engaging online learning programs are built with empathy for both the teacher and the student. If this foundational design philosophy is missing, engagement rates and true learning plummet. 

‘…keeping in mind that there is a learner at the other end of every engagement means we stay focused on making courses better.’

As learning experts, we’re aware of new types of learning that are a leap for those who don’t say the word “pedagogy” every day. There’s a world where AI, analytics, micro-credentials, mixed reality media, and more all mingle for the good of advancing learning. Sometimes, we succeed in encouraging clients to try some of these new things that we know can move the needle for their learners. However, it can be tricky getting there. 

Multiple Points of View

Often, success lies on a narrow path. It starts with the emotional intelligence to examine multiple points of view. For example, the campus distance learning administrator who seeks input and feedback from teachers and students before mapping a virtual learning framework. Or a teacher who imagines what it’s like to be a student who is struggling as they plan their online course. Caring enough to examine multiple viewpoints leads to amazing learning.

The learning we design is often highly personal to the subject matter experts and faculty we work with. It represents them and their commitment and service to their learners, at times their life work. With this comes a high expectation to honor the work. But good design means reviewing all work through the eyes of the end-user and making recommendations to ensure the good intentions of the course translate into engaging learning.

Effective learning designers do their best to show, not tell, clients that taking another look at their work through the eyes of others will yield even better learning experiences. We show what our ideas will actually look like. We do what we promise. We must sincerely listen and get to know them because the essence of learning design is empathy, the understanding of the material, subject matter expert’s learner, and the subject matter expert themself. 

Time Well Spent

Outside of COVID-19, this is why an important approach is one that many in edtech have moved away from as they seek to scale, leading with people. We often send embedded teams on location with clients. We smell the air, get a feel for their culture, quirks, and uniqueness. We spend time getting to know each other. When a pandemic shuts down the world, we made special efforts to do this remotely.

This caring for partners is a type of emotional labor, but it’s where success lies, though not simply all in the day-to-day minutia of the work. Discussions of learning goals and learning activities, collecting content, writing, and building media are certainly core elements to good learning design. Yet, there is something more. 

Inevitably, when scaling learning, challenges arise. There’s an inconvenient request or a last-minute change that cascades and grows exponentially. It requires extra time, extra budget, extra emotional energy, and can be, frankly, painful. This is the moment to lean into empathy, and it is what we do. We put our heads down and do those extra or painful things with others in mind. 

A Focus on Others

The time it takes in the process can lead to a greater ability to scale, a broader audience to reach. It feels good when we look at the project with others in mind. These days, a genuine, outward focus on others is a huge differentiator that is crucial to growth.

Most importantly, keeping in mind that there is a learner at the other end of every engagement means we stay focused on making courses better. Often, the learning experience is one of the most memorable things in a student’s life, fueling their hopes and dreams. Good design starts with care. Caring for clients, teachers, and learners. 

As Construct‘s Chief Learning Officer in the Salt Lake City office, Michael Atkinson connects with his team across the globe to understand and develop strategies to drive better learning. Using his expertise and personal passion for education, Michael ensures that learning designs and builds benefits students, learners, and clients, as well as his own team to progress in their professional and lifelong learning endeavors.


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