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Instructional design meets online learning in higher educationLou Siragusa
Curtin University of Technology
With the rapid acceptance of the use of the Internet for learning, lecturers in higher educational institutions are being encouraged to develop their course materials for online delivery. Instructional design decisions that lead to the way in which students learn on the Internet are being placed in the hands of lecturers who are only just coming to grips with online learning and the use of the Internet. Some lecturers have done enormous amounts of work in this area and have collected data regarding how students study and learn using this medium. Literature review reveals that instructional design provides the underlying foundation for developing effective materials for online delivery. There exists enormous amounts of literature regarding instructional design for computer-based multimedia applications that is often overlooked and should be taken into account when designing for the online medium.
This discussion will focus on the identification of instructional design principles for the development of effective online learning environments. This discussion will also highlight how, through thoughtful instructional design decisions, effective learning strategies can be developed for students learning online.
Since the introduction of computers for learning, there have been numerous published research findings that present instructional design principles for the use of computer-assisted learning applications as well as audio visual and print-based materials. There now exists numerous text published that present instructional design procedures that provide for an effective learning experience. Research and development for online learning has not yet caught up with the pace at which courses are appearing on the Internet. Instructional design principles that were developed for computer-assisted instruction appear to be overlooked by those now developing materials for the Internet. Although the Internet is a unique environment requiring unique considerations, the work produced by instructional designers of the past can not be ignored. Rather than haphazardly experimenting with online instructional design (as is often the case), we should allow ourselves to be informed by this body of knowledge from the past as a basis for building new knowledge about online instructional design (McBeath and Siragusa, 2000).
Venezky and Osin (1991, p.97) defined instructional design as "... the process which an instructional task specification is translated into an instructional program." In the case of developing materials for online learning, the instructional designer needs to examine the learning materials given by the content experts. Usually the material is in printed form or produced electronically from a word processor needing translation into a form that is suitable for placement on the Internet. Learning guides and course content produced for paper-based distribution to students generally provide a page turning exercise. The students usually start from the beginning of a section and work through each page of text, diagrams and activities as they appear. Earlier attempts of using the Internet for learning involved placing these same print-based pages on the Internet. The very nature of HTML (Hyper Text Mark-up Language) pages does not allow for page turning, but instead creates a single long page on the screen that requires scrolling to read all of the material presented. A section of course content may be, for example, 20 pages in length in a word processor document. When the same material is converted into HTML, the 20 pages may become one continuous HTML page.
There are currently studies and observations being made about how people read information on the Internet. One agreed observation is that people tend to skim read and read less than they would with print-based materials. The longer the HTML pages the more likely the material will be read over quickly if at all. Many people report that reading materials from the screen is uncomfortable and will read as little as possible, particularly if the material is difficult to read. Instructional designers creating online courses are becoming more aware of these issues and are learning from experience and feedback from users on how to effectively use the online environment for learning.
Online course development services such as WestOne Online Services (http://www.westone.com.au/) and AlphaWest (http://www.alphawest.com.au/) employ instructional designers to develop learning materials for online delivery. These instructional designers are constantly learning through their own experiences and feedback from users of this learning environment as to how best to represent these materials on the Internet. They also incorporate existing instructional design principles such as screen design principles. Although there are instructional designers hard at work developing and providing this service, there has been little published about how instructional design principles apply to this new learning environment. There are now published papers emerging addressing how instructional design principles can be applied to this medium through various authors' own experiences and observations.
In order to demonstrate the importance of identifying instructional design principles for online learning, this paper will present examples from educators and researchers regarding instructional design for online learning environments. A discussion will also be made regarding how thoughtful instructional design can lead to effective learning strategies for students to employ. An argument will be made to support the need for ongoing research into identifying effective instructional design principles and learning strategies for this medium.
Pan (1998, pp.147-148) explained how "... although technology has made it easy to produce Web pages, producing good and useful Web pages is still difficult." Greening (1998) argued that "... generally, instructional designers either do not always appear to take advantage of the hypermedia technology, or do so without pedagogical foundation." Documents created in HTML behave differently from a typical word processed document. The way in which people read a HTML page on the Internet is different from the way they read a printed word processed document. Oliver, Herrington and Omari (1996) suggested that "... using hypertext to organise and retrieve information resembles the workings of human memory and cognition far more closely than does the organisational structure of linear text." There are, therefore, instructional design issues that need to be addressed when writing in HTML. Over recent years, authors have been documenting these differences and have acknowledged the need for further investigation into instructional design for Internet delivery.
Shoffner and Dalton (1998, pp.371-374) explained how "... in the design of the instruction, delivery strategies are those decisions affecting the way the information will be carried to the learner." The challenge faced by the course designer is to decide which is the best way to present the materials to the students using the Internet for delivery. Carlson, Downs, Repman and Clark (1998, pp.142-143) argued that Web-based instruction is presented in a format that differs significantly from traditional instruction. Rather than designing instruction that is intended to deliver information to the learner, it is necessary to design instruction which engages the learner in interactive activities.
Many of the instructional design issues raised in this paper may seem obvious when stated. This author's observations of various Web sites, however, reveals that online course designers are still making fundamental instructional design errors. Numerous authors are still reminding us of the importance of thoughtful instructional design principles that need to be applied to online learning environments. Existing literature on how best to approach the subject of instructional design issues have varied through the authors' focus towards instructional design for online learning. The following will present some examples of this published literature.
Further research studies regarding the instructional effects of Web-based distance learning will be ... investigated. ... the Web will ... continue to encourage educators to integrate it in their teaching and learning process. (p.87)The literature review reveals that decisions made at the instructional design phase of course development can influence and encourage different learning strategies that can be used by students. The following will present examples of existing literature that examines instructional design and learning strategies in Web-based learning environments.
Various authors have reported their observations and research based on the data they have collected from their own involvement of using the Internet for learning. Instructional design issues raised by these authors have been, for the purpose of this discussion, categorised into the following headings:
Bills and Martin (1997, pp.2-15) defined structure in a Web-based learning environment as "... an instructional strategy that shows students how the instructional material is organized and how it relates to what they have previously learned." McCormack, C. and Jones, D. (1998, pp.75-77) argued that the presentation structure should be designed so as to reduce the effort required of users to find the information required. McCormack, C. and Jones, D. (1998, p.77) presented two different structures as shown in Figure 1 that represent the same amount of information. The left-hand structure (a) is a narrow but deep structure; the left-hand structure (b) is a broad but shallow structure. A balance between the depth and breadth of the Web site should not have too many links for users to follow and not have too many links on the one page.
Figure 1: A deep structure and a shallow structure.
McCormack, C. and Jones, D. (1998, pp.77-94) also discussed how the use of graphics needs to be well controlled so as not to slow down the loading of the pages. Students abandon slow loading Web pages and pages with just text (Swan, Bowman, Holmes, Schweig and Vargas, 1998, pp.98-101). Students were also observed reacting to elements of text such as font, size and type as well as screen layouts, screen pictures, cartoons, logos and so on. The appropriate use of cartoons appealed to most students. The components of quality in technology-based educational materials include clarity of the graphics, readability of the screens, how the material is assembled (Bates, 1998, p.4.3.7).
Pan (1998, pp.147-148) described how optimising the Web for better instruction includes the use of basic instructional design and screen design theories. The Web site, for example, should provide for resources that engage students in extensive exploration and collaboration. The Web pages should also be intuitive and self-explanatory. The designer should also be sensitive to the users hardware and software limitations. Alternatives for unsupported functions and plug-ins should be provided. Pan also suggested that a good Web page is not only good-looking, exciting, considerate, but also conducive for learning. Generally, a good design means a simple one (McCormack, C. and Jones, D., 1998, pp.77-94).
Gross, Walkosz and Brumley (1997, pp.1-4) described how "... the material on the first page should be presented in a manner that even the most naive participant would make the right choices." Bates (1998, p.4.3.7) argued that the learning objectives need to be clear, resulting in the desired learning outcomes. There needs to be an appropriate mix of media to achieve the learning outcomes in the most effective manner. Learning outcomes must be correlated and specifically communicated to the students for each course topic covered and assignment given (Eggers and McGonigle, 1996, pp.194-195).
Gross et al. (1997) explained how the audience to a Web-based classroom may be global. Sensitivity towards unique word usage and definitional changes needs consideration; an inclusion of a glossary may provide a remedy to this. An example of thoughtless choice of words given by Gross et al. is the case of General Motors' (GM) Nova vehicle. GM exported the Nova to some areas in central and South America under the Nova label, which in some cultures translates to "no go." The sales were, to say the least, disappointing. Gross et al. (1997) also argued how rhetorical sensitivity is a key concept for creating successful online instruction. They describe rhetoric sensitivity as being the "tendency to adapt messages to audiences." They also suggest that in order to present effective online instruction, the instructor must "imagine they are learners" or "imagine they are new to online instruction." We have to think from the users point of view about what they would like to see on the Web (Pan, 1998, pp.147-148).
Winfield et al. (1998, pp.445-448) from the University of Wisconsin (UW) provided design guidelines for enhancing confidence and participation in Web-based courses. They described the use of design guidelines in the development of the Health Assessment course for registered adult nurses at UW. UW Learning Innovations telephone helpdesk provided support for all distance learners. This has enabled course developers to focus their attention on helping learners gain confidence with the Web interface itself and to rapidly interact with online learning activities. The adult nurses registered for the Health Assessment were primarily in rural areas, had low self-confidence with computer technology, and had demanding personal and professional schedules. With this in mind, the course was designed to build self-confidence through a series of "scaffolded" learning activities. Each of these activities was presented in a step-by-step fashion that provided all the resources necessary to enable the student to successfully demonstrate key online competencies such as contributing to a discussion, responding to a comment, and submitting an assignment. Student contributions of professional experiences were central to the Health Assessment course. At the beginning of each week, each student submitted a short discussion comment from their own clinical experience. Students also participated in large and small group discussions that interwove their clinical experience with the preferred practice discussed in the readings, lectures and case studies.
New declarative knowledge must be tied to the students' existing knowledge (Smith and Ragan, 1999, p.60). The knowledge to be learnt must be meaningful to the students by providing links to prior knowledge. Collaborative and contructivist learning strategies are lacking in many online learning environments (Brown, 1997; Sims, 1999).
Gross et al. (1997, pp.1-4) argued that "... in order to keep the learner involved in the topic, the instructor needs to stimulate as many learner receptors as possible." This includes text, pictures, charts, video clips, movies and so on. Online education can accomplish this with much greater ease than traditional methods of instruction. Gross et al. (1997) argued that educators must become, in some aspects, entertainers and presented the Disney Web site (http://www.disney.com) as an example of mixing various types of simulation's together. This site uses text, pictures, sound, movie clips and even online games to inform and entertain people of all ages. We need to remember, however, to avoid distractions from the learning objectives.
Gross et al. (1997) also argued that "... the general curriculum needs to be created with not only the average learner in mind but with a built in open flexibility that will accommodate the novice as well as the advanced learner." For the novice student, the educator needs to provide additional resources and examples to promote understanding. For the advanced student, the educator needs to provide a way for the learner to either work ahead or provide them with additional detail within the topic. Some learners will still have problems and, therefore, educators need to provide for timely feedback. One way to accomplish this is by using question forms within each topic and emailing an answer directly to the student. Another way is to create a "frequently asked questions" (FAQ) list for each topic.
Venezky and Osin (1991, p.72) described the interaction style as "... the relationship that is created between instructor and student by the tone of the messages presented and the feel of the screen displays." Humour, used appropriately, can also personalise the course and assist with providing motivation.
Winfield et al. (1998, pp.445-448) argued that "... the social dimension of asynchronous learning is critical to instructional effectiveness. Individual success or failure in a course often depends upon the extend to which the students feel a sense of community." The first step to creating a sense of an online community is the projection of a "human face" to personalise the technological meditated course content. This can be achieved, for example, with a weekly announcement from the educator. These informal, course updates project a human presence that let students know that the educator cares about their success with both technology and coursework.
Winfield et al. (1998, pp.445-448) argued that "... positive interdependence underlies the successful application of collaborative learning principles. The benefits of online collaboration ... has been widely researched." The Health Assessment course described by Winfield et al. (1998) was built around a series of weekly discussion activities that engage the students in critical examinations of comparative clinical experiences. Discussion activities took place within the unique private team rooms made possible by Lotus LearningSpace. Each student's logon identity allowed them to only see the 'conversation' between their team members. In this manner, the depth and meaning of each team member's contribution was enhanced and responded more directly to.
Educators using the Internet for learning have developed strategies to assist students work their way through the content. Winfield et al. (1998, pp. 445-448), for example, presented their students with a clear list of learning tasks to avoid confusion and disorientation. Weekly learning activities were listed on a single page as a check list. From the list, students linked to a separate lecture, case study and discussion pages. This served to anchor weekly the activities and assisted students to plan their week to stay on task no matter what day they chose to log on. Winfield et al. (1998) also advocated the use of case studies to illustrate both the content and methodology of preferred practice. The use of case studies in a Web-based learning environment was observed to have significantly improve the quality and motivation of the learning experience.
McLoughlin and Oliver (1998) presented a study that examined the needs of gifted and talented students through technology supported distance education.
The study found that technology use can enhance communication and reasoning if it is used, not a device to display syllabus content, but as a cognitive tool to enhance understanding. This was achieved by ... engaging students in cognitive talk, rather than procedural and expository.Collaboration has been identified by authors as an important learning strategy (Brown, 1997; Sims, 1999). Higher education teaching, through online collaboration, presents a significant shift from the traditional face-to-face teaching and support provided for students (Oliver, Omari & Knibb, 1997; Oliver & Omari, 1999). Online course designers must explore and develop appropriate learning strategies to be built into online courses that describe how strategies such as collaboration can be used by students.
Research has shown that students are capable of identifying effective learning strategies. Research into identifying what learning strategies high achieving students are using in online learning environments must be an ongoing process. Results of such research will assist with the decisions made at the instructional design phase that will encourage students to use effective learning strategies.
Since the introduction of computer applications for learning, there have been vast quantities of research and development into instructional design principles. What we are seeing today is the developers of online learning environments seemingly ignoring this wealth of resource that can be applied to online learning and are in effective reinventing the wheel (and often repeating mistakes of the past). Online learning environments do have unique characteristics to other mediums that should be considered and utilised to enhance the learning process. Research is needed to identify the instructional design principles of previous computer-assisted learning applications that applies to online learning along with instructional design principles that are unique to online learning environments.
Many authors have commented on the need for ongoing research into instructional design for online learning. Online instructional design that is being reported needs to be further identified through continuing research so as to build knowledge as to what instructional design elements and learning strategies require consideration. The Internet is an ever evolving medium and will for many year to come provide challenges for online developers and educators. Research will undoubtedly yield valuable results that will build upon the findings of instructional designers of the past.
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|Author: Lou Siragusa, Curtin University of Technology|
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Please cite as: Siragusa, L. (2000). Instructional design meets online learning in higher education. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 2000. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/2000/siragusa.html