The last couple of years haven't been easy for online educators. Zoom fatigue. Awkward breakout room glitches. A sudden, inexplicable urge to learn how to bake bread.
Despite ongoing challenges from Covid-19, we're hopeful about the future of online education. That's why we held a free webinar with Dr. Luke Hobson, Senior Instructional Designer and Program Manager at MIT, and Peter Shea, Director of Professional Development at Middlesex Community College, to get their take on the online learning trends they're most excited about as we head into the new year. You can watch the whole webinar below or on YouTube.
Leverage these trends to make your online learning more dynamic, more diverse, and more enjoyable, both for you and your students.
Online Learning Trend 1: Learners As Humans
The new technologies and content delivery methods we adopted during the pandemic are here to stay. But we need to bring the human experience of learning back into focus in 2022. That means prioritizing the learner experience over the convenience of new technology, and having honest conversations about learners' mental well-being.
Luke recommends we do this in two ways:
1. Building periodic instructor-learner check-ins into the structure of courses. These can either take the form of written updates, or video check-ins, and should ask learners to share how they are, and what they've learned from the course over the last week.
2. Find creative ways to help students feel less awkward on camera. Allow them to use avatars, bring some humor into the classroom. Students and instructors can design avatars on platforms like ReadyPlayerMe.
This may feel awkward at first, admits Luke. But the results can be transformative. Meaningful relationships come out of helping students feel comfortable, and you'll be able to support learners better throughout their online education.
Online Learning Trend 2: Peer-Reviewed Activities
Adult learners want to learn from each other. They consistently cite peer feedback or input as relatable, and peer networking is highly valued. But, paradoxically, adult learners also say they hate working in groups.
Peer-reviewed activities can help solve this conundrum. Courses that incorporate peer review and feedback can build deeper engagement with a topic. Giving feedback to a peer also develops the kind of soft skills that employers value, such as critical thinking and problem-solving.
We built Eduflow around the belief that peer review is a valuable learning method. That's why the platform has peer review built into it, allowing you to quickly set up peer review workflows, rubrics, and feedback mechanisms. Use our free template to set up impactful peer review activities in your next course.
Online Learning Trend 3: Extended Reality (XR)
First, there was AR, then MR, VR, and now XR. XR, or Extended Reality, is a term used to capture all the previous 'realities'—augmented reality, mixed reality, virtual reality—under one umbrella. XR describes a virtual space that 'extends' the real world with digital materials.
Sounds confusing, but Luke walked us through some examples in our webinar:
- Facebook's Metaverse, an 'embodied' internet in which we inhabit a shared digital space via an Oculus headset. The Metaverse looks a bit like a video game, but instead of playing against the computer, you interact with real people in real-time, in a shared virtual space.
- Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine's use of virtual 3D cadavers. During the pandemic, students at the school started performing digital dissections on 3D cadavers at touch-screen workstations. They used augmented reality headsets to practice ultrasound imaging and interpretation with the 3D bodies.
Leveraging XR may feel futuristic right now, but Luke insists that it may be as simple as scanning your desk space into an Oculus headset and starting to give classes in the new extended learning reality.
Online Learning Trend 4: Additional Resources Sections in Online Courses
Additional resources sections are under-leveraged in online learning. They all too often become a junkyard for material that we can't quite fit in the course, rather than a value add for learners. But we can leverage this section to create realistically timed and relevant experiences for students.
One simple way to better use Additional Resources sections is to add podcasts in there. Many learners want to engage more with learning material, but don't have time to sit down and study. Using different content formats allows learners with a long commute to do that bit extra. Luke creates a new podcast series for each course he creates at MIT, but instructional designers with fewer resources can curate relevant podcasts into their learning materials.
Luke also runs his own podcast for instructional designers, which you can listen to for free.
Online Learning Trend 5: Flexibility
When you log in to a video game for the first time, you're often asked to select player level - beginner, intermediate or advanced.
Learning needs to do the same. Courses need to allow learners to adapt and change tracks as they work through the material, providing different pathways learners can move between within courses themselves. For example, a learner could start out on an Advanced version of a course, then switch down to Beginner if they find the pace too fast.
If you manage to offer a flexible learning experience, you'll see higher participation and course completion from learners. If you don't, learners will simply get their education elsewhere, says Luke.
Online Learning Trend 6: Microlearning
Microlearning—learning content that takes no more than 5 minutes to consume—has already been accepted in workplace learning. But it also has applications in academic settings, say Peter Shea, despite the inflexible, institutional learning model many of us work within.
For example, instructional designers can leverage micro-learning after completion of a course or training session. A simple way to do this is to set up time-spaced reminders that get sent to learners periodically after course completion. The reminders ask learners to solve problems using the knowledge they acquired in the course.
Micro-interventions of this sort can produce impressive results. Time-spacing is a powerful way to fight knowledge decay, and allows learners to identify their own knowledge gaps in a short space of time.
The data produced by micro-learning reminders sent out after courses is also useful for instructional designers. By looking at trends around which ideas and skills decay most quickly, we can tweak how we teach and reinforce those ideas within the course.
Online Learning Trend 7: Artificial Intelligence
In 2016, students at Georgia Tech started sending online questions to a faculty member called Jill Watson. Jill didn't seem to sleep much—she answered student questions within 24 hours— and covered all topics in the faculty's Online Master of Science in Computer Science program. She was polite and friendly. And she was a robot.
Georgia Tech's 'Jill Watson' AI chatbot is an example of the role artificial intelligence can play in online education. AI, or the simulation of human intelligence by machines, can be used to answer recurring student questions, as Jill did, and give students feedback in a timely manner (especially helpful in big learning cohorts). Instructors who use AI in this way will free up time to work on higher-level thinking, such as learning data analysis.
Peter recommends tools like Perusall as a good way to try out AI in learning design.
Online Learning Trend 8: Informal Learning Networks
Community has always been one of the main human tools for learning. And the rise of online learning has expanded our access to learning communities, giving learners greater opportunities to collaborate, says Peter.
As an example of informal learning networks, Peter cites two online communities that he runs: his Facebook group, and his LinkedIn Group. In both, he's seen learners establish bonds with subject matter experts, leverage a 'hive mind' when solving problems, and explore new ideas in a safe space.
At Eduflow, we share Peter's conviction that community is a key part of learning. Students who learn together retain more, and are more likely to complete their course work when they learn in a collaborative environment. We've even gone so far as to say that Content Doesn’t Matter, Community Does.
Online Learning Trend 9: Short Simulations
Short sims—short, interactive educational media that ask learners to simulate decision-making—used to be out of many instructional designers' grasp. They were expensive, time-consuming to create, and required special knowledge of design platforms. Those barriers to entry meant that short sims were only accessible to learning designers working in 'high end' situations, like aviation training, medicine, and military instructional design.
That is changing rapidly. Peter calls out tools like H5P and Twine, free software that allows instructional designers to create interactive, branching scenarios for learners. If you're new to creating this kind of content, Peter recommends joining The Short Sim Forum with Clark Aldrich on Facebook; Clark popularised the short sims for educational purposes, and the group offers good advice for getting started.
Online Learning Trend 10: Learning Analytics
Peter's final trend is learning analytics, the thread that connects the other 9 trends he and Luke called out in our webinar. Learning analytics involves analyzing learning data for the purpose of understanding and improving learning experiences. With learning analytics, we can create more impactful learning interventions, creating long-lasting change in learners.
Sounds great, but leveraging learning analytics has some challenges. Peter emphasizes that many of us need to increase the scope of our data capture to accurately reflect the complex experience of learning. That means moving beyond blunt metrics like course completion and attendance, and focusing on more subtle indicators of learning, such as engagement, interaction, and retention.
Peter recommends that learning designers start to get comfortable with looking at and interpreting data, and using tools that slice learner data in different ways. Start by joining Peter's LinkedIn group, Data-Informed Learning Design.
Looking to 2022... And Beyond
The Covid pandemic acted as an accelerator in online learning, increasing the velocity of change around technology adoption. Learning designers need to lean into that new technology and think about how things like extended reality, learning analytics, and AI can improve the impact of learning design.
But that doesn't mean we can forget our learners' humanity. While adopting new technology into instructional design, we need to find ways to keep refocusing on the learner as a human being. As we go into the new year, that balance between humanity and technology will help create meaningful (and fun!) learning experiences.