The Top Challenges for E-Learning Instructional Design in 2020
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Instructional Design
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The Top Challenges for E-Learning Instructional Design in 2020

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For instructional designers, 2020 will be known as the year when e-learning turned completely upside down. Across the world, Covid-19 forced k-12 schools, universities, and businesses to switch to a remote-learning model virtually overnight. IDs spent a whirlwind few months trying to facilitate that change and will now spend the rest of the year dealing with the repercussions of Covid-19 on the online learning world.

IDs have an unprecedented opportunity to help reshape the education field while helping instructors and students overcome the many challenges of remote and online learning.

We asked five top IDs in university and corporate learning fields to identify the top challenges for e-learning instructional design right now and to share how IDs can prepare to face these challenges in 2020 and beyond.

Cleaning up a Remote-Learning Mess

When most of the world shut down in the spring of 2020, schools were forced to set up emergency remote-learning programs. This change has affected over 1 billion students worldwide. There was zero time for IDs to prep or plan. As a result, many remote-learning programs are currently providing the bare minimum materials that students need to learn from home.

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Many schools will continue to practice distance learning through this fall and the foreseeable future.  IDs will simultaneously need to fortify the existing slapdash system while also planning future online course offerings.

At the root of the crisis: emergency remote learning simply isn’t the same thing as premeditated online learning. Nikki James, an independent learning scientist and an industry fellow at The Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy at Northeastern University, believes that emphasizing this difference will be a major challenge for the industry moving forward.

“We have to convince decision makers that they haven’t been captaining a ship,” James says. “They’ve been paddling a life raft. If they want to continue with online learning, they’re going to need to build a better boat.”

“We have to convince decision makers that they haven’t been captaining a ship,” James says. “They’ve been paddling a life raft. If they want to continue with online learning, they’re going to need to build a better boat.”

To successfully upgrade these rudimentary remote-learning  systems, IDs will need to convince instructors and administrators to invest in better online learning solutions. “I think the biggest thing will be convincing people that Zoom lecturing is not effective online learning,” James says.

Joe Senart, creator of the Training Is Blank ID blog, says that to get buy-in from decision-makers, IDs will have to stress the value of good course design not just for students, but for the administration as well. “I have found a lot of success in presenting the implications of ignoring key parts of the design and implementation process right when a project kicks off, focusing a little less on the benefit to learners when speaking to project partners, and more about what [decision-makers] will get out of a job well done,” Senart says.

Convincing the administration to invest in better long-term e-learning strategies is the first step to building more mature digital learning ecosystems.

Keeping Learners Engaged

When institutions were forced to quickly switch from an in-classroom format to an online one, most instructors had to slap up some Zoom lectures paired with supplemental offline content. While this was fine for the first emergency remote-learning wave, it cannot continue long term. Students will quickly become bored and disengaged.

IDs are responsible for making future e-learning offerings more collaborative, and for creating material that supports a sense of online community amongst participants. Kyle Hickman, a manager of learning and development, thinks that keeping audiences engaged is going to be a major challenge moving forward. “I realize resources are stretched thin,” Hickman says. “But I'm seeing many instances of packets of supplemental work being mailed to students to complete on their own, when there is a real opportunity to create more dynamic, engaging environments for students to participate in.”

To boost engagement, IDs need to incorporate collaborative learning solutions. The challenge: finding ways to scale peer-learning activities to meet the needs of hundreds of thousands of students stuck learning at home. “We already know learning in a silo is not as effective as collaborative, engaged learning,” Hickman says,

So how can we, as professionals, support that at the massive scale we currently are facing is the million-dollar question. Longer-term I hope to see instructors and online learning professionals alike come together to craft more permanent collaborative solutions that can be used, global pandemic or not.

The quickest way to add a collaborative element to an online course is by taking advantage of the features offered by your LMS. Discussion boards are a great way to get students to interact with the course material and each other (as long as you ask the right kind of questions to spur discussion). Peer review, where students critique each other’s work, is another way to give each student individual attention while fostering community among students.

Designing Practical Tutorials Quickly

COVID-19 has introduced an element of uncertainty to long-term course planning. Both students and employees have been thrown into remote learning and work environments with zero preparation or training.

Dr. Robin Sargent, the creator of IDOL courses, says that with environmental changes in constant flux, there is an urgent need to help learners embrace new technology, such as Zoom and Slack, and new remote learning procedures. Sargent says,

Stakeholders are looking for training solutions yesterday. They’re looking for things that aren’t going to take a lot of time but are still going to be effective. And we know that just sitting people on a webinar isn’t always the most effective way to grab people’s attention.

IDs are being asked to develop training solutions as quickly as possible. They have to help instructors understand new teaching technology and help students adapt to a new learning format.

Dr. Luke Hobson, program manager at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says,

We had three weeks to take courses at MIT from  face-to-face to remote learning. Normally when we take classes online, we have a very strict process in place. Instead, COVID basically was like, ‘Sorry, good luck.’

One quick learning solution Sargent suggests is Short Sims. Short Sims are simple online scenarios in which people learn by doing. The Short Sims typically feature no video or audio, which makes them cheap and quick to build.


They’re also quick and easy for learners to use. In just 5 or 10 minutes, a Short Sim can teach an instructor how to use a new peer-review tool or new procedures for grading during the pandemic. These tools will also be crucial for outlining new policies and procedures once students start returning to campus.  

Developing Courses for Diverse Learners

As online learning takes up more of the education market, the profile of a typical online learner becomes increasingly varied. IDs have a responsibility to create courses that are accessible to people from all racial, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

IDs will need to carefully monitor their word choices, their cultural assumptions, and the symbols and imagery they use in online courses and test materials. IDs must carefully evaluate their own internal biases and assumptions in an effort to create learning materials that are more inclusive.

IDs must also be sensitive to socioeconomic and practical factors that stand in the way of online learning. They may find themselves designing courses for learners with several jobs; learners who are also supervising small children at home; or learners without access to the tools they need to properly participate in the course, such as appropriate computers, a fast internet connection, or a microphone.

“It’s a much different approach to design a course for somebody with a full-time 40-hour workweek and two kids,” Hobson says, “than a Gen Z college student who doesn’t have to worry about such life events."

We have to be cognizant of the fact that some students only have a certain amount of time or a specific window of time to devote to learning.

One way to create accessible and culturally inclusive courses? Follow the principles of Universal Design for Learning. UDL is a framework for optimizing courses and instruction based on scientific research into how people learn. It emphasizes choices that make e-learning more accessible to all. This could include design that accommodates learners with physical or learning disabilities as well as choices that account for cultural learning differences, and time management and flexibility choices.

IDs who are designing distance-learning solutions for disadvantaged populations may need to start thinking of unorthodox solutions for students without access to computers or the internet. One idea that Unicef employees: School-in-a-Box kits sent monthly to teachers and students by snail mail.

Finding the Right EdTech Solutions

The market is currently being flooded with software to help institutions adopt better online learning practices.  It will be up to IDs to decide which of those programs are the most useful for their students.

Unfortunately, many universities are making decisions based on convenience and budget, not on software effectiveness. “We all know that what we are doing right now is not working,” James says. “A lot of EdTechs are just building shiny versions of a teaching process that doesn’t really work very well.”

It will fall to IDs to vet learning software to see what really meets the need of faculty and students.

James’s advice is to avoid software that promises to be a one-size-fits-all cure-all and instead look for niche products. “It's often hard for great software to get in the door of a university, because it might only be something that 10% of the faculty need,” James says. “But the thing is, if that software is going to really improve those 10% of programs that's far more impactful than choosing a technology that is one-size-fits-all but is so bland that it doesn't have any wow factor at all.”

E-learning Instructional Design Has Never Been More Challenging — or Exciting

It’s never been a busier or more exciting time to be an instructional designer. The move to online learning has been accelerated, and IDs will be the leaders who guide and shape this change. “Instructional design is actually booming,” Hobson says.

2020 may have some challenges, but I actually think we’re going to be one of the few industries that’s actually crushing it. There’s more opportunity than ever.

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