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Learning happens: Better courses and better learning through instructional design

March 8, 2016
ATSS instructional design process: Analyze, Design, Develop, Implement, and Evaluate
ATSS course design process

Instructional designers help people who are absolute experts in their field better understand what it's like to be a novice in their field, trying to learn again.

An instructor is building a new course; the curriculum is developed and in place. But how can the instructor create an active and impactful learning experience for their students? Enter the instructional designer.

Instructional Design

One of the several offerings available free of charge through Academic Technology Support Services (ATSS), instructional design, simply put, is the systematic design and development of engaging learning experiences. The instructional designer can partner with instructors to select methods, media and technologies that ensure that students have opportunities to actively practice what they are learning.

Curriculum design is "what" the learner should learn. Instructional design is "how" they will learn it. Instructional designers work with instructors to understand how people learn, develop the appropriate learning activities based on that understanding, and measure the effectiveness of the activities used.

"One of the biggest things that instructional design does, when it's done properly, is that it forces whomever is creating the instruction to very clearly lay out what is really important," according to Keith Brown, service owner, Academic Technology Support Services. "It's a more systematic way of looking at some of the teaching that happens, by having people that create the instruction really think out the objectives or the key things that people need to do."

Integrating Technology into the Learning Environment

Instructional designers in ATSS, also referred to as academic technologists, help faculty integrate technology into the learning environment, whether in person, online or a combination of both, in a pedagogically-sound way. By breaking down the course content into pieces, at times, it's determined that teaching and learning can be enhanced by certain technologies or technology tools. Once it is determined that technology can be used, the academic technologist can offer tools and solutions, depending on the instructor's wants and needs.

Identifying Overarching Goals

When an instructor is able to clearly identify the courses' overarching goals, the instructional designer is able to gain an understanding of the course context and what it is the instructor is really trying to do in the course. The designer helps articulate it and identifies the types of content and activities that supplement and enhance the students' educational experience, making it as sensible as possible to ensure that students will have a chance to understand it.

Measuring Outcomes

Brown points out that course objectives also need outcomes that are measurable. One way to measure the impact of a learning tool or technology is through course evaluations.

"We also work with instructors to ensure that the assessments are an accurate reflection of what was being taught in the course," Brown said. "It's valuable for students to know that they got a 'better created' course, and it provides more clarity around objectives and expectations."

Academic Technology Examples

One of the most recognizable academic technologies at the University is Moodle. While Moodle is often associated with online courses, it also provides many tools that are useful in any learning environment, such as online discussion forums, assignment submission, grading and feedback.

"I worked with an instructor who asked in a mid-semester evaluation about the Moodle site," said ATSS instructional designer, Sara Schoen. "In the eval, a student wrote how they really appreciate that the instructor took full advantage of all the features of the Moodle site. The instructor told me that they didn't even know all those things were available but they make staying on top of things for class that much easier."

One instructor created a field course that was online only, and never met in person. The instructor gave assignments to study environmental issues on public lands. In another instance, an instructor tested an emerging technology with a student who had to move away before the end of the class, but was able to attend and finish class virtually.

Services and Referrals for Instructors

ATSS services are available to the entire University community. "Although we specialize in the use of academic technologies in instructional design, we can also connect instructors with other instructional design partners at the University such as the Center for Educational Innovation (CEI) and various collegiate and departmental academic technologists," Brown added.

"Instructional designers help people who are absolute experts in their field better understand what it's like to be a novice in their field, trying to learn again," Brown explained. "Actually answering the more detailed questions—to get at why things happen. To clearly understand at what level the students will be when they come into that course. As instructional designers, we're lobbying for students throughout the course creation and instructional process. Good instructional design will help learners get right to the important stuff."

To learn more about Academic Technology Support Services and to get started with course design, visit atss.umn.edu.