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Wanted: Instructional Designers expert in [insert subject here]

As the recipient of a weekly job notification email for higher education services of various kinds, I keep an eye on what jobs related to learning development and online learning are on offer. I pass along good opportunities through my twitter feed, and I like to comment on trends, issues and other points of interest here in the blog.

The most recent list includes an advert for “Online Learning Educators” from a prominent UK university. The university wants to create a brand new online course for an exciting new subject area. There are professors who will act as the Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) and directors of the course, but the university needs new staff to develop the courses.

The advert states:

You will play a leading role in developing a full online undergraduate-level course in [subject], working with a small team of academic and support staff to produce world-class content, assessments and learning outcomes for all students at the [university].

Specifically, you will: a) develop a new online course in [subject] that will be made available for all [university] students and that will provide a world-class online learning experience b) liaise with colleagues across the University to ensure content is delivered on time and that formal approvals at School, College and University are obtained on schedule c) work in tandem with one another to ensure complimentary course development d) work closely with the project leaders (Prof X and Prof Y), the steering group and other academic staff contributors, support staff, and IT to ensure that the content and student experience is exemplary e) coordinate review/testing of the course prior to official launch.

You will have experience in [subject] education and a passion for enhancing the student experience. You will have a strong track record in successful project delivery in the [subject] education area. You will have experience of development and delivery of [subject]-related training. Strong interpersonal and communication skills are also required.

In the interest of anonymity, I have left off the identifying details, but suffice it to say that we’re not talking intense specialisation here.

Instructional Designers (IDs) need to be experts in instructional design — which is a specialist area in its own right. Why are they also required to be experts in the specific subject matter of the course?

There are already SMEs to provide the raw content. This subject of this job advert is interdisciplinary with little or no need for highly specific technologies. Moreover, as the course is intended for the entire student population, it will be quite basic.

An experienced instructional designer will be flexible and knowledgeable about working with a wide variety of subject areas, but some fields, maths or music for example, require knowledge of specific apps to design the most effective and appropriate learning activities. A good network of instructional designers can help bridge gaps and share knowledge, while the SMEs themselves will be aware of the most widely used learning technologies in their own subject.

I can only conclude that either the project leaders are being unnecessarily anxious about the posts (and in danger of defeating their own aims), or they already have their chosen candidates in mind and the job advert is only there as the “transparency” smokescreen required of public sector hires.

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Synchronous versus asynchronous learning

One of the primary decisions to be made in developing online learning programmes is the method of delivery, which can be synchronous or asynchronous. Synchronous learning takes place in a real-time environment, usually through an online classroom or webinar platform, such as Blackboard Collaborate. Asynchronous learning takes place at the convenience of the learner (and tutor) without the need for the group doing the same thing at the same time, usually through a Learning Management System, such as Moodle, or suite of online tools.

It seems like a logical progression to turn traditional classroom learning into online learning by simply replicating the experience through the use of an online classroom. However reliance on synchronous delivery has advantages but also many limitations and disadvantages.

Benefits of synchronous delivery when used as part of a range of online learning

  • Works well for lecture with occasional questions
  • Provides immediate communication and feedback between tutor and learners
  • Carries the weight of an “event”
  • Allows for recording of live lecture and replay at learner convenience
  • Helps tutor to establish authority with learners
  • Learners can get immediate answers to questions
  • Allows tutor to be responsive and vary pace and pitch
  • Creates variety for multi-faceted programmes

Problems  around reliance on synchronous learning for programme delivery

Synchronous learning:

  • Is vulnerable to technical problems (access and quality)
    • Whiteboard is crude and blocky – a particular problem for diagrams or complex equations
    • Sound is variable and dependent on connection and equipment at both ends
    • Application sharing can fail, leaving little or no alternative to continue lesson
    • Crashes can be catastrophic
  • Makes learner experience wholly dependent on instructor performance on the day
  • Creates scheduling problems – everyone needs to be available at the same time or watch recording, which reduces interactivity to nil
  • Limits quality contact time
  • Limits opportunity for participatory activities – time spent working can be like “dead air” time on radio, with the clock ticking on the session.
  • Requires quiet/solitary space to listen and also to speak
  • Mitigates against variety: constrains learning to single environment with its limited tools and features
  • Forces single pace and level for all in undifferentiated group
  • Suits transmission of knowledge and relatively passive learning if you want to avoid chaotic session.
  • Allows little or no time for reflection or digestion of complex concepts

Benefits of asynchronous delivery when used as part of a range of online learning

It’s as limiting to rely only on one type of delivery as another, but, again, when used in conjunction and with a similar amount of emphasis, asynchronous learning can offer big benefits:

  • Gives learners time to read the material and digest it (e.g., look over problems and work them out)
  • Learners aren’t required to be available and online at specific day or time to engage in learning
  • Learners can respond in their own time and convenience with less pressure to perform quickly
  • Learners from anywhere in the world and in any time zone can be accommodated
  • Learners can work at their own pace, taking more time over difficult sections and moving more quickly over easier ones
  • Learners can establish low-pressure peer groups with informal support and collaboration

Studies have found that as the complexity of the subject matter increases, the utility of synchronous learning diminishes (Hratinski, 2008).

asynch v synch
Therefore, choosing which mode of delivery to use should be based on the most efficacious activities for promoting learning, which in turn depend on the learning goals and objectives.

Asynchronous and Synchronous E-Learning, Stefan Hratinski, Educause Quarterly, 2008

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