Digital learning: how to keep your students switched on

Universities will be busy this year adapting to the changes introduced by the government’s higher education reforms. But they mustn’t forget that there is more to the future of higher education than the teaching excellence framework ratings exercise: digital learning will also take centre stage.

Digital learning is growing in sophistication. It can be developed for fully online remote learning courses, or added to traditional classroom-based courses as blended learning. But how do you ensure it adds value, and avoid the risk of miscommunication?

As an instructional designer, one of the most common things I hear when meeting with academics is that their students don’t engage with online activities. There are a number of reasons for this, but the most fundamental is that they see no reason to do it. If you want a student to engage in an online activity, you need to ensure they understand the task, and its meaning and relevance.

It might be that an activity will help a student learn about themselves, do better work in their job, or maybe it will give them practise for a final exam. You can communicate this by slipping it into a subheading at the top of your page, such as “do x better”, and explain in the text below.

Keep it simple

Good design can also make all the difference. For starters, text must be easy to scan. You may pride yourself on your flair for language, but online, you’re playing a different ballgame. Research shows that online, people tend to scan rather than read text. If you want to effectively get your message across, you should:

You can add interest with images. But don’t be tempted to add images just for the sake of adding colour to a page. Unless images are a relevant part of the content, people don’t look at them. Moreover, cartoons can distract and trivialise your content, so limit yourself to meaningful images and video.

Avoid content dump

Since you know your topic, the most natural part of your job is to share your knowledge: to explain and share helpful resources like video lectures, articles and podcasts. But students need to do more than passively receive your online artefacts; they need to be actively engaged.

Action is key to successful online learning. It lets students practise what they’ve learned, and gives them a chance for feedback and a clearer picture of their own knowledge. But beware of going heavy on links to other information. A recent study at the Open University found that resource-heavy online courses have a “significantly lower completion and pass rate than other modules”.

In my own course designs, I try to reduce the passivity of content by ensuring that they are coupled with some activity. Instead of merely embedding a video, I’ll add a short quiz to follow.

To feel that their efforts are going somewhere, your students also need timely feedback. Some of this you can automate, such as an explanation after a quiz, or a model answer after an essay question. They also need some acknowledgement that they have completed a task, for instance through a “task completed” notification.

Consistency is key

Whatever you do, try to make it as consistentas possible. That way, students spend less time figuring out what they need to do and more time getting on with it. Put information such as due dates or estimated time in the same location in the same format, and check if your institution (or discipline) has a style guide. While user experience matters, trying to change the font and layout will only make your module inconsistent with others and is likely to cause accessibility problems. Instead, tell someone with oversight of the whole system if you have a complaint.