Column Editor: Elftherios Soleas, PhD
By Rachel Burger, BScH, BEd, OCT, Lynsee Stephens, BScH, and Jeanne Mulder, MSc, PhD
The shift in interest to online learning was catalyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic as educational and professional development programs were forced to explore online learning strategies and creatively develop effective learning opportunities. A recent systemic review provided evidence that online learning is at least as effective as traditional offline learning with the caveat that the design principles of digital learning materials, learning outcomes, and learners’ characteristics must be rigorously evaluated (Pei et Wu, 2019).
Our team specializes in creating interactive, high-quality modules that have been adopted by multiple national programs. Specifically, we focus on incorporating five foundational principles to module development.
Figure 1. Foundational Principles of Module Development.
Here we briefly discuss some key tips and tricks for incorporating these foundational principles in module development.
Learning outcomes are essential for setting expectations within a module/course and serve as the foundation for all learning assessments. Well-crafted learning outcomes focus on specific and measurable skills, knowledge, and behaviors. They should be phrased as actions (using verbs) and avoid vague/subjective words like “understand” or “recognize,” so it is clear to the learner when they have achieved the outcome.
Tools like the SMART method or Bloom’s taxonomy should be applied to the creation of learning outcomes to ensure they are specific with a narrow scope, measurable, and attainable within the time and resources provided (Chatterjee et Corral, 2017). Implementing Bloom’s taxonomy can help scaffold learning outcomes, work within multiple cognitive domains, and build from lower to higher order thinking skills.
Assessments measure the learners’ expected knowledge, skills, and behaviors based on the learning outcomes. Adult learners appreciate opportunities to apply knowledge to real-life scenarios and case studies to help them recognize how their learning can be translated to practice..Thought-provoking assessments can help promote reflection around opportunities for future learning.
Feedback must be provided for all summative and formative assessments. Feedback should be specific to the questions asked, provide a rationale for the correct and incorrect responses, and be supported with appropriate references.
Encourage the application of learning over an extended period (i.e., spaced repetition) to promote deep understanding and increase the likelihood of retention and transfer. For example, spreading formative assessments throughout the module, rather than having them all at the end, provides the learner with the opportunity to receive and incorporate feedback into their application of new concepts.
Instructional approaches prepare learners to demonstrate skills identified in the learning outcomes and assessments. Instructional approaches employed in the module should mimic the assessment strategies either in their format or subject matter.
When developing a module, you should consider:
Cognitive Load Theory
Cognitive load theory suggests working memory tasks should be reduced to help the brain transfer new information into the long-term memory (i.e., learning) (Sweller et al., 1998). One effective strategy is to chunk module content into smaller, more manageable, segments of information. This may be accomplished using headings and subheadings, or more interactive approaches like tabs or buttons that click to reveal content at the learners’ pace.
Similar topics should be chunked together in proximity and the connections between various topics should be highlighted to help the learner “encode” new learning into their existing long-term memory. This will help improve the learner experience and promote content retention.
Figure 2. Cognitive Load Theory. Adapted from Mancinetti et al., (2018).
Increased engagement with the content and learning process leads to higher information retention (Lucas et al. 2013). Varied interactivities should be incorporated that encourage learners to actively engage with the content. Interactions like buttons and tabs reveal content bit by bit, allowing learners to digest, process, and layer information. Include content in multiple modalities (e.g., visual, auditory, kinesthetic) to account for different learning preferences and apply the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL).
Principles of Course Design
Current principles of course design should inform your module development process. They are key to building relevant and effective assessments, instructional approaches, and module content.
Backward design for learning can be used to help you scaffold a module (or multiple modules within a course or program) and ensure a purpose-built design (Figure 3). Following this framework ensures module content is aligned with the assessments and the learning outcomes, and prevents overwhelming learners with large amounts of secondary information.
Figure 3. Backward design for learning (or Understanding by Design)
Adapted from Wiggins et McTighe, 2005.
Other useful instructional design approaches include ADDIE (Analyze, Design, Develop, Implement, and Evaluate) and SAM (Successive Approximation Model).
Globalization of Learning
Globalization of learning is crucial for module success, reach, and impact. All learners should feel represented within the module and see how it relates to their own life. Key considerations include:
- Inclusive and diverse language, imagery, and examples
- Inter-culturalization of the curriculum
- Teaching across cultures
These practices should be done respectively, authentically, and in an informed manner by someone who is trained or experienced. Consult and collaborate with Equity, Diversion, Inclusivity, and Indigeneity (EDII) experts and, when appropriate, involve those with lived experiences in the module development process.
The evolution of the online education landscape is fast-paced and ever-changing, driven by the rapid development of new technologies. While the technologies and platforms used to create online modules continue to expand, it is crucial to have strong educational principles as the foundation for successful, high-quality module development.
Rachel Burger, BScH, BEd, OCT, is Educational Developer and Instructional Designer, Office of Professional Development and Educational Scholarship, Health Sciences, Queen’s University.
Lynsee Stephens, BScH, is the Course Development Lead, Office of Professional Development and Educational Scholarship, Health Sciences, Queen’s University.
Jeanne Mulder, MSc, PhD, is Director, Online Learning, Office of Professional Development and Educational Scholarship, and Assistant Professor, Dept of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences, Health Sciences, Queen’s University.