Driving learner engagement: two questions to ask


Repurposing existing classroom content for online deployment is a common situation we encounter in online education. Repurposing content is different every time and is often a complicated task. Content that was written and intended for use in a classroom or workplace setting often relies heavily on a leading human presence. Removing this human presence demands greater accuracy from the online content in written, interactive, and visual forms. This requires learning designers to ask specific questions about the repurposed content during the analysis and design phases of a project.

Aspects of these types of projects can be deeply contextual; this may simplify or complicate matters for learning designers. A successful repurposing relies on the quality of the existing content; the frequency of repetitive content from different sources; and the breadth and depth of the ‘gaps’ identified along the way.

But there are obvious benefits to working with existing content. The curriculum design is often still applicable and can remain largely unchanged. Assessment strategies can also be adjusted easily. Lastly, and possibly the greatest benefit, is that the bulk of the research required in a project will already have been done.

Reviewing the content thoroughly is crucial. This prevents recurring problems from cascading through the rest of the project. A thorough content review will provide clear direction and establish what needs to be done to make the content appropriate for an online learning audience. After that, a cohesive rhythm and flow must be constructed to enhance the content and the online learning experience. It is between the content review and the construction of the content flow that it is useful for anyone dealing with the content — not only learning designers — to place themselves in the learners’ shoes and ask the following two questions.

Question 1

As the learner, ask, “What do I get out of this? Why is this worth my time and effort?”

What is most important in online education is stipulating the obvious benefits of a learning intervention upfront as soon as possible. All the physical contexts of a reputable institution, as well as the implied prestige of an established brand and reputation needs to be converted to text and visuals on screen.

If there is any accreditation, employment opportunities, industry standards, qualifications, merits or any other point or grade benefit to be gained in successfully completing a course, they must be explicit, accurate and easy to understand. This is not done solely for the benefit of the learner, but also for the benefit of a third party.

Often there might be unknown incentives for learners to complete certain courses. An employer might require employees to enroll, a parent or funder might be involved, or some other obligatory relationship with an authority figure might be in place. Making assumptions about learner motivations for enrolling in online courses is tricky as there is such a range of possibilities.

Ultimately, this means the benefits for completing a course successfully must be clearly described to allow for a third party to understand, and, importantly, for the learner to be able to communicate the benefits of that course to that third party.

Online education, especially in a part-time capacity while working, is a sizeable commitment to tackle. One must be very self-driven, independent, and motivated. Ensuring the learner knows what they are attempting to accomplish and how they will benefit will go far in encouraging and motivating them.

Question 2

As the learner, ask, “What is my next step? How do I know if I am doing this right?”

After the introduction of the course, every step of the learner journey needs to be clear and explicit; and ambiguity should be avoided. The learner needs to have a sense of how far they are in the course (when they have passed various milestones, for instance) and they must be given clear affirmations about the fact that they are progressing successfully through the course.

The opposite is also true. If a learner’s performance is not meeting successful completion requirements at these various milestones; constructive feedback must be supportive and encouraging. Sustaining learner motivation is important.

Reflection on what has been learnt must be encouraged with appropriate signposting throughout the course. The learner might not be aware of it, but every word is chosen to make sure that they are not overwhelmed or left to find their own way through the course content.

Remember, there is no ‘teacher’ at the head of the class to get immediate answers from. Some courses might have very little support available; this means the learner might have to wait to get feedback from an expert. This means that the content needs to be able to create an environment for successful independent study.

Repurposing existing content clearly has great benefits: the assessment strategy, curriculum design and research, and structure is often complete or nearly complete. But the task of restructuring is not always as straightforward as it may seem. Compared to classroom or facilitator-led interventions, we are less informed of the context that the learner finds themselves in, and the text needs to be adjusted to ensure they can maintain engagement through the length of a course. Placing ourselves in the learner’s shoes assists us in asking vital questions about the perceptions of a course and how vital it is to ensure that all the text and visuals on the screen direct the learner to the goal of successfully completing an online course.