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Effectively Creating User Personas in Online Learning

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Sink or swim: User personas make all the difference. We dive into the impact of user personas in online learning.

In a shifting learning landscape, institutions of higher learning are called upon to extend their offerings in new and exciting ways. With these changing parameters comes a diverse set of learners, all with different needs and expectations. To ensure lessons remain effective and engaging, we can make use of user personas in online learning. 

A user persona is a profile that summarizes key facts about a targeted group of people. They’re used in numerous industries, from marketing to product design and learning. Ultimately, the goal is to equip teams with the insights they need to design a product, message or experience that serves its users. 

Within higher education, learner personas are essential on two fronts. Effective user personas can ensure you’re attracting the right candidates to participate. They also equip instructors to design and deliver courses optimally. 

The result? Learner retention remains high, and learning goals are met. 

Examples of user personas in online learning

An undergraduate student who’s on campus full-time, a postgraduate student who’s juggling work and part-time studies online, an adult learner who’s switching careers, an executive searching for latest industry insights: these are all possible user personas in learning. 

User personas are based on in-depth user research and are used to provide an experience that’s relevant, useful and personalized to the needs of individual learners. Within a persona group, you’ll find relevant shared characteristics. This might include educational background, job level, learning goals, approach to learning, existing skills and other behaviors. 

But the nuance doesn’t end there. There are users who want to be fully online, or who are interested in blended models of learning. There are learners who want self-paced learning, and learners who expect facilitation. There are casual learners taking on a MOOC, or learners looking to pipeline into postgraduate study. Effective user persona research helps us predict how these learners will behave, and design with this in mind. 

And with online learning opening up opportunities for study across the globe, a single student cohort could include learners with various cultures, that speak numerous first languages and that differ in their attitudes to and level of comfort when using technology. This diversity is an important consideration when developing user personas for online courses. 

“The people you are teaching are going to be unique every time. So, what’s going to be appropriate for those different audiences will also differ,” says Hubble Studios Founder and CEO Hannes Geldenhuys.

Each will come to their learning with a different set of skills, motivations and expectations. An effective learning journey will be built around these requirements, and optimize the tools, tech and level of learning required accordingly. And while instructors might already have a pretty good idea about the kind of learner they are designing for, the user persona solidifies this information and ensures the profile of the end user is kept in mind throughout the design process

“If you think of yourself as an individual, you take on different personas depending on your setting. When you just want to learn how to DIY something, you go to YouTube. When you want to learn a new life skill, you might pay for a coach. And if it’s around career advancements, you might pay a premium for something that is very high touch, because you are investing in that as a credential,” says Hannes.

How to use user personas in online learning

Picture this. You’re envisioning a new master’s course in data science. As an emerging field with high employer demand, you plan your program as a catch-all course for anyone that’s interested in the topic. But learners are dropping out, and feedback is critical. 

In retrospect, you realize your learners fall into two camps. In the first are generalists who are interested in pivoting into data science. They may have experience in a related area, but need to establish new foundational knowledge. In the second camp, you have specialists who are already working in the field. They’re looking to advance further and gain an accreditation that proves their expertize. 

To cater to the requirements of the first group, you need to establish base knowledge that the second group already has. To cater to the needs of the second group, you need to build on existing competencies and challenge the learner with advanced concepts that are beyond the abilities of the first group. By researching the needs, motivations and expectations of these two different learner personas upfront, you would have saved a lot of time and energy, and delivered two separate, and more effective programs. 

When user personas are disregarded, learning can be less effective, retention suffers and programs can fail. That’s why Hubble Studios prioritizes this process during our requirements analysis, and uses persona insights to guide course design and development.

“Part of the temptation with online is that it becomes a bit of a catch-all. We’re now free logistically, but just because we have logistical freedom doesn’t mean we have audience persona freedom,” says Hannes. 

The learner persona should be used on both a macro level (to inform choices around the pace, length and level of engagement built into a course), and on a micro level (helping course designers to understand how a learner might react to lesson material, and guiding them on adapting that material to be as engaging as possible). 

Learner personas also guide course designers on the project scope and budget for learning. Speaking to the use of personas in designing learning for a corporate setting, Hannes describes how the level of engagement, technology use, and budget usually coincide with corporate hierarchies.

Used to premium in-person training, the executive persona expects very high touch engagement, and low technology requirements. Management expectations for training are relatively high-touch, but since this persona is motivated by gaining a credential, they’ll happily accept a blended learning journey. Finally, with a lower training budget for individual staff members, there will be an expectation for self-driven learning at this level. 

“So these personas sit in a hierarchy, not because it’s good for learning—because everyone would love high touch—but economically that hierarchy dictates different personas, which means different economies apply to how learning is done.”  

How to approach user persona creation

True to Hubble Studios’ approach to course design, our process of user persona creation is fundamentally about collaboration. We begin with research and workshopping together with our partners. 

“Through workshops we co-design. We don’t position ourselves as experts in a given field. We are experts at working with experts in a given field. We will work with faculty to ensure that we are brilliantly able to articulate with them what the personas are,” says Hannes.

Since a learner persona is only as useful as the research that went into it, user persona creation calls for rigorous user research: pulling from available user data (including insights into learning behavior and market data), and interviews and surveys with university partners and the kinds of learners courses are targeting. 

“As we move online, it’s new. So we want to gain new clarity around what that persona is. Your part-time learner, your full-time learner, your on-campus versus your now newly formed online learner: these are different personas,” he says. 

Once you’ve completed the fact-finding process, you need to consolidate your information into a brief description. Aside from factors like age, gender, or level of education, personas should include information that might guide decision making, or behavior during the learning process. 

For example, your persona might prioritize flexibility, or dislike using technology. They may have limited responsibilities at work, and hope to secure a promotion through the course. They may have foundational skills and an undergraduate degree, but limited experience learning online. 

Remember that this information is there to guide the learning development process, and help course designers to identify with and problem solve for the persona. At the end of the day, the persona is a tool, and should be concise and usable above all else. 

“We want to work with faculty to co-design appropriately for the persona as we apply both their expertise from the subject matter side, and our expertize from the online learning side,” Hannes continues. And so these personas must be kept in mind throughout the design process. 

Once your course is deployed, circle back to these personas and gauge if your expectations aligned with reality. Check your learning personas against marketing material. Did you get your marketing personas right and recruit the right students? Do these marketing personas relate to your student personas? Are you serving your student personas well? Are you retaining your students? These questions will steer you closer to your learner needs.

Hubble Studios is here to support you as you craft effective learning personas to guide course design and development. Get started with industry insights on our blog, or get in touch with a member of our team today.

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