Industry Insights

Designing a Better Online Student Experience

01/12/22   |  
Graeme Owens, EVP & Country Manager at Keypath Education Canada

When the pandemic hit Canada, two million postsecondary students had their learning experience change. Moving them to a remote environment was a huge undertaking, and with the uncertainty and urgency, the user experience design — or “UX design” — could not be a top priority. Videoconferencing fatigue set in. Professors and instructors faced turned-off cameras. Students had so many new distractions outside of the typical classroom.

But emergency remote teaching can't be the long-term solution. According to a study from the Oxford journal, Interacting With Computers, an emphasis on UX design can “improve customer satisfaction and loyalty through the utility, ease of use, and pleasure provided in the interaction with a product.” In online education, that means putting the student at the centre, cultivating engagement, and facilitating a connection. Successful UX design changes over time and is almost always a reflection of the culture, the technology and the zeitgeist of the day.

In just the last decade, the online user experience has changed dramatically. While the dot-com boom of the 90s birthed Amazon and Netflix, shifts in technology allowed them to pivot their business models that disrupted and dominated their industries. The gig economy created a switch from taxi cabs to Uber; hotels to AirBnB. And today there’s Tesla, which has tapped into the culture of digitization to move the traditional car shopping experience entirely online. In each of these examples, as the technology of the moment became wedded to UX design, it made existing services more convenient, more affordable, more accessible, and more disruptive. 

The user experience of education is no different. From candle-lit monasteries in the Middle Ages to postwar desks in rows facing a chalkboard, the classroom experience has always mirrored the culture around it. That is also true in distance education — which has come a long way in just a few decades. 

Distance education in the 80s

A few decades ago, some universities began acting on an opportunity they saw: offering distance education for those already employed but wanted to upskill. For example, someone with a diploma could land a job as a chemist, but you needed more to advance in the workplace. The University of Waterloo was one such institution, offering 20-40 cassette tapes by mail for each of the 25 courses required for the Honours Science degree. They included recorded lectures, as well as occasional course materials.

Students would find themselves playing and replaying the tapes to reach an understanding before mailing off their hand-written assignments. Self-discipline was a must, as there was no ready access to professors if you had a problem. Using the technology of the time — cassette tapes, ball-point pens, and postage stamps — you could earn a degree and advance in your career to management and beyond. All while you were working, raising a family, and paying a mortgage.

These were the first working learners, and they started in a time before computers, before the internet, before videoconferencing, before the exponential increase in the speed of technology. Of course, we wouldn't dream of doing distance education by mail now. The time for that user experience is gone. But it does raise the question: if we think it’s a bad idea to copy the user experience of a bygone era in the digital age, why would we try to replicate the physical classroom in an online format?

Designing a Better Online Learner Experience

If Canadians want excellent digital learning, shouldn’t we start by asking how we build a quality digital learning experience that digital natives will be at home in? Because in their world, if a user experience isn’t seamless, fast, intuitive, and of high quality, it won’t survive. Failing to account for UX design also isn’t in the institution's best interests, ultimately. No university wants to risk its reputation by offering low-quality online courses. There is, quite simply, a massive qualitative difference between putting an existing course online and designing a course, from the ground up, as an online course.

If we want to make the most of the medium, maintain course quality and offer a learner-centred design that digital natives will feel at home in, here are five unique pedagogical principles and tools universities might consider building courses around:

  • Mastery Learning - In the mastery learning model, learning replaces teaching at the centre of our education systems. Students move at their own pace as they master knowledge and skills. Though the concept has been with us since the 1960s, technology can help enable and scale it like never before.
  • Flipped Classrooms - Students view pre-recorded lectures or readings on their own time and use class time to engage with the instructor and each other on related case studies, problem sets, or structured discussion. 
  • Virtual Reality - According to ABI Research, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) shifts “the learning process from passive to active, allowing students to interact with content and practice their knowledge in real-time conditions. Learning by experience leads to better understanding, enhances knowledge recall, and strengthens retention. Immersive and interactive experiences stimulate students’ motivation and increase their engagement level, which are fundamental factors for achieving learning goals.”
  • Gamification - Gamification has evolved to engage learners by making it competitive, immersive and engaging by leveraging our natural desires for socializing and achievement. It rewards learners by providing a leaderboard, prize, status, or progress bar.
  • Virtual Support - Course leaders can encourage interactions and support through team-based learningvirtual study groupschat-bot tutors, and real-time translation.

Enter OPMs

Already, the writing is on the wall: EdTech venture capital has increased 14 times since 2010. However, digital spending consists of only 2.5 per cent of global education expenditures pre-lockdown. Recognizing that, universities are responding.

A growing number of postsecondary institutions are using online program managers (OPMs) to offer, market, and optimize online learning without the need to build their own course content. Keypath is one of these, reaching thousands of students across Canada and worldwide by designing, developing, launching, marketing, and managing online programs in service of our university partners. We prioritize career-relevant online education solutions that enhance the learning experience, and as a result, advance student outcomes.

We know that digital natives are looking for more from their online education. Although mass scale is needed for online learning to be profitable, unless learners are offered personalized experiences like in the pedagogical tools above, they will become less engaged. EdTech is betting on this future. As HolonIQ reports, “COVID-19 has thrust Education Technology onto the global stage, supporting the rapid transformation of the way the world learns.”

Education is changing rapidly. From new course designs to new students (like the working learner and digital natives) and new pedagogies — mastery learning, flipped classrooms, virtual reality, gamification, and virtual support — the post-COVID world will be one of the most exciting times to be a student. And far removed from candle-lit monasteries, chalk-dusted classrooms, and video calls.

Get in touch with us if you're interested in learning more.

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.