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Teaching Without the Teacher: How to Empower Learners

Posted by Dave Coodin on Thu, Oct 20, 2016

Before my life as an instructional designer, I spent years in the classroom as a college and university professor. There are some things about it I will never miss: the irregular hours, which can be crazy-making; the first-year students, whose attitudes range from Tracy-Flick-enthusiastic to Jeff-Spicoli-jaded; and the marking, which tends to pile up like psychic scar tissue on an otherwise-healthy brain. 

But for all the long-hours-for-little-pay grumbling, it was a great job and I loved it. Even when (or especially when) the material was dry, I relished the challenge of drawing out the students who didn’t want to be there and giving them a reason to come back.

That’s something I think about a lot in instructional design. It was on my mind when I came across a recent article by Paul Tough. Tough argues that success in education has less to do with effort or innate ability than it does with how empowered students feel in the classroom. Students succeed when they feel that they belong in their academic community, that their ability increases when they try, that they know they can succeed, and that their work has value. Classroom instructors, then, need to help students believe in their own success and to make them feel like they belong, no matter their individual histories.

To me, this is one of the key challenges of eLearning. Without the personal connection of a teacher at the front of the virtual classroom, how can we design courses that give learners the confidence that comes from this sense of belonging?


At SwissVBS, we try to design learning experiences that engender a sense of community.

As an instructional designer, there are a few ways that I approach this problem. First of all, it impacts how I design interactive exercises. I want to challenge learners, but I also want to give them the feeling of success. There’s nothing more defeating than a game that feels impossible to win. The hard part is in finding that sweet spot between too difficult and too easy.

When I design a learning experience, I like to start learners off with an easier activity or two before presenting them with more challenging scenarios. When learners experience an early success, it can affect the way they approach the rest of the course. Competence breeds confidence, which leads to greater competence down the road.

Secondly, I believe that learners take ownership over their training when they feel that it has real value in their lives. For this reason, eLearning is at its best when real-life application is built into the design. This can be as simple as prompting learners to complete a personalized strategy as they go, or as complex as text-recognition technology will allow. Whatever the medium, making the material relevant is a way to empower learners because it gives people the sense that their work matters.

Finally, one of the advantages of instructor-led training is the opportunity for peer interaction. In an online learning environment, those opportunities are limited at best, for obvious reasons. One way to counteract the absence of a learning community is to structure a course to involve some kind of face-to-face interaction. This can mean simply requiring learners to schedule a meeting with a manager to discuss their experience and to get ongoing support. Doing so requires buy-in from organizations, and a commitment from us to support those interactions with supplemental material. But engendering these kinds of interactions ensures that learning is not just a transactional one-off, but an ongoing experience.

There are times when I miss the social aspect of being in front of a group of students. But as the behind-the-scenes designer pulling the strings, I can take comfort in the fact that all of the things I did best in the classroom I still get to do, even if I can’t see my students’ faces. As an instructional designer, I have thousands upon thousands of more students to empower, even if I’ll never know them personally. And best of all, there’s never any marking.

Topics: SwissVBS, Learning Journey, Online Coaching, Skills, Presence Training

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