When I connect with educators who are shopping for a learning management system, there’s something I catch myself saying too often: “You shouldn’t need a PhD in instructional design to use your current LMS.”
This educator has probably told me about their struggle with the usability of their LMS. I’ve probably heard that they’re looking for something more intuitive. Or perhaps they’ve told me about the disparity they’ve seen in classes with their current system; some courses look brilliant, while others are sparse and unengaging.
That’s not the way it should work.
So, it’s at about this time that I throw out my one-liner. “You shouldn’t need a PhD in instructional design to use your current LMS." Today I want to break down exactly what I mean by that.
What is instructional design?
Broadly, instructional design is the crafting of experiences that build knowledge and skills in a way that is appealing and impactful. Learning goals are set and we assess the needs of the individual learner. A plan is put in place to fill in the gap between these two points.
How do we reach the learner? Excite them? And build their skills based on what we know they need and respond to?
Not to oversimplify instructional design - or learning design - but creating a course in a learning management system is a good example of delivering information to a learner in a way that is, hopefully, engaging and effective. But when we get into edtech territory, all too often instructional design starts to seem a lot like web design. And not all teachers are web designers. So this can be really frustrating.
Why does it matter?
This matters because, unfortunately, not all learning management systems are created equal. Some make it easier than others to deliver information in a way that is engaging and appealing.
When I hear from educators that, with their current LMS, there is a disparity between “how good a course looks” from classroom to classroom I know exactly what is wrong. They are using a system that requires a dense technological understanding of instructional design and the corresponding web design skills to create that experience from within their platform.
Again, that’s not how it should work. The platform should do the heavy lifting to make content look appealing.
Further, even with a robust understanding on instructional design - which many educators have - a learning platform shouldn’t hinder an educator’s ability to deliver information in an impactful way. Any class created from within a platform should look inviting and appealing and it should be clear how to interact with content. That’s just not always the case, which is why we see this inconsistency from class to class and teacher to teacher.
How does this impact digital equity?
When using a platform that banks on an instructor’s knowledge of technological content delivery systems - or knowledge of web design - we’ll see very different outcomes from classroom to classroom.
While using the same tools, some students will be delivered an engaging learning experience and others...won’t. Online class space will look barren and there will be little incentive for students to log on and engage.
Sidenote: isn’t there an argument to be made that having different teachers will always lead to different learning experiences for students? Different styles and competencies in teaching will no doubt lead to different learning outcomes. Sure. The difference is this: should students have a less engaging experience because their educator is an expert in U.S. history, not in designing an online platform from which students can learn about U.S. history? That’s the key.
When platforms are designed to deliver information in a beautiful, intuitive, and appealing way, there is less pressure on the instructor to brush up on digital best practices for content delivery. They can post an article, share an assignment, or start a discussion with the confidence that the platform is going to make everything look inviting.
As I understand it, teachers have enough on their plate. Making them web designers is the last thing we need to throw at them.