21 December 2021

Written by Zoe Guzman Martinez - Supervising Editor: Instructional Design

The Second and Third Industrial Revolutions resulted in the rapid development of electronic products and the emergence of automation. With the Fourth Industrial Revolution came the advent of the internet, where computer technology was applied to every element of life, and the prefix “e” became a prevalent addition to many words. This digital era saw email transforming the way we communicate, elearning changing how we acquire knowledge, and ecommerce becoming a disruptor in the way business is conducted. More recently, there has been a shift in focus from merely making these platforms available, to ensuring that they are user-centered and suitable for the audience that they are intended for. Enter “x”, which has become the new “e” of our generation! User experience, or “UX” as it is more commonly known, is where computer science meets human science. The use of design principles to enhance consumer engagement and create meaningful and relevant online experiences is as important as creating the digital platforms that host them.

In higher education, where technology-enabled learning is becoming a norm, it is critical to consider the user experience of students and to make content available in a manner that encourages engagement, which in turn supports the learning process to ensure that learning outcomes are met. The principles of UX design generally relate to how content appears online and whether the layout allows for user needs to be met, which means that in an educational environment this concept would be closely aligned with the notion of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Ideally, educational content should be accessible to a broad audience, but this should be balanced with consideration for the individual needs that students may have. UDL acknowledges and accommodates the differences in learners’ abilities and learning styles.

According to the principles of UDL, technology-enabled learning should use multiple modes of representation to reduce barriers to learning. So, for example, in an online environment a video could be incorporated with closed captions for hearing-impaired learners, or students who prefer to learn by reading. A video with subtitles could be used for students who speak different languages, in contexts where this applies. Alt text provides an opportunity to explain and describe graphs, tables and images for students who are sight-impaired and using screen readers. Any audio content that has no visual element, like podcasts, should include a script for audio-impaired learners, or students who may battle with the speaker’s accent, or perhaps they simply prefer to learn through reading. Learning content should also be presented using various media (audiovisual, tables, graphs, text, etc.) to appeal to different learning styles, and it should be presented in a manner that takes the cognitive aspects of learning into account for the learning to be processed and remembered.

Students should also be given the opportunity to use multiple modes of expression to demonstrate what they have learnt. In an online environment, the learning design could incorporate this element by using various types of formative and summative assessment structures, such as multiple-choice questions, matching exercises, case study questions, games and interactive activities, to name a few.

Students should also be encouraged to assimilate learning through multiple modes of engagement so that they are appropriately motivated and challenged. In an online classroom for adult students, peer learning and the application of content is critical, and this can be accomplished by using a flipped-classroom approach, with applications like Miro mindmaps to enable synchronous and asynchronous interaction and input. Discussion forums like Slack could also be used for participative classroom activities and debates.

Today’s learners expect technology to be used in the learning process, and it is no longer a novelty. This means that in higher education we need to relook at how we make learning material available to our students on the platforms we use, and how accessible it is for all students. Traditionally, academics were the only individuals in higher education who played a role in the learning process. However, in order to factor in the students’ learning experience, apart from administrative support, academic teams also require technical and instructional design support to meet the needs of their learners.