Distance Learning

Making Distance Learning Better Through Improved Modular Design

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Online education has been available to learners of different backgrounds for many years. For the most part, it has been seen as an option, a supplement to be taken alongside traditional courses or a means of further building upon a formal education.

The pandemic has changed that in a matter of months. For many students, distance learning is the only option, under current considerations of health and safety. And with such widespread adoption comes increasing exposure of its drawbacks and challenges.

Some of these problems, such as unequal access to online education, reflect greater institutional issues and must be addressed at a higher level. But many of them can be alleviated through better design of the online learning module.

Modular design in learning

If the term ‘modular design’ sounds familiar, it’s probably through association with iconic brands like Lego and IKEA. Modularity, whether it’s applied to children’s toys, office storage units, or even entire homes, works on the same principle. The process of making components to a given standard is streamlined, and users gain greater freedom to tailor the final product to their needs.

Such design principles naturally lend themselves to the learning process. After all, complex skills can be intimidating to the beginner. Breaking such subjects down into modules helps the novice learner to gain confidence through early progress. Advanced learners, meanwhile, can enter their lessons on a higher level by skipping modules they’ve already mastered.

Does any of this sound familiar? The internet is full of examples of modular learning in application. It’s not just dedicated online learning websites like Coursera, Udemy, or Khan Academy that offer bite-sized lessons. YouTube, for instance, is loaded with DIY videos and how-tos.

online class

Instructors need to step up

Clearly, the internet enables modular learning to a degree that’s not possible in a traditional setting. Content creators can ‘chunk’ information, upload it once, and have it available indefinitely to countless users with minimal further effort on their part. Those learners get to follow the material at their own pace, instead of getting slowed down or feeling pressured to speed up by other classmates.

However, the internet also offers myriad examples of what can go wrong on a design level. Content has to be curated and thoughtfully presented to be accessible to most learners. When it isn’t, you end up with tutorials and activities that fail to motivate students or facilitate knowledge retention.

Instructors have the potential to be difference-makers here. They can be responsible for such improvements in modular design. Yet many of them have not fully embraced their new roles in this rapidly shifting educational model. They are skilled in their subject matter and traditional teaching methods but are not consistently good at designing distance learning modules.

Putting it together

A good online learning module is broken down into simple, discrete units of knowledge for students to master. It contains activities that engage students with the course material and fosters a degree of interaction between peers and the instructor.

The instructor must design a module that gives opportunities for practice and reflection, not just an objective assessment of learning. This is best implemented along with some form of ‘flipping the classroom.’ More low-level learning happens outside the class environment, allowing higher cognitive learning to take place with their facilitation.

Finally, you have to keep in mind that even an effective modular design for distance learning is dependent on the assumption that students have mastered the tools of learning. See to it that they have ‘learned to learn,’ and they can avoid picking up fragmented knowledge by putting the pieces together as they go.

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