Episode 123 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with Jenae Cohn, Ph.D. Jenae is the Executive Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at UC Berkeley. Along with Michael Greer, she recently published Design for Learning, a book about how to teach better using technology, and what online teachers and instructors can learn from UX designers.

Teaching online isn’t the same as teaching in a physical space. You can’t design an online learning experience like you do one meant to be taught in a physical space. For one thing, physical space comes with a particular context that sets learner expectations. Such context isn’t a given online; it’s up to the instructor to design it. As Jenae put it,

The metaphor I also like to use for this is when you teach in a classroom – in an embodied space – the space is really already designed for you. You might have chairs bolted to the ground; you’re going to have tables. There’s very clear expectations based on the design of the space for where students go – for where the teacher goes – that creates certain kinds of limitations and confinements for how you teach. When you’re online, there are no tables, there are no chairs. You get to build those yourselves and online learning designers are in a position quite like user experience designers to really be thinking about, what are the roles you need people to play when they’re interacting with each other? What kinds of design decisions need to inform the ideal types of interactions you want people to have?

The COVID pandemic greatly increased the amount of “teaching” happening online. I use the word in quotes because, as Jenae pointed out, some of what actually happens when people try to teach online falls short of the mark:

I think what the sort of mass remote learning experience – the pandemic – perhaps exposed to folks was the need to actually create more navigable infrastructure for kind of connecting all the pieces around digital courseware. When most folks think of online learning, they will think of one of two things. One, they’ll think of some really boring set of like videos they have to watch and click through. This is like “the playlist” model of learning, like they’ve got to watch a million videos and then take a quiz after each video, and like that’s their quote unquote course. And you do it as quickly as possible because it’s really boring and it’s a compliance oriented exercise.

What you need to do is thing holistically and intentionally not just about the material you’re teaching, but the experience you want to enable and the type of environment required to host it:

part of what Michael and I want to talk about in our book is how you create more cohesion across the different infrastructures you may be using for your course: how you signal that more explicitly in your design so you don’t feel like you’re just moving from the disparate spaces of a video call to a learning management system to, I don’t know, a word processor, if you’re using that to compose. Or whatever kind of set of tools and software you’re using, but to really think intentionally about, like, what is your sort of your hub? What is your home space for connecting your learners to the variety of spaces and help them understand why they might be convening in real time? Why they’re going to have to do certain kinds of assignments. Why they’re moving from one activity to the next. All that intentionality can be built.

How do you do this? In the podcast (and in the book) Jenae described a “learning design process” that approaches structuring online learning experiences as a design practice — “as a designer, you just have to weigh your options, acknowledge what’s happening, and try to be as people-centric as you possibly can.”

This practice focuses on understanding learner needs and expectations plus the material being taught, and designing means for learners to find their paths to knowledge. As I pointed out during the conversation, this sounds a lot like information architecture.

I’ve taught online to varying degrees of success, and reading Jenae and Michael’s book could’ve saved me and my students lots of time. If you’re looking to lead any kind of teaching experience online, it behooves you to listen to this conversation and check out Design for Learning.

The Informed Life episode 123: Jenae Cohn on Design for Learning