About: After receiving her master's degree at Columbia University in Instructional Design and Technology, Daria Dudenkova has been working as a professional e-learning consultant. She is passionate about creating educational solutions by using instructional design theories and cognitive science findings to improve learning results for social impact projects. She has worked with UNICEF, UNITAR, UNOCT, UNFAO, UNIDO, National Association of Transportation, International Rescue Committee, the New York City government, and Girls Who Code.
What kind of advice would you give EdTech companies?
First of all, thanks for having me. As a consultant, I work a lot with different EdTech startups and services and about 80 percent of them make the same mistake. They treat EdTech as any Tech solution - they put a lot of effort into UX and UI, customer journey, testing, and iterations…. yet they completely ignore how much more complicated the learning process is than just the process of let’s say buying something.
If there is one thing that I would want you to take away from this article is that when you design EdTech products, you must use research about people learn - instructional design theories and neuroscience findings - and base your design decisions on that.
What happens if we don’t follow this advice and design EdTech without instructional design(ID) principles and theories in mind?
Nothing good. Judging from my experience consulting different EdTech companies if they design tools “following their gut” so to speak and not grounding their solutions in research, they will one way or another make a tool nobody will want to use.
There are two reasons for that:
First, they will most likely end up in the “Teaching the Way We Were Taught” pitfall. You will subconsciously make use of activities and mechanics that were comfortable to you simply because they were used on you when you were a student. People tend to teach as they themselves were taught or in a manner that supports their preferred interaction/work style. Almost everyone who has attended high school or college has experienced a common method of instruction that includes the assignment of reading in advance (chapters from a textbook, for example), a presentation by the course instructor, the assignment of a paper that synthesizes the information from the reading and the presentation, and preparation for a test on the same material. There is nothing wrong with these activities; however, they are but a few of many possibilities. As an instructional designer, it is important to think beyond what has worked for you personally and consider what will work best for your target audience.
The second reason is called the “curse of knowledge”. It is a cognitive bias where we incorrectly assume that everyone knows as much as we do on a given topic. When we know something, it can be hard to imagine what it would be like not knowing that piece of information. In turn, this makes it difficult to share our knowledge, because we struggle to understand the other party’s state of mind. It happens in education all the time. While instructors have extensive expertise in their fields, there tends to be a disconnect between what they understand and what their students understand. While expertise in a field can increase instructors’ confidence in their ability to teach, they struggle to deliver the material in a way that fits what their students know.
That makes sense, could you give us some examples of EdTech tools grounded in ID research?
Certainly, I believe that Duolingo is a great example of behaviorist theory.
Remember the teacher who gave you smileys and stars when you answered a question correctly? Or, the one who made you recite important definitions and theorems over and over again, and chided you when you got it wrong? Well, they were both only doing their job! Though their approaches appear distinct, they actually adopted the same school of thought - the behaviorist school. According to the behaviorist theory, learning happens when a specific environmental stimulus elicits a correct response, and the response is reinforced.
Stimulus > Response > Reinforcement
The goal of instruction, as per this theory, is to condition learner behavior to perform specific tasks - hence the name, behaviorist. This school of thought proposes that knowledge and skills be presented sequentially and in a logical order. Thus, the behaviorist teaching-learning professional manipulates behavioral changes through reinforcement techniques, such as rewards and punishments. The learner's role is to passively receive information and practice new behavior until the behavior becomes automatic. Pavlov is most well known for popularizing this school of thought.
Same way Duolingo gives you badges and asks you to repeat simple word combinations again and again until you make no mistakes. It’s a textbook example of behaviorism.
Miro while technically isn’t an EdTech product nevertheless utilizes really well mental models theory (schema). Schemas are categories of information stored in long-term memory. A schema contains groups of linked memories, concepts or words. This grouping of things acts as a cognitive shortcut, making storing new things in your long-term memory and retrieval of them much quicker and more efficient.
For example: If I smell a cake being baked, it reminds me of things I used to do with my grandmother, as we used to bake cakes together. The smell of baking cakes is part of my “grandmother” schema.
When teaching anything whether face to face or online, we constantly need to be building new and updating all schemas. Schemas influence what we pay attention to. People are more likely to pay attention to things that fit in with their current schemas. They also impact how quickly people learn. People also learn information more readily when it fits in with the existing schemas. Schemas can also change how we interpret incoming information. When learning new information that does not fit with existing schemas, people sometimes distort or alter the new information to make it fit with what they already know.
In Miro, students can easily map schemas, which would allow them and their teachers to better comprehend the learning process.
Khan Academy videos are an amazing example of Mayers multimedia learning theory. The theory consists of 12 following principles (out of which Khan Academy videos cover at least 10):
People learn better from words and pictures than from words alone: the Khan Academy videos have cute tiny doodles accompanying different maps and key definitions.
People learn better from new lessons when they have pre-requisite knowledge: the Khan Academy videos cover different knowledge levels.
People learn better when cues that highlight the organization of the essential material are added: the Khan Academy videos very rarely consist of just text, mostly schemes.
4. People learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented near rather than far from each other on the page or screen: checked.
People learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented simultaneously rather than successively: audio narration happens as things are written on the board.
People learn better from a multimedia lesson is presented in user-paced segments rather than as a continuous unit: the videos are usually short - up to 10 mins max.
People learn better from multimedia lessons when words are in conversational style rather than formal style: Salman Khan talks to the listener like he would to his nephew - which is the way the company started.
All in all, I can assure you that any good EdTech solution utilizes ID theories and principles whether you realize it or not. So if you try to make one, you really need to get well acquainted with them.
How about educators? How can they benefit from ID knowledge?
Most certainly. In American schools, they have IDs either as staff or consultants. Let's say students get terrible marks in math - and it's not clear why. The school invites an ID who attends classes, analyzes the learning process, and identifies problems in the selection and application of methods. It may turn out that the teacher does not take into account the current level of knowledge of students, does not work very well with the motivation of children, does not use the most suitable algorithms to explain new topics or develop skills. IDs draw up an action plan to fix the situation, prepare or select didactic materials, educational games or videos that the teacher can use in the classroom.
Can you elaborate more on that?
Of course. There are different theories and principles in ID that cover the following learning aspects:
Student engagement: motivation for learning.
Goals and objectives of training: not only the answer to the question “why?” should be given, but also a certain level of expectations should be formed from the results of the process itself.
Presentation of new material: In our time of abundance of content, information on a variety of topics is bought and sold, so teachers inevitably begin to pay attention to its “packaging”. Content alone is no longer enough: the form of presentation is beginning to play an increasingly important role. Therefore, the content should be not only useful, but also interesting, and it should be presented dynamically and excitingly, helping students to absorb information with pleasure and return for new knowledge. And instructional design just becomes a kind of "marketing" for a modern teacher.
Learning support: making sure that student “digested” received material in stored it safely in long-term memory.
Practice. It is necessary to quickly test it in real conditions linking theory and application of knowledge.
Evaluation of progress and overall evaluation of the effectiveness of the training.
What was it like to be an ID during COVID? Has anything changed?
Oh yes. It was and still is the busiest time of my career. I’m sure your readers have all seen how unengaged children were when online learning started. I wasn’t surprised at all. What happened was teachers simply replicated their face to face classes through zoom or teams… which turn out to be a disaster as we all know, because kids weren’t ready for that. They had less collaboration with classmates, no properly built system of motivation or accountability and poorly designed learning materials.
And don’t get me wrong I’m not blaming teachers at all. They are heroes. I believe that it’s a systemic failure - the classes are too big, amount of paperwork is insane and pay is low. Well, at least in the States.
Nevertheless, fully online American schools had no trouble during the lockdown whatsoever, because quality online education is doable, it just requires a different mindset and tools. And instructional design has to be the foundation of that.
Are there any resources you’d recommend?
Here are my top picks: