eLearning Past, Present, and Future (2011-2021): A Conversation about Trends in eLearning, Instructional Design, and Online Learning

In May 2011, I graduated from high school. In June, before I started college, I walked into my first group interview. While I had never heard of eLearning or instructional design, I was still intrigued. Dave Goodrich, one of my high school science teachers, now worked at Spring Arbor University (SAU) as an instructional designer. He believed in my potential and said this student worker job could last throughout my undergraduate career if I wanted. 

I met Dave, Tara McCoy , and a couple others from what was formerly the Office of Academic Technology (OAT) outside a coffee shop. When I was hired on the spot, I had no idea what I was getting into or how this field and career would help me as a student and as a professor. 

Ten years later, I am a full-time Instructional Designer. Tara leads our team at SAU and Dave is an Instructional Designer at Michigan State University (MSU). To commemorate my anniversary, I had a conversation with Tara and Dave about trends in eLearning, instructional design, and online education in the last 10 years. We still share a lot of the same goals and passions for creating effective and engaging learning experiences for students and faculty, which you’ll discover as you listen in on our conversation. 

Ann: So, I’m really excited! I wanted to do something special for my 10-year anniversary and have a conversation with you guys, since you were in the original group that hired me. I’d like to talk about things we worked on 10 years ago, how that’s shifted [in the] present, and then look to the future of eLearning, instructional design, and online education. 

Tara: First, I want to poke Dave to see if he remembers what we worked on 10 years ago. Dave was finishing his Masters and trying different technologies to help with assignments in his classes. 

Dave: Yeah. Oh man, such fond memories, you know? It’s hard to believe too. Ten years ago? 

Ann: Right? 

Dave: That’s just wild! Tara was showing me the ropes of instructional design. It was a new and fascinating field for me. I was learning a lot in my Masters program and able to practice while I was learning at the same time, which was awesome. 

Tara: Yep. 

Dave: Specifically, I remember helping [with] the TESOL Masters program (Teaching English as a Second Language). Getting that launched was a fun undertaking. I glanced on the website and it looks like it’s still rockin’ and rollin’ these days, that was cool to see. And I remember our visit to Menlo Innovations in Ann Arbor. 

Tara: Oh yes! 

Dave: And thinking about project management in an analog way for our work in instructional design was a fascinating endeavor as a team. 

Tara: And during that time, because we were OAT, not eLearning, we used to have OAT Meals.

Dave: Oh yeah!    

Tara: We didn’t only do instructional design—we actually did instructional technology [too]. We tested different technology tools. Faculty would walk into our area and say, “Let’s do this.” And in our OAT Meals, we would say, ”Oh these are ways you can integrate technology tools in your face-to-face classroom teaching.” 

We also visited the DIA [Detroit Institute of Arts]. That informed our design sort of similar to how Menlo did. Randy Meredith, our former director, wanted us to think outside of the box. He was really good at looking at how overall design helps you creatively as an instructional designer.

And then we did the weekly meetings where we read articles. We would sit together and talk about [an article] and then other people would say, “Oh yeah I did that or something similar when I worked with that,” or “I see how I can do that when I’m working with that.” And then Randy or Nate or Dave would draw on that whiteboard.  

Dave:  Yeah, and we went around to the different sites to do some training with faculty. Those were always fun trips too.  

Tara: Yep. 

Ann: Have your priorities remained the same or shifted when it comes to training or working with faculty? 

Dave: For me, there’s been an expanding emphasis in my work on the importance of accessibility. That was always an important aspect, but it’s just continually become more and more important. Nate Evans used to work in OAT at the time too. He’s since helped develop a whole office focused around accessibility at Michigan State, which has been really really good and exciting and helpful for students in lots of different ways. 

Tara: I would echo what Dave said. I’ve always liked to look at design from a universal design for learning (UDL) standpoint. If you have good design principles, they are going to be sustainable whether it’s 10 years ago, the present, or 10 years into the future. If you have good, solid foundational design principles they’ll be sustainable. That’s been my model—sustainability.

I’ve been preaching accessibility for a long time. I’m very very happy, as Dave said, that it’s come to the forefront over the years. It’s just more universally accepted that everyone should be doing accessibility. So accessibility, universal design, and my other focus is open educational resources.

Ann: Yeah, I think it’s cool that your focus, Dave, and ours meld together, or at least that they’ve shifted similarly in the past few years. I’ve noticed that [accessibility is] something that wasn’t even on my radar when I was a student worker, maybe a little bit more when I [started working] part-time. Now that I’m a full-time Instructional Designer, it’s something I’ve become fully aware of. You’ve made it your mission Tara to share that with the rest of us. We have permeated that into everything we do. It’s cool that it’s already so evident in so much of what we’re doing with our syllabi, and with our programs, and with our courses. One of the keys to faculty training is making them more aware of something like accessibility. [Then] they’re like “Oh this is different. How can I do more of this?” 

Tara: It’s that level of awareness beforehand. [Then] when you bring it to faculty’s attention, they want to become more informed. Even if another group has the responsibility of doing the work, now you have [more] people that want to be educated, and that’s great! 

Ann: When it comes to designing an online learning experience, how has your design process shifted, if at all, in the last 10 years? 

Dave: For me, there’s been more emphasis around mapping courses to help the planning and development of content and assessments. We did a curriculum redesign with the [MSU] College of Veterinary Science recently. They were doing competency-based instruction and were told to rethink their entire curriculum. The goal was to make things interdisciplinary and more focused on those competencies. We did a lot of work to map the curriculum at large as well as individual courses. We used multiple different tools to help us. A tool called CourseTune was just coming on the map. We helped them to develop their tool as they helped us think of new ways to map the curriculum. 

In the past, I’ve been a lot more tool focused. It’s not that tools aren’t useful. The focus has shifted to the people involved, the humanized experience, and the learning experience itself. 

I follow this podcast with Tim Green and Abbie Brown called Trends & Issues in Higher Education. It’s been interesting over the past 10 years listening to them and seeing how things come and go and then come back in terms of tools and stuff like that. 

I also just started reading Super Courses: The Future of Teaching and Learning by Ken Bain. Ken suggests the strongest influence comes from research on human learning itself. And I think that statement that he made about the focus on human learning being the driving force of the change he’d like to see—and I’d like to see—in higher education is a continued focus for me over the past 10 years of being in this field. I’m sure it will continue for years to come. 

Tara: I’ve always been focused on the learner’s experience. In the past, I did backwards design more. And to some extent, I still say, “What’s the learning outcome of the course?,” and then go backwards. But now I say, “How can we make the best learning experience for this course and for the users?” I make sure we have enough self-reflective elements involved in a course so students can self-assess their learning throughout the course. My goal is to make sure that the learning experience for that student is personalized. That’s hard, but it goes back to universal design. How can we make sure we design in a way that everyone gets the best learning experience from each course? 

Ann: I haven’t had a chance to work with many new programs yet, but being both an online student and an instructional designer gives me a huge advantage of melding what you’re saying together—the humanization piece. 

There’s humans on the other side of the screen who are learning, who have crazy lives, who wanna get a degree. But sometimes it’s just so exhausting. That’s why you bring in the learner experience and universal design. It’s like, “Okay, how do we still cover everything, but also make it so it’s not like everyone’s drowning at the end of the semester?” 

So, let’s shift gears and look at the future. The first area focuses on the COVID-19 pandemic. How has the pandemic affected the way you: 

  • View eLearning, instructional design, and online education?, 
  • Design learning experiences, and/or 
  • Collaborate with colleagues and faculty? 

Tara: I’ll go first. The pandemic enabled educators the ability to recognize the value of integrating eLearning and instructional technology within their classroom environments. Face-to-face faculty can integrate a virtual and web enhanced component within their classrooms and offer students a great learning experience.

Dave: Yeah, for sure. I agree with your points about how learning experience design, as a result of the pandemic especially, is becoming more important than ever. The pandemic has made me a little more sensitive to those who are in these environments that hadn’t planned to be at all. It’s also helped me to be more attuned to the added challenges this time caused for people I collaborate with like colleagues, faculty, and other staff members. They contributed in a very fast-paced way to the needs that arose. At MSU, everybody kind of jumped in and helped out in an enormous way through the pandemic to help get everybody online. And you know, things weren’t perfect, lots of things happened really really fast. But it was pretty astounding and memorable what folks pulled off. 

Ann: What do you think the focus of eLearning and instructional design should be in the next 5-10 years? Are we already seeing this trend? 

Dave: I would echo Tara’s previous comments about a shift from a focus on the design of instruction to the design of the experience of learning for students. The shift is happening in the field in part influenced by different fields and schools of thought. 

It’s really important for us to integrate student voices into curricular efforts and the design of courses in ways we haven’t really done before. We’re gonna see a lot more of that and a focus on the learning sciences with mental health and wellbeing being more prominent in the learning and design experience.

Tara: I most definitely agree with Dave. The challenge will be, “How do you integrate the student voices in a timely fashion?” So often, when we get feedback on what students think, it’s based on the evaluations. How do you integrate it or get a chance to connect with programs and say, “How do I get a group of these students to help speak further into the design process?” This is a challenge right now and [it] will need to be worked out further. 

Artificial intelligence (AI) could possibly identify these situations as a trigger, turn them around quick, and then streamline a lot of it. These systems aren’t designed yet, but in the near future these kinds of things can happen. Until then, we’re dependent on manual processes. 

So Ann, do you have any takeaways?

Ann: I obviously agree with what both of you said. Student voices are so important. They play a role in how we design and what curriculum is taught. So often it’s about bringing that awareness to the forefront, like we [said] earlier [about] accessibility. 

One of the biggest things going forward, in addition to getting more of a student voice, is training the faculty to design for that learning experience. To say, “Here’s a way you can design so students won’t only retain that information, they’ll actually enjoy learning it.” And [students will] say, “I not only enjoyed my class, but I’m also able to apply it. I actually remember it because I enjoyed doing it.” It should be, “How can we work together to provide the best learning experience?” 

Like Tara said, it’s a slow starting process. It’s kind of shifting that way, especially because of the pandemic. A marriage of those two should be where the trend goes. 

Tara: A lot of that will be based on when your program can drive that, set the expectation, and fully support it. It’ll be a slow process, but you’ll start seeing the shift in the support for faculty teaching. What you’re speaking to is universal design for teaching for different learners, how different learners learn, and how they can receive content to retain it and learn overall. But I like it! 

Ann: Thanks! 

Tara: I’m all for it! With content overload, some people say, “I didn’t learn anything!” Well you probably learned something, but you didn’t retain it. 

Ann: As much as you wanted too. 

Tara: Right. That’s the power of committees too. So Ann, get the PhD, get on Faculty Development or [another] committee, and drive it!           

Ann: I will do my best! Thank you so much! This was so good! It was so great to see both of you. Thank you again for everything you’ve done to pour into me as an ID. I appreciate it so much! 

Dave: Thank you so much! It’s so great to see you both! 

Tara: Thank you Ann!   

One thing that has remained consistent in my time in eLearning and instructional design is the purpose: designing learning experiences for students. Whether I’m conversing with a SME or program director about revising a course, responding to a help desk ticket, collaborating with my team, or putting a new course together from scratch, every single component of my job is about the students. 

Despite the ever-changing trends, we need to continue to return to the main purpose of why we design the way we do. Instructional designers should always remember the person on the other side of the screen as they create an accessible, universally designed learning experience that will not only engage students, but also help them retain the information long after the class ends.  

Author: Ann Broda, Instructional Designer

Ann is pursuing her PhD in Communication through Regent University and also teaches speech online at Olivet Nazarene University. In her free time she enjoys spending time with family and friends, participating in theatre, drinking coffee, biking, traveling, and reading.

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