How Much Is Too Much?: A Look at Tool Use in an Online Course

Woman surrounded by coffee, tablet, computer with video playing, notebooks and office supplies while taking notes.

We’ve all done it. A new tool gets introduced, and we find several ways it can be applicable to the lessons we teach all in the pursuit of making sure the ways we present information to our students are relevant, interesting, efficient, and current. But is this actually helpful? Do our students get a better experience when we introduce the latest programs, software, and technologies? 

Valuing learning over tools

In an effort to be on trend, we sometimes fall into a trap of tool overload. We introduce several tools when designing a course believing these new technologies will deliver more value to students because of how technologically advanced they are. In reality, we may end up losing student interest because they have to shift their focus to learning the tool instead of the content they are supposed to be absorbing. This cycle often leaves students frustrated and confused.

On the flip side, we might avoid new tools. The programs, software, and technologies we already use worked in the past. Why make the content more complicated than before? We err on the side of caution—using familiar patterns and tools removes the strain for us and the student doesn’t have to invest mental capacities in learning a new tool. However, this mentality makes our designs stagnant. We end up with an out-of-date course that doesn’t push students to greater levels of understanding and applicability, potentially leaving them feeling the class wasn’t worth the time and effort. 

No matter what side you lean toward, this debate is difficult to answer and doesn’t have a clear conclusion for all learning environments. Many variables impact the decision of which tool(s) to implement in a course including modality, student demographic, instructor, organization, course objectives, etc. Today, let’s look at what we need to be aware of to make the best decision for the students and the learning space being designed.

Choosing the right tool

Extensive research on the brain and learning process reveals both internal and external factors constrain the ability for the learner to absorb new content. We also need to pay attention to the presentation of information and avoid creating too many forms of presentation for the information. All of this can be tied back to a concept called Cognitive Load Theory (read more in the article Cognitive Load Theory (John Sweller). The tools we choose to use in a course should be entirely based on what is necessary for the students’ success. Depending on the curriculum content, learning outcomes, and the length of your course, the number of tools implemented may also vary.  

Overall, when it comes to choosing the right tool(s), you should start by asking yourself a few key questions for how to proceed:

1) What is the added benefit/value of the tool? Is it necessary to meet the objectives of the course and assignment?

Of all the questions in this list, this one is the most important when it comes to implementing tools in your course. At the end of the day, your course is designed based on the learning outcomes and objectives. Is the tool you picked necessary to meet these objectives? Do it align or deter with the overall learning goals? 

2) Will students have to learn how to use the tool or are they already familiar with it?

Today, you’ll find students may already be aware of or actively using many programs, software , and technologies. Deducing if your students may already have access to the program, software, or technology or how familiar they are with the one you chose will help determine if it’s a good fit in your course curriculum. 

3) How long is the course and how many tools do students need to learn specifically for this course?

Based on the material and time frame of the course, you’ll want to determine how many tools are currently being used in your course. If you have a lot or they are overly complicated, you might find the potential for tool overload. If students constantly have to constantly learn a new tool, it will distract from the content more than improve it—with a higher probability of frustration for all involved. 

4) If the tool is new, do you have access to an existing tool that students know and can use instead?

Investigate what your organization already has available before adding new tools. Often, they already have programs, software, and technology that the students may already understand which would serve the same general purpose as the new tool you’re considering. 

5) Can you offer options for the tools students will use?

When it comes to assignments and learning environments, one of the best things we can do for students is offer options. By doing this, we are delving into a concept called Universal Design for Learning (UDL)—a framework for course design that encourages content to be personalized to the various students’ learning needs whether or not they identify with the need for accommodations. A new tool could be one of a few options you give students for completing the assignment. That way if they want to learn and use the tool, they can. However, if students feel they do not have the bandwidth to try a new tool, they can pick an alternative option. UDL may appear complicated, but it is in essence, student centered design and worth investigating. I covered UDL in The Brains Behind Assessment, and you can also learn more about it in Tara’s An Overview of Universal Design for Learning.

Overall, by keeping these questions in the forefront of the course design process, we can prevent students from feeling overwhelmed by the tools and create positive learning environments. Integrating tools into your curriculum can be a beneficial learning strategy, but it must be done with intentional forethought and planning so that students can have the best learning experience possible. As a result, the student will retain the information needed rather than be distracted from the course learning outcomes and objectives. 

Author: Jessica Pierce, Instructional Designer

Jess enjoys the science behind learning and cognition and how it applies in multiple modalities, including eLearning. In the off hours, she likes spending time with her husband and three kids, going out for coffee, or running the occasional road race for the “free” shirt (to counteract the caffeine).

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