The Accidental Evangelist

Or how I learned to stop worrying and embrace instructional design.

This is the story of how I stopped squinting suspiciously at educational technology and grasped the full potential of a thoughtfully-designed learning experience. I had spent years doing educational development and curriculum design. I had a reasonably robust Canvas presence (certainly all of my assignments were submitted and graded via Canvas), and I had some experience doing screencasting (or recording my voice over my Powerpoint slides) to replace class sessions lost to inclement weather. But then something happened that helped me discover an unanticipated affinity for learning experience design.

When my university launched a new Teaching and Learning Center under my supervision, our Instructional Design team was brought under the umbrella of that center. Through our weekly update meetings, I learned best practices and design principles, which I began incorporating into my own courses and the curriculum for which I was responsible.

In 2018-2019, impressed by the clarity offered by the team’s online course template, I created Canvas blueprints for the flagship courses of the Summit Program, an academic support program for incoming students who were identified as “at risk” for a rough transition from high school to college. The blueprint incorporated Canvas’s “module” functionality. Modules are pathways through a course that help students grasp the sequence of course materials and assignments. Even in our face-to-face Summit courses, that additional structure turned out to make a huge difference.

The Fall course blueprint was designed around weekly modules. Each week’s readings, videos, and assignments were bundled into a separate module page, along with a brief overview linking the current week’s material to previous weeks. The added structured made an immediate difference not just in student compliance with deadlines, but in their grasp of key course concepts. The Spring blueprint used thematic modules (“Unit 1,” “Unit 2,” etc.) rather than weekly ones, but had a similar impact on student uptake and assignment completion.

In our faculty meetings, we discussed how improbable it seemed. After all, I had “only” arranged our existing material in a more intuitive way and added a mere handful of sentences to each module to spell out the linkages that we had always spent class time hashing through. And yet: the effect was undeniable.

I began to wonder: if my redesign could contribute to deepened learning for the University’s most vulnerable students, what could we accomplish through widespread, intentional adoption of thoughtful, effective visual design coupled with technologically-mediated, but authentic “presence”?

I know, I know. You’re skeptical. I get it. I’m an over-enthusiastic near-digital-native with a tendency to exaggerate.

So, I’ll make you a deal: If you promise to stay open-minded about the possibility that digital engagement can enrich your courses (including your non-pandemic, face-to-face courses), I promise to show you what’s possible with as little jargon and as much step-by-step instruction as possible. Deal? Deal.

Published by Jaime Lynn Longo

I am a composition scholar, an educational developer, a practitioner of transformative education both in and out of the classroom, and an accidental instructional design evangelist.

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