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Higher education is in crisis. Only 60 percent of college students complete a degree within six years overall — and the numbers are much worse for non-white and lower-income students.

Fixing that will require a re-imagining of how we educate. “A little saying that I have is ‛an educator’s job is to teach people, not information,’” says Gerard L. Hanley, Ph.D., director of the Center for Usability in Design and Accessibility (CUDA) and professor emeritus of psychology at California State University, Long Beach. “We have to remember it’s the student who is learning.”

Purposeful learning design

The key will be to shift focus to the learner. “Everything we do is anchored in Purposeful Learning Design, an approach we use to ensure instruction is more inclusive and intentional,” says Brett Christie, Ph.D., director of learning design at O’Donnell Learn, a leading learning experience design firm.

Purposeful Learning Design is a framework based on eight learning elements including outcomes-aligned assessments, authentic learning, learner empathy, and equity and inclusion. “A purposeful approach is essential to re-imagining education from the old school ‘chalk-and-talk’ model,” Hanley explains. “You have to understand the people you’re teaching. You have to understand the students’ lives, what their goals are. Thinking that the diversity of your students doesn’t have an impact on your ability to teach them is foolish.”


How purposeful are your learning experiences? Are you fully driving learner success? Are your stakeholders aligned in their understanding of quality learning?


Using what’s known as “backward design,” instructors can focus on creating a social presence for their students, fostering a community of learning where they’re confident their voice will be heard. O’Donnell Learn has worked with academic institutions around the country to help them develop these sorts of communities that focus on the people they’re teaching. This starts with defining the desired learning outcomes students should achieve, and then designing authentic learning experiences to get them there, as well as diverse assessments geared toward individual students to gauge progress.

Experiential learning

An important aspect of this new approach to education is what’s known as experiential learning, where students learn by engaging in activities that are aligned with real-world challenges. Since we learn best as a social group, this requires building a community of learning. “This enables students to work together and be able to engage in assignments and experiences that are more inventive, more real-world based,” says Christie. “This way they can see the meaning in that learning experience and see what it’s going to provide them.”


With empathy for the learner as our launching pad, O’Donnell Learn supports faculty to bring their expertise together with what inspires, excites and engages their learners.


This applies to teachers as well, especially as the number of teachers who leave the profession after just a few years (sometimes after just one year in the classroom) rises. “Teaching is really hard,” Hanley says. “Teachers often feel like ‛I don’t belong, I can’t do this.’ Faculty communities of learning are also very important to help retain teachers.”

Equity is the goal

Ultimately, the end goal is better equity in education. “It’s important to note there is often confusion between equity and equality,” says Hanley. “A lot of times they say, ‛Okay, we’re going to be fair, by doing the same thing for everyone,’ even though they’re all different. But that’s actually ensuring discrimination in the learning assessment because you are ensuring that some people will not have the aligned contextualization for what you’re testing. Some people will be advantaged.”

“The key to equity in education is, again, making things more learner-centric,” says Christie. “Instructors creating a more welcoming course introduction, a more welcoming syllabus, having an inclusivity statement, [and] performing a learner connectedness survey at the beginning of their course helps them to adapt and adopt and think through a more inclusive mindset.”

As Christie notes, all of this starts in classrooms, whether virtual or physical. “We can’t expect diversity, equity, and inclusion to happen through an office,” he says. “Inclusivity has to happen more effectively in the classroom because that’s where students spend the majority of their time.”

To learn more about learning design, visit https://www.odlearn.com/.


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