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Virtual Virtuoso: Optimal user experience features for e-learning

Whether you’re an experienced educator or a parent struggling to adjust to remote learning in the face of the national lockdown, chances are good that you’re looking for ideas to help your student, or students, thrive in the unfamiliar world of the virtual classroom.

And it doesn’t much matter if the classroom is your second home, or if you haven’t stepped foot inside of a school for decades. We’re all feeling out of our depth right now as we contend with the fear of the virus, the anxiety of an economic shutdown, and, now, the virtual remaking (pun intended) of our education system.

Why user experience matters

If this spring semester of impromptu remote learning has taught us anything, it’s that not everyone takes immediately to online learning. That’s as true for parents and teachers as it is for students. Studies show that this largely unwanted national experiment in widespread distance education has not been very successful thus far, with schools across the US reporting rampant online absenteeism, and mounting frustration and discouragement among students, parents, and teachers alike.

Nevertheless, as virus rates continue to surge in many parts of the US and more and more schools are choosing to keep their buildings shuttered through at least the first half of the fall semester, it looks as though distance learning may be here to stay for a while.

But there’s no reason to despair. There’s no cause to give up our children’s education for lost. Whether you are a teacher, a parent, or a curriculum developer or instructional designer, some things can be done right now to make distance learning not only educational but fun and engaging.

Read more: Distance learning during the pandemic: Improvise. Adapt. Overcome!

Anyone who has studied software development knows that the key to user engagement and satisfaction is UX, the user experience.

The reality is that, when it comes to user experience, different students will have different needs. The key is to learn what works best for each of them. From there, you can marshal the vast potential of technology to create an online learning environment and digital learning content precisely tailored to each student’s needs and interests. And that’s going to make online learning not only effective but irresistible to your students.

Use customization and gamification

By far your best strategy for optimizing your students’ online learning experience is to make it personal and make it fun. Look for online tools, games, platforms, and apps that allow your students to play — and learn while they’re doing it.

If you have been working with the class for a while, then you probably already have a strong sense of each students’ particular strengths, challenges, and interests. If the class is new to you, then you might take a bit of time at the beginning of the semester to get to know each student by administering surveys or creating your own brief questionnaires.

Armed with this knowledge about each of your students, you can begin offering learning content that will be both appealing and useful for the student.

Have a student who struggles with math? With a quick internet search, you can find a host of free online games featuring unicorn characters, such as the famous Maxine the Unicorn.

And the possibilities for customization and gamification don’t end with very young learners and lower grades. There are entire libraries of free and low-cost apps to help students master more challenging content and develop higher-order skills. Again, a quick internet search can connect you to a range of engaging interactive tools to help students of every age and academic proficiency cultivate their critical thinking skills or to build content knowledge in nearly every subject, from English and History to Math and Science.

Read more: 14 Awesome examples of Critical Thinking edtech

Additionally, online platforms make sharing resources a snap. With a simple online search, you can cull materials from other educators and share your own.

Not only that but if you want to go all-in, you can even learn to build your own apps. In fact, in a matter of months, you can become a certified web and mobile applications developer, equipped with the tools you need to build exactly the online learning tools your student(s) need and want.

Use social media and class message boards

Chances are good that these newly remote learners have pretty extensive experience with social media. Take advantage of students’ social media expertise to build a “virtual classroom” connected to media platforms. Set up private social media pages across various platforms just for students and teachers in a particular class.

Take care, though, to ensure that social media pages and online message boards are secure and accessible only to your class (and your students’ parents). Be careful, however, to establish and model appropriate conduct for using the class’s social media pages, including setting age and grade-appropriate boundaries for acceptable language and content. Likewise, use each platforms’ security settings to protect your and your students’ privacy.

At the same time, allow your students a bit more leeway to engage and to “play” on the class’s social media pages than might be acceptable in more formal online learning platforms, such as pages for posting online discussion assignments. Think of your class’s social media pages as providing the opportunity and forum for the same kind of casual interactions they would have at lunch and recess or between classes.

Giving students such a forum is key because social isolation is an especially significant problem now that the lockdown has also required us to cut out so many of the extracurricular and social activities we used to rely on.

This is a perfect way to keep students connected, interested, and engaged. It’s also going to restore a sense of normalcy for the students, while helping you, as a teacher, parent, or both, to keep your finger on the pulse of the class as a whole.

Read more: Exploring new ideas and skills in the summer

The takeaway

Right now, the thought of extending online learning into the fall semester probably seems more like punishment than protection. But it does not have to be that way. Whether you’re charged with supporting the learning of one online student or many, there is a way to make distance education not only effective but addictive. The key is to optimize the user experience, using gamification, social media, and customized content and interfaces to make distance learning fun.

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