With the Humanizing Online Learning MOOC in full swing, I wanted to dig more into a topic that I tend to allude to at conference presentations. While educators often talk (rightly so) about increasing teaching, social, and cognitive presence, there is also one form of presence that needs to be decreased when designing and teaching courses: design presence.

I’m using “design presence” here to cover a wide range of user interface, instructional design, and learning theory issues. In my mind, there are at least three areas that are heavy on design presence, and therefore design presence needs to be decreased in these areas:

  1. Technological Design Presence: tool/technology interfaces and instructions
  2. Instructional Design Presence: tool and content instructional design decisions
  3. Epistemological Design Presence: underlying learning theory choices

While some might notice there is some overlap with these areas and teacher, social, and cognitive presence, I have found that there are still some differences. Working to decrease design presence also ends up helping to increase teaching, social, and cognitive presence in the long-run.

Technological Design Presence

This is an area where user interface and instructional design collide, and for many courses designers the options are pre-determined by institutional adoptions. However, where choices are allowed, utilizing tools that have the least complex user interface options is ideal. For example, if you really want to use a listserv, but the tool you have to use is complex to sign-up and use, why not use Twitter? The user interface on Twitter is very simple compared to some older mass email tools. If you have to have a really complex set of instructions to use a tool, why not consider using something with less instructions and stress on the learner?

Or if you have a listserv tool that is easier to use than Twitter, why not use that instead of Twitter?

Where there are several options within a tool (like an LMS), why not choose the least confusing, most ready-to-use tool? Newer features in larger LMS tool sets often have a steep learning curve. For example, the blog feature in Blackboard was very confusing when it was first released, and it really worked more as a re-arranged discussion board. If you have to stay within Blackboard, then stick with the tools that take the least amount of time to explain to learners.

Additionally, think about other issues that cause unnecessary technology confusion. Blackboard was infamous for allowing course designers to set-up boxes within boxes within boxes. Avoid using tools and content structures just because you can. Avoid using desktop tools that make no sense online (like “folders” inside of online content). Avoid using complex navigational structures just because you can.

Once learners have to click around a half dozen times just to get somewhere, or dig through complex tool instructions, or spend too much time figuring out what you want them to do, they are running into too much technological design presence. Decrease what you can where you can.

Instructional Design Presence

This next facet has many connections to the first one, so there will probably be some overlap. Many times, course designers will make tool and content design decisions that are unnecessarily complex. For example, complex grading schemes that require dense explanations and calculators to figure out. Why go there? Obviously, there is merit to the idea that grades are problematic altogether, but many instructors are stuck with them. So why make them so complex? Why not just base course grades on a 100 point scale (which most people understand already), and make each assignment a straight portion of that grade. Complex structures based on weighted grades and 556 point scales and what not are a burden for both the instructor and the learner.

Rubrics are also a part of this area. Complex rubrics with too many categories and specific point values are, again, a burden for learners and instructors. Compare the complexity of this rubric with this one. I realize some people like the first one because it has so much detail, but to be honest, it is something most readers aren’t going to read through, because just glancing at it could cause stress.

Or another issue might be design choices that add unnecessary complexity, like having students upload Word docs to discussion forums for class discussion. Why not just use blogs? That is basically what you are doing with Word Docs and discussion forums.

Course designers typically make many choices with tools and content in their courses. Do these choices increase the instructional design presence of those decisions? Or do they decrease the design presence and allow learners to focus on learning rather than figuring out your designs?

Epistemological Design Presence

This area is a bit more difficult to get at, as it probably affects overarching decisions that affect everything in your course. For instance, if you lean more towards instructivism that places yourself at the center of everything in a course, you will probably choose many tools and interfaces that support your instructivist leanings: lecture capture, content heavy videos, long reading assignments, multiple choice tests, etc.

Now, just to point out, I am not a person to bash instructivist lectures across the board no matter what. There are times when learners need a well executed lecture. However, in education, many instructors use lectures too much. They use lectures to fill time when learners should be doing something hands on and/or active. If you are using lectures on video (or textbook readings) when learners should be creating their own knowledge, or applying concepts hands-on, or collaborating in groups, you have increased the epistemological design presence of your preferred learning theory at the expense of what the learners really needed. Time to decrease that facet of design presence.

There are times when learners don’t need to socially connect or listen to lectures, but work on their own. There are times when they need to connect with others rather than work individually. Don’t stick with instructivism or social constructivism or connectivism or any other theory you love just because you like it best. Put the learner first.

But what about the times where learners are at different levels and need different theories? Or, when no one theory fits and it is really up to the learner? I say, give them the choice. Build in multiple pathways for learning in your course. Build in scaffolding for learners to change into different theories. But avoid the mistakes I have made in the past and make sure to decrease the design presence of those options and pathways as much as possible. Don’t focus on the difference between the pathways – just focus on the fact that learners can make the choices they need at any given moment and then show the choices.

Decreasing Design Presence

edugeek-journal-avatarIf you are a good course designer, you probably already know everything I have touched on here. There is nothing new or different about what I am outlining here – this is solid instructional design methodology taught in most instructional design courses or learned on the job. However, it is seldom examined from the angle of decreasing design presence, and since I am one of the “wayfinders” in a course on the Community of Inquiry framework that covers teaching, social, and cognitive presence, I thought it would be a good idea to have a place to point to every time I mention “decreasing design presence.”

(image credit: Human Presence by Manu Mohan)

Matt Crosslin
Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

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