Graduate School, Professional Journey

What Happens Before the Learning Happens

In my first teaching job, I didn’t have a lot to work with. I didn’t have a curriculum, a textbook, or specific learning goals to work towards. I didn’t have access to a resource library. On some days, I didn’t even have a classroom. My entire job description was, “Teach them English.” I spent hours every night pulling lesson plans out of thin air for the next day, only to end up improvising half of every class. It was tough. In subsequent teaching jobs I usually had a little more to work with, but the experience of being a novice teacher with almost no resources stuck with me. Even after leaving the classroom, it still informs my approach to developing educational content.

I often describe my professional interests as “everything that happens before the first class convenes.” By this I mean that my goal is to ensure that teachers and learners have the tools and the confidence needed for teaching and learning to happen when they get to class. I’ve mostly thought about this in terms of face-to-face teaching, but I’ve recently begun to consider what this idea means for eLearning and instructional design. What does “before the first class convenes” mean when teachers and learners don’t convene in a classroom? What happens before students log on for the first time? What happens before the learning happens?

There may not be a classroom, but a lot of the tools that teachers and learners need are similar. They include strong curricula, quality materials, a suitable learning environment, and robust teacher training and supports. The instructional designer plays an important role in making sure these tools are in place.

To start, he or she is responsible for planning a strong curriculum and creating engaging and relevant materials. Well before learners log on for the first time, the instructional designer makes decisions about content, activities, and assessments. These decisions will play an important role in teaching and learning.

Other elements of “before the first class convenes” can be challenging to translate from face-to-face to remote contexts. For example, how do you think about setting up your classroom when there is no classroom? Well, there may not be a physical classroom, but there’s still a learning environment that can be either welcoming or intimidating. In a classroom, seating arrangements and decorations contribute to a welcoming atmosphere. Likewise design and layout contribute immensely to a welcoming—or not-so-welcoming—online learning environment. The instructional designer’s decisions about how to organize and present content will determine what learners see the first time they log on and may influence their learning throughout the course.

One last piece of what happens before the learning happens involves preparing both students and teachers for learning online. During the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers and students were uprooted from their classrooms and thrust into online teaching, often for the first time and with little guidance or preparation. Many teachers struggled with using technology and translating classroom lesson plans into a remote context. Many students struggled just to access their schoolwork. So preparation is clearly every bit as important online as it is in the classroom. Again, the instructional designer has a role to play in making sure that the course design includes robust teacher supports. Students too, need clear guidance and signposting on what to do and how to do it. It’s important to plan for challenges such as limited internet access by providing activities that learners can do off line. Again, these decisions are often made well before students log on for the first time, but they can have a profound impact on the quality of learning once the course starts.

Teaching is a hard job, but high-quality curricula, materials, training, and preparation can make it so much easier and more enjoyable, both for the teacher and the students. What happens before the learning happens can have a profound impact. This is every bit as true when teaching remotely as it is when teaching face to face.

Feature photo by Charisse Kenion on Unsplash.