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Developing digital learning experiences

Over the past decade, digital textbooks have become the norm in many college classrooms. That may sound like progress, but there’s an issue: moving content onto a digital platform only solves the problem of the medium of delivery. It doesn’t inherently change the teaching or learning experience. Making something digital does not aloneserve the needs of today’s students and, in fact, challenges arise because there is no simple one-to-one correlation between the print and digital experience. In order to build content for digital delivery we need to be intentional about what we are building, why we are building it and how we are building it. Great digital learning experiences are intentional.

When we think about intentional digital content development, there are a lot of areas we could focus on. For now we’ll focus on 3 primary issues: intentional interactions, inclusivity and representation, and accessibility.

 1. Intentional Interactions
Interactive touchpoints that foster active learning are critical when building content for digital delivery.  As we know, research has indicated that students learn, understand and retain best when they actively engage in the learning process.

There are three types of intentional interactions that promote learning, understanding and engagement: student to content, student to student, and student to instructor. As textbook authors, the most obvious opportunity to create interactions is with student to content.

As you are considering opportunities for student to content interactions, you should ask the question “What is the problem I’m trying to solve.” For instance, is this a math course and the student needs to practice solving problems immediately after learning a new concept? Then perhaps inline, formative assessment with immediate feedback is the most effective. Or perhaps you write a biology text and can provide 3 dimensional images of internal organs. Or maybe you write a communications book and can now have students critique videos of speeches – something that wasn’t possible in print!

The point is, the opportunities for engagement with the material expand greatly with digital tools and your job as an author is to make intentional choices based on the specific learning needs of that course.

2. Represent all students in your course materials
When students see themselves and their unique lived experiences in your material, they’re more likely to be invested in the course and to retain. As authors you should strive to be as inclusive as possible.  As authors you can help students by ensuring your content is diverse and inclusive. For instance, in your examples  you may swap out any overused names and instead add in names that are representative of other cultures. You should avoid or explain any culturally-specific examples that may not be familiar to students from different backgrounds. You may consider more diverse voices when choosing references or referring to other authors.

Of course, as individual authors you can strive for diversity in your content, but you can’t possibly be representative of the students in a specific class across the country. But today some digital courseware gives instructors the opportunity to add specifically representative content into your text book by embedding or linking to videos and in some cases replacing or adding new content that may be more reflective of their students.  Here you may want to offer teaching tips identifying  opportunities in your text for instructors to bring videos or examples  that are more reflective of THEIR students.

3. Accessibility
As providers of learning materials we have an obligation to ensure that our content is accessible to all learners. With digital there is both more opportunity to do so and more complexity.

Accessible content considers the needs of users with varying degrees of sensory, mobility, and cognitive function.  There are five main categories to consider when making your text accessible: text, images, tables, videos, and questions. For now we’ll focus on images.

When creating accessible images you should include alternative text for any image that is not purely decorative. Alternative text is a  description that is hidden until a  blind or visually impaired reader encounters an image while using their screen reader, which reads the description to them.

In addition, images should be checked for contrast using a contrast checker such as TPGi  to ensure there is a 4:5:1 contrast ratio with the background. If you have used color to deliver meaning, add labels to distinguish between elements, and use patterns to distinguish coloured lines or coloured shapes where the color has meaning.

As authors and educators experience the new pedagogical opportunities made available through digital textbooks, they will begin to create even more ways to enhance the learning experience for students and make knowledge assessment more efficient for teachers. There are tools available that can help create intentional interactions, enable faculty to make the material more representative of their students and ensure that all students have equal access to learning. By committing to the intentional development of digital learning materials you can deliver the next generation of impactful learning experiences.

Donna BattistaAs Top Hat’s head of Content, Donna Battista is responsible for the strategic vision and execution of the content go-to-market with a focus on growing the content business into a leading provider of affordable and engaging courseware in key disciplines.  Donna has 20 years of experience leading content and product development in higher education, and led the creation, development, launch and growth of the Business MyLabs, the leading courseware solution in the business and economics disciplines. Donna’s previous experience includes Vice President of Business, Economics and the UK Global Publishing division at Pearson and Vice President of Product for the education vertical at Burning Glass.