Backward Design is Even More Critical in Online Learning

Empiricism – this blog – builds upon three foundational principles for designing effective and engaging online learning experiences. To quickly recap, those principles are:

  1. Focus on outcomes, not inputs. 
  2. Meet learners where they are, not where you want them to be. 
  3. Design learning experiences based on how people learn, not how you want them to learn. 

You can read elsewhere about the latter two principles: meeting learners where they are and evidence-based principles for online health professional education. My goal in this post is to take a closer look at the first principle. Why do we need to focus on outcomes, and what are the advantages of this approach?

Focus on Outcomes Through Backward Design

In education-speak, “backward design” is the approach we use to design learning experiences that are outcomes-focused. The premise behind backward design is pretty simple: to have the best chance of achieving the outcomes you want for your learners, you’ve first got to be completely clear about what those outcomes are. This approach is often contrasted with the traditional “forward” design method, in which we start by building teaching activities. Backward design doesn’t have any one universal definition, but one of the more common models is “understanding by design,” which outlines a three-part process:

  1. Define your learning objectives (what you want your learners to learn)
  2. Determine acceptable evidence of learning (often this evidence comes in the form of some type of assessment)
  3. Design learning experiences that align with your objectives and this evidence of learning

Notice that this framework prioritizes evidence. It’s a key part of the model; this reminds me of our null hypothesis of online learning: you simply can’t afford to assume that learning is happening. As Reagan might say: “trust, but verify.” Evidence of learning is typically an assessment that gives us a clear benchmark. We can use this evidence to guide targeted redesign and improvement of the learning experience, to intervene in a way that supports struggling learners, or both!

I like backward design because it’s a clear way to build intentionality into the process of developing an online learning experience. It pushes us to ask questions such as: “does this activity really help my students work towards the learning objectives?” With backward design, we’re encouraged to streamline, simplify, and focus. So backward design passes the sniff test – it makes a lot of logical sense – but it is also supported by empirical research. One study indicates that teachers who learn about the backward design process develop curriculum materials that are of higher quality in a multitude of different ways. More recent work suggests that revamping a traditional course using backward design reduces dropout and failure rates and leads to better outcomes for students who are members of underrepresented minority groups. Though there isn’t enough rigorous research that compares backward design with other curriculum development approaches, I’m encouraged by the evidence available to us: backward design probably has more benefits than downsides.

Take Another Step Back

Backward design comes from a “traditional” academic background: most prototyping and testing of it happens in formal educational settings (such as K-12 schools and post-secondary institutions). That doesn’t mean that it isn’t useful outside of academia, but I believe that backward design simply isn’t enough on its own. To be sure that it works outside of formal education, we have to extend the model a bit further. In academia, we tend to take our audience for granted. We start with “what do I want them to learn?” rather than “why would they want to learn?” In adult education and online education – particularly outside of credit-bearing and degree-granting situations – we have to work harder to understand our learners and meet their needs. 

In other words, we have to start by defining our audience as a new first step in the backward design process. The subsequent steps remain the same, but as we move through those steps, we have to continually ask: “how is this relevant and useful to my audience?” We know how hard it is to engage and retain learners online. Getting clear on who you want to reach, and carefully considering their incentives and motivations, can help make those challenges a bit more surmountable.

Learning is a Process, Not an End-State

Though backward design emphasizes outcomes, at its core it is about stacking the deck in favor of learning. If you choose to embark on a backward design journey, remember to think of learning as a process rather than an end-state. This is simply another tool for you to focus on learners, rather than on what you are doing as a teacher. In other words, backward design is necessary – but not sufficient – to move toward more learner-centered online learning experiences.