This content initially appeared at APUEdge.com.

Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. HansenAssociate Dean (Interim), School of Arts, Humanities and Education

Understanding the students’ experience from beginning to end can help educators enhance curriculum and help students be successful. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bethanie Hansen provides steps to map a learner journey including understanding students, designing pathways, mapping the skills gap and establishing a clear goal.

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This podcast is for educators, academics, and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun! Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen. And I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics, and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Welcome to the podcast. As an online educator, you are probably already familiar with the concept of curriculum design. Even though we might all plan our courses differently, there are a few main ideas that make up the final result of course curriculum.

The curriculum is the sum total of the subjects taught and the student’s experiences in the learning process. It can refer to the readings, any other resources, videos, lectures, podcasts, and other content, in terms of the material that will be used in the class. But much more than that, curriculum considers the idea that students will work with new information, gain knowledge and skills, and have knowledge and mastery of that by the end of the class.

Well, today, we’re going to take a new look at curriculum from the marketing perspective. And this means that we’re going to think about the learner’s journey, or we might even describe this as creating an experience map for the student’s experience. And right from the beginning of this description, I love where we’re going with this idea, because the transformative nature of education is like a living and breathing entity—not just a list of topics in a textbook.

What is the Customer Journey?

Just to give you a little more awareness of the marketing perspective I mentioned a moment ago, I want to tell you about a marketing idea called the customer journey. Let’s say that you sell skateboards, and you would like to attract new customers to sell your skateboards. If no one sees your skateboard shop, and they have never heard of you, you have to begin somewhere.

And in the example I’m using here of selling your flashy new skateboards, you will need to begin first with the awareness stage of the customer journey. Before anyone will buy from you, they need to know you exist. That you sell skateboards. And what that’s about. And unless they are already in the market to buy a skateboard, you will need to create awareness over time to help them learn that you sell skateboards, and the awareness that they NEED to buy their next skateboard from you.

And in this particular customer journey, someone who isn’t ready to buy a skateboard could be exposed to your business as a friendly part of the neighborhood. Or as one that gives back to the kids in that neighborhood by reinvesting your profits into the community. Or something like that. Along with this awareness stage of the journey, you can consciously cultivate your brand and your reputation to build a relationship with customers on the general level that helps them get to know you and establishes trust.

The next part of a customer journey might be the offer of education. Perhaps your skateboard shop offers safety tips or something for after-school skate park activities. Or personal safety programming for children taking the skateboard to school. All kinds of free educational materials will provide value to your potential customer who is on this journey with you.

Along the way, you might have a few specific campaigns that connect with your customer. These could be phone calls, emails, flyers in the mail, or other ways in which you contact them to share upcoming events and information.

Eventually, your customer journey is going to include an invitation to purchase the skateboard and the ongoing relationship when working with your parts and repairs department. Or, if the customer never buys, the customer journey will be shorter, and it will end at some point.

One of the reasons marketing campaigns think about customer journeys and customer experiences is that they want to see their customers from within the experience of that individual customer. What does this person actually experience from the first contact with your company all the way through to the purchase and the use of your product? And even beyond that?

Mapping the Learner’s Journey

Back to your curriculum. Mapping the learner journey is a similar concept. What does this person who will take your class next session experience? From the first moment that person became aware that the course was available to them and through the decision they made to enroll in the course, all the way through the moment when the final course grade is posted, and even to the day the diploma is handed out, this student might be on a very specific journey with your curriculum and the class you teach.

What I’m going to share in today’s breakdown of the learner journey concept comes from an article in E-Learning Industry written by Helen Gray in January of 2021.

Step 1: Understand Your Audience

First, consider the students who will take your class, and the objective facts or observations you can learn about them. Gray calls this “your audience.”

When you know who is taking your class, then you are in a much better position to design learning experiences that will help them get started and begin learning right away. Remember, this first step is only descriptive. We’re not planning anything yet.

Here are some questions you might ask about your students to give you clarity about the learning journey:

What are your students hoping to achieve?

What are their goals?

Where are your students coming from in their lives, their work, and experiences when they take your class?

What challenges, limitations, or barriers do your students have?

What level of technical expertise do your students bring into the course?

Although not every student is the same, you will notice some trends in your student population. For example, you might have a lot of younger people taking the class who are new to college. Or maybe you have a lot of older adult learners with some life and work experience to bring in. As you answer these questions about your students, you will get a sense of who they are and begin understanding the starting point of the learner journey.

Step 2: Design Pathways to Help Students Achieve Their Goals

Second, with a clear picture of the people who take your class or enroll in your program, consider what you really need to do to design pathways from their starting point to the goal. This might sound simple, but it could end up both creative and complex.

For example, I once interviewed an educator who mentioned that she had integrated some competency-based teaching practices into her classroom. I got curious and learned that she offered students the opportunity to pre-test any chapter content before the learning experiences began. And any student who demonstrated mastery of the content was not asked to complete the typical learning experiences she had designed.

This makes sense, because if we consider that those learning experiences were created to teach the content itself, then the students who have already mastered it would have a redundant experience. We would even get inflated grades at the end demonstrating that students learned very well, when in fact they already knew the material in the first place.

With this in mind, the educator had an alternative pathway for students who demonstrated mastery on those pre-tests. They engaged in projects and applied learning experiences at a completely different level designed to integrate concepts into the course, rather than teaching ideas for the first time.

Basically, there was a standard pathway and an enriched or advanced pathway in the course, and this was flexible but accessible to all students.

Perhaps this gives you an idea of what you might do in your own subject matter, your own program, or your class. Knowing your students and their needs, objectives, and challenges, you can decide whether they all need one single learning pathway, or whether you might offer other pathways that consider pre-existing knowledge, career experience, interests, or other aspects? At the simplest level, Gray suggests we consider basic, intermediate, and advanced.

Step 3: Map Your Skills Gaps

Third, map your skills gaps. You started out by getting to know your students and where they are when taking your class. And you identified whether more than one path is needed to teach them in the class, and now you’re in search of anything they will need intentional support to learn or accomplish. It’s time to dig deeper.

Digging deeper means you are going to consider what experience they might bring with them into the course. If they might have work experience, could it be relevant to the class? What kinds of challenges do your learners face coming into the course that already put them at a disadvantage? And, knowing this, what can you do to help them navigate in the first week or more to gain confidence?

Your course and the content that you will teach could be introductory, and your students first need a bit of context to relate to the subject. In a course I wrote many years ago about digital information literacy, I used a metaphor of baking bread to illustrate a concept in one of the lessons. Something that is generally familiar with your students can become that introduction to bring them from where they are starting out to where they need to be in order to dig into the experiences you are giving them.

On the other hand, maybe it isn’t just the subject matter. Instead, it might be the technology. Let’s say that you want your students to create a PowerPoint presentation as part of a project because in their chosen degree area, they are likely to pursue career options where they have to give a lot of presentations. You know that the university provides the Microsoft Office suite to all students, and you want to help them get started on the right foot. What experience does your typical student have coming into your class? And what kind of learning experience might you design in their journey to explore this area?

This might be a workshop on using PowerPoint. For example, if you have a lot of adult learners who are coming into college for the first time, depending on their professional backgrounds, they might need support using a specific program. With this skills gap in mind, you can dig deeper into your students’ needs before planning the experiences to get them where they want to go, and where they need to go.

Thinking only about your subject matter, it might be easy to find some of your student’s barriers or challenges to learning. In marketing, we call these “pain points.” For your skateboard business, one of the pain points is going to be the price of new bearings and wheels. Or maybe it’s the worry that a child’s mother has about their possible bruises and scrapes from falling off the skateboard. There will be many.

For our students, and your students, the pain points could be very different. Map your skills gaps between where students are coming into the class and where they need to be when they have mastered the curriculum at the end of their learning journey. This mapping will help you decide what experiences they will need in their learning, but also whether it can be accomplished in one class alone. You can use this to check back on your pathways, to make sure that whether students move along one or multiple learning pathways they still have the opportunity to build needed skills along the way.

Step 4: Get Clear on Your Goal

This means that if you are setting out to teach people how to make soup, by the end of the class, you’ll all be looking into a big pot of soup. Talk about learning activities along the way with the vision of the end-result in mind. This will help you design these smaller experiences that move from basic awareness into learning, committing, engaging with the topic, and digesting it when the soup is finally made.

If you are clear on your goal with students and help them be clear about it too, you become a guide in the student’s learning journey helping them navigate through it together. This approach builds confidence for everyone and promotes cognitive presence.

Step 5: Create a Seamless Experience

This part of the learner journey means that we consider everything that our students will do along the pathway to the main goal as part of that journey. These are not separate, disjointed elements. Thinking about a seamless experience provides a nice visualization of keeping the experience within a theme, rather than a series of discussions and quizzes.

Perhaps our students enter the class with an awareness activity in the subject matter. Then, they are guided by video to learn about what a practitioner in the field might do every day. And the next thing they know, they are using the same tool, checklist, or other methods a practitioner might use in their work, and this is a formative check for evaluation purposes on the way to the bigger product.

Ultimately, when thinking about learner journeys or maps, we are taking on the perception of what our students experience before, during, and after the classroom. And we create a whole new set of possibilities in designing curriculum learning experiences through doing this.

And our learners will begin to learn better than they have before. From within the content, instead of as an outsider observing from afar. This is an exciting and new adventure—designing learner journeys. I hope you’ll start out on this trail to give it a try. And I wish you all the best in your online teaching this coming week.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge Podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.