For the online learning world

Learning design

Beware of the gap – Considering the digital literacy of your learners

We are all different. Different life experiences, skills and knowledge. As online learning is becoming more prevalent in our lives, we need to remember this and understand that not everyone is going to have the same knowledge and that using technology to learn may be a new or challenging experience for some of our learners. Unless we understand the needs of our learners and put appropriate supports in place, they may not have the opportunity to truly embrace technology and undertake learning in a digital environment.

Know your learners

The first step is to understand who your learners are and what types of experiences they may or may not have had with digital education in the past. Do they have experience using technology? Have they studied online before? Have they joined a webinar or virtual classroom? Have they completed a self-paced course or a facilitated online program? Knowing the answers to these kinds of questions (and understanding that across a learner cohort you are likely to get a mix of experiences) will help you in the design and delivery of your digital education.

There is too often an assumption that everyone has experience using technology these days. This is not always true. And even for those learners who have had experience using technology, this may be their first attempt at studying in a digital environment. Taking into consideration the needs of these learners is essential to successful digital course design and delivery.

Understand how they are experiencing learning

Once you understand your learner cohorts in a little more detail, the next area to consider is how they plan to interact with your digital materials.

For example, depending on your learners and the format of your digital learning, there may be a high percentage of learners who would prefer to complete their studies via a mobile device rather than a desktop computer. A well-designed course should be fully mobile-responsive, with an intuitive user interface, so that even learners who may not have studied in this way before, can intuitively navigate the course. Kind of like how you instinctively know how to navigate a new app for the first time, even if you have never used it before.

We also need to understand the types of environments where our learners will be undertaking their studies. Will they be in an office, or an educational institute, where they have easy access to support and guidance from trainers or colleagues. Or maybe they will be completing their digital learning at home, alone? Knowing the natural supports that may be available to learners who are not confident using technology, can assist us in determining the additional supports we need to have in place.

Ensure supports are in place

We need to ensure that all our learners are supported through their learning journey. Learners should spend their time and focus on the learning objectives, not on how to navigate in a digital environment. This means that we need to design courses that are simple to use, preferably with instructions/help easily accessible at any time. Where courses require the use of other technologies such as Microsoft Word (eg. for writing an assignment), providing links to external resources and tutorials that provide new users with an opportunity to upskill, is a simple but effective way to provide support.

Where possible, support should also be made available via a course facilitator or support service, to allow learners to contact a real person to walk through any difficulties they may be experiencing. Sometimes, simply talking through concerns with a real person can ease the worries and simplify what can seem an overwhelming experience for some learners.

Overall, it is about considering the digital literacy of our learners and understanding that not all learners are the same. By understanding this and taking it into consideration when designing and delivering your digital learning programs, you will go a long way in supporting your learner’s success.

Catherine Duncan

Catherine Duncan

Catherine is a learning technologies and digital education practitioner with over twelve years experience across a variety of industries. She enjoys using her technical, educational and creative knowledge to assist organisations in determining their technical and/or training requirements and assisting them in finding the optimum solution.

2 thoughts on “Beware of the gap – Considering the digital literacy of your learners

  • whybee90

    Catherine, the importance of qualitative and effective support in virtual and hybrid learning environments has become more obvious than ever. Both accessibility and equitability have to be taken into consideration to provide students with the appropriate support. When designing online learning experiences, students should not have to worry about the user-friendliness of a platform. It is crucial to bridge this gap before educational technology creates another learning barrier.

  • Such an important point Catherine – that we must be supporting online learners effectively, and not just thinking about the content.
    I noticed that the USA are really struggling to get their school pupils engaged with online learning from home during lockdowns, and now there are staff going to their houses to check what the problems are, and what support they need.
    And often it’s technical barriers – and equally often simple IT literacy and confidence.


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