MAET Design Series: Focusing on the Learner


In keeping in line with the Master of Arts in Educational Technology (MAET) program’s core principles, we make a commitment to provide support to our learners from application to beyond graduation. This is because the heart of the MAET program is our learners—they are the reason why we do what we do. Our learners are outstanding educators and designers. This compels us to continually iterate and improve the learning experiences we design. We do this by focusing on our learners throughout our design process and during the implementation of learning experiences.

Build Deep Empathy

Our design journey begins with empathy and we return to empathy as a checkpoint while we iterate. We begin building empathy through an understanding of context. Professionally, we are familiar with many of our learners’ contexts. Two of us have been classroom teachers, two of us have studied teaching and learning and conducted educational research in formal and informal learning spaces at the doctoral level. All of us develop and design learning experiences and teach within the higher education context. We have taken online courses as learners ourselves. We know what it’s like because we live it. These experiences have given us a strong foundation for empathizing with our learners.

In our interactions with our learners, we listen actively and carefully. As their advisors, we learn about their lives, professional challenges, and celebrations. As instructors, we observe their engagement with course content and activities as they push their thinking forward. We are with them when they struggle; we are with them when it clicks. As designers, we have facilitated learner experience surveys, focus groups, and think tanks with our learners and alumni to build empathy and gather feedback around programmatic design choices. We have regular communication with all of our instructors who share positives and areas for improvement with us, too. This provides more information and helps us triangulate our data to understand and support learner perspectives. As designers, we take all of this into account. We enjoy being in the unique position in which we interact with the majority of learners in our courses through a variety of roles. This greatly informs how we design for our learners because it expands our understanding of context and increases our ability to empathize.

Identify and Design

With a strong focus on our learners and the empathy that we continue to build throughout our interactions, we are able to anticipate, plan for, and respond to their needs through our course design elements. Below, we’ll share some of the growth opportunities we identified and how we responded with design choices.

  • Need Identified: Not every learner that comes into our courses is from our program. There is no required sequence of MAET courses because of the flexibility of coursework to meet learner goals. Some learners have never taken an online course before.
    • Design Response: We developed a consistent onboarding experience for learners that is in the first unit of all of our courses. This orients them to how we leverage our learning management system, course structure, philosophical programmatic decisions, and more.
  • Need Identified: Our learners are adults who are balancing incredibly high work demands—especially in the emergence of the COVID pandemic.
    • Design Response: All of our courses are 100% web accessible and predominantly asynchronous. Our courses are consistent in terminology, structure, and experience sequence. We want our learners to know what they can expect and where to find things. This reduces barriers to trying to adapt to where different instructors place important course documents or how they structure the content and experience. We make expectations clear in terms of pacing, consistency, and quality across all of our courses. 
  • Need Identified: Learners are encouraged to take ownership of their work, but they are apprehensive to do so based on traditional course structures related to assessment.
    • Design Response: We intentionally shifted our terminology to refer to all course assignments as “creations” to signal to the learner that this was their work to create, to play with, to develop their ideas further in ways that are applicable to their context. We redesigned how we communicated creation expectations, we revised the rubrics in all of our courses to be single-point rubrics, and we shifted to program-wide ungrading.

These are some of the larger design choices that have been informed by our focus on the learner. We are thankful to our entire instructional team—who are also extremely focused on learners—who have been on board with us implementing these intentional designs across all of our courses.

The Student Perspective

Morgan Abb, MAET’s Student Advisory Council Representative shares her take on MAET’s focus on the learner: 

MAET’s learner-centered education is apparent in not only the course content, but also in how all faculty and staff interact with students. Instructors take on the responsibility of knowing each student as a person and professional, and ensure that their course is suitable to each individual. All course projects are customizable to my professional goals and experiences and each instructor takes the time to provide feedback to enhance my creations and overall experience. 

Pending final approval from Michigan State University, Team MAET is launching a Master of Arts in Learning Experience Design in Fall 2024. Join our mailing list to receive news about our upcoming learning experience design opportunities.