Book Reviews

Amanda Nichols Hess. Modular Online Learning Design: A Flexible Approach for Diverse Learning Needs. Chicago, IL: ALA Editions, 2020. 144p. Paper, $65.99 (ISBN: 978-0838948125).

Book cover for Modular Design

Modular Online Learning Design presents a modular approach to the design of online learning objects. The term modular is typically applied to a product with individually engineered components, such as a house or a smartphone (assembled with Processor X, Screen Y, Camera Z, and so on). Applied to an online class or tutorial, this looks like “constructing broader academic experiences out of smaller learning units” (2). A modular approach lends itself to more easily scaled and modified content. In a pedagogical sense, it also echoes the concept of “chunking” content into smaller, more digestible bites for learners.

However, it should be noted that the text is largely focused on a modular approach toward the design process, rather than the product. If a modular product can be compared to a modular home, think of a modular design process as the construction business, with its various departments for product design, sales, and construction. A modular approach to instructional design models means that the process is not limited to the creation of new content and does not have to proceed in a linear way. Instead, existing online learning objects can be improved by engaging with whatever step of the design process would be most impactful.

Beginners and those seeking to improve or scale their online instruction offerings will find value in this book. I would have found this title immensely helpful in summer 2020, when I, like so many others, stared down the barrel of shifting all of our in-person instruction online. I found the cases, reflective questions, and figures provided in each of the chapters to be particularly helpful. The reflective questions are excellent prompts for key decision-making and would be useful in conversations with stakeholders as well as collaborators. The figures include conceptual models for the chapter content as well as charts and matrices that readers could use when applying the content to their own work.

Chapter 2 contains a succinct summary of various instructional design models, including backward design, the ARCS model, rapid prototyping and spiral design, rubrics for online course quality, and the IDEA and USER models, which are specific to libraries. Chapter 3 encourages the reader to think beyond learning goals to the organizational, professional, program, and institutional context and shares suggestions for soliciting feedback during the design process.

Chapter 6, “Modifying and Adapting Existing Content,” is the “must-read” chapter, no matter the reader’s experience level. It dives more deeply into the benefits of creating modular content and includes cases that explore how existing content—whether currently online or not—can be remixed into modular online learning objects. Whether there are existing online resources that can be updated and repurposed, or in-person lessons that can be transformed, I find this to be a particularly useful approach. Planning and building online instruction is extremely time-consuming, and any measures that conserve time and mental energy are a bonus. Remixing existing content also frees the designer to focus on updating, modifying, or creating only the most important content; depending on context, that could mean the main object of the lesson, customization for a particular course or assignment, or updating outdated content. In this chapter, Hess also recommends a few excellent Open Educational Resource (OER) collections of reputable content as resources to consider when remixing. One minor quibble is the lack of information about some of the technologies that can assist with remixing, which would have been useful here. That said, this information is readily available with an internet search.

Considering ways to chunk the content and add meaningful, accessible interaction is an important part of the design process, especially when remixing content, and Hess explores these topics as well. Some pedagogical ideas carry across from in-person to online instruction very easily, such as focusing on the student learning outcomes during the lesson, removing extraneous information, providing students with feedback, and building in interactivity. However, some of these recommendations look different online. For instance, in an in-person class, an instructor might show a video and then base an activity on it. In an online environment, students may tune out of a video halfway through. Maybe they do this in person too, but in a quantified online environment it becomes glaring in a way that doesn’t necessarily happen in the classroom.

The chapter on assessment largely focuses on employing user experience to assess the online learning objects themselves, rather than the learners’ knowledge. Again, the focus remains on the design process; librarians who want more information about incorporating educational assessments into their online learning objects will need to look elsewhere.

Hess’s modular approach to instructional design is effective and easy to follow. This slim volume is an excellent introduction and reference for creating online modules, whether reading front to back or plundering a particular chapter for conceptualizing and improving a specific phase of your design process. Think of this book as a modular framework of design considerations, rather than a how-to guide, and consider pairing with other texts about pedagogy and technology for online learning if you are new to online content creation.—Lauren deLaubell, SUNY Cortland

Copyright Lauren deLaubell

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