“Middle-skills” jobs –– those that “require more education and training than a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree” –– continue to go unfilled while aspiring workers lack the training required to move into these jobs.
Online education provides a valuable opportunity to bridge this skills gap, helping workers gain the skills required to pursue entry-level jobs in growing fields like technology, business, healthcare, and data science. As Coursera’s recent Global Skills Index shows, workers who can effectively upskill will be in a competitive position to obtain better paying jobs that employers have a hard time filling.
But how should educational programs be structured to maximize success for learners seeking to obtain the skills and credentials needed for these jobs?
Effective mastery-based instructional design begins by understanding the target audience enrolling in these types of programs and then implementing pedagogical best practices to set these learners up for successful completion of those programs.
Programs that focus on middle-skills training, like the Google IT Support Professional Certificate offered through Coursera, attract learners with less formal educational background and employment experience than traditional Coursera learners. Whereas a majority of Coursera learners already hold either a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree, and over half are employed full-time, learners who enroll in professional certificate programs are less likely to have a four-year college degree and are more likely to be looking for work.
This means these non-traditional learners start with less experience in educational settings as they embark upon online programs to acquire new knowledge and skills. Implementing Coursera’s instructional design best practices is particularly important to help these learners succeed in the online environment. This requires providing a well-scaffolded learning path that promotes active learning and makes use of rich visuals and metaphors to help learners develop new mental models.
Scaffold the Learning Path
Scaffolding refers to a structured framework that helps learners work toward mastery. Scaffolding provides assistance to learners to help them build upon what they already know, leveraging that foundation to develop new knowledge and skills through practice.
A well-scaffolded learning path ensures that learning outcomes, assessments, and instructional materials are tightly aligned. The course structure should move learners toward the outcomes by providing ample instruction and practice opportunities as they prepare for graded assessments.
Scaffolding is particularly important for learners in professional certificate programs who may have less educational and work experience. These non-traditional learners not only lack prior knowledge in the subject, but they also have less experience with learning strategies in formal educational settings. Whereas more experienced learners can turn to successful self-learning strategies when they encounter challenging content, non-traditional learners are less likely to come equipped with a similarly well-developed repertoire to navigate around learning barriers. This can result in frustration and, if not resolved through instructional support, dropping out of the course.
Promote Active Learning
One way to promote active learning and scaffold the learning path is to use the in-video questions (IVQs) and low-stakes practice quizzes that are built into the Coursera platform. These tools help learners “build and test mental models, explicitly converting video watching from a passive to an active-learning event.”
Practice opportunities also need to provide immediate actionable feedback to learners. Immediate feedback supports and scaffolds the development of new mental models. Feedback should help learners understand why they get a question wrong and reinforce learning when they get a question correct.
Explain with Visuals and Metaphors
To help inexperienced learners develop the mental models they need to progress in their knowledge and skills, use rich visuals and metaphors when explaining material.
Visuals, especially when linked with vivid metaphors or analogies, help learners conceptualize difficult topics. You don’t need fancy graphics to accomplish this; a simple stock image or hand-drawn sketch can be just as effective.
Barbara Oakley, who teaches the popular course, “Learning How to Learn,” explains that “metaphors and analogies are really helpful when you want to learn something new.” She also demonstrates how visuals can facilitate this process in her video where she takes learners for a walk inside a metaphor.
All of these qualities–a scaffolded learning path that promotes active learning and makes use of visuals and metaphors to explain new topics–contribute to creating an effective mastery-based learning experience. But when it comes to helping non-traditional learners move from no experience to readiness for an entry-level job, getting these instructional elements right is especially critical for success.