How I Survived Distraction Overload and Created the Ultimate Online Learning Blueprint

by Helen Todd, Learning Technologist, University of Sussex

So I’m trying to write a blog post about engagement while WFH but I keep getting distracted.

I select the perfect track to relax but also focus the mind on Spotify, have a quick doom scroll of the news headlines and depress myself further by checking my current energy bill before realising that I’m wasting time and really must get on with work. So, I monitor emails, check my to-do-list and post banter to the work Teams chat. And this is just what’s happening online, looking out of the window I can see what looks suspiciously like sunshine – and I’m wondering if it would help to creative process to spend 10 minutes relaxing in the garden (with my phone of course).

An illustration of a person sitting at a work desk, daydreaming. A clock is on the wall behind them.
Illustration by Adobe Stock

This is what It’s like to work in the attention economy where digital platforms compete to draw us in and keep us engaged. Meanwhile our slowly evolving brains struggle to process this information overload. While trying to stay on track to complete a task, these distractions weaken our performance and increase stress. As I write this blog, I’m aware that I’m doing it with my neurotypical brain, in my first language, with functioning Wi-Fi, in a first world country, from a dedicated home office I can work in undisturbed. I’m also writing it as part of my working day – it’s not a graded assignment that I have to complete unpaid after a full day’s toil.

In the week of Global Accessibility Awareness Day, I’ll explain our Online Distance Learning (ODL) postgraduate courses are designed to support learners’ engagement and minimise distractions using principles that particularly benefit those with disabilities or impairments, but which are helpful for everyone.

Our ODL students may have chosen to study asynchronously for many reasons: because it suits neurodiverse learners to study at a time and pace that accommodates their needs or to fit round their working patterns and household commitments. Some do not have the luxury of reliable internet or even electricity connection. Also, as most are not UK based, many are not native English speakers. These students often log on to their courses after spending all day working and/or looking after family.

With so many diverse challenges for learners and reasons for distraction, our courses are designed to facilitate focus for as wide a range of users as possible.  We do this using the principle of Engagement as set out by the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework. This shows how to use tools that attract learners to the content, motivate them to stay and teach them strategies to manage their own engagement. By triggering positive emotions, the online environment can help learners initiate and persist with study despite difficulties, achieving learning that is deep and meaningful.

The UDL framework divides Engagement under three headings – I’ll now explain how we have used them to design the ODL learning environment:

  • Recruiting interest

When designing learning, we have a responsibility to create material that attracts attention. Boring content is not accessible content because it may contain relevant information that gets ignored. For example, an assignment brief which has little relevance to students’ real-world lives and interests will not be attended to as carefully as one which does.

ODL assessments are designed to be as authentic as possible. This is particularly important as our courses tend to be vocational and our students are often in well-established careers with a wealth of life experience that they can draw upon. For their Msc in Global Supply Chain management, students are asked to produce a report critically analysing the operations management of an organisation in which they work. To ensure students without the necessary workplace experience are not excluded from meeting the learning objectives, there is the option to use a case study. This kind of personalisation is very motivating as it means students spend less time on topics that aren’t relevant to them.

Authentic ‘real-world’ activities can also use fiction to engage. One of the modules in ODL’s Msc in Sustainable Development uses gamification and an imaginative twist help students learn about the topic of environmental politics without engendering a sense of doom. The novel format of this module attracts attention through various missions and quests which students undertake as part of ‘Project Dandelion’. These are designed in such a way to create situations where students feel safe enough to take risks and be creative.

  • Sustaining effort and persistence

Once we have learners’ attention, we need to motivate them to maintain it. However, as previously explained, the diverse nature of ODL students means that they differ in their ability to sustain the concentration and effort that deep learning requires. When studying online, geographically separate from one’s peers. there is also the risk of isolation.

To keep students motivated, it’s important to support them in remembering the goal of their learning. As such, they are reminded throughout each seven-week module how engagement in weekly discussion boards and tasks will help them to complete their final assessments. Academics also post regular announcements looking ahead or reviewing the progress of the modules.

Many people find it helpful to see explicit examples of what they need to achieve, so marking rubrics, models of assessments and recommendations of how to structure work are available on assignment briefs. Often tutors organise a live Zoom session before a deadline as an assessment Q and A. As ODL students are in different time zones, those not able to join synchronously can watch a recording and ask questions via a dedicated discussion forum.

To avoid the demotivating effects of isolation, ODL academics and learning environments can create a sense of community online. Often tutors will begin a module by posting a short introduction sharing a little bit about themselves and encouraging students to do the same. This can be done on a Canvas discussion forum, but a Padlet board is more visually attractive and provides many ways of presenting information.

On all ODL courses, peer-to-peer collaboration is encouraged as this is a great support system for sustaining engagement. This can be achieved via through group tasks and assessments or asynchronous discussion boards where students are asked to comment on each other’s posts. Canvas allows students to be organised into groups and by labelling these groups by time zone, students have the option to join one that allows them to arrange synchronous online meetings with their peers.

Group work is easier for some than others, so we use scaffolds to encourage less confident students. For the Media, Ethics and Social Change MA will need to peer review each other’s work, this could potentially be stressful. We make this process easier by explaining the purpose of the peer review process and providing a clear structure with prompts for students to follow.

  • Self-regulation

Whilst we can support learners by creating an environment that maximises engagement, it’s important for students to develop intrinsic motivation – and it can’t be assumed all will develop it equally. We give them access to multiple ways of improving their ability to regulate their own emotions and cope with difficulty.

One key source of support with this is the Study Online Student Support Site. This is a space focussed on giving students the skills and resources they need throughout their study journey. This includes self-access materials such as guides to the digital tools they will need and post-graduate study tips, as well as a timetable of Zoom sessions on academic writing the ODL Librarian team.

Throughout the weekly pages of our online courses, there are multiple checkpoints for students to self-assess their own learning. These may be a to do checklist or a quiz for students to identify gaps in their knowledge. This type of activity promotes expectations of behaviour which help students to reflect on their own abilities and develop their own goals.

More in-depth reflection is embedded in other tasks and assessments to encourage learners to find out what motivates them personally and how they can best reach their goals.

This is just a small selection of the ways that ODL courses utilise UDL engagement to help students maintain their focus and we are continuously working on how we can make our learning more accessible to all.

Finally, it’s important to remember that because of the way our brains evolved, some distraction is inevitable. In fact, sometimes distractions can actually boost creativity and problem solving skills. Justification, in case I needed it, for a few minutes of sunshine in the garden.

This is just a few ways we use UDL to increase engagement online. Researching this blog sent me down several interesting rabbit holes which, while taking up time, also enlightened me. For example, I learnt about the social model of disability – designing online courses which ‘don’t disable people’

Posted in Educational Enhancement, Learning theory, Online Distance Learning (ODL)

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We are the Educational Enhancement team at the University of Sussex. We publish posts each week on using technology to support teaching and learning. Read more about us.

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