Navigating the Path: Removing Barriers from Your Online Course

Too often learning experiences are designed around the "average learner." This type of design generally consists of one way to learn the content (e.g., reading) and one way to express understanding (e.g., essay). The problem inherent in this design is that it is full of unnecessary barriers that leave many learners struggling to achieve the learning goal. By removing these barriers we create multiple paths that all lead back to the same learning goal.

What is a barrier?

Essentially, a barrier is anything that prevents the learner from learning the content and reaching your learning goal.

The Maze Analogy

If the traditional curriculum design was a maze, it would have one path to reach the goal and be full of barriers (Figure 1). If you've ever tried to complete a maze, you know the process is to generally try a path until you reach a barrier. Then you can either backtrack, or start back at the beginning and try a different path. You repeat this process until you finally reach the exit and complete the maze. If you enjoy mazes then you'll enjoy this process and feel a sense of satisfaction upon reaching the goal. 

An image of a maze with the path to the goal highlighted. This is a typical maze where there is one path that reaches the exit, while all other paths lead to dead ends.
Figure 1. An image of a maze with the path to the goal highlighted. This is a typical maze where there is one path that reaches the exit, while all other paths lead to dead ends.

If the goal of your curriculum is to make it as difficult as possible to reach the learning goal, then by all means follow the maze model. Your learners will keep bumping into barriers and trying new methods over and over until they can finally (hopefully) reach the learning goal. If, however, you want to focus on the learning goal and NOT the path, then you should remove barriers from your curriculum to open up multiple paths that all lead to the same learning goal.

What kinds of barriers can I remove?

Two of the biggest sources of barriers are in the way content is represented and the methods allowed for learners to express understanding.

By providing multiple means of representation for your content you provide learners with various ways to engage. Learners who are strong readers will choose readings; learners who are stronger visually will choose videos. You can diversify your content by including readings, videos with transcripts, audio, etc. that all revolve around the same learning goal. You can further differentiate the types of readings you assign to your learners: academic papers, magazine articles, blog posts, newspaper clippings, and so on. 

Providing learners with multiple options to express their understanding gives them the autonomy to choose and be an agent in their own learning. Being flexible on the means of expression (written essay, visual essay, audio podcast, art project, etc.) ensures that learners will be able to appropriately express their understanding of a particular topic. 

You'll have to judge for yourself which methods of representation and expression make the most sense for your content as some of these options will not always work in every context. Just try to focus on providing as many as possible to ensure you're providing alteranative paths that all lead back to the same learning goal.

Removing barriers reaches more learners

The maze below (Figure 2) is a copy of the maze in Figure 1 except that several barriers have been removed. By eliminating just a handful of barriers we have created three viable paths that can be used to complete the maze. This might not make for a very challenging maze, but it would make an excelltent start to a curriculum. Let's let mazes be mazes, and focus on making our curriculum amazing

The same maze as the image above but this time some of the barriers have been removed. Now instead of one path the maze has several paths highlighted that all end at the same exit (learning goal).
Figure 2. The same maze as Fig. 1, but this time we've. removed some barriers. This opens up several new paths that all lead to the same goal.

If you enjoyed this post, sign up for our newsletter for more tips and strategies. If you’re ready to take the next step in your online course and fully unlock learner potential, check out our online course—Supercharge Your Online Course—and other professional development opportunities.

Matthew Riecken
Date Mon Feb 06, 2023
Categories online-learning
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