Product: Management and Development
Product: Management and Development
Research Article

Applying learner-centered design to online courses: a systems engineering case design

Cassandra M. McCormack; Barrett S. Caldwell

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The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting societal shifts exposed multiple challenges associated with online engineering education, including those inherent to a digital learning environment and those associated with scalable content presentation to learners with diverse backgrounds, attributes, and learning goals. While universal design principles can be applied to benefit all learners in some cases, other interface configurations for content presentation and contextualization may benefit one learner type at the expense of another (e.g., the expertise-reversal effect). An effective design approach must consider universal design in education and the role of adaptable interfaces in addressing conflicting user needs affecting information architecture and user experience interface design. A case design approach is applied to an interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary systems engineering course that highlights two universal design decisions (e.g., content modularization and captioning) and three primary interface components to target for adaptation: (1) the initial topical “entry point” into the course content, (2) the preferred presentation medium (e.g., text-based or video), and (3) the navigation mechanisms supporting exploration of the learning environment and highlighting interconnections amongst the material. These adaptations address diversity in backgrounds, learning priorities, presentation preferences, and levels of expertise to scaffold the learning process appropriately for a variety of learners.


engineering education, instructional design, user-centered design, information architectures, systems engineering, adaptive interface design


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