Managing Technological ‘Shadow Curriculum’ in Online Learning

New learning technologies offer many potential benefits to online learners, but these same technologies can create an additional burden for students who lack the requisite digital literacies to use them effectively. The need to learn how to use the technologies that are part of the delivery of the course may create a “shadow curriculum” that can overwhelm even highly motivated learners, says Bob Andersen, director of instructional technology at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota.

When learners do not have a certain level of digital skills, the instructor needs to spend extra time simply getting them to use the technology. “The technology itself gets in the way,” Andersen says. “Sometimes learning how to blog or use Twitter, VoiceThread, or a webcam becomes challenging and starts to take time away from the learning objectives of the course.”

That extra demand and cognitive load on the students creates an extra support load for instructors, who are typically the first line of technical support in an online course. “Asking an accounting instructor to help the student use VoiceThread or how to set up a microphone for a synchronous session in Adobe Connect is not time well spent,” Andersen says.

In an interview with Online Classroom, Andersen offered advice on how to minimize the “shadow curriculum” without eschewing advanced learning technologies.


“I think first and foremost there has to be some intentionality and awareness on the part of the instructor of the perceived cognitive load of a particular technology,” Andersen says. “Using a discussion forum where you simply make a few clicks within the learning management system is a different level of difficulty than creating and editing a video, adding multimedia to a wiki page or using a diagramming app on an iPad.”

Bear in mind that expertise in one technology does not necessarily mean that a student will be able to learn another technology easily. Andersen says he has seen tech-savvy adult learners with highly developed Excel skills really struggle to participate in a web conference or master a social media tool.

Careful selection of tools can reduce the amount of effort students need to make to learn how to use them, as well as the amount of support instructors must provide. However, it’s important to not simply select technologies that are easiest to learn. There may be some very important pedagogical reasons for using a certain technology that requires substantial effort to learn.

It’s essential that the instructor is comfortable with all the technologies used in a course. “[Instructional designers] need to meet them where they are. Instructors can’t be subject to the whim of the instructional designer who just found some great new tools and really wants to push that tool. If the instructor is going to struggle with and complain about the technology, the students are going to see that immediately. That’s the kiss of death. That disengages the students right away. It tells students, ‘You don’t have to do that,’” Andersen says.

Sequencing and scaffolding

Andersen recommends introducing the simpler technologies at the beginning of the course and building toward the more advanced ones. It’s important to not “simply throw them into the deep end of the pool during the first week,” Andersen says.  “We think about how to sequence a specific technology in a course and scaffolding the learner’s technology skills development across a program.”

For example, one goal in Saint Mary’s online Master of Education program in Learning Design and Technology is to write an e-book. Knowing the technology used in the program can be challenging, instructors introduce the associated technologies gradually and deliberately, providing an overview the first week, followed by opportunities to begin using it the second week before actually using the tools to create e-books.


When introducing a new technology, it’s important that students are properly motivated. Andersen recommends an approach similar to how information technology professionals roll out large software platforms: help users understand how the technology is relevant to improving their jobs and employability.

“I think we need to be intentional about these technologies with students,” Andersen says, “and not simply slip in VoiceThread or Google Docs but point it out and say, ‘We’re going to be using this technology in this particular assignment. Here’s how it works and here’s how it’s going to help.’ It requires a little bit of selling. It gets to students’ motivation, particularly adult learners. They’re goal-oriented and want their education to improve their lot in life. I think they look at some of these technologies we use for instruction and ask, ‘Why do I have to learn these? How is it going to help me?’ I think we need to sell some of these technologies and make students aware about how they can help their future employability so that attending a GoToMeeting session where they have to deal with their webcams and microphones or learning how to Tweet can really help them at work.”


Offering an orientation can provide students with the knowledge they need to work with the technologies in a course. The EdD in Leadership program at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota has a no-credit, self-paced orientation that is in essence a required course that takes three to four hours to complete and provides instruction on diverse technology tasks such as posting to a discussion board and collaborating in Google Docs.

The orientation or technology readiness course, which is available several weeks before the start of the program, provides tutorials and opportunities to practice using the tools in a low-stakes setting, receive feedback, and ask questions.

In addition, the courses within the EdD program have strategically placed links back to the orientation for convenient access to just-in-time technology assistance.

“[The orientation] takes the shadow curriculum out of the shadows, saying in effect, ‘Look, this is important for your learning. Spending time here is valuable. It will save you time, and you might learn a thing or two that can help you outside the university,’” Andersen says.

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