By Mlungisi Mthembu |

My role as a Learning Designer allows me to inhabit two different but complementary worlds simultaneously. In one world, I collaborate with knowledgeable Subject Matter Experts to create powerful online learning experiences. In the other world, I constantly ask myself, “If I were a student, how would I want to be taught?” One of the best ways of finding an answer to this question is to rewind the tape in my head and explore how I learned the skills I have today. As a second-language English speaker, it has been interesting to retrace the steps I took to learn the language.

I was eight years old when an English language sentence was directed at me. I say English only because my parents assured me that the medium of instruction at my new school was English. To me, it might as well have been Russian. I looked in every compartment in my mind, hoping to find an answer in the few English words I had come across in my eight years on earth, but I found nothing. This was 1991, many years before cell phones were readily available, so I couldn’t even phone a friend to help me find the words I needed to respond to my teacher.

On the bus ride home, my two friends and I shared our experiences on our first day. We were in different classes, but we all had the same story to tell: we had understood nothing past the initial, “Good morning, Class” from our teachers. The “Three Amigos” had become the “Three Blind Mice.” We had never experienced such a thing in our short little lives. The three of us had recently moved from township schools where the medium of instruction was our mother tongue: isiZulu.

Recruiting Mentors

After much deliberation, we formulated a plan. We would immerse ourselves in the English language. Our first mentor was Scooby-Doo. Every day after school, my friends and I would watch Scooby and the Gang solve mysteries on TV. We would then recreate the episode we’d just watched. As we performed our characters, laughing, improvising, correcting each other, and singing the theme song, our vocabulary gradually grew. As we continued, we found that we understood more about what our teachers were saying. That was all the motivation we needed. We recruited more mentors: The Simpsons, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Voltron, She-Ra, and Captain Planet. We learned from them all. At some point, and I can’t tell you when that was, we understood what was going on in our classes! And the more we understood, the better our grades got!

This is the type of experience I always try to recreate in online courses.

Qualities of Powerful Learning Experiences

Today, we are faced with a pandemic that is forcing us to isolate ourselves. As we make our way through this period of uncertainty, and more students move into the online space, it’s important that we make them feel safe, secure, and supported as they learn. How do we do this? By creating online learning experiences that are:

Motivating: The online course should challenge students to stretch their thinking skills and encourage them to set and reach their goals.

Authentic: There should be congruence between what students need and what they get out of the course.

Social: Students should feel connected to an online community of learners who support each other.

Active: Learning should be connected to specific actions.

Memorable: The online learning experience should be so powerful that students want to share it with others.

Many years ago, Scooby-Doo gave me a key that opened the door to a whole new world of knowledge. Today, I would like to return the favor and work hard to open doors for students in the online space.


Mlungisi Mthembu

,Mlungisi Mthembu

Learning Designer at Construct