“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
– Albert Einstein
This post presumes that you are one of the many instructors that has been thrust into the world of online teaching. The goal of this blog is to provide some basic course design principles that you can apply to your course, whether it is in a learning management system (LMS) or a file share application. A well-organized course provides a clear path for students on how to navigate through the course and saves them from the time and frustration of trying to figure out where things are and what to do in the course site. Also a well-organized course with a consistent design will make it easier for you, the instructor, to maintain and update course content easily.
Below are some recommended best practices for online course design.
A clean simple design, with content broken out by lesson, module, or topic, enables students to easily use the course regardless of experience or concentration level. Cognitive load and stress for students is lessened if the course navigation is intuitive and consistent. Ways to achieve simplicity include:
Identify page elements or a menu for your course. For example, within an LMS you may have a syllabus, announcements page, a course schedule, learning modules/topics, (however you break them out), student resources, resources for parents, etc.
Put like items together to form a course navigation.
Below is one example of putting like items together to create course navigation or course menu.
Course Modules or Topics
Where you post daily, weekly, or timely announcements.
Course syllabus, Course schedule, Course map
Your bio, welcome video or text, contact info, office hours, (should also be in syllabus)
Everything students need for completing the assignments broken out by time or topic.
Additional Resources for students and/or parents.
The above table is very basic and intended as an example only. You may have other LMS tools in your course menu such as Discussion Boards, Gradebook, Assignment tools, Quizzes, etc.
Your course will be more usable if you apply the principle of consistency. This allows your students to learn the interface quickly. Familiarity with the interface enables students to focus their attention on the relevant aspects of the course.
Ways consistency can be applied:
Consistent terms for student actions, for example don’t say “click here” on one page and “access this link” on another page. Use the same terminology for student actions on all pages.
Use consistent headings. Create headings that make sense and standardize them throughout the course. This includes student instructions, titles for different task assignments, etc. If you use the term “Assigned Reading” in one module, use that same term in all the modules for the assigned readings list.
Keep color coding consistent and thoughtful. If you do use different colors for different headings, use them consistently throughout the course and make them harmonious, avoid glaring or clashing colors.
If you choose to use icons to indicate different activities, use the same ones throughout the course. Make sure they do not overwhelm or distract from the key course content. (We like the free options on iconfinder.com)
Don’t change the structure of the course once the class starts. Sudden switches in course design or sudden switches while lecturing in the classroom can be easily done, however in an online course sudden changes can be confusing, clumsy, and waste time.
Students need to know exactly what to do – everything required needs to be specific and transparent. Think of what is involved in giving directions on how to get somewhere. That is basically what you need to do for your students in the online mode. They need a starting place, a road map of where to go, instructions on what they need to do on the way and an understanding of when they have arrived.
Ways to add clarity to your course include:
Add extra details in your syllabus for online students. Normally in a classroom one of the first things you do is review the syllabus with students and answer questions. For an online course your syllabus should be very explicit about all aspects of the course.
Include exactly how students should interface with the course. How often do they need to check the course site, how often will announcements be posted?
Post dates for any due assignments that take place within the LMS in the course schedule and include that on your weekly assignments pages as well.
Include a schedule that includes weekly dates, topics, deliverables and meeting sessions if you are teaching online synchronously. It is helpful for students to have one big picture of times, topics and deliverables for mapping their own work time.
Provide a way for students to ask general questions about the course. Usually this can be done in a discussion board so all students can see the questions and answers. Invite students to email you any questions if they are not comfortable posting to the discussion board.
Provide tutorials as needed. These may include how to upload or submit homework, how to post to the discussion board, how the quiz tool works in the LMS etc.
Provide institutional or online resources students may need to access.
Hold consistent office hours and provide alternate contact options, for example email, virtual meetings, or phone calls.
The below graphic provides an example of a weekly module page within an LMS. Italicized notes indicate what may go in each section. This example is intended to help you start thinking how you might want to organize your pages.
While keeping your course consistent and simple in design, do not leave out putting your own stamp onto it. Just as you want to know your students, most of them will want to know something about you. Let your personality come out, let your passion for teaching show, keep students aware that you are rooting for them and you are there to help them be successful. Some ways you can personalize your course:
Provide an intro video of yourself
Add inspirational quotes
Provide topical personal examples, stories or experiences
Add a short weekly start of the week welcome and end of the week summary podcast.
Provide personalized feedback for students in your authentic voice. Be more encouraging than you might be in the classroom where students get a stronger sense of you.
Promote a “we are all in this together” consciousness within your course.
The online environment demands your students be more responsible for their learning. While this can seem hard at first for some students, in reality this is building an excellent life-skill. A learner centered environment provides the tools, cues, and resources to help student success. Some ways to promote a learner-centered environment include:
Get to know your students. Ask them to introduce themselves to the class. Ask them to answer a few questions in their introduction, either about why they are taking the class, past experiences with the topic, or anything about their hobbies, passions, etc. Sometimes it can be helpful to know where students are located, especially if you have clusters in different areas.
Add reminders in the course that students are responsible for their own learning. This may also need to be done on an individual basis.
Have a late homework policy but also invite students to contact you to make special arrangements if need be. Support students in managing all the responsibilities and demands in their lives.
Provide students with an estimated time commitment that the course will require from them. Provide tips for how to be a successful online learner.
Provide resources for students who need a little extra help, or who did not start the course with all the required prerequisite knowledge. Beware though, that situation can only be mitigated so much.
Record all your lectures and discussions so students can go back and review as needed.
Promote students helping each other, this can be done in the discussion board, by creating group projects, or using breakrooms for small discussions on the synchronous meeting tool.
Invite students to share their experiences, stories and ideas as often as is relevant.
Ask students for feedback about the course on a regular basis. Their perspective and feedback can help you refine and improve your course with each iteration.
Respond quickly to student problems with using technology or questions about the course. This promotes trust and helps students understand you are there to help them be successful.
This post is not exhaustive – most online courses go through a much longer development time than is being asked of teachers in response to the current pandemic. I hope this gives you some ideas on how to get started in setting up your course and ways you can be successful in the new paradigm.
About the Author
Dianna Beardslee is an Instructional Design Subject Matter Expert and Consultant for MKS2, LLC. Dianna believes that “everything is possible”. She turns problems into ideas, ideas into solutions, and solutions into programs.