Building Intuitive Online Courses

We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.

Winston Churchill

I am often reminded of Churchill’s wisdom concerning architecture when conducting quality audits on online courses for clients in the post-secondary sector. By this, I mean the technology we use to create online courses greatly effects how we end up teaching online. The learning management system (LMS) in use can be thought of as the building in this analogy that ends up shaping how we interact with learners.

Learning management systems are essentially huge databases that make it easier for educators to organize content, interactions, activities and assessments into what we know as an online course. Such systems obviously vary in significant ways (e.g. interface, specific functionality, ease-of-use, etc.), but the one thing they do have in common is the tendency to compartmentalize things. For example, there is usually a place to load content, a place for assessments, a place for assignments, a place for discussions, a calendar, etc. Course authors / instructors busy themselves filling up these various compartments and when finished deem the course complete. I call this process “filling all the boxes.”

However, once all the boxes are filled, students entering the course are often at a loss. They enter the “building” (the course) and have no idea where they are to go, or what they are to do. Many online courses force students into going on painstaking scavenger hunts to find content in one place, a schedule of activities and due dates in another, instructions on expectations in assignments in another, etc. They have to pull together various pieces of the puzzle in order to have something resembling a coherent whole.

Carrying on with the building analogy, it is as if they have entered a huge museum without any clue of which exhibits are in which rooms. They have to go from room to room to figure this out. Nothing is intuitive, and there are no clear directions, maps or signage to point them in the right direction.

So how do we improve on this course architecture?

One way is via improved online tools. I am glad to see that Desire2Learn’s Learning Environment 9.0 has an Instructional Design Wizard and a Course Builder tool that encourage course authors / instructors to take a holistic approach to course design and encourages them to be consistent in tying together learning objectives, learning activities and learner assessments. Anything that gets us beyond the “fill-in-the-boxes” approach is helpful.

The other way to solve the problem is to look at things from the learner’s perspective. Often course authors are too close to it and know in their minds how everything works. However, if they step back and try to see the course as a student laying his or her eyes on it for the first time, they may then see that things are not as intuitive as they may have thought. They may then go in and add an overlying teaching narrative that guides students through the course, pointing out what is where, what needs to be done when, and how all the pieces fit together. It is best to assume nothing in this respect and to be explicit with such directions.

The key to making online courses more intuitive and user-friendly is go beyond filling in the boxes that LMS’s provide for us. You should design things in such way that students can easily and intuitively find their way around your course without searching from one box to another to find what they need, when they need it.

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