Successful online courses do not happen by accident. Instead, they are the result of many hours of careful planning, design and collaboration from multiple parties across multiple disciplines. They involve the creative input of academics, learning technologists, graphic designers, video specialists, copy editors, project managers and, at the very heart of the process, the learning designer.
During the development process a learning designer may draw upon many ideologies and strategies to meet the demands of the project. There is no magic bullet, each discipline, individual and challenge will require a varied set of solutions.
We are developing a number of online degrees across multiple disciplines, including Computer Science, Psychology, Marketing and Supply Chain Management. So how do our learning designers work? How do we deliver success, when our programmes require a range of approaches and solutions? We use experience coupled with carefully chosen and well-established good practices. These practices are implicitly embedded in the design-process, supporting accepted pedagogies. But, most importantly, they can be used as a quality framework to ensure the delivery of an engaging and well-designed course.
So, what are they?
We’ve included our preferred list below along with some actual examples of these in practice – this list will keep growing so subscribe to this blog to stay informed!
This is the starting point! Ensure that you clearly explain the learning outcomes of the course. Be precise – be specific. Plan your assessments early, both formative and summative to ensure they align to the learning outcomes. Keep your assessments in mind as you continue planning the course and make sure your learning activities support them.
- Set clear and measurable learning outcomes
- Design summative assessments before the content
- Ensure assessments align with learning outcomes
- Ensure learning activities support assessments
A well-designed online course must be well presented, easy to navigate and digest. A typical online learner has limited time, so do not overload them with pages of readings, links and videos simply because you can. Break your study into manageable and organised blocks (e.g. by week, by topic). Try to keep each block a similar length to allow students to plan their time better. Establish an acceptable number of study hours the student can manage each week (e.g. 10/12 hours) – take account of this in your design.
- Organise your course into manageable blocks
- Ensure navigation and signposting is clear and easy
- Arrange your content into a logical and consistent format
- Stick to agreed study hours
Studying an online course can be a challenging experience. Learners are often in employment and many have existing care responsibilities. Learning is not a passive activity – it requires effort so it is important that students have a clear understanding of what is expected of them. Set out your expectations at the beginning of the course and provide a detailed orientation. Always make sure that students understand the relationship between the learning outcomes, assessments and the activities they have been set – they are much more likely to engage if they understand the benefit.
- Manage student’s expectations
- Provide orientation to the course
- Explain the relationship between learning outcomes, assessment and the learning activities
- Give a clear description of the assessment plan and marking scheme
Learners should not spend their valuable time trying to understand the nature of what they are being asked to do. Remember too that for many online learners, English is not their first language.
Always provide clear and precise instructions for learning activities and avoid unnecessary jargon. Don’t just describe the activity, let the student know what is expected of them and provide examples and explanations where possible.
- Reduce barriers to learning
- Provide clear expectations of student activity
- Provide examples, explanations, standards, requirements, guidelines and context
- Use plain English
Good quality online learning materials can be studied independently of a tutor – however, having an online tutor available and present is highly desirable and hugely valued by the learner.
Online tutor time is limited and students have high expectations. Where possible, design activities that encourage independent or peer-based learning as these reduce the reliance on the tutor. Organise your tutors’ time carefully.
For tutor-led activities, the tutor should be engaged and willing to facilitate learning. Do not use the tutor’s time for large volumes of transmission type information (e.g. live video lectures), not all interaction needs to be synchronous. Use the tutor to prompt, encouraging the students to learn for themselves. Remember the adage – ‘the guide-on-the-side and not the sage-on-the-stage’,
- Schedule your time carefully – do not over promise
- Communicate your availability clearly
- Be present and willing to participate during live sessions
- Guide students to independent or peer learning – do not immediately step in to provide solutions
- Use a mixture of synchronous and asynchronous tools to provide feedback and collaboration
Learning can be a social activity, many students welcome to opportunity to learn with their peers. Collaborative learning can help to break down social barriers, form relationships, improve teamwork skills and reduce isolation.
Online courses should make frequent use of active learning involving peer or collaborative learning. This can include formal activities such as producing a group report, a group discussion, peer-review/assessment or role-playing scenarios. Additionally, informal, student-led activities, such as student cafes, chat rooms or study groups should be encouraged.
However, a note of caution! The protection of student data and privacy is essential. Ensure that student’s identities and data can be protected as required. Do not make group activities compulsory – allow students to opt-out if desired and provide alternative activities to support them. Provide clear advice for students who are exchanging personal data with their peers to ensure their safety and privacy.
- Facilitate active learning through frequent and ongoing peer involvement and meaningful collaborative learning activities
- Encourage students to learn from each other
- Do not make group activities compulsory – provide alternatives for those students who do not want to participate
Online courses should use a mixture of content types and strategies to develop an engaging and interactive course. Don’t rely on a single medium for delivery – video is excellent for transmission, but then so is reading a book or a website. Students will welcome the mixture of types.
Your content should also provide ample opportunity for active learning and critical reflection. Ask students to discover their own information and always encourage students to reflect on their learning, record and share their thoughts.
Many students study to enhance their careers so, where possible, use real-world examples and applications of the knowledge to maintain relevance. Encourage students to apply their new knowledge to their own work or experience. Keep the content current – even if the theory hasn’t changed for a long-time the world around it has so try to embed the subject material in a meaningful context.
Always identify difficult and important subjects in advance – even encourage students to spend more time on these if necessary. Always explicitly identify new subject matter if the student hasn’t encountered it before and explain why it is relevant to the course. If possible, tie it in to the learning outcomes and assessment.
Be aware of your national regulations regarding Accessibility. Always design online courses that meet these regulations.
- Enhance student interaction with accessible and interactive content
- Design content that supports critical reflection, reasoning, discovery, investigation as well as acquisition
- Provide materials that are current and relevant, using authentic real-world examples and applications
- Identify important and new subject areas and provide context