Digital Content

Day 1: Back to Basics


Online spaces for learning are increasingly a part of the student experience of their course. Most university courses have an associated site for their learning management system (LMS) – for ANU, this is Wattle (Moodle), but it could also involve websites, blogs, or social media online spaces. While a significant amount of planning often goes into what happens in the face-to-face classroom environment, online environments may not be planned in the same way.

This coffee course aims to get you thinking about the student experience of your online learning spaces and offers ideas and strategies to plan and design your online classroom effectively. It is not about course design as a whole, but rather, what the visual and interactive experience of an online course site might be.  We hope to put our student hats on and explore what visual aspects frustrate,  and what assists and engages students in online sites and courses.

The teacher as designer

LMS designAs a teacher, when you are asked to set up an online course,  you are setting out to design an experience or a series of experiences for your students.  You want to design that experience to maximise their learning and their chances of achieving the required outcomes for the course, and to reduce confusion or stress for students.

Here is a quote that encapsulates the essence of designing student experience – it is a process of “orchestrating” numerous elements of a curriculum, course, or learning journey, for the student to have the most effective learning experience:

“In learning design particularly for blended or e-learning solutions, learning designers often need to orchestrate the design for products (such as learning resources), systems (such as a course shell in a learning management system) and services (such as timely feedback or discussion facilitation).” Soulis & Seitzinger, 2017, p. 3

If you have an online space for your course, whether or not it is fully online or a blended model, the visual design of this space is only one aspect of the total course design, but it should reflect the total course design approach.

Empathy in course design

Image of two heads facing each other

Learner-centred education design is known as Learner Experience Design (LX), which means you design your program and any online spaces with student experience at the forefront of your thinking.  Empathy in design and “human-centred” design have become important concepts in course design, as explained in Educause Review, Jan 12, 2015, Using Design Thinking in Higher Education.

The design and accessibility of online spaces has a direct impact on student well-being. An excellent resource on the impact of curriculum design and academic teaching style on student well being is a Melbourne University page called Enhancing Student Well-being. See also our Espresso Coffee Course, Fostering Student Well-being.  Principles of universal design and student engagement are big factors in an empathetic course design, and we have covered these topics in previous coffee courses – go to Universal Design for Learning  and Engaging Students Online.

How do we as teachers empathise with our student audience?  Generally, we would attempt to put ourselves in the place of our students.  One strategy is to research any feedback that students have given from previous courses.  This might involve looking at last semester’s official student feedback data (at ANU this would be the results of the SELT data from your course or a similar course).  Some individual teachers also take time to obtain less formal feedback from their students such as verbal feedback after lectures or tutorials, or quick polls or evaluation questionnaires at the end of class.  These sources of student feedback will provide you with rich information on the student’s experience, and where things are working well as well as where things are causing the students problems.  Where possible, it is good practice to involve students in the design of the course, as partners – this might be via focus group discussions and other means of consultation, during the course design phase.

Concepts borrowed from User Experience or UX (Guo, 2012) can be useful in helping us design course environments with the student in mind. Below is a concise set of principles* that we can adapt:

  • Value:   Does the design address the needs of students? How useful is the course site in helping them improve their learning experience and achieving the learning outcomes?
  • Usability: How easily can learners navigate their course sites and complete their intended tasks within the course?
  • Desirability:  Does the design of the course site engage students?
  • Adoptability: How easily can students start using and familiarising themselves with the site?

*Note that UX principles vary widely and these were chosen based on their relevance.


question mark Share your worst student experience in an online or blended course.  What were the problems, and what did these problems relate to in terms of course design?


The most common student complaints

Image of unhappy student

Looking at what frustrates and holds back students when they are navigating their programs or courses, whether online, blended or face to face, provides us with valuable material for empathy.  We note their frustration and we resolve to try to spare them of similar experiences again.  Some of these frustrations include lack of teacher presence, lack of a feeling of community, confusing web navigation, long scrolls on the web page, broken links, lack of quality resources, for example.  Students’ biggest need in the higher education environment is nearly always to be able to easily locate assessments and to know what they need to do and by which date.

These kinds of issues can be addressed in the online course design, although along with this must come a culture of  teacher commitment to the online students’ well-being.


question markHave you or your students experienced any of these difficulties?  How might the design of online spaces remedy or help to alleviate some of these issues?


How do we put empathy and “design thinking” into practice?

In the following two days, we are going to share with you some tools and strategies to ensure online learning spaces are an engaging and stress-free environment for your learners.


Guo, F., 2012, “More than Usability: the Four Elements of User Experience Part I” in Eliciting Desired Behaviour Blog, April 24, 2012

Morris, H., & Warman, G., 2015 “Using Design Thinking in Higher EducationEducause Review, Jan 12, 2015.

Soulis, S., Nicolettou, A. and Seitzinger, Joyce, 2017. “Using Learner Experience Design (LX) for Program Enhancement” in  Conference Proceedings, Open and Distance Learning Association, Australia

Zanjani, N, Edwards,S.L., Nykvist, S. & Geva, S., 2017, “The important elements of LMS design that affect user engagement with e-learning tools within LMSs in the higher education sector” in Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 2017, 33 (1).

35 thoughts on “Day 1: Back to Basics

  1. This is the first time for me to come across the term “empathy” in relation to course design but on reflection it is logical that improving the experience of using an online course website will improve the overall experience of the course for the student. I think being able to effectively use learning management systems is a challenge that I will need to overcome in order to create user friendly course websites.

    1. Thanks Emma, you are right, in the end it gets back to considering the experience and feelings of students accessing the online space. It is great that you are here to explore the challenge!

    2. Emma, hi. I agree the course website is of importance to the student experience. In terms of empathy, I try to think of the design from the point of view of a highly stressed student (not hard as I have been one of those). The sort of questions I try to answer are: What do I have to do to pass this course? What do I have to do first? Where are the resources? What is compulsory? When is stuff due? Is there anything I have to attend in person? Are there any “examinations”? Is there group work? When can I withdraw without penalty? Do I know any of the other students?

  2. I think the worst elearning course I did was a Macquarie University MOOC. And it had nothing to do with the course itself or the platform. Everything worked. It’s just that the description of what was in the MOOC wasn’t accurate/aligned with what actually happened in the course. Or more specifically who the MOOC was targeted at, who the primary audience was intended to be.

    1. Hi Emma, thanks for sharing your experience. This is a vital aspect of course design as a whole, and is an illustration of how even if you have a perfect online course site, a lack of constructive alignment between the required course outcomes and the materials and activities in the course can lead to major confusion and disappointment (this is something that was discussed in our previous Coffee Course on student well-being). Since you are referring to a MOOC, your disappointment could also be partly caused by inaccurate marketing which resulted in the wrong audience being attracted to the course.

      In this particular Coffee Course we decided to focus only on the actual visual design and how that impacts student experience but of course it is important when you are designing and developing a course to consider the whole experience of the student.

  3. My worst student experience of an online course was, ironically, one for training online tutors. The course used the Blackboard learning management system, which I was not familiar with. There were lots of posting on the site, which seemed odd, since the course just started. After a few minutes I discovered, to my growing horror, that the course hadn’t just started and I was days late. So I then spend hours quickly skimming through materials and making posting to try to catch up with the class.

    The next day the tutor explained that there were two cohorts and those of us in the second cohort did not have to worry about being late, as our course had just started. There was no apology about the extreme stress which half the class had just been put though. There was no assurance that changes would be made so this would not happen again. It was just a virtual shrug of shoulders.

    My half of the class was reviewing the course to decide if our organization should adopt it. We recommended against using this course, so at least we had the sanctification of knowing none of our colleagues would be subjected to this poor quality work.

    What I did learn from the course was the need for empathy, to have an idea of what the students are going through. The best way to learn what it was like to be an on-line student I found was to enroll in an on-line course.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Tom. That was indeed a great insight gained from your own experience in navigating an online course. Creating groups and issues about who can see what can result in very confusing experiences unless they are well thought out and designed with the student path in mind.

      Part of the visual aspect of the design is of course, who gets to see what, in a course where there may be different cohorts and groups.

  4. A long time ago I worked in software design and one of the golden rules was that, not only did you get user input to the design process, you also performed acceptance testing. That way, you could address problems before the system went live. In the case of online learning, that would imply it is not enough to just get student input to course design, one also needs to ask a student or 2 (or somebody independent of the design process) to walk through the designed course to give feedback on ease of use.

    1. I totally agree, Sel, this is the ideal we should try and work toward. One way is to look at previous student evaluations of the course and see what can be learned from that. The idea of testing user acceptance is great, but unfortunately the semester timings and the often late assignment of courses to lecturers and tutors can make this very difficult to achieve. It is a good ideal to keep in mind though, for when we can test out our design ideas before putting them into an online course.

  5. The worst blended course I had was a later year engineering course. The wattle site was very much an afterthought to the course. The first half of the semester was nearly complete before information was added to the wattle page and when it was added it was in no structured or organised way. There were no links to the lecture recordings on the site and lecture slides were uploaded in bulk so it was extremely difficult to keep track of where the course was up to unless you could attend every lecture. With the delivery method of university courses changing the expectation that students have to be able to access information through other delivery methods other than lectures means sites such as Wattle need to be thought about just as much as the lecture content and not just as an after thought/data dump of information.

    1. Hi Adam, thanks for your observations – and the point you make is very relevant. Too many times online environments are an “afterthought” to face to face lectures. Both formats need careful thought and planning. Some how we have to try and get higher level decision makers to realise this and give realistic timelines and allocate sufficient time and resources to creating empathetic online environments to help students to learn.

    1. Hi Tom, the thrust of this Coffee Course is to look at the visuals of an online course environment specifically rather than go into interaction, organisation of the course itself, administration, and student support etc. And I thought that although your comment was more about the organisational side of the course (divisions into groups, starting dates, etc), it is very relevant to visual design because the way the course is organised (eg starting dates, cohorts etc) is reflected in what the student sees on the front page and as you recounted, creates confusion.

      To be honest, I have a bit of a problem separating out the purely visual design aspect of an online course, from the student’s holistic experience of the course, but it was decided that covering it all would be too big a topic for a brief coffee course so we decided to focus on visual design on the screen.

  6. Thanks for the materials.

    I am currently teaching a wholly-online course, and designing another. I read through the list of common student frustrations and this really echoed some of the concerns we have taken into thinking about the design of the courses. In a way, it was reassuring to hear that this is a challenge for course design in the online space generally.

    I agree that the ability for students to be able to easily access materials through the online space is critical, and that this often shapes how well they engage with the course as well as their confidence in the teaching. Right now, I am trying to resolve an issue with broken links in our course sites, and this is proving challenging. I have suggested alternative resources for the students to look at in the meantime, but it is one hazard of online learning that the platform is at the mercy of technical failures. Having said that, it has become clear to me that the online space is really good for problem-based or student-driven learning, because it is possible to create a network of resources. This is what we have tried to do in the course that I am teaching. However, I’m not sure that the current design that we have is fully optimised for good student engagement. I am really keen to learn more this week and maybe gain some new insights into what else we can be doing to improve the student experience.

    Thanks again.

    1. Hi Radhika, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this – it is great to hear from someone right now grappling with some of the thorny issues in online course design. Links can indeed be problematic. Often links break on course roll over in our ANU instance of Moodle (I am not at this stage sure if this is a problem in all Moodle sites or not). Also, if you add links to library resources, the library will take those links down at the end of each academic year, hence links to library resources will then be broken.

      There is one possible source of hope on the horizon, as from what I have heard, our new Learning Content Management System we will be implementing next year will allow links to the content management system that will not break on roll over. More information coming soon!
      It is great that you see the potential for online and its networking possibilities, for approaches such as Problem Based Learning – and the new Learning Content Management System will really enable this further.

    1. Tom I don’t know how to explain further other than to reiterate we are talking in this course about what a course looks like on the screen.

  7. Hi everyone,
    I’ve had a good and bad experience of fully online, and a more recent experience of blended. My good experience was doing a subject that was about coding and accessibility in online learning. It was a great combination of content (information) aligned with practical and the lessons I learnt about accessibility are ingrained in me now even though this subject was in 20003/4! The other good thing about this subject was peer-to-peer support – we were all doing html and css coding, so there was a lot of problem solving – by email! The teacher would step in if she thought we needed it (‘guide on the side’ approach).
    The bad experience was a subject that had no interaction at all – between students or students/teacher.
    Student experience is a powerful contributor to learning design.

    1. Hi Andrea, thanks for sharing two great eg’s of a positive and negative experience with online learning. It is interesting that these experiences are more about the overall design and methodology of the way the course is conducted, rather than visual aspects. I am wondering if anything about the visual look of the course on the screen (such as navigation, the layout of the pages etc) had any impact on your positive experiences. If you didn’t notice this aspect, it may have been such a good visual design it was not noticeable, which is good!

  8. My worst experience was a blended course with face to face lectures and online programming projects.

    First, the course itself was not closely related to programming at all. Second, the submission and grading mechanism of online projects was not well designed. Most students lost motivation in a short time. Third, the course material website had everything mixed together. One could not tell whether the document was a problem set, or solutions to the problem set, or just some “interesting topics”. Last but maybe worst, what was taught in that semester had nothing to do with the final exam.

    There is a saying in my original culture which could be roughly translated as “Don’t do to others what you don’t want others to do to you”. I think it coincides with the “empathy” here. We should remind ourselves the experience in those poorly-designed courses to avoid similar problems in our own courses.

    1. Hi SS, great comment relating empathy back to your own experience of poor course design. The visual aspect of the site structure can be very confusing without clear topics, sections and other markers to indicate what is important and what is “just interesting” or extension materials. This is exactly what we are trying to approach in this coffee course. Hopefully today’s post which will appear at 11 am will provide even further food for thought about student experience of the visual appearance of a course site.

  9. “What a course looks like on screen” also depends on who is looking at it. For example, I am colour blind and what I see is definitely different to what 80% of the rest of the population sees. So, using colour to add emphasis, group or direct is bad for me – but I understand that black and white is boring for the colour privileged. I can use apps and even add-ons to my web browser to rework colour rich sites into something I can cope with, and similarly, there are apps and add-ons to optimise fonts and sizes for those who have other preferences and needs for interpreting how things look. So, when designing for how a web-page looks, please be supportive of those who may need to change that look, and especially do not “hard code” font size and colour.

    1. Hi Christopher, you have raised a very important point about accessibility. We do need to keep in mind visual disabilities and colour blindness when designing our course. It is important that we don’t make colour a critical factor in understanding the navigation or content.

  10. My worst experience was in an online course in Career Development. I had enrolled in the program with some excitement, which immediately dissipated upon viewing the LMS site for the first compulsory course. The site was a mess of resources, with no logical order to them; there was no indication of teacher presence, and no attempt to orient students to the site, the course, or to learning online. The site was off-putting, rather than engaging, and after attempting to navigate it for around half an hour I simply gave up and later withdrew from the entire program. As I was working full-time, it simply wasn’t worth trying to pursue something that was so difficult to navigate. The site didn’t address any of my needs (a starting point, assessment schedule, suggested study pattern, critical dates etc.), it was difficult to use (and look at), and it did the absolute opposite to engaging me. I do wonder how many students they lost from the program simply because of that course site!

  11. Thanks for sharing your disappointing experience, Rebekka. I think we could make your list of everything you mention above, into a checklist of what to avoid in course design! But the most dramatic insight is into the impact it had on you as a student trying to deal with competing life pressures. This is the situation most people are in today, and a messy, confusing course site just evaporates motivation very quickly.

  12. One of my big bugbears in online design is when the designer tries to highlight everything — as a result, nothing is able to be found. My preference in design is less is more, especially when giving lots of information to students. I also think that clear flow between different sites is important for students, especially during revision phases of their course. This also goes to the main frustration of students being able to find the assessment tasks (and how to submit them) easily when they are needed. In one particular course I was a student in, the lecturers kept moving all the assessment requirements by adding new materials and changing sections throughout the course, resulting in us students finding it very frustrating to submit assignments.

    1. HI Lauren, excellent points about navigation and flow. It is critical students are easily able to find the assignments and what is required by when. Also the issues of too much highlighting, text that is inconsistent and garishly coloured, pages that are very busy, are all important considerations in designing a learning environment online. I agree with you – less is more! That doesn’t mean you have to scrimp on important content – the secret is how it is all arranged in your learning environment.

  13. Hello all,
    Very interesting to hear about your worst online course experiences. I think I must have been lucky or perhaps I’ve blocked it out :).
    There is nothing quite like a broken link to make people lose confidence in the relevance of the content. People may think that if the link is broken then the information is also outdated.
    Earlier this year an academic came and said to me that she had linked to an online article which was the basis for an assignment but the article had been taken down. She was very worried that she would no longer to use the task but luckily I found the article again by pasting the broken web address into the wonderful Wayback machine:
    I know that some CMSs have link checkers and there are online link checkers such as but they don’t work for content on Wattle.
    I think it is great that if you name a Wattle activity or resource carefully, whenever that name appears anywhere on your Wattle site, it will automatically link to it. However, it would be great if it had an external link checker too.

    1. Hi Rowena

      These are very good points about the impact on the user of broken links. It does tend to undermine the validity of the resource. And usually you would want to have a very good reason for using an old resource only retrievable through Wayback. And it also shows that you do need to check your course site every now and then to make sure links still work. The auto linking function is available in Moodle and you can turn it on in the Filters area from the Admin tab. However I am not sure that Moodle has a plug in that would check links – something we can research perhaps. Thanks for your thoughts!

  14. My worst experiences aren’t so much horror stories as just poor online design. On one end of the spectrum are the LMS sites that are available only because there is a requirement (or strong expectation) to provide one. However, the site itself has very little of use, and thus, gets very little use. On the other end of the spectrum are the sites controlled by well-meaning, but time-poor/tech-unsavvy convenors who dump everything on the site in no coherent order. Or, as they aren’t confident with much beyond uploading files and links, the site becomes one big scroll-fest. Better online course design would remedy both situations for students by making the LMS sites functional learning environments that enhance the face-to-face opportunities.

  15. The worst and most common problem I find with online resources is when the lecturer reuses course material from the previous years without checking it over to change dates for assignments, add any new relevant information into slides, or new readings. In one particular course I took in my undergrad, the material was a composition of a few years and so there were 3 different due dates for an assignment, with 2 different descriptions of what was expected from the assessment task. This was frustrating and annoying to have to continually clarify which sources to trust. It added unnecessary stress onto the students and created confusion that the tutors and lecturers spent the rest of the course correcting. Before a course starts the material and online resources should be checked over to prevent this type of problem from occurring.

    Throughout various courses I’ve taken I can safely say that at one point in time or another I have personally experienced all of the difficulties with online resources discussed in the reading. However, along the way, there were also some standout positive elements from courses that I hope to remember and implement in my own work. For example, in one course there was an interactive checklist at the end of each week’s section with the option for students to fill out. The lecturer had added list items such as reminders of weekly posting or homework due, how many readings have been read, a breakdown of the upcoming assignments and speeches to check-off your progress each week. I thought this was a great way to keep on time and ensure that you weren’t missing anything amongst the mass of information. A simple thing, but it really helped me with my time management and it’s always a great feeling being able to check off an item on your to-do list!

  16. My worst experience has been starting my day by observing how students of on online course had started a really offensive fight with each other at 2 AM, and this has escalated to a full on online community storm by 5 AM before the teacher came to moderate the situation at 8 AM. The conflict was managed, but I still wonder how to best manage the contradiction between a strong, vivid online community of learners vs. the dark side of freedom of speech (e.g., cyberbullying).

  17. I think one of the worst courses online was one I saw last year during the pandemic. It had been set up pre-pandemic, but nevertheless, the lectures were put into folders with unhelpful names, as were the notes – they were in one big giant pdf and had 3 different page numbers to each page.
    Some students did not know where to look to receive communications either – the updates were not forwarded in a digest either, so many missed the announcements posted altogether. I learnt a lot from watching that course develop, and definitely agree that there are many ways to make a student’s (and tutor’s!) life far more difficult than it needs to be.

  18. Hi Hanna, thanks for this very thought-provoking example. Shows how flare ups can quickly develop in online spaces, even those spaces reserved for academic discussion in university courses! I wonder whether the students had been briefed on “netiquette” and ways to prevent or dampen down such flare-ups, and/or general rules for group activities were developed with the students? These are two things that may help prevent the worst, but of course nothing is guaranteed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *