Digital Content

Day 2: From chaos to order

Good morning! We had some wonderful discussions on yesterday’s post. One observation we made from your comments is that there is a focus on the broader aspect of course and interaction design. What’s interesting is that visual design (i.e. web design, layout, use of colours) of course sites are often secondary to our thinking and subtly embedded in our experience rather than at the forefront of our considerations, especially if we use online learning environments (e.g. Learning management systems) as supplementary to our face-to-face teaching. In today’s post, we are going put visual design on the frontline and talk about the layout of your course site – can students navigate your site and find the content they need in the massive swamp of information?

Dealing with information overload

A cartoon of a student struggling to keep up with e-learning overload.

University courses are generally content heavy. And it isn’t surprising – academics are content experts. They know their subject matter well and have a lot of knowledge to share. After all, the purpose of higher education is broadly to cultivate knowledge that helps to “develop learners to work towards improving the conditions of society at large” (Chan, 2016, p. 6).

However, the amount of content provided does not equate to the amount of content learnt by students. Too much content may cause fatigue or exhaustion while too little content may not allow you to achieve your desired learning outcomes (see Monahan, 2015). Designing empathetic, student-centred courses and sites must therefore take into consideration the amount of content available and how it is organised. Presenting and managing the content effectively can help students to easily understand and navigate the course site. It is an implicit form of communication that enables you to achieve your intended learning outcomes and foster positive learner experience that takes student well-being into account.

Consider a section of a chart by Garrett (2000) about elements of user experience below. This chart highlights how user needs (what students need) and site objectives (what the teacher or course needs) form the basis of how you will want to visually lay out an online site.

A chart showing how user needs and site objectives form the foundation of the visual design.

In today’s post, we will focus specifically on strategies to help organise content before applying visual design.

Create a symphony, not a cacophony of alarm bells

In Day 1, Jill talked about “orchestrating” the student experience – and it is a very apt description of what empathetic design is about. A piece of music generally has structure, rhythm and harmony. If you are familiar with Tschaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, you will know that the canons fired within the piece is clear, perfectly timed and in harmony with the orchestra although it has a complex musical structure.

Content in a course needs to be similarly clear, well-organised and presented in a logical manner especially when it has a lot of information. To do this, we recommend a three-step approach (see Stanford Course Design Guidelines and Information Architecture for detailed information):

  1. Identify learner needs – what is important to students and what do they need to know
  2. Select, map and organise content to meet course goals – what students need to achieve learning outcomes
  3. Wireframe your content – how students can find a logical path through the content on your course site

Let’s go through each of these in turn.

1. Identify learner needs

When thinking about learner needs, we should begin by asking a few questions:

  • What information do students want to know?
  • What are the most important ideas and theories students need to take from the course?
  • What are the most important skills students should develop in the course?

From experience, students are most concerned about assessments, who they can contact and what the course is about. Therefore, having sections dedicated to communication (i.e. how they can contact you and how they will be communicated to), assessment (i.e. what the assignment is about and when it is due) and course overview (with course outline) right at the top of the course site can be very useful in helping students get started.

One helpful way to approach the design of your site is to connect what important ideas and skills students need to take away from the course to your course learning outcomes. These will help you to select activities and materials that should go into the course.

2. Select, map and organise content to meet course goals

In course design, we often talk about “constructive alignment“. Constructive alignment refers to the alignment of teaching and assessment to the intended learning outcomes (Biggs, 2014). Some of you may already have existing course outlines with a selection of course materials – however, it is still useful to map your course materials to your learning outcomes and then organise them in a meaningful way as it helps build and visualise your course site more effectively.

One technique I learnt while working as a communications officer and teaching at a university is content mapping which helps to visualise the purpose of each content item and where the saturation points and gaps are. Here’s an abbreviated version of how you can map content/activities (green and red post it notes) and assessments (blue post it notes) to intended learning outcomes:

A content map showing how you can map course materials, activities and assessments to your learning outcomes

Some content items or assessments may fit into multiple categories and that’s fine – for this exercise, I simply include them in the most appropriate section. If you cannot justify how certain items can help achieve your course’s learning outcomes, you’ll need to re-consider either including them as supporting materials or discarding them altogether.

After you’ve gone through the trouble of selecting content that matches your learning outcomes, you will need to organise and structure them in a logical manner so that students can understand the flow of the course. This does not mean that your course is necessarily linear (although it can be if that is required) but rather, it provides students with a sense of progression.

There are several ways in which you can organise your content. Below is an example of how you can organise your content via a combination of topics and weeks:

A second content map showing how you can organise your course materials for students in a meaningful manner

You can further structure your course materials through labeling, metadata tagging, creating content hierarchies, etc. – see information architecture for more information.

Discussion

question markDo you have an existing course outline? How is it structured and is it similarly represented on your course site?

 

3. Wireframe your content

Once you have organised your content, you are ready to begin building your course. Wireframing is a technique used to sketch a layout of a website that highlights key elements – it does not have to represent a fully designed site. Rather, it is the foundation that allows you to apply visual design and add content after. If you are using a specific learning management system, you may also want to take into consideration some of its technical and design limitations. In saying that, wireframing is about what you want rather than what you can do!

Here, I’ve translated my content map example above into a working wireframe for a course site:

A wireframe of a course site based on key elements identified above

To recap, the key elements above include:

  1. Important information that students want or need to know such as communication channels, assessments, etc. These are positioned right at the top of the page.
  2. Course materials structured according to my second content map. Notice that I have also further included ways of grouping and representing course materials – such as using folders for readings.

Organising and wireframing content is one way of improving navigation and learner experience as it visualises and plans pathways for students to locate where they are currently at and where they need to go. In tomorrow’s coffee course, we will look specifically at how you can apply visual design to this wireframe.

Discussion

question markUsing an existing or mock course outline, sketch a brief wireframe (of what you want the course site layout to look like), share it on Padlet, insert the link in the comments section and tell us about your experience! You may want to sign up for a free Balsamiq (Wireframing tool) trial account to help you with this task. Hand-drawn wireframes are welcome too!

References

Biggs, J. (2014). Constructive Alignment in University Teaching, HERDSA Review of Higher Education, 1, retrieved from https://tru.ca/__shared/assets/herdsa33493.pdf (2 July 2018)

Chan, R.Y. (2016). Understanding the Purpose of Higher Education: Am Analysis of the Economic and Social Benefits for Completing a College Degree, JEPPA, 6 (5), retrieved from https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/roychan/files/chan_r._y._2016._understanding_the_purpose_aim_function_of_higher_education._jeppa_65_1-40.pdf (21 June 2018).

Garret, J. J. (2000). The Elements of User Experience, Adaptive Path, retrieved from http://www.jjg.net/elements/pdf/elements.pdf (2 July 2018).

Monahan, N. (2015). More Content doesn’t Equal more Learning, Faculty Focus, retrieved from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/curriculum-development/more-content-doesnt-equal-more-learning/ (21 June 2018).

Stanford (2018). Course Design, retrieved from https://teachingcommons.stanford.edu/resources/course-preparation-resources/course-preparation-handbook/course-design (2 July 2018).

UX Booth (2015). Complete Beginner’s Guide to Information Architecture, UX Booth, retrieved from http://www.uxbooth.com/articles/complete-beginners-guide-to-information-architecture/ (2 July 2018).

28 thoughts on “Day 2: From chaos to order

  1. Thanks very much for today’s post. I think it offers a great way to think about the visual design of the course. I agree that from my experience with student learning, it is most effective to ‘triage’ information so that it is accessible, and being careful to design the interface that way tends to mean that students will be motivated to access more information and do their own exploration of the resources.

    I was interested in the section on aligning course materials to the learning goals. It caused me to reflect on the course study guide (or course outline) that we use. In that document, we map out the course content (in terms of outlining when it will be covered), but our learning goals are framed in general terms (so, for instance, “demonstrates understanding of the key concepts in [course content as a whole]”, rather than “demonstrates understanding of [topic X]” – this makes it difficult to align the learning goals to specific course content. This makes me wonder whether there might be a deficiency in our current approach – because it means that we have never really turned our minds to thinking about whether there is a better way to organise our content online, and whether the visual interface we give the students makes sense in the context of our learning objectives. Though we are fairly restricted in the way that we write our course study guides, it might be worth looking at whether we can capture more topic-specific learning goals so that we can use this to organise our online content.

    In terms of the problem-based learning model that we use, we try not to organise content under weekly headings, but leave a network of resources for the students to explore. I completely agree that there is a danger here of just overwhelming the students with information and not having it organised – though we try to do this conceptually. Do you have any additional thoughts about how the approach you outline above could be adapted for a PBL model?

    Thanks again,
    Radhika

    1. Hi Radhika, thank you for your thoughtful comment. I personally find mapping content/activities to learning outcomes very challenging – much more tedious than it seems from my diagram! Using your example, I would perhaps further identify (within the teaching team) what these key concepts are and how your content and activities support students in demonstrating these key concepts – and how they add value to the overall course (and even program). In the end, I think students need to understand what they are spending their time on and why going through these materials can add value to their learning and of course, help them complete their assessments.

      How do you currently leave a network of resources for students? Depending on what you hope students to do and how structured you want you course to be, you may organise your content under the cases/problems that you present to your students. Alternatively, if you want students to explore through the resources in a non-linear way, you may organise them under topics. Either way, you should inform students about how the course site is set up, how they should be navigating the site and how they can locate the content that they need.

  2. I did a wireframe for a course that I am tutoring – so already designed and online. The layout is ‘traditional’ in that topics are arranged by week. I think its important for planning purposes to have this type of weekly guide for both on and off campus students because it also provides for a common basis for discussion. But the post did make me reflect on the relationship between the visual design and the learning outcomes and how useful it would be to make this relationship more explicit. At the moment, I’m tending to think that making the relationship more explicit would detract from the exploration and research that we encourage. But it’s a point on which I might try to get specific feedback at the end of the semester.

    1. Hi Salmah, thank you for your comment – I absolutely agree that having a weekly guide can help to put all students on the same page for discussion purposes. From my point of view, I think that the visual design doesn’t necessarily need to be explicit about the learning outcomes (such as designing the actual course site based on my first content map). Rather, I think it needs to have an implicit relationship that is identifiable by students – students need to know how each content adds value to the learning of a course, even if this is not immediately apparent. I personally believe that visual design is key to incorporating what students want, the learning outcomes (implicit or explicit) of your course, as well as what you want for your students (i.e. exploration and research) if you plan for each aspect. Perhaps it would be great if you could share with us how your course site is currently laid out? I’m interested to see what you do with your courses and the feedback you receive at the end of the semester!

  3. I am currently a tutor so I don’t have my own course outline. Today’s material leads me to think about the different formats used by ANU and the University of Queensland (ref: UQ Course Profiles). ANU course outlines are much fancier and lecturers have more freedom to organize the words to “sell” the course. The content on the website is more tailored to the students’ concerns, i.e. assessment, workload, and tuition. The UQ style is more comprehensive. Every learning and assessment activity is specifically related to some learning objectives (which is an optional feature in the ANU format). And there is a “Course changes in response to previous student feedback” session on the very first page, which is my favorite part. In my opinion, UQ course profiles better satisfy the criteria discussed in this coffee course.

    1. Hi Sunny, the “course changes in response to previous student feedback” is excellent! I wish we did that more because we certainly don’t have formal mechanisms or processes to incorporate feedback and evaluations (even though we have SELT). I would certainly like to look into more of what UQ does. Thank you for sharing!

  4. I have a course outline made up of two equal haves, each corresponding to a learning objective and major assessment item. Each half is divided into six topics, one per week. Each week there is a link to a chapter in the course eBook, a quiz and a discussion forum (pre-loaded with two or three discussion questions) .
    To implement this I use the Moodle weekly format. The course components are listed at the top of the page and then links to e-book chapters and other components in the week when the student will need them. A standard Moodle three panel design is used: course overview and tutor details in the left panel, the course content the middle panel and the program announcements in the right panel. This, of course, is when viewed on a desktop browser. On a mobile device it changes to one panel.
    I tried to sign-up for Balsamiq to do the wire-frame, but never received an email from them. Instead I used the Open Office draw program. The result is pasted to Padlet.

    1. Thanks Tom, your wireframe looks great! I like the idea of building a consistent experience for students each week where they access information, engage in activities and discussions in similar ways. It’s a great way to reduce confusion and set up expectation. What do you normally include in your ebook and do you use separate forums for each week? We often get questions about how much information is too information in one space (e.g. book) and I’m curious about your experience with using a single platform to host your information. Thanks Tom!

    2. Before I forget, mobile interface should definitely be our consideration when thinking about layout because more students are accessing course content via their tablets or phones. Try signing up with a google account and using chrome if you are still keen to use Balsamiq – it worked better for me!

  5. I am a professional staff member so do not have course outlines. From when I was a student I found having content organised per week was helpful in keeping up with the course content.

    I think in an ideal world you would break up/upload content weekly but also have it associated to a particular learning outcome and have it disguised as a problem/readings to solve a problem. I did a VC course at ANU and the content/tasks were structured this way and it made digesting information easy and made it easy to keep track of where the course was up to.

    1. Hi Adam, thank you for your comment. “Chunking” content into smaller, more meaningful bits definitely help students to digest information better. Out of curiosity, for the VC course, did they reveal content for each week only the week before? I’ve found that some students like having access to everything at once while some prefer being less overwhelmed by only having relevant information revealed to them a short period before lecture/tutorial/seminar.

  6. I’ve found the mapping visual particularly helpful!I’ve been playing around with mapping this year, first in my head and then in a Word table, but this is very linear and locks in a format that makes it hard to see cross connections, so I like your more flexible approach. As a learning designer supporting teachers I’ve created ‘prototypes’ which are pretty much wireframes.
    I’m on my iPad and it doesn’t seem to support me looking at Padlet content so will return tomorrow. Thanks for this interesting day

    1. Hi Andrea, thanks for sharing! I’m keen to see your prototypes so certainly share it on Padlet with us if you come back to the post. If you are looking for mind mapping/content mapping tools only, I have used Lucidchart before and it works great for moving things around. Thanks for your insight!

  7. Our course outlines are usually designed on a week-by-week basis, so it is easiest to structure it that way on the course site. Usually we do a block per week, with all of the readings and tutorial information etc there. The assessment and general course information is in a block of its own at the top of the course. I really like in the example how you have given parts where topics overlap several weeks.

    One thing I have struggled with in different platforms is getting consistency across each week, or module. As a student, I have found that lecturers will often give information in slightly different ways, or different orders from week to week. I think it is much clearer if all the information is presented in exactly the same way for each week.

    I have used Moodle and Blackboard now, and I have found them completely different in what they can achieve, and how they do it. The Blackboard site I was using was very clunky and difficult to navigate, with lots and lots of embedded pages, rather than information clear and available upfront. It tried to pull information from a central server into coded tables and things to make it easier for lecturers, but while the tables looked great, there were sometimes duplicates, dummy tables, or previous versions which couldn’t be removed which made it very difficult for students.

    1. Hi Lauren, the idea of consistency across all courses is interesting – I often find courses with very slight changes between more difficult to navigate than ones that are completely different (it’s probably just me and the expectations I have when I see similar sites but with content presented in slightly different ways!). But what you’ve highlighted prompts me to think about whether a more holistic approach at the program- or college level is needed. This is a much bigger discussion universities need to have – and an important one.

      And I certainly can relate to your frustration with different LMS sites. Having used both Moodle and Blackboard as well, I find the navigational systems and layouts very different and I think part of designing a good course site needs to take the strengths and weaknesses of the system into consideration. However, as you noted, it may sometimes not be within our control to change certain aspects!

  8. The part in this blog about tag/metadata was interesting, because I think sometimes people forget about it. Having a specific icon, colour, tag for different types of content can be really useful. Assessments, reading material, extra info etc. And a consistent view across colleges/courses make it easier for everyone.

    1. Hi Jessica, it’s great to hear that you find tagging and using metadata important! These are often overlooked because they seem trivial in comparison to other fields that we have to maintain. But they are actually very helpful for grouping relevant materials together, search, etc. As mentioned in another comment, I think there certainly needs to be more consideration about course design/site design on a program or college level.

  9. Thanks so much for this post. We have been trying for a while to bring some consistency across course sites in my college, and this is a fabulous, clear and visual way to talk about doing this. The explicit link here between constructive alignment within a course and its corresponding site design is really useful, and is something I am going to carry into conversations with convenors. The information on IA was interesting too – thank you!

    1. We’re redesigning a F2F/LMS-augmented unit and the design messages here are highly pertinent for that too. We too easily forget that our students have prior knowledge and underestimate the cognitive load which our ‘content-obsession’ can impose. Achieving logical and consistent sequences in our Unit Outlines and LMS sites and keeping WHAT students need to know in the front of our minds (and WHY) is not always easy, so I think it helps us to be reminded of the need for this; thanks

  10. I am part of the Digital Education Services team in the College of Asia and the Pacific so I don’t have my own course but I think it is a really good idea to have separate sections for:
    Welcome (image and welcome message from convenor)
    Course information and communication (links to news/discussion forums, course outline, class recordings and surveys))
    Assessment (so students can easily find exactly where to submit their assignments)
    Each week/module (with links to the Wattle ‘books’, etexts, readings and weekly quizzes if applicable).

    The use of pages, books and folders prevents excessive scrolling and keeps things looking organised.
    There is also the option to ‘hide but make available’ meaning the item won’t be visible to students but can be linked to elsewhere. This is particularly useful if visually appealing buttons are used.

  11. Thanks for this post. I really like to idea of mapping content, activities and assessments. I agree that students can get swamped with content but logically organising the content will help make it easier for students to access the content they need. I will definitely be doing this next semester.

  12. Our Course Outline templates are designed by our School. Every semester, we fight with the School about using this template precisely because it is lacking in empathetic design principles. Information vital for students (and academics) is spread over several different sections and is often contradictory (eg, assessment protocols and penalties). Therefore, I do my best to ensure that my Wattle sites do NOT follow the same structure as the Course Outlines. Consequently, I have found that students tend to rely on the Wattle site and avoid the Course Outline. Makes my job more repetitive, but at least the student experience is slightly improved.

  13. I’m doing this course after the boat has sailed, but it is extremely valuable, thank you.

    While a blended rather than fully online unit, I use the Moodle book to arrange the content to save both me and my students from the “scroll of death”. I’ve found that a ‘subchapter’ template of pre-class activities, lecture/prac notes, recordings and post-class activities in each ‘chapter’ (= week in my case as I have to share the unit across 6 sites….) works well and students don’t seem to find it too overwhelming.

    It was also easy for me to be sure I hadn’t forgotten anything, too.

    1. Hi Laurine, thanks for joining us! Our team does see all the comments and you are welcome to participate any time. 🙂 I am also a big fan of the Moodle book module for organising course content– I just wish it would allow you to include activities in Moodle in it automatically somehow!

  14. The online course outline structures I am most familiar with are typically structured by weekly topics – in the case of physics and maths often having weekly homework assignments and lab write-ups so it is a pretty straightforward structure.

    e.g. Week x:
    – Lecture recording
    – Lecture notes
    – Homework
    – Lab writeup

    Rinse and repeat for the remaining weeks. 

    On the other hand, in my undergrad degree arts courses, I found the structure was less rigid as the assessment of the learning outcomes was usually composed of an assignment on a topic of your choice that gets mentioned in one week of the total course material. I can see this being more challenging to organize as under each topic you must have to cover a range of learning outcomes, just in case someone elected it as their focus.

    Balancing the course content, with the learning outcomes, with the assessment tasks is the difficult part and I think a really clear view of how that is structured is needed before the organization of the online information and visual design can be started. I really liked the post-it note exercise as it is a great way of clearly defining all of these things and then seeing which structure works best, and it’s something that I’ll definitely be using in the future!

  15. Awesome! I think the tips here are great and I gained a lot more confidence in my course website design on Wattle. I have used and perfected this model for 3 years now (see Wattle, COMP2410/6340), and finally, I think we are starting to have a polished product. I have also found that using the same wireframe concept within each part of the unit helps — i.e., the submodular structure of having each part to follow the same learning objectives, key resources and discussion forum link, assessments, and learning materials structure.

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