Digital Content

Day 4: Designing sustainable course sites

Why do we need to think about sustainability?

Example of a website with a simple layout and design
HackDesign.org has a very clear and simple design which makes the site easy to navigate and visually appealing. It is also a great resource about design!

When designing online learning environments, it is easy to get carried away when you are trying to make your site visually appealing and intuitive for students to use. While learner experience may be enhanced at one point in time, overly complex course sites are not always sustainable or practical. An image-heavy site, for example, may increase load time and end up with broken links when they are rolled over for reuse in another semester. Most higher education institutions also have learning management systems (e.g. Moodle, Blackboard, Canvas) that update regularly – this may change how a plugin works or how texts, blocks and images appear on your sites. Highly customised sites may also be difficult to maintain if the skill level amongst staff members are varied. Part of designing a good course site is ensuring that it is reflexive and responsive while meeting learning outcomes and fostering positive learner experience. Remember that you are designing to ensure students achieve the course goals rather than loving the visual elements of your site!

What is sustainable design?

When I googled “sustainable course site” (not the most suitable search terms I must admit), I found a lot of information on architectural design and the reduction of internet carbon footprint. While these sound like they may be completely inappropriate to this post, I was surprised at how much information I could relate to. The minalising of waste in building design, for example, can be reframed as the minimalising of unnecessary resources and visual “bling” on a course site. Having a content and visual strategy that reduces page weight (which lowers your internet carbon footprint) is also important in ensuring the longevity of a site. In many ways, sustainable course site design is not so much a new concept as it is an adapted one. Here are some suggestions of how your may keep your course site sustainable – noting that some may already have been addressed in a previous post:

  • Ensure that materials and design elements are recyclable where possible

Large amounts of uploaded material can become dated very quickly. If all your videos and images have specific dates or details attached to them for example, they may not always be easily reusable. When planning for your course and site, it is therefore important to ask: do I need to reuse this material and is this item recyclable? Not all materials are reusable and that is ok as long as they serve a purpose! Having a content strategy with re-usability in mind can help reduce the time it takes to organise your site the next time you or someone else run the course.

  • Keep your site design clear and simple

Labeling all sections and materials clearly, using a standardised layout (such as a template suggested by your learning management system or university), reducing the number of images, etc. can help simplify your course site. Simple designs are sometimes the most effective ways to communicate your intentions and goals to end-users who are students in this case. Unlike most commercial websites, course sites are much less about the “bells and whistles” than they are about delivering content to students in a friendly and easy-to-navigate space. Keeping it clear and simple may just help students to navigate through the course better.

  • Reduce customised/hard-coded elements

There are several interactive tools (e.g. Flash-based interactive panels, customised navigation bars) that can be very intuitive, aesthetically pleasing and fun to include for students. In fact, some may boost learner experience very positively. However, if you intend to use highly customised elements or packages (e.g. Articulate 360), you need to consider if they can be easily altered or maintained by anyone. We highly recommend that you only use these if you can receive sufficient support.

  • Simplify navigation

Where possible, provide simple navigation mechanisms (e.g. links from activities and pages back to your main course site) or enable built-in navigational tools to help students locate where they are on your site. However, avoid complex or overly-detailed navigation as this may confuse students.

Discussion

question mark   Do you agree with the suggestions above? Would you consider your course sites to be sustainable? What else would you add to this list?

Basic Course Site Design Checklist

This checklist is a very basic, “minimal recommendations” list compiled by some of our experienced learning design and LMS support staff. It is based on the observed sources of frustration and confusion for students on their journeys through online courses. Note that this is only in relation to course site design. For full course design, you may want to refer to the Blackboard Exemplary Course Program Rubric .

CHECKLIST CHECKED?

IMPORTANT INFORMATION

Course name and code

At the top of the main page, clearly label your site or place a banner with the course name and code to help participants identify the course immediately.

 

Welcome message and teacher presence

On entering the course page, students see a welcome message with brief information (and photos) about their teacher/s. This provides a personal teacher presence which has been shown to make the online experience more positive.

 

Important course information (e.g. Course outline)

A prominent section with “important information” that contains the course outline, important dates, contact details, expectations of student participation and interaction, and any key institutional policies. An overview of how the course site is laid out may also be helpful.

 

Assessment information

Students are generally anxious about assessments. An overview of all assessments, their due dates (exactly the same as in the course outline) and a link to each assessment page can help students plan their workload for the semester.

 

Communication

A section letting students know how they will receive important information and how they can get in contact with you or your staff. This may include emails and phone numbers of academics and support people, forums and announcements.

 

Grades

Have a visible link to the grade centre. Students highly value a visual means of tracking their progress. This may be also included under the “Important Information” or “Assessment” sections.

 

STRUCTURE AND LAYOUT

Course flow – content materials organized by topics, weeks, etc

A meaningful representation of the course structure that allows students to easily follow the flow of the course and access materials. Students have been shown to prefer a logical and linear structure to navigate the course that enables them to clearly identify where they have been and where they need to go next. See Day 2 of Coffee Course for more detailed information.

 

VISUAL ELEMENTS

Navigation

Where the LMS enables it, have a navigation panel on the main course page that provide shortcuts for students to easily locate resources and activities. Always include links back to the main page and ensure that all course materials are well-labeled.

 

Reduce scroll by grouping content items

Where sections have lots of materials for students to access, these resources need to either be placed in folders with meaningful names, or on separate pages that are linked back to the section. However, the number of clicks to access the materials should be kept to a minimum.

 

Images

It is important to label, attribute and include alt text in your images to make them relevant and accessible to all students.

Discussion

question mark   If you go through your site using this as a checklist, how would you score yourself? What would you add or remove from this list?

 

References

Christie, J. (2013). Sustainable Web Design. Retrieved from https://alistapart.com/article/sustainable-web-design (5 July 2018).

Blackboard Inc. (2017). Exemplary Course Program Rubric, Blackboard. Retrieved from https://community.blackboard.com/docs/DOC-3505-blackboard-exemplary-course-program-rubric (5 July 2018).

17 thoughts on “Day 4: Designing sustainable course sites

  1. I like the idea of a reusable site that doesn’t go out of date, but sometimes it can make things annoying. For example, when trying to find hot water rules and regulations, most websites will just direct you to the state specific department who regulates that kind of thing. Leaving you to search for the item yourself without knowing the name of the document and relying on that site’s search engine (which is often rubbish). So if you’re referring to a specific digital item, I think it’s often better to have a direct link. Even if you have to update it occasionally.

    1. Hi Jessica, thank you for your comment. It certainly is the case that we need to make decisions about what we include in our course sites. I was just thinking about the case in medical research where papers and materials go outdated very quickly and there is a need to continually update them. I believe that a sustainable site doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t get updated when they are rolled over for another teaching period but rather, they are easy to maintain without getting additional support that you may not have. Unlike content items, design and layout (e.g. use of images, colours) are also a lot more reusable if they are simplified/set up correctly. Thanks Jessica!

    2. Jessica, it is frustrating how fast web links disappear. A few weeks before the start of semester I check all the links in my course (a very tedious process). Then each week of the course I again check the links for next week’s content.

      What I have found useful is to replace links which have broken with an entry in the Internet Archive. The archive keeps old copies of web pages, so you can be sure you are referring to the specific one you want the student’s to look at.

  2. I agree with the suggestions on making sustainable sites. However, it can be hard to convince someone to make their design “clear and simple”, as this requires them to delete some of what they thought precious.

    I gave myself a tick on every item on the Basic Course Site Design Checklist, except “Reduce scroll by grouping content items”. I have not come to grips with how to group content in Moodle. So what I do instead is collapse the details for the weeks of the course. This way the student just sees a list of twelve topics, apart from the current week, where they see the details.

    1. Hi Tom, I can relate to your point – when I know I can make something dynamic and more beautiful, it is difficult to convince myself to do otherwise! I have to constantly remind myself that sustainability is important.

      And you’ve done very well with the checklist! The checklist is meant to be a guide (rather than a prescription) and as reflected in some of the comments below, it is more about deliberation and being able to justify why we don’t/do something in a specific way.

    2. Hi Tom,

      I share your frustration. In January, I went through all my links through carefully and made sure they were all up to date, only to learn by March that some of the learning activities that I had carefully prepared had dead links in them…

      My scoring was similar to yours with the same collapsible design. Reflecting on your experience made me to rethink changing my page structure to avoid scrolling — the risk of dead links is too big to take.

  3. Hi, thanks for today’s materials. Doing the Course Design Checklist was very instructive for me. I think the course I use for my course does score fairly well against those criteria. What was interesting to me was thinking about those criteria that I couldn’t tick off – for example, our substantive course content is not organised sequentially under weeks. However, this is because the educational model we are using is problem-based learning, and this means that a deliberate choice has been made to do things a different way. Having said that, I agree with all of the other tips and those suggestions make motivate me to think about whether the ungrouped resources that we provide are designed in a way that is appealing and engaging to the students, or whether there is a way that we can better achieve the balance between setting out the order of content and having the students self-direct their learning. Having the checklist provided me with the opportunity to think about how much we are following best practice, and when we are not, the reasons behind that. If there isn’t a conscious educational decision being made, then it is probably worth asking whether the practice can and should be adopted. It also is a reminder that even if we are doing something else with our design, we should still be thinking about the student experience of the site itself.

    I’d also never thought about sustainability in terms of websites – I agree with Jess’ comment about the balance between having stable, reusable connections and them being too generic to be helpful. The course I am currently teaching is running for the first time, so the Winter session will be the first time it repeats. At which point, I will no doubt find out exactly how successful the rollover of the course site will be!

    1. Hi Radhika, thanks for your comments. I absolutely agree with your approach. The checklist is not so much a prescription of how your should design your course site as it is a general guide for approaching standard courses. It is the questions we ask about why we do or do not do something that are far more important. And as you mentioned, being deliberate about our decisions is key to ensuring that course goals are met while fostering positive student experience.

      The sustainability of sites is particularly important within learning environments because educators are more likely to re-use a site than design a new one each time they teach a course. But this is more in relation to design and visual elements rather than content materials – we should always review the content of the course each time we use it. Hope your rollover goes well!

  4. Most of the content on my course page seems to be fairly sustainable. Most of what is available is direct links to things students need to do (such as assessment tasks) or read, which has little variation from year to year. Most of the links we used are for further reading or for interest, and so are still relevant as issues which can occur in the field, even years later.

    We don’t tend to upload videos direct into the LMS, rather we post links to YouTube (not embedded) if we want students to look at a video. Perhaps this goes against easy access to information for students, but it does make reusing and loading webpages easier.

    I am currently working though our course site for the next semester, and fixing it up as this course has been progressing, so I scored pretty well on the checklist. At this stage a lot of the material is unavailable to students, and will be displayed as the weeks progress. One of the things we don’t have is a welcome message with teacher photos on it, but we do have our names and contact details available.

  5. I think ‘detox’ is a great term to describe decluttering and organising course sites. The detoxing tips listed yesterday and the checklist today are very sensible. I feel both lists should be combined and made available to all lecturers so they keep the principles in mind at all times.
    I know of a Wattle site that started off the year looking great with a beautiful colourful photo in each section but, looking at it now, it has become cluttered with notes to the students that should have gone in the forum which would have notified them by email. Some text has also been added with brightly coloured highlights which stand out but actually make it hard to read and other text is much larger than the rest so it has lost its aesthetic appeal.

  6. I really like the idea of designing with ‘sustainability’ in mind. We have a number of sites in my college that are customised with HTML and CSS, and we run into difficulties every time a site is rolled over (not to mention with version and theme upgrades). Staff changes also add a level of difficulty, when specialist knowledge in this area is lost.

    I also agree with other comments above in that it can be difficult to balance the need for specificity and detail with simplicity. We have had some success in this area with re-designing course sites to utilise pages to group resources and links (rather than having them sitting on the homepage). It doesn’t lessen the upkeep in updating URLs or uploading resources, but it allows the students a more streamlined homepage and allows us to play with the way resources are presented within the pages (grouped by heading, under images, etc.).

    Rowena’s comment above is interesting, and we’ve found the same thing within my college – that you can start with a beautiful, simple site that over the semester becomes cluttered with resources and notices and other additions. It’s really interesting to think of a course site as an evolving ‘artefact’ in this way.

  7. The course I am teaching next semester does appear to tick all the items on the checklist, not that I can take credit for it as I didn’t design it and the updates for the coming semester were done by someone else who must have done this particular Coffee Course! Of course it makes sense, but I had never explicitly considered sustainability of online course design. Thank you for a very useful course.

  8. The “sustainability” of course sites is a new idea to me. Besides the merit of a “user-friendly” website, I think it is also a useful tool to develop, adjust and refine the course design more systematically. Having said that, I would like to add a “course changes in response to previous student feedback” session to the list, as mentioned in a previous reply. My very recent observation is that many students check the SELT results before they choose a course. But some students think the published reports with merely scores are not sufficienetly informative. So we may add some verbal information for the students to learn how the course is developed over different semesters.

  9. I like to idea of a sustainable course site – however in the area of health research, we often have to update materials or use more recent cases studies. The framework for the course site can remain the same, but with removal of old material and updated material added. My course from last semester would meet most of the checklist, but could improve on the accessibility of information on assessments.

  10. I like the term sustainable sites. Since I work with technological dinosaurs, I strive to make my Wattle sites as sustainable as possible. Yes, they need updating. However, they are as simple and user-friendly (for both staff and students) as possible. Other than images (which I haven’t had a need to use yet), my Wattle sites follow the checklist guidelines. The only thing I might add is to keep (hidden) old resources or archive old iterations. You never know when you want to recycle or reuse them.

  11. I absolutely love the idea of using reduce/re-use/recycle ideology when composing the online course material! I also highly agree with the standardized layout as when students get used to finding certain links and sources in a particular place in one course, then going into the next course and having it all changed around is quite frustrating. I really think that consistency is key in the case of online course work.

    The checklist is a great thing to ensure we’re including all appropriate information and not falling into some awkward design traps. I think I’ll definitely endeavor to include a few more images/cartoons that can summarise a point in a fun, yet relevant, way to break up the text. I also feel like it is an eternal struggle between optimizing the balance between the number of folders for resources vs. limiting the number of clicks to access the material. I’ll definitely be applying the handy tips from this course in future online planning and designing of courses!

    1. Hi Sarah, I’m glad you found this useful! I would really love to see how people are using their LMS/Wattle sites and what we can do to make it better. We’ve had some comments previously about whether a standardised approach is necessary as it may impede exploration, etc. but I do think the reduction of cognitive load on students if layouts are, to some degree, standardised is worth doing. Let us know how you go after trying the checklist out and if you have other suggestions – we should make this into an ongoing community checklist for all! Thanks.

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