Thinking about course design in e-Learning and Blended Learning

I’m working with a few teachers to design e-Learning courses. In Ontario, many e-Learning courses have content provided by the Ministry of Education as a starting point for delivery. e-Learning teachers will often take that existing content and use, change, delete, and supplement it according to their needs and the needs of their students.

But the interface that’s being used in these courses seems to have some problems. It was designed “a long time ago” (that’s just a few years, in this realm), and the learning environment has changed in possibly significant ways. The existing structure for most (not all) courses is to have one module per unit of the course, and then a series of pages for each activity in that unit. An activity consists of an Overview page (which is visible to the student in the Table of Contents), an Expectations or Learning Goals page, a page or group of pages labelled Content, and a page labelled Assignment. Expectations/Learning Goals, Content, and Assignment are linked internally from the Overview page, rather than listed in the TOC, so students see only Activity 1, Activity 2, etc., instead of a long list of all of the pages involved.


Student view of an eLO-provided course

Problems come up for the teacher in trying to navigate and edit the pages they want to. If they click Overview and then the internal links to Content, the learning environment registers them as being in the Overview page still for editing purposes. The teacher has to instead click the TOC link to the Content page before editing, and there are a bazillion such pages all called “Content” or “Assignment” (since they’re all in the current unit). There are other issues as well, but this is the one I see a lot.

Teacher view of an eLO-provided course

Teacher view of an eLO-provided course

For students, navigating is something they get used to, but it’s not intuitive for them. They enter the activity and click on the Content page, engage with the lesson, go to the Assignment page, complete a task, return to the Content page to continue with the lesson, etc. The back-and-forth is irritating at the least, and it’s difficult for a teacher to maintain if there are any changes.

4-Page Structure

A student view of the 4-page structure of activities

Sometimes an Assignment will ask the students to participate in a Discussion. The Assignment page will give instructions, which are duplicated in the Discussion Topic area. Similar stuff happens with Dropboxes. This is a problem for maintenance as well: if you want to alter the instructions, you have to do it in more than one place.

So here’s what I think we should do.

  • Let’s have a module per unit, and a module per activity within that unit. Let’s make the Activity Overview and Learning Goals a single page, and the Lesson/Assignment a single page (I have to think of a good name for this; maybe it depends on the task).
  • The lesson materials and assignments are presented sequentially so that students are less likely to skip the “content” and just attempt the “assignments”.
  • Hiding/conditionally releasing a unit/an activity means acting upon a module instead of a group of pages.
  • Editing a page is always possible, since we’ll do away with those pesky internal links and rely on the TOC structure instead.
  • Instructions for Dropbox/Discussion tasks will be included in either the Content area or in that tool but not both, and will be applied consistently throughout the course.
  • Discussions, Dropboxes, Quizzes, etc. are not linked to in the Content pages but may be linked to in the TOC (there are lots of issues with changes in the way these tools are linked, so I don’t think the questionable advantage to an inline link is worth it). These items are also named really well, like “Unit 2 Activity 3.2 – For Loops” (including the course code, unit, activity and assignment details, along with an unambiguous title).
A sample of a revised course.

A sample of a revised course.

What do you think? What have you learned from your experiences (in Ontario or elsewhere, in K-12 or higher ed)?

19 thoughts on “Thinking about course design in e-Learning and Blended Learning

  1. I’ve been known to hide the assignment link within the content myself. I have also conditionally released things only to have students ask before even trying to read instructions’!! Busted. I think it could use some changes, too!

    • Glad to hear it’s an area we’re all thinking about!
      One advantage to this approach that I didn’t mention is that the content links will properly track whether they’ve been clicked on by students, which hiding (leaving “draft”) internal pages won’t do for you.

  2. I hadn’t thought of the repeated instances of instructions in both content/assignment pages and dropbox/discussions. However to be honest, I have only promoted the use of the carousel interactive activities in elementary for many reasons; one of them being that the materials are not organized in a user-friendly fashion, especially for junior and intermediate students.
    I’ll keep this short as it is a reply… :)
    In today’s age of dynamic menus and aesthetically-pleasing web content possibilities, it’s unfortunate that we rely on such a look that is reflective of the 90’s for content that is in fact quite good (ie: new J/I math – very good stuff).
    Yes, we are in the early stages of getting ‘blended learning’ going in Ontario, with great success and growth across the province with initiatives as BYOD, 1:1, Chromebooks, etc… It is such experiences and ‘words from the field’ that you point out that hopefully reach key stakeholders in a serious manner to better improve the future of online learning for K-12.

  3. One suggestion…when you click on the Camera Settings Dropbox link for example..
    that dropbox page will show… Folder Submissions – Activity 1 – Assignment.
    Where I feel it should be titled as Camera Settings.

    • Right; I think it should say a lot more, like “Unit 2 Activity 1 Assignment 2: Camera Settings”. Possibly using some kind of code, like “2.1.2: Camera Settings” to make it shorter, if you do that consistently.

  4. I’m just finishing up my first semester as my Board’s eLearning teacher. It’s amazing how much your ideas here mesh with what I’ve discovered myself over the last five months. excellent post – almost like you are inside my head.

  5. Hi Brandon.
    (I’m new to the e-learning game here.)

    As a teacher who is about to deliver his first online course, I got stuck on a statement in your first paragraph: “e-Learning teachers will often take that existing content and use, change, delete, and supplement it according to their needs and the needs of their students.”

    Quite frankly, listening to, and observing, students currently enrolled in online courses within and without our board, I’m seeing the same course. Same units. Same texts. Same assignments. The same course with the exception of font or colour changes.

    In your experience, are teachers more likely to drastically modify the existing content, or ‘go-with-the-flow’?

    • I think that depends on whether it’s a teacher’s first online teaching experience. Just as a first year, face-to-face teacher will often rely upon the lessons and resources provided by peers in their department, so a first-time e-Learning teacher will use the provided content as a strong template for their course. Over time they learn how the environment works, what’s effective and what’s difficult online, and so on, and tailor the content more heavily. Some teachers start nearly from scratch; most use the provided content a lot.

      That said, the teachers I work with typically spend a lot of time reviewing and modifying the content to suit their styles and the needs of their students. We’re also writing courses this year, which is an entirely different situation and brings its own challenges.

      I hope that the students are enjoying a rich learning experience, whether their teachers originally designed their lessons or not. The eLO stuff is pretty great in most cases, but the experience of accessing it needs some work.

      • Thanks for your reply Brandon.
        From what I’ve seen, the time needed to significantly tailor a course is huge. And, over time online teachers, I hope, will make great changes to their courses to suit the needs of students.

        I’ll continue to try my best to glean lessons-learned from those of you who have been through the experience more than once. Most of the discussion in this post was out of my experience, but I do hope it’ll make sense in the conning months.

        Thanks again.

      • Thanks for taking the time to comment!

        The time investment is huge, for sure. I’m anticipating an e-Learning course on my timetable for September, so I expect to have (like you) more insight down the road. In my opinion it’s vitally important for e-Learning teachers to have dedicated time in their schedules for e-Learning, without responsibility for monitoring/supervising students. Then that time is used for creating/improving the course and communicating with students.

        Thanks again, and best of luck with your course!

  6. Courses we are developing are single paged, all linked within. Every page has a top right logo, a top left identifier and then Learning Goals, Content/Assessment and Success Criteria. Everything is embedded single page – no navigation unless they are submitting to dropbox or writing a discussion post… and I would embed those as well if it wasn’t so hard!

    ex. A video showing an example page.

    My view is that every navigation distracts from the lesson. And everything should be linked to the same style file so that I can change all the pages at once!

    Overall this is easy to accomplish by creating templates in D2L, accessible by dropdowns (ex. I have stopped showing teachers eLO content in the first session as it seems to scare them because they think that is a mandated look on how things must look and be organized.

    • Hey Tim,

      I like that approach too, and I can see some distinct advantages. Thanks for the examples – they show a nice, clean look.

      For style sheets – do you host CSS files in the Shared Files area for your ORG, or just in the files area for each course? I’m thinking about exporting courses or single units/activities for use in other ORGs and how the style sheets might be broken….

  7. We have taken this TOC approach as well… One thing we’ve done with activities like Dropbox, Quizzes and Discussions is to add a verb into the title of the activity in the module. For Example:

    ‘Submit your Assignment 2: Camera Settings’

    ‘Start your Module 2 review quiz’

    ‘Participate in the Age and Racism Discussion’

    Simple but we find it effective…

  8. Hey Brandon:

    I use the shared folder for everything, but write out the FULL PATH to the file in each html template file – when you initially upload an html file, D2L replaces normal relational links with a mishmash of absolute and relational… something like “https://scdsb.elearningontario/shared/templates/html/../css/elearning.css” – get rid of the relational bit when you first upload it, then all files that use the template afterwards will be clean..

    When you want to export activities, courses, etc. it takes a short process to relink the css.
    1. Download the .zip export and the .css from shared.
    2. Unzip, then run fnr (find and replace program) on the unzipped folder to replace your full path (same for all html files from your template) with a relational link (ex. to “../css/elearning.css”).
    3. Rezip.
    4. Bob’s your uncle.

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