Course Content: Structure
The desk wobbles and the chair squeaks.
The smell of chalk fills the air.
The teacher stands at the front of the classroom and begins to speak.
Students new to online learning are sometimes concerned about the location of "the course". They're conditioned to show up in a physical space for "the course."
Students sometimes have a hard time thinking about a course as a virtual learning experience rather than as a place-based experience.
Help students see the "big picture" of the course and design web content for easy access and use.
The Big Picture
Students need a clear picture of how all of the components of the course fit together.
Identifying Core Content
Begin with your course goals and objectives. Create a concept map showing the major course content. Look for:
- natural groupings of information.
- logical ways to sequence information.
- patterns and repetition that could be used in simplifying information
- major topics and subtopics that may become sections, parts, or chapters
- What are the entry skills, experiences and needs of the learners? What are the implications for course design?
- How will you ensure that students understand the learning outcomes and expectations of the course?
- How will you show the relationship between the course objectives, course communication, the activities, and the assessments?
The image on the right shows a preliminary diagram for a graduate course for future school library media specialists. Also, examine a Diagram for a course on Information Inquiry.
Selecting Tools and Resources
As you identify course content, you'll also be selecting the tools and resources students will be using. It's important to consider when and how these will be accessed. Students can easily be overwhelmed by all the technology.
Create a list of all the tools and resources being used including web content, discussion forums, audio and video elements, as well as off computer resources such as textbooks and laboratory equipment. Ask yourself:
- What tools will meet my objective? For example, there are many tools that can be used for collaborative writing. Do you want students to share a word processing document, discuss ideas in a forum, work in a wiki, or use some other technology?
- Will students be able to access the required tools? Do they have the technology and skills to use this tool? For example, streaming video takes more bandwidth than audio. Is video necessary or would an still image and audio clip be as effective?
Example from Shaping Outcomes
- Interactive elements in the content: roll-overs (Writing effective indicators)
- Coach and Dig Deeper Pop-ups
- Logic Model Visual and Word Processing Worksheet
- Discussion Forums
Visualizing "The Course"
Once you've identified your content, tools, and resources, think about how they relate to each other.
- Will everything be housed in a course management system?
- Will students always start on a particular website or page?
- How will students know what to do and in what order?
- What do students do if they get confused or lost?
Incorporate a number of devices to help students understand "the big picture" of the course.
Course Guide. The course syllabus, calendar, directions, and other information guidance need to be packaged in a form that's easy for students to follow.
Diagram. Use a concept map, flowchart, or other type of diagram to visualize the course. The example below is an image from an interactive course map.
Examples. Follow ongoing examples, scenarios, or case studies throughout your course. Students can use these as references.
In the Shaping Outcomes course, a Museum Example and a Library Example are used throughout the course. For instance, when discussing audience considerations, a museum example and library example are provided.
Index. Provide a master index or list of materials that students can revisit if they're looking for something within the course.
Orientation. Provide an overview of the key elements of the course in the form of a written document. Introduce students to course management system, methods of communication, organization of course materials, assignments, and other key elements. For instance, Shaping Outcomes course contained an Orientation with an explanation of the organization of the materials and tools.
Theme. Use a topical or theme, metaphor, analogy, or other mechanism to tie all of the pieces of the course together. Although themes aren't necessary, they can serve as a way to bring students together through visuals, analogy, or shared experience. For instance, the graduate course Information Inquiry for Teachers uses the analogy of a school as a learning laboratory with the learners as student information scientists.
The Electronic Materials for Children and Young Adults graduate course uses an earthquake analogy and a WebQuest titled Shake "Em Up: Reshaping the Landscape of Libraries as a course guide.
The Audio and Video Sources graduate course uses a seed theme stating that "Multimedia seeds are ideas and resources to help you grow as a multimedia user, developer, technology coordinator, educator, collection developer, or librarian."
Most online courses contain a combination of print and web-based materials. When designing web-based materials, think about how information will be organized and presented.
Designing Page Structure
Students can easily become overwhelmed with online reading. Be specific about your expectations. Do you want your students to read, skim, explore, or browse the readings? Also, think about optional versus required readings.
There are many ways to structure pages. Some designers design single screen pages that don't require scrolling. Others prefer to present an entire concept or mini-lesson on longer pages.
Organize information into manageable chunks of information. Design a standard structure for your course materials. Consider the following elements:
- Title. Each web page should have a descriptive title.
- Introduction. Gain the attention of readers with an engaging introduction that stimulates interest. Consider the use of a visual, quotation, scenario, or other hook.
- Purpose. State the objective or essential question(s) being addressed by the page.
- Overview. Preview the key ideas being discussed on the page.
- Key Concepts. Use headings, subheadings, paragraphs, lists, visuals, and other elements to present the content.
- Examples and Non-examples. Be sure to incorporate examples and non-example (instances that are not examples) to help learners put the content in a context.
- Application and Practice. Actively involve readers by providing an opportunity to apply the new knowledge and practice new skills.
- Review. Review the key ideas.
- Connect. Build a bridge to the next topic.
Notice the structure of the following pages from Shaping Outcomes:
Create tools for easily moving among course materials and resources.
- Menus are an effective way to present options.
- All pages should be available within three clicks from the main course page.
- Match the title of the page, page heading, and navigation to provide user orientation.
Compare the menu structures in the following online courses:
- Shaping Outcomes
- Inside Cancer
- Information Age Inquiry
- High Tech Learning
- Chinese I
- Projects in Microscale Engineering
- Visualizing Cultures
Learn more about designing effective web-based materials at Information Architecture.
Create a concept map showing the major content for your course.
Brainstorm themes that might be used in your course.
Establish a standard structure of your course materials.
Establish the "big picture" of the course:
- identifying the course content
- selecting tools and resources
- visualizing "the course"
Design a standard page structure and navigation.