Student-Centered Design Within an LMS

Last year, I started teaching large online courses for the first time. While teaching online still has a lot of limitations and challenges, I’ve enjoyed approaching it as a design problem, and I’ve been trying to improve my online course materials every semester. Updating material isn’t just a matter of refreshing content: I recommend using each new class as an opportunity to check your organization, clarity, and menu design. Here are a few of the strategies I follow when trying to take a student-centered approach working within the constraints of the learning management system:

  • Include a guide for use. As you design your course, think about how a student will enter into the space. Consider sketching out your organization and customize your landing page (which can usually be chosen in the settings of your course) to include a map or guide for students on where to begin. In an in-person class, I always take some time in the first week to introduce the course site and point out the essential material, but online students don’t get that introduction.
  • Use LMS sections consistently. Your LMS may have lots of headings–Canvas has spaces for pages, files, modules, announcements, etc–and to students these can be overwhelming and unclear. Remember that even if your institution provides online course design training, other professors structure things very differently, and students’ expectations might have been set by previous experience. I advise using the minimum required sections, and providing an overview on the landing page.
  • Be careful of redundancy. One of my biggest complaints about learning management systems is the inclusion of too many places to put resources: assignment deadlines end up on project pages, on the syllabus page, and referenced throughout modules, for instance. That means if something changes, it can be difficult to track it down everywhere. As I set up my online classes, I keep a list of where I’m putting key dates and information, and try to use links instead of repetition wherever possible to avoid confusing information later.
  • Watch for relics of past semesters. I change nearly all of my course material every semester, updating examples, changing software or code platforms, and generally keeping things current (I’m particularly excited to include Pokemon Go in my games class this semester.) However, to save time I import the most recent version of my course as a starting point for organization and material that isn’t time-sensitive. Your LMS might offer to update dates, etc, to fit the new semester, but don’t trust that feature — it’s easy to have confusing language or deadlines remain in the text or video of your content. If your LMS has search tools, consider going through your content and checking for references to months, etc, that might no longer apply.
  • Consider suggesting a schedule, even for flexible material. A lot of students in my classes have never taken an online course before, and they often try to take in the material in intense bursts before deadlines rather than in a steady progression. This can particularly make their lives harder in the production and code-focused courses I tend to teach. With an intensive course I taught this summer, I organized the material paced over a week, and suggested activities for each day. I noticed an overall improvement in participation, and it also helped me think through the workload. I’m transferring that approach to my fall classes to see how it works in a more typical semester.

What are your strategies for designing easy-to-use material within your LMS? Share your tips in the comments!

[CC BY 2.0 Photo by Flickr User heipei]

Return to Top