Keep it simple; keep it together


We all know that course design is a crucial factor for student success. Much emphasis has been placed, for example, on the concept of constructive alignment (Biggs 2003), where the learning outcomes of a course define the assessment methods used, which in turn, dictate the most appropriate teaching methods and activities. Today, constructive alignment is a cornerstone of course design, whether the course be online, blended or traditional. These ideas are nevertheless familiar to most, so I will not waste further time discussing them. Instead, I will turn to a different aspect of course design: the learning environment.

Imagine the learning environment for a traditional course (not online or blended). Its diligent teacher, Sarah, has booked the same room on the same day and at the same time for the duration of the course. The room is spacious, contains enough chairs, and Sarah has organized the layout so that the tables are arranged to facilitate group work and avoid the teacher-centred orientation of old-fashioned classrooms. The room has a nice coat stand for the students to hang their jackets and bags and plug sockets so they can charge their laptops. Outside the room is a noticeboard where Sarah pins information about the course. This arrangement creates a comfortable, ordered environment for the students, who have busy schedules and heavy workloads.

It seems self-evident that this is good practice for arranging a traditional course. So obvious, in fact, that it is hardly worth mentioning. However, why does this common sense so rarely carry through to the design of online learning environments? Some online courses can be compared to a traditional classroom course arranged in four different classrooms at varying times of the day on five different weekdays and in different parts of the campus.  The course information would be scattered between the noticeboards of those four classrooms, and the students would be forced to roam between them to gain the information needed to participate. The teacher would also be different each time and perhaps would also use a different language.

According to scholars such as van Ameijde et al, it is essential to keep the design of online courses simple. For instance, the authors observe that media switching can ‘increase cognitive overhead for students and [lead to] associated increases in perceived workload’ (van Ameijde et al 2008, p.46). Moreover, the authors state that having to search for information about the curriculum has similar negative effects.

Thus, the ideal online course should use just one platform and a very limited number of different media. Essential information about dates, course activities and online meeting times should be accessible from the same clearly labeled space at the click of the button. A disorganized, fragmented learning environment leads to frustration and ultimately lower student retention rates.



van Ameijde, J., Weller, M. and Cross, S. (2018). Learning Design for Student Retention. Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice, Vol 6 | Issue 2 | pp.41-50.  PDF 


Maintaining motivation in online learning

When we consider the reasons why students drop out of courses, a number of factors immediately spring to mind, including excessive workloads, timetable clashes, problems of personal chemistry with fellow students and the teacher and inappropriate levels of difficulty. Conversely, feeling a valued and significant member of a community may encourage students to persevere, even when they experience some of the problems mentioned above. Indeed, this may be one of the reasons why teachers devote so much time to creating group-work exercises and encouraging interaction between their students.

When it comes to online courses, however, it would seem that fostering the kind of interaction that gives rise to such a sense of community is more challenging. At worst, other students are simply hashtags in a forum, which is far from ideal for forging social bonds. Naturally, various tools that simulate face-to-face contact can be utilised, including various video conferencing platforms, as we have seen in our own ONL18 course. Nonetheless, it would be difficult to argue that these technologies offer anything like the richness and depth of actual face-to-face interaction.

The answer would seem to be to engage with opportunities offered by online learning rather than attempting to mimic face-to-face teaching. For instance, online learning is particularly suited to activities like blogging and the creation of collaborative documents like wikis. According to some scholars, these activities can act as an effective substitute for face-to-face interaction (see e.g. Price 2016, p. 133), and thereby add the vital social component to online learning environments.



Price, G. (2016). Student Motivation in Online Courses. In Supporting the Success of Adult and Online Students. CreateSpace.

To be open or closed?

To be open or closed?

When we think about the words ‘open’ and ‘closed’, we can already feel that the former has positive associations while the latter has negative. A closed-minded person is unreceptive to new ideas; a closed shopping mall feels empty and sad. Consequently, when we come to consider open-learning as compared to its closed counterpart, most of us have an inbuilt bias towards the open, just because of the connotations of the word. Open learning promises inclusivity, while closed learning is exclusive, hidden behind entrance exams and tuition fees.

Nevertheless, are we really ready to embrace the kind of paradigm shift that truly open education would require? Many of us are deeply invested in the closed system: we fought hard to gain study places in prestigious universities; we made financial sacrifices, too, in order to be there. As a reward, we were given access to exclusive knowledge from the top academics in the field. Should this knowledge now be given for free to any Tom, Dick or Harry? That seems unfair; it feels like all our efforts have been for nothing.

Not only did we shed blood, sweat and tears for our access to exclusive knowledge; our exclusive study places also gave us privileged access to the jobs market. We have used that advantage to gain work in universities ourselves, and so the wheel turns. Access to and success within closed education is therefore about more than just learning and knowledge. In fact, one could argue that its core function is something completely different: it acts as a sorting house where the successful are streamed towards the best jobs, allowing them to enjoy the highest financial and social rewards. In this light, open learning is a subversive, anarchistic force. It threatens the foundations of the very system that pays for our expensive foreign holidays and upholds our social status.

Me and the Digital World

How digitally literate am I? To answer that question, I would like to make an analogy between traditional literacy and its digital counterpart. Becoming traditionally literate is a process. It begins with a complete inability to either read or write and ends with complete fluency in both skills, which would mean the ability to effortlessly comprehend and produce text in all the possible genres. There are many intermediate steps along the way, however, and most of us never reach the final destination of complete fluency. Some may not get that far; they struggle to read the most basic texts and can hardly string a written sentence together. Others progress a little further: they can function effectively at an everyday level, they can fill in basic forms, write a shopping list without effort. Others still might reach the level of being able to write the odd report at work; they might even read a crime novel for pleasure. In terms of my digital literacy, I am at about that stage, but to continue the analogy, I’ve never picked up one of the classics, I don’t participate in a reading circle, I’ve never read the New Yorker, and I am totally incapable of contributing an article to that publication, let alone creating my own work of contemporary literature.

Moreover, it seems that I am only completely digitally literate in the narrow sense of having good ICT literacy. When it comes to the other six elements of digital literacy identified in the JISC guide (JISC, no date) ­– “media literacy”, “communications and collaboration”, “career identity and management”, “learning skills”, “information literacy” and “digital scholarship” – then my literacy varies from moderate to virtually non-existent.

It is interesting to consider how digital literacy dove-tails with digital identity. According to Beetham and Sharp’s (2010) developmental pyramid (cited in JISC, no date), literacy progresses through a number of stages – “access and awareness”, “skills” and “practices” – which then culminate in the final stage: “identity”. Thus, in this schema, digital identity is an outcome of a high level of digital literacy. If I were to follow this idea, I would have to conclude that I have no digital identity at all. However, digital identity can also be viewed in different terms. For instance, White and Le Cornu (2011) discuss the concept of digital visitors versus digital residents. According to White, visitors treat the digital world as a “tool shed” that they visit to select the appropriate equipment for a certain task, whereas residents approach the digital world as a park containing groups of friends and acquaintances with whom they can interact and spend time, both at work and play. In short, visitors have a purely instrumental approach to the digital world, whereas residents have invested their identity in it.

While I have a problem with such binary distinctions, I would still consider myself more of a visitor than a resident. I approach the digital world primarily as a tool shed, and the tools that are on offer are of varying quality. I have a low patience threshold for any digital platform or service that takes more than a few seconds to learn or navigate. Say what you will about Apple, but their products normally work seamlessly together in a beautiful, logical and intuitive way. Sadly the same cannot be said for the products of its competitors.

In terms of my development, I hope that more than just introducing me to some more tools, ONL will help to give me a new perspective on online learning. I think what is already clear to me is that the ONL style of learning requires the learner to take the initiative and also responsibility for finding out about tasks and managing tools. What I would most want is to know how to create a holistic online experience for students with attractive, intuitive web platforms. In my opinion, in this busy world, neither I nor my students want to waste too much time fiddling with drop-down menus, user ids or highly complex settings. Moreover, online learning should be fun and not end with the user frustratedly banging the keyboard.


White, D. S., & Le Cornu, A. (2011). Visitors and Residents: A new typology for online engagement. First Monday, 16(9). Online. Accessed 7 October 2018:

JISC (no date). Developing digital literacies. JISC website. Accessed / October 2018: