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 


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