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Learning from being a student: setting up the online environment

I learn a lot about teaching from my experiences as a student. Just now I am participating in a MOOC. The MOOC is about online course design, but I am learning most from my experiences as a student in this course. The most immediately striking things have been how the set up of the online environment affects learning.

One of the first things I learned was about the frustrations of the online environment when its new to you especially when there are bugs. It’s really important that things work and that you provide instructions at the time people need them – which is right at the beginning, not some time down the track.

You need to also anticipate that people are going to explore the online classroom at first but that they won’t keep exploring once they think they know what is there. So you should make sure that everything you need them to find is there at the beginning when they are exploring. If you put it there later they won’t be looking for it and won’t see it.

The layout of the site has to follow principles of good document and web layout. Twenty-six words before a line break is not good layout in anyone’s book. It’s very hard to read! And the navigation has to relate well to the course design so that things follow each other in a logical order and are grouped where you can find them. Some learning management systems just don’t do this naturally. You might have to think outside the box.

You need to provide clear instructions. It might be completely obvious to the course designers what learners are supposed to do, but it won’t be clear to learners unless you are very careful with the way you explain things.

Make sure learners can easily separate the unimportant traffic from the important traffic. Bombarding us with tweets, Facebook comments, and class forum posts is overwhelming. Some of us want to get down to business and don’t have time to read thousands of messages. It needs to be easy to find the ones we do need.

If the course doesn’t work on a mobile device, then you can forget people logging in frequently to keep up. Good mobile functionality is essential for me to be able to use those little moments between jobs: waiting for the kettle to boil, waiting to pick up children, waiting for my computer to boot up. These are the only spare times I have!

And don’t prevent browser password-savers working so we have to type in user-ids and passwords every time we want to look at the site! You want us to look at the site frequently, so facilitate that.

These technical and design elements might seem like a minor part to course design but its clear to me that they impact so much on the learner that they are as important as the pedagogical approach. If not done well they are an immediate barrier to learning.

A food that isn’t eaten has no nutritional value. A learning activity that isn’t undertaken has no learning value either.

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