Online Interface Design and Course Management
You have made the major decisions on course design, including outcomes, assessments, and teaching strategies, using the Backward Design process (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005), and your syllabus has been completed. The one fairly large task remaining is the creation of the online course in the learning management system (LMS). This task requires a certain comfort with technology, but more important, consideration of interface design, or the computer–user interface with the goal of making the interface as user-friendly or intuitive as possible. Success in this endeavor depends on understanding the relationship of the syllabus and organization of the LMS. The focus of this chapter is to expand on the relationship of the syllabus to the LMS in order to create consistent navigation week after week that also maximizes the efficiencies available in most LMSs through understanding basic interface design principles.
All kinds of LMSs are currently available for use in higher education, with the names Blackboard and Moodle most recognizable. Technology is ever changing, and the new term you may have heard to replace LMS is the next-generation digital learning environments (NGDLE). The goals of moving to this environment are not only to digitalize the experience, but also to place learning at the center, which means customizing the experience for each learner depending on his or her learning needs (Brown, Dehoney, & Millichap, 2015).
For now, we will focus on LMSs that have similar functionality with the goal of creating an environment that is navigable and does not stand in the way of student learning. Because your syllabus must be reflected in how the LMS is set up or its look and feel, we will focus on that aspect first.
266Keep in mind that two views of the LMS exist and are quite different—the student view and faculty view. Most LMSs allow you to switch to the student view to ensure that changes you have made are not only visible to students, but also look the way you had intended. It is good practice to check the course from the student view before the course starts.
ORGANIZING AN ONLINE COURSE
By Weeks or Modules?
The organization of the syllabus must parallel how the course is set up in the LMS, which was introduced in Chapter 3 in the section labeled Organization of an Online Syllabus. However, it is worth reiterating as doing so ensures that navigation will not get in the way of student’s learning. Ideally, all courses in an academic program should follow the same schedule in that Week 1 starts on the first day of class and ends on the same day for all courses. Week 2 includes the same dates, and so on. This provides a stabilizing consistency for students that they seem to appreciate.
The LMSs that I am familiar with are organized in weekly segments that are automatically populated with the weekly dates for the entire course after you enter the start and end dates. They do not accommodate 2-week blocks. This can be problematic if you plan discussions that last 10 to 14 days. Consequently, using the concepts of modules or units that are guided by the content is the best approach, but the weeks should be listed in the syllabus. For the remainder of this chapter, I have used the term module to refer to 2 weeks of related content. For example, Module 1 may last for 2 weeks—Week 1 and Week 2. Organizing the syllabus by Module 1, Module 2, and so on will cause problems because it is not possible for the LMS to reflect that. Refer to Exhibit 3.2 (Chapter 3), under the section Organization of an Online Syllabus, which reflects the preferred organization of the course schedule so it is consistent with the setup of the LMS.
Interface design is also referred to as the computer–user interface. The LMS design should be intuitive and easily navigated so that students can focus on learning and not spend an undue amount of time locating information. User interface design “is the design of user interfaces for machines and software, such as computers, home appliances, mobile devices, and other 267electronic devices, with the focus on maximizing usability and the user experience” (User Interface Design, 2016, para. 1). What we are concerned about is the functionality of the LMS software and what we can do with some predetermined choices to create an interface that is transparent.
THREE GOLDEN RULES OF INTERFACE DESIGN
1. Place the user in control
2. Reduce cognitive load
3. Create a consistent interface
Bahrami and Bahrami (2012) listed three golden rules of user interface design that appear in Box 12.1.
In order for the user, the learner in this case, to be in control, the navigation in the LMS should be consistent throughout the course. Using the same descriptive headings for each module creates consistency. These headings might include Introduction, Readings (required and recommended), Lectures, Discussions, and Assessments.
Introduction to the Module
For each module covering a 2-week time span, faculty should introduce the topic or theme in a podcast. Instead of using the title of Introduction, creative titles could be used for this introduction, such as Week at a Glance, The Week in Review, or Heads Up. When choosing a heading for the introduction, be consistent with your style of teaching and use the same titles for each module.
In Chapter 6, the topic of writing subobjectives was discussed, and I mentioned that this was not good practice in the new paradigm of nursing education. In the introductory podcast, I recommend including the following:
• The general learning outcomes for the module
• What prior knowledge students may have that is related
• How the learning outcomes will be achieved with the scheduled learning activities
268• Any assignments that are due, with the location of the rubric to assess them
• Where the link to upload any assignments can be found
• Explanation of how the content they will be learning relates to their future role, providing examples if possible
This should provide a general overview of the module and allay any anxieties or answer any questions students may have. The link to the podcast should be included under the Introduction heading, or whatever you have decided to call that area.
Readings and Lectures
The syllabus includes reading assignments from the course text. If that is the only reading you will assign students, include the name of the text or the authors and the pages to be read for each module under the Readings heading. Some LMSs allow you to add text to the actual course homepage, but keep it to a minimum. If you have other readings, such as journal articles, copyright laws may prohibit you from uploading the article into your course. This varies by publisher, but instead of taking time to determine the rights for every article you want students to read, the best practice may be to add a direct link to the article in the school’s library under the Readings heading. Consult your library for instructions on how to add a link for this purpose. Also, remember to indicate whether these readings are required or recommended using subheadings as part of the organizational framework of each module so students can plan their time.
Websites can be linked directly, but be sure to provide direction as to what you want students to do or read while they are there. It is too easy for students to get lost in cyberspace if specific directions are not provided. Using the back arrow on a browser will sometimes kick a student out of the LMS, requiring him or her to re-sign in, so do have the website as well as linked articles from the library open in a new window.
In a constructivist, learner-centered teaching paradigm, the lecture as the primary means of teaching has fallen out of favor, especially when teaching online. In addition, the millennial generation prefers a variety of teaching strategies (Price, 2009), and, although they prefer structure in educational activities (Wilson & Gerber, 2008), they prefer individual instruction or technology-based teaching strategies over the lecture (Mohr, Moreno-Walton, Mills, Brunett, & Promes, 2011). However, mini-lectures do have a place in online education. Mini-lectures should be reserved for complex topics that require more explanation than is provided in available published works, or to synthesize concepts and make connections that students may miss unless specifically pointed out. Creating and uploading 269long lectures that reiterate the text or other readings are not appropriate for the online environment, and, frankly, are a waste of your time. However, brief podcasts or YouTube videos are easy to create and provide a welcome reprieve from the text-based nature of online learning.
Links to Discussions
The learning space in most online courses is in the discussions. Links to the discussion forums can be set up from one main link under the discussion heading in each module. One sublink for each discussion group is then created. So, the main discussion link for each module would be Discussion 1, for example, indicating the first discussion in the course. Clicking on that link will allow you to set up a separate link for each group of students in the course. The advantage of this approach is to avoid multiple links to each discussion group appearing on the main page of the LMS, which takes up space and expands each week, requiring endless scrolling as the course progresses.
These sublinks for each group should be labeled with the discussion number and the group number. As discussions will most likely be graded, indicating a point value as a grade is part of setting up the discussions. When this occurs, the grade book is automatically populated with the same name used to set up the link and the point value of the assignment. If the discussion is not labeled with the discussion number and group number, these entries will all look the same to students when viewing the grade book from their perspective. So, the first discussion for Group 1 would be—Discussion 1, Group 1—or abbreviated as D1-G1. Brief abbreviations like this work well as the space for text in the grade book is limited.
Recall from Chapter 6 that one decision you will need to make is whether every group will tackle the same discussion question or if you will create different questions for each group. This is an important decision because you will need to set the discussion links you have created to either open for everyone in the class or be restricted to group members only. The other related decision you will need to make is whether a student can see the other posts by his or her classmates in the same discussion group before posting initially. Obviously, faculty want students to do their own work by completing the readings, synthesizing the information, and creating a unique post. If students can read each other’s posts prior to posting, the risk is that they will essentially copy others’ thoughts to create their own post. This is compounded if all groups are open for general viewing and working on the same discussion question. My recommendation is that if all groups are discussing the same question, you will want to (a) restrict access to the groups and (b) not allow students to see initial posts of other students in their group until they have posted for the first time. Note that 270these are separate steps in the setup procedure for discussion boards. This functionality is available when you set up the links and can be revisited at a later date to make adjustments, if needed.
Not every module will include an assessment. However, when an assignment, such as a written paper, illness script, or podcast, is due, students will need to know where to upload it. The link to upload documents should be located in the week of the module that includes the due date for the assignment. For example, if an assignment is due February 5, and that date coincides with Week 5, the link should be placed under the heading of Assessments in Week 5. I would upload the rubric to grade this assignment under the assessment heading as well, even if it is included in the syllabus. A week or so prior to any assignment being due, it is recommended that you post an announcement reminding students of the upcoming assignment, when it is due, and where to upload it. At that time you can remind them that the rubric is in the syllabus and posted below the assignment’s upload link. Students appreciate when faculty post information “just in time” that anticipates questions they have. This approach will save you time in the long run.
Managing Cognitive Load
Recall from Chapter 1 that cognitive load is the demand placed on learners’ cognitive processing during learning (Miller, 2014). Extrinsic cognitive load relates to the unnecessary demands encountered that are not part of what is to be learned and can be influenced positively or negatively by design strategies faculty use to teach. Miller summarized the process: “When less cognitive power is taken up by extraneous load, more is left over for intrinsic and germane load” (p. 83), or those processes necessary for learning.
Multiple design strategies can reduce extrinsic cognitive load for students such as:
• LMS orientation
An orientation to the LMS prior to the start or during the first week of classes that provides opportunities to practice with the features, such as posting in a discussion, uploading an assignment, and taking a practice quiz. This type of practice will allay anxieties even for those students who are familiar with and use other technologies often.
271• Use consistent course processes
Assignments are due on the same day of the week and time. For example, all assignments are due Sunday night at 11:55 p.m.
Discussions start and end on the same day and at the same time. For example, all discussions start on Monday at 8:00 a.m. and end a week from the following Friday at 11:55 p.m.
• Instructions are clearly written
Instructions for assignments and discussions are clearly spelled out in the syllabus and just in time weekly (at least) announcements remind students of upcoming activities.
• Content is organized
The LMS is organized so that all components students need to complete a task are in the same place. For discussion, for example, the discussion question, length, due dates, and response requirements are visible when the student clicks on the main discussion link and again when he or she clicks on the group link to post.
• Discussion questions are ill structured
Discussion questions that are ill structured and have no one correct answer are used consistently to decrease cognitive load as compared to questions for which answers can be found in the readings. The latter results in students all posting the same answer and struggling to find other things to say to meet the posting requirements.
• Use varied formats for learning materials
Learning materials are presented in multiple modalities, when possible, such as a written script of a podcast, especially for complex content (Young, Van Merriënboer, Durning, & Ten Cate, 2014). Online learning is predominately a text-based medium and limiting all educational material to reading alone can cause cognitive overload and impair learning.
• Provide worked examples when possible (Van Merriënboer & Sweller, 2010)
A worked example could be a complete history and physical exam write-up, letter to a senator, a brief, or worked statistical problems.
• Hide future content
Most LMSs will allow you to hide content that students do not need to focus on. For example, you may have the entire course ready with all content uploaded before the start of the semester. Allowing students to see the entire course can be overwhelming and increase their anxiety and perhaps extrinsic cognitive load. Hide modules that students are not currently working on and open one module at a time, a week before the start date.