As an instructional designer, I am committed to the principle of design modularity. I believe that the following guiding principles are fundamental to the development and delivery of effective learning environments:
- Simplicity: my core design principle is “less is more.” Students (all of us) are quickly overwhelmed with too much complexity. We all learn best when we can easily see what we need to do, when we can progress one step at a time, and when we can test our understanding at regular intervals.
- Online Materials: whether designing a classroom, hybrid or online course, I prefer to design and develop materials for online access. This ensures that the design will be truly student-centered, that the course can be easily maintained, and that future changes in delivery method will not demand significant re-formatting or other content modifications. Students attending traditional classroom courses appreciate online access just as much as other students.
- Asynchronous Learning: Wherever possible, the learning environment should be asynchronous so that students (and instructors) will have the maximum flexibility with regard to their personal time management.
- Clean Interface: a well-structured and easily navigable interface allows students to find material and understand requirements without difficulty. These features send an immediate message to the student that his or her time is respected, and that the focus is on learning and not on the interface.
- Activity-based Design: course materials should be grouped by activity rather than by type of content. For example don’t create separate lists of assignments, due dates, study notes, slides, quizzes, additional resources, etc. Instead, group material by chapter, or topic, so that for example a student can click on Chapter 1 and find ALL materials associated with this chapter.
- Two Clicks: minimize the number of steps the students must take to find something. For example, provide links to each chapter or topic from the main course page, then list ALL relevant activities and resources directly on the chapter or topic page, This allows students to see everything available to them at a glance, without following unnecessary links and sub-categories to find out what’s there. Similarly provide a single link to Course Information and provide the schedule, syllabus and all overview and general lookup documents there.
- Modularity: once the course-level outcomes are defined, consider breaking these down to subsets of outcomes for each chapter or major course topic. Then develop learning activities and assessments around each of these subsets to create course modules. This will allow students to assess their progress through the course, and greatly facilitates effective course design and maintenance.
- Effective Assessments: I believe that poorly designed assessments and assignments create as many or more challenges for students as actual learning requirements. I take a great deal of time and care to create carefully worded assessments and assignments to avoid the kind of ambiguity and confusion that can rapidly diminish a student’s confidence in their own abilities.
- Support the Instructor: a well-designed course should minimize the time that an instructor needs to manage content, and maximize his or her time for teaching and guidance. That means providing clearly written, step-by-step guides for operations such as uploading content, maintaining online grade books, or managing discussion boards.
- Standard Formats: quite apart from academic standards, an effective learning environment should also reflect common and low-cost technology standards. Care must be taken to avoid “format-proliferation”, where students are expected to be handle an unnecessarily broad range of formats to view and exchange course materials. As far as possible, formats should be:
- consistent between courses within the institution or program
- platform independent (easy to handle on Windows, Macintosh, or Linux operating systems)
- no-cost or low-cost (students should not have to pay for expensive software just to access a special format, unless learning the software is a primary purpose of the course).
- clearly indicated in the published course requirements
Standard formats are also important with regard to quizzes and similar assessments. It should be easy to convert this material for different delivery modes (printed documents, online, etc), and for easy assembly of test banks that contain questions from multiple sources.
- Effective Use of Technology: it is easy to get excited about technology and educational providers (and other instructors and course designers) are quick to “wow” you with expensive or complex multimedia tutorials, proprietary formats, and highly integrated products. Often (not always) such products may look terrific in a sales presentation, or at a conference, but do little to support student learning. All too often such products will lock you into long term relationships with a specific vendor or cause significant technical support challenges. The same concerns apply with regard to funding “whiz-bang” learning components within the institution: these efforts tend to be time-consuming, expensive, highly restricted in audience, and difficult to maintain.In most cases, good technology should provide you with small, simple, interchangeable learning objects, using standard formats, that can be mixed and matched with other course materials as needed. Most important: a course should not be dependent on any specific product, vendor, or technology.
- Cost effective: A well-designed course should be affordable both in terms of development costs and technology requirements. It should be easy to add or remove bells and whistles without effecting the essential course content. The course should also be easy to maintain and modify.
- Feedback Mechanisms: Students, instructors, and other course participants should be able to easily provide and obtain feedback at any time regarding the course design and content, and should be actively encouraged to do so. Discussion threads and blogs both provide simple ways to capture, share, and respond to comments.