As we get familiar with teaching online, it is important to spend time reviewing our online environments and assessing the quality of our learners’ experience. Whether you have recently been introduced to online teaching or you have been teaching online for several years, at some point you will need to evaluate the quality of your online teaching resources and reviewing how you are structuring these resources within the learning environment. In this article, we discuss some important aspects of good online learning environments and what you should look for within your own sites. By doing so you will help create a “sticky” space that your students will want to spend time exploring and revisiting.
Create a welcoming, well-organised and accessible online space
Online spaces should be easy to navigate. Students need to clearly see where to start and how to progress throughout the course. A checklist like this will help you get started to ensure you have covered the essentials. It’s also important not to go overboard with adding content. Valuable information on your subject will not be appreciated or readily accessible if your online space is cluttered, unintuitively organized and generally unwelcoming.
► Constructive alignment
Before students gain access to your online space, you should ensure constructive alignment between module outcomes, assessment and learning activities. Clearly state requirements and instructions and provide a unit outline and rubrics for all assessments.
► A warm and welcoming message
A warm and welcoming message, using simple language, highlighting the objectives of the course and providing motivational aspects is a good way to start making connections with your students. Provide a welcome video with a friendly and motivating tone to help students get to know you.
► Information and communication
Students need to be able to clearly see where to access information, how to communicate with the teacher and what to do and in what order. Consider using a variety of easily accessible forums such as Announcements, Q&A and Discussion Forums with specific uses.
► Navigation and flow
Adding a colorful image in the banner space on a Moodle page, and weekly tabs with organized learning tasks, helps with navigation and flow.
Structure your students’ learning
A good online learning environment is more than a repository of documents. Relying on PowerPoint slides, for example, might give some teachers a [false] sense of comfort that the information is presented logically and clearly, however, it’s difficult to check the students’ level of understanding as they passively flick from slide to slide. Instead, a good practice to get into is structuring learning by ‘chunking’ material and scaffolding understanding, moving students from a lower level of understanding to a higher level of understanding.
Toohey’s Model of Learning (2009) provides an excellent model of chunking and scaffolding student learning:
Students are first introduced to a new concept through texts, videos, websites and other modes. In ELICOS terms this would be called ‘presentation’ stage.
They then find out more about it, through further reading, lectures, discussions and other audiovisual material.
Next, they are given an opportunity to do some practice, while conducting structured tasks like role plays and structured discussions with peers and teachers. In ELICOS teachers usually prepare a number of practice tasks, starting from ‘controlled’ to ‘freer’ practice tasks to gradually give students more autonomy.
This is followed by peer and teacher feedback.
Students are then given time to reflect on their learning and performance through, for example, reflective blogs, and if needed, conduct further research, to then be able to apply their new knowledge and skills. In ELICOS this is referred to as the ‘production’ stage.
Adapted from Toohey’s Model of Learning (1999, p. 154)
Contextualizing materials and providing a flowing narrative will help students navigate through the topics at their own time and pace, with vital check points along the way to evaluate and test understanding.
► Weekly sections
In your weekly sections, briefly explain what learning took place in the previous lesson and what is coming up to provide a clear context, set expectations and allow a better flow between content.
► Moodle books
Moodle books and discussion forums can be used to introduce formative assessment tasks to give students the opportunity to test their knowledge, apply any skills learned, and check their understanding as they progress through the resources.
Indicate how long students should spend on a task, or how deep to go into certain resources, to help students work on time management and study skills.
► Explicit outcomes
Explicitly explaining how students will demonstrate outcomes will help them stay focused and on the right track.
► Variety and interaction
Provide a variety of activities and tasks to enhance engagement. Moodle allows you to easily add images, videos and links for further reading and research in your Moodle Books. Encourage interaction through polls, quizzes and discussion forums and as you build more confidence add a Padlet wall, a FlipGrid task, a Mentimeter word cloud or a Kahoot game, for example.
Do you have any questions or require further details on any of the points mentioned above? How have you been using your online space? We’d love to hear about your strategies and approaches. Join our discussion forums on the Navitas Community – Online Support Strategies site, or email firstname.lastname@example.org to share your good practice and continue the conversation.
Hughes, C., Toohey, S. & Hatherley, S. (1992). Developing learning-centred trainers and tutors, Studies in Continuing Education, 14(1), 14-27.
Toohey, S. (1999). Designing Courses for Higher Education. Buckingham: The Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.