15 ideas to help with your Course Design

By Brett Lucas,
QMplus project Design and Usability

Developing a coherent pattern for the layout of your teaching materials in QMplus can feel a little daunting, especially when time is at a premium and the tool is very new. To help you with your thinking I will discuss some tips from my experience working with academics developing courses in Moodle over the last few years. The tips touch on structure, design and content.

  1. Plan out your ideas on paper first and be consistent
    The key question here is: What are you really trying to achieve? If you are using the online part of your module/programme to supplement your face-to-face teaching then think hard about what kinds of resources will be useful to your students and activities you might create which weave between the teaching sessions. E.g. Online discussions can be particularly good for starting or continuing the learning conversations. If you are teaching part time or distance students then students will need more guidance and signposting.
    Once you’ve decided on the resources you need then lay them out consistently within the topic section. E.g. a simple starting point might be an Intro or overview (with a small image ) or perhaps the week’s learning objectives, followed by a short diagnostic quiz. Then essential reading with links to further reading on a separate page. Are you going to introduce each section of work with a short overview of what the student should do (Read the article, Watch the video, Reflect on the key ideas from…etc)?
    Laying out resources consistently provides clarity to your students and gives your online materials a visual balance.
    Useful Resource: Dr Rosie Miles and her team at the University of Wolverhampton produced a great Guide to using Online Discussion that is useful for any discipline.
  2. Group materials in logical ways and use headings to organise
    The ‘Label’ tool (under the resources dropdown menu) is great for helping you organise and structure your learning materials. A group of eight PDFs in a list on the page looks dull and doesn’t explain anything to the student. However, using one or two labels to signpost to the student what the PDFs are for or the general subject area can break up the list and improve the look and feel. You can add a line in the label tool too to break up the list. Use the ‘right move’ icon next to the resource to indent it slightly under the label this too creates a more visually pleasant flow. Better still, use the description field when you add the resource and provide a short description of what the resource is and  why the student should be clicking on it.
  3. Apply the template elements correctly
    There are a number of features that have been added to the page formats in QMplus for you to use. The ‘Edit news display settings’ feature just under the name of your module when editing is on, enables you to upload an image easily and get the latest news announcement from the class forum to display. When the Module Info block is applied it will have some information that will need modifying to your particular teaching environment e.g. your room location and office hour.
    There are quite a lot of additional ‘styles’ that can be added to your topic sections if you are willing to modify the HTML. Look out for the ‘Applying styles to learning content’ guide which will be available shortly on the Support and Faqs page.
  4. Remember some basic web design principles
    White space is easy on the eye…so avoid clutter! Just because you have an empty topic section doesn’t mean you have to cram it with lots of resources, activities, lecture captures and text. As a rule of thumb, restrict your topic section to no more than a screen of material. Try to avoid using long paragraphs of text on the web as research shows that the human eye prefers shorter paragraphs when reading online. Don’t mix more than two font styles as this will annoy your students. Making large amounts of text bold may not be the best way to  catch your students attention, use short informative headings that are bold instead.
  5. Large sets of related resources belong on separate pages
    Moodle pages (available from the Resource dropdown menu) are a fantastic way to present lists of related materials (e.g. additional reading, lists of web links, video clips). Moodle books are for when you have large amounts of related content that would be more logical broken up over multiple pages. Many colleagues have found the Moodle book resource as a great way to replace a series of PDFs. The book generates its own table of contents, has a print-friendly version, is fast loading and like the Moodle page, is directly linkable from anywhere else on your module.
  6. Turn a ‘static resource’ into an interactive activity
    Providing a handout with key readings or asking students to watch a video clip are two common uses of learning environments. Both involve the student passively engaging with learning materials. Consider transforming that passive learning into a more interactive style by introducing an activity that students must complete after they have watched or read the material. Take a short quiz based on what they’ve read, discuss with peers in groups whether they agree or disagree with the points raised, make notes about the ideas that spoke to them and bring them to the next seminar.
  7. Use images to illustrate your topics or themes
    That old cliché about 1000 words does ring true. Your students are increasingly visually literate and images chosen carefully and used wisely can really enhance your page. There is a ready made image placeholder at the top of the page to illustrate your module/course or programme. This doesn’t have to be static either, you can change it anytime you like. One colleague once told me that she used to change her course image every week just to prove she was also using the site and creating a sense of momentum and excitement around the module. Images can be added to books, pages, assignments, discussion tasks and can also add a visual element to a topic section on the page. Remember to keep the sizes to a level that doesn’t overwhelm the content to which it refers.  When you use images make sure you attribute them appropriately. I use Flickr Creative Commons a lot and usually use the author’s screen name and hyperlink it to the Flickr website (i.e. ‘Photo courtesy of…’). Nottingham University’s copyright cleared image search tool ‘Xpert’ actually places the appropriate attribution logo onto the image for you.
    Useful Resources: Flickr Creative Commons, Xpert
  8. Make sure you include clear instructions for activities
    Unless you are explaining to your students face-to-face what you need them to do online you will need to be explicit about both what you want them to do and your expectations of the work within the environment itself. This doesn’t need to be a 1000 word essay for each week but simple clear instructions next to sets of resources or activities and an introduction or overview of the week’s work are sufficient. E.g. If you are providing  eight links to external websites…ask yourself why your students should  be clicking on them? Have you listed them in any particular order if so explain why? How much time should they be spending on a particular task you are asking them to do? When submitting an assignment don’t just write the question or task but also explain to students how they should submit the assignment (e.g. using the submit button on the page). The same goes for discussion tasks. Do you want students to start a new thread for each new point raised, or just reply to other student posts? If the task involves submitting weblinks what format should that be in? If you are using a scheduled online chat for your office hour – you might like to provide some guidance notes for how to access the chat tool and how to use it. These could be provided next to the chat feature and/or linked too from an area of the page you store common pages.
  9. Make links in your content from one area to another
    Every page, activity, assignment or resource you create in QMplus has a distinct URL. You can use these to link between related areas of content. E.g. when you are setting up a discussion forum you can link to a ‘Guide to participating in discussions’ that you might have written or a ‘How to use the discussion forums guide’. Once these guides have been set up in the first place they will save you time repeating instructions. If you have a series of related pages you can set up your own internal navigation structure adding text or graphical links at the bottom of the page saving the student from going back to the module/course homepage all the time.
  10. Create feedback opportunities
    Talk to your students about the design of your online module/course – they will be your best evaluators and guides. You might want to provide a specific feedback mechanism like a Forum called ‘Online Module feedback’ or a short questionnaire repeated at regular intervals using the feedback tool (in the activities dropdown).
  11. Don’t clutter the Course/Module homepage with too many blocks
    Your students will not notice that important link you’d like them to use if there are too many all over the page. Think carefully about what is the most important information. If you want to include more than one RSS feed then consider moving all the feeds to QMplus Groups and Portfolios where you can add multiple RSS feeds. If you are unsure about the usefulness of the blocks on your module/course/prog homepage then its probably better to get rid of them or ask your students what they think.
  12. Don’t be afraid to design your course/module iteratively
    Reaching the end of August and nowhere near completing your QMplus module? Don’t panic…it doesn’t have to be complete for the start of the year. Prepare a few weeks of online teaching  ahead of yourself, choose ‘topics format (QMUL)’ as a page format and hide those incomplete areas . As you start teaching you may find that a new idea about how to organise resources emerge naturally. Taking this approach means you can adjust and modify as you go.
  13. Add a coversheet for the CLA licence if you are adding journal articles or book scans
    It is important that all downloadable journal articles or scans of book chapters contain a CLA license coversheet. You can find out more about how to add one from the Your Library in QMplus page.
  14. Experiment with engaging your students in new ways
    A few ideas you might try. Consider appointing  one student to take notes for the group during the seminar, directly into a QMplus page.  Use the peer assessment capabilities within the workshop tool to involve all the students in reviewing the work of the peers. Ask your students to form an online ‘buddy group’ in the Groups and Portfolios area then add the links to those groups in a block on your homepage.
  15. Start building sustainable learning resources
    Some activities can be migrated from one year top the next and after a few years become a rich resource for students created by yourself or your students e.g. a Glossary or Database of weblinks, images, key references, terminology, a Lightbox gallery of images.

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