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Nurturing Online Learning Environments: Course Design and Structure

Nurturing Online Learning Environments: Course Design and Structure
Online educators have the benefit of providing students a wide range of resources to support their learning, but the resources must blend with the overall course design and other elements of the learning experience.
Effective use of what we know about the communication process to create a receptive atmosphere for online learning can influence the design and structure of courses and relevant instructional resources. To emphasize the role of sound instructional design principles and strategies for effective online courses, Islamoglu and Branch (University of Georgia) recommend that, from the beginning, instructors should demonstrate the value of their course and its content. The value of a course is communicated via an intentional structure, the design and purpose of assignments and the selection of resources shared within the course. Such decisions are predicated on periodic reviews of the course design and investigations into newer instructional resources, literature and digital tools. Online instructors can also capitalize on learner feedback and suggestions to guide their course enhancement.

Additionally, Islamoglu and Branch investigated the circumstances under which deep learning can occur within an online environment, so learners engage with content and apply skills to connect with the content and transfer this new knowledge to solve problems or for future use. They referred to prior research by Sankaran and Bui, who noted that courses promoting deep learning would “include detailed learning objectives, learning reinforcers, step-by-step instructions for assignments, review materials and sample questions” (page 197).  Ley and Gannon-Cook also noted how online learners appreciate examples to guide them to successful assignment submission. For those of us familiar with the Quality Matters program or the Sloan Consortium’s five pillars, it’s not surprising that these elements are considered essential for an online course to be student-centric in design.

Design of instructional resources has a similar effect as the overall design and structure of an online course. Applying what is understood of the information-processing system and multimedia theory to the messages shared in resources and selected texts, online instructors can guide learners to identify the essential, the generative and the non-extraneous elements of lessons or texts. According to MJ Bishop, this approach to designing instructional interactions and activities nurtures knowledge construction and active, student-centered instruction, dependent on learners assuming responsibility for their progress. Acknowledging what we know about cognition and several barriers to learning, we can apply multimedia theory, the power of digital technology and the communication process to guide our resource selection and design and how we structure course portals and modules.

This is the fourth in a five-part series by Susan Farber on creating a nurturing online learning environment. To read the first installment and preview the rest of the series, please click here.

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