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Learning Design Basics

Darren Sudlow —

How you design learning online is an integral part of enabling learning online. Design needs to be carefully thought through and implemented.

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It is a good idea to include a few general bits and pieces in the top block of your course as a course overview. Write a general blurb for the course and then place some tools and resources that are relevant. You should include:

  • A course outline (as a downloadable resource or as a series of webpages / book)
  • A list of course objectives (might be included in the course outline)
  • A folder of general resources for the course / NCEA standards, etc. Alternatively you could just add each resource individually. These files could be held in from a google docs 
  • Useful links

You might like to include:

  • A glossary of terms that students develop
  • A journal or portfolio for ongoing student reflection
  • A student feedback tool so students can give you ongoing feedback on how things are going

Structuring the learning

There needs to be a clear structure to the learning in an online course. The following outlines a sound, organised and clear approach to structuring the learning. It is not a definitive approach. There is a lot of room to develop your own approach based on ideas you take from here.

In a face to face situation learning is often broken up into discrete lessons in which the teacher introduces the objectives or outcomes for the lesson, sets tasks for the students to complete and perhaps summarises at the end. The approach is different in an online situation, but you have options as the teacher

You could structure the course by:

  • Weekly units of work
  • Modules which cover one or more weeks
  • Topics which may be taught from at different times within the course

Whatever timeline you use for the work each ‘module’ should have a clear structure to follow. The following would be typical of a module of work.

  • The objectives (these might be developed with or by the students)
  • An overview / explanation of the work
  • The tasks to be completed (choices could be available in how or what students do)
  • Supporting resources (students could also find and share resources)
  • Some assessment of/for learning (this could be informal)

Objectives and Overview

When you add tasks, activities, and resources you can’t expect students to just ‘get it’ without a thorough overview and summary of the work. It is good practice to start the overview with the learning objectives or outcomes for that module or week of work. This establishes what the students will learn by completing the work and provides a clear focus for the learning. Once the objectives are clearly established you can explain the various tasks that are to be completed for that section of work. If there is any sharing or assessment it might be a good idea to explain it here as well. Make the instructions as clear as possible (you don’t want students with too many questions). You might like to think about using a webcam to record yourself explaining the work (as you would with a class). This has the advantage of reinforcing  instructions in different modes which will help students understand what to do.

Tasks and Activities

You can create and link the accompanying tasks underneath the overview. As with face to face teaching there are many things you could do with your students, but always consider how you develop student interaction and connection. Google docs is a fantastic tool for getting student to work together and can allow the teacher to easily monitor and give feedback if required (this can be done by the students as well)

Add Resources

Now add any accompanying resources. These might take the form of documents you upload to google docs, links to useful websites or embedded videos

Sharing the Learning

Getting students to share their learning is good practice in any context, but it is especially useful in an online course. As mentioned earlier, some students may be a little uncomfortable doing this initially, but if it is a regular activity they will soon get used to it. Your online hub is an excellent place to get students to share and discuss their learning, as is the video conference lesson you have with them each week. Try different things with your students and find what works for you and them.


As in a face to face classroom, assessment, and more importantly, formative assessment, plays a key role in student learning. It is good practice to have some form of assessment within a block of work, whether it is at the end or part of the work the students are doing. There are a number of options available to you:

  • Any sharing of work is a form of assessment of course and much of what you do might be quite informal. As mentioned previously this could happen in the forum.
  • The video conference is a good way to check student learning, especially in the form of student seminars or presentation, but it has limitations in terms of the depth of learning you can judge.
  • Google docs allows the teacher to easily assess student learning if give feedback.

More formal assessment should take place as well of course. Regular practice on the NCEA standards (if applicable) is important. It also allows you to give feedback to your students as well as indicative grades if you want.

It isn’t necessary to assess everything yourself. A key aspect of developing an online learning community is to get the students sharing and working together. The use of self and peer assessment is especially useful in this environment, where regular checking of work can become quite a burden on the teacher. Why should the teacher be the font of all knowledge? Turn it back on the students. Give them clear marking indicators and get them to assess each other.

Examples Modules of Learning

One Week / Project Module / Open-ended