Some thoughts on course layout

Before I start, I know that everyone has their own view on this area and there is no real right or wrong. This post really is just an attempt to put across my personal view or a subset of it. It is not the view of my work, my friends, etc.. anyhow back to the post.!

Back in October, Mark Drechsler wrote a provocative blog post “What makes a good Moodle course?” on his Join the Dots blog.

He talked about the search for “really good exemplar Moodle courses”, a road on which there have been many voyagers, including Tomas Lasic @lasic (of Moodle Lego fame), @catspyjamas of Moodle Tool Guide fame.

However he wasnt content. He proposed 5 reasons for course creation and suggested that whether a course was a good course or not was highly dependent on what the reasoning behind the course was.

Well, on one hand I agree, however, this second hand looks for more..

The resources may be good quality and appropriate, the learning objects may be well crafted in instructional design theory and the reflective methods may elicit the required responses… however, if its ugly will it work?

I had intended to do this post a long time ago, however, today a reply on his blog prompted me to write.

It began “Lets face it the Moodle interface is ugly and restricting, to really engage students we need to think about good interface design” and well, I think that it is only ugly if you let it be.

How many times have you sat down to a boring meal, and didnt enjoy  it? Its been said about food that you should think colour as we eat with our eyes. Well, Moodle is a web application, and a Moodle course is a web page first. So if its plain, uninteresting, lacking context, with a confused layout and navigation can it work as a web page or a course?

And on that basis, if it fails as a web page can it work as a course whatever the purpose?

Over the last year or two, I have seen more and more chatter (including blog entries) trying to put the emphasis on context. One which I remember well was from Wukhwant Lota with tips to improve your Moodle course.

I am also reminded of a great Youtube video  called the “online student experience”, which i will embed here. Please watch it, its just 3 minutes long and speaks volumes about this topic on a number of levels.

So back on topic, I believe Moodle courses can look good. They can look smart, clean and well laid out. They can work as a web page. They dont need to be bereft of context.

Possibly too big an introduction – so what am I on about?

Lets talk blocks.

Blocks in Moodle can be central to a course page, or an unnecessary distraction and both the site admin and the course creator need to consider the requirements.

The Blocks come with differernt uses that can be summarised by
a) navigation
b) settings
b) content
c) functionality

Some sites use just maybe two or three blocks, others use a lot. For each of these types, it needs to be thought about if it is needed in a course, if it is central to the course, if it helps the course or if it actively distracts from the course and not helpful.

I wont go through each block but there are two which I have found useful in most types of courses.

The course menu block is a truely essential block providing a nice in-course navigation from topic to topic – but to be best used  the topic0 must be pretty empty, which is just a discipline needed to make it work.

The random glossary entry is another valued gem. it has so many uses, it would be poiintless to write about them here, for another blog post perhaps. But for providing a randomly changing block of content, its invaluable.

Lets talk about topic layout.

I am a fan of context. Nice layout, and nice visuals. I am not a graphic designer and would never claim to be. I do however like something which looks “nice”, to me anyhow. And I am sure some will think I overdo context.

Have a look at the following topic layout. Compare it to others you may have seen.

Topic Example

Topic Example

note: (the small picture in the topic is from http://www.flickr.com/photos/jackol/ who has some excellent creative commons images.)

People will know that often I would go through quite a few examples of courses which are freely available, looking at the layout, asking for comment and having people identify things the like from them.

I prefer a layout which follows
– web page practices (H2 for topic title, H1 for the course title in topic0 for example)
– lables providing topic/resource/activity context
– indentation for resources/activities to help them stand out
– a graphic for the topic if appropriate
– and non core materials seperated out by a line.

I think context, supporting information and guidance can help a course (can too much hurt it?). Of course the resources/activities have to work in their own right as well, but a nicely laid out course cant hurt can it?

Blocks and layout of a topic are two small elements of helping a course be useful, but I think are two things which dont always take a huge amount of effort. But I do think its important, that when one implements a layout that it is important to be consistent.

But the author of that previous video went further and produced a nice video about Interaction in Online Courses.  Sadly i see it has very few views, and it deserves much more.

Think about the video and the message he is trying to put across.

At one point the author asks questions about a slide

a) what does this slide mean
b) there is no explanation
c) Who do I ask?

Like his first video, this is direct and to the heart of the matter. But, this brings me to a whole different topic which I will leave for another day, month, whatever!

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2 Responses to Some thoughts on course layout

  1. Pingback: Usability Moodle « eventualitaetswabe.de

  2. Richard says:

    I’m not sure all the points in the second video are relevant ALL the time. It very much depends on the context of the course. If the online resources are part of a whole teaching approach which includes face-face classroom time, then the powerpoint (or other) slides and resources may only be a small part of the student experience and the interaction may be (entirely appropriately) part of the face-face experience backed up by online resources. On the other hand, if the course is taught primarily online, then the majority of interaction needs to feed through in that online resource.
    It is important for any tutor (of any age group) to look at how the WHOLE course is delivered rather than separate parts of it to make sure that the whole course is appropriately engaging for the students and provides the right level of support and interaction in the right contexts – including listening to student feedback about how they see the course content and presentation, after all they are the end users!
    And maybe part of the design of an online course should be to spell that out and manage expectations in the first place ‘This course is taught 90% online and I will be available through skype/messaging for contact at these times and your resources will all be on this site.’ through to ‘This course is taught 100% face-face and this site should be seen simply as a fallback for resources and quizes undertaken during class time. You will be expected to attend all classes in order to access the direct teaching’
    My random thoughts 🙂

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