Do you recognise the 4 early warning signs of poor Moodle course design?

When opening an online course page, it takes a few minutes (or less) to notice poor learning design practice. Although it’s so easy to recognise, it takes much longer to address. Good learning design takes time. Perhaps that’s where the problem starts?

I’m not focusing on what the course page looks like, although I agree it is important. Some (mostly tech inclined) people get hung up about the linearity of Moodle, so let me just briefly mention it here before tackling learning design.

Moodle is designed in a way which encourages designers to create learning paths or journeys. Some find this too linear. I love linear, because it’s great for designing eWorkshops (which are collaborative). If you’re designing a course that focuses more on individual learning and you and your target group aren’t so much into linear, there are many ways to use a more ‘boxed’ approach in Moodle too. Having said that, linear navigation has made a come-back in website design and it seems scrolling is just fine as long as the page looks great.

Does content play a more prominent role than the learning activities?

Is it a course or a website or a content dump? There is a big difference, so make sure that’s evident in your design. And no, adding a quiz and/or a discussion forum doesn’t make it a course. Learning design is much harder work.

If all you need to do is share content (there might be good reasons why there is no need for a course) then do. But be clear about your intentions and focus on presenting your content nicely (please no endless lists of links – see below). Don’t call it a course if it isn’t. If you’re only talking about your subject instead of learners doing what is required to accomplish a similar task in real life, you’re off track.

A course should focus on what the learners need to be able to DO, so the learning activities should be the backbone of your design. That’s where it all starts. Once that is clear, then devise some authentic activities and tasks to support the learning process. And finally think about what content or knowledge the learners may need access to in order for them to do those tasks.

Are the learning activities focused on recalling the content?

Recalling content is only ever useful if trainees/learners need to be able to do this IN their jobs. I am not sure which jobs require this, but if there are some out there, my guess is there are very few. Yet, countless courses include quizzes with recall questions. Why? Because they are so easy to develop. No learning design required. A few ready-made resources, a few recall questions, and a discussion forum ‘just in case’ – done. And the learners? Well, they have undergone this many times before so they endure.

We really need to go back to the basics of adult learning principles, respect our learners and take our jobs as learning designers more seriously.

Get rid of your recall questions. Mini-problems and mini-scenarios work so much better. Write a one paragraph story and build your question around “what would you do?” Think as hard about the plausible wrong answers as you do about the right answers. Integrate them all into your activity designs. Throw your learners into the deep end – they love it there.

Does your course read like an academic paper?

If you’re working in a school or university context, it’s likely your resources will include academic papers. Readability of these papers has been an issue for a long time (I once read that “the language of science is bad English”). There are many reasons why this is so, which is explained here and here for example.

So it looks like university students will have to live with this kind of language for the foreseeable future. If academic papers are the core of your course, by all means add the links, but please don’t replicate the style in the other parts of your course. A good course includes (DO) activities and resources (for example “A plain English guide to…”) around these academic papers to make them all more digestible. The writing style should be inviting, warm and friendly. Use short sentences, short paragraphs, action words, and lots of visual breaks.

If you’re designing courses or eWorkshops outside the university context, this shouldn’t be a problem. Yet, a lot of technical writing in any kind of organisation reads like insurance policies. Part of our role of learning designers is to ‘translate’ content into plain English. Don’t underestimate the time it takes.

Does your course look like a list of links?

I can’t start explaining the frustration I feel when I see courses without context (‘labels’ in Moodle jargon). It’s just really bad design. It’s not done in any web-based design. (Imagine your favourite news site designed in the same manner). Why on earth would Moodle pages need to look like that?

Labels are used in Moodle to add context, i.e. “this is what we’ve done, this is what we will be doing now, this is why the next resource will help you with that…”. Just a sentence or two each time is enough to guide the learner through their learning journey. Make them short and inviting. Make sure you use spoken language.

On your Moodle page, are there areas where there are more than 3-4 links listed without a label? Time to ‘unpack’ what you’re trying to do there and re-design. Put the resources together (if there are a few, use a folder) and add a few clear and inviting labels to create a flow between what learners need to DO and the resources they might need to be able to do the work. Your learners will thank you…

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