Non-traditional students and consistency in course navigation

Non-traditional students and consistency in course navigation

June 3, 2019 2 By JR

Phil Hill recently recapped a comment and discussion that took place at Athabasca University (and by extension, Twitter) about consistency in course navigation.

Despite Phil’s effort to specify this was not an argument for carbon copy course designs there was a lot of trumpeting about how just the notion of this is already infringing on their creativity and course design. It struck me as odd, because many of the instructors I saw these types of tweets from are also instructors who often appear to advocate for their students, which seemed at odds with the request for consistency which was originating from students.

I often recount a story from my own experience as a full time online student during grad school to instructors I’m working with. There was one class in particular that I was very engaged with. I participated beyond the requirements of the online discussions, but by about week 3/4, I couldn’t help but feel I was missing something. I went back to the syllabus (not super easy to find again but I got there) and I noticed there was supposed to be a quiz. Just one in this class for some reason. No due date listed in the syllabus. So I went hunting around the course for this quiz, clicking in and out of hierarchies of folders. Eventually I found the quiz (it required one specific path of navigation several clicks deep) and in the LMS I saw it was due today (the day I was hunting for it). I panic wrote the quiz, submitted on time, but was left with a really bad taste about the course. Why couldn’t that have been clearer? And I was full time, how would other students have felt?

We use some consistent elements when beginning to layout online course designs. Does every course end up looking exactly the same? No. Do they all have exactly the same types of student-content, student-instructor, and student-student interactions? No. Can you find the course materials and assignments easily because we tend to use consistent nagivation? Yes. We’ve had student feedback come back that the courses they take with us have been the most organized courses they’ve taken at university. Placing all assignment instructions into a top level navigation does not require you to use specific assignment types. It just makes it easy for students to find and review. Every course I’m working on this term will place the assignment instructions in the same place, but the assignments themselves range from papers, to exams, to portfolios, to writing in wikis, to SPLOTs, and more.

Especially in online environments students deserve more than a shoe box full of stuff, and being left to figure it out on their own. Imagine for a moment, if every book you read had different navigation. One book had chapters listed in order, reading from top left to bottom right, with the spine on the left. The next book, you still read top left to bottom right, but had to read every second page, then every odd page. Then the next book still had the spine on the left, but you had to read top left to bottom right, then bottom left to top right. Then the next book required you go to a whole other book to obtain the chapter. Sure, there are books that play with format (e.g. choose your own adventure, cybertexts, etc) and you can look to other sources for more information if the text you are reading references other works (like the last example), but overall there are consistencies in the medium that lower barriers to engage with them. Does that mean all novels are carbon copies of each other because they generally are navigated the same way?

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