Adult online learners come from a variety of locations, age groups, technological capabilities, educational backgrounds, and life experiences. The infrastructure of an online course must be designed so it appeals to a diverse range of learners (Siragusa et al., 2007). The learner’s first impression of a course is given by the course webpage, which then continues to guide the learner on their journey through the course. In other words, how the course webpage is designed can have a great impact on the learning experience because it’s the core element that connects students to the course content and to each other. Surveys of learners who have dropped out of online courses suggest that course design-related factors account for up to 36% of attrition (Holtrum, 2005). Therefore, the selection and design of the course webpage significantly impacts the online learning experience.
Online learning platforms, also known as learning management systems (LMSs), store educational content and streamline an eLearning instructor’s tasks (Ceraulo, 2005). Today’s eLearning software is capable of managing a variety of course features beyond simply uploading course content. Learning management systems provide an interface that automates the distribution of course materials and facilitation of online interactions (Falvo & Johnson, 2007). There are several types of eLearning platforms available to instructors, each of which having its own advantages and disadvantages. Over the past decade, Moodle and Blackboard were considered to be the top LMSs available (note – Blackboard acquired WebCT seven years ago) (Bremer & Bryant, 2005). A study comparing the two systems found that students preferred Moodle to Blackboard with respect to accessibility, general navigation, accessing grades and feedback, and class communication (Bremer & Bryant, 2005). Other studies have shown that although both LMSs are widely used worldwide, the course designer features of Blackboard are not as user-friendly as Moodle (Falvo & Johnson, 2007). Other LMS options include Desire2Learn, HotChalk, Joomla, SharePoint, Thinking Cap, and several others (Doe, 2010). The selection of an LMS by an instructor or an institution is usually based on price, value, and functionality (Hotrum, 2005).
When I was an undergraduate student, a few of my courses were blended and incorporated the use of WebCT outside of class time. The course webpages were mainly a place for the instructor to post grades and upload practice exams. The webpages were simple and easy to use but did not incorporate diverse media or interactive learning tools. Also, these course webpages were clearly not a place for collaboration or questions. I remember once sending an instructor a message on WebCT and after asking him why he didn’t respond, he told me that he didn’t check the course website so it’s best to drop by his office to ask questions in the future.
Partway through my undergraduate degree I decided to take a Sociology course by distance education to fulfill an elective requirement. There was a WebCT page for the course, but it was very basic and simply re-iterated the weekly readings and essay topics that I had been mailed in print. In other words, no direct learning or interaction took place on the WebCT site alone. I never once communicated with my classmates online and I usually phoned my instructor with questions. Needless to say, the course webpage did not enhance my learning experience in this course. After these experiences with eLearning as an undergraduate, I saw the eLearning platforms as only minor parts of my learning. The WebCT sites didn’t have a significantly positive impact on my learning during my undergraduate degree.
About five years later I enrolled in the PIDP at VCC. Because of my minimal experience with eLearning I opted to take the face to face versions of the first four courses in the program. As my life became busier the online options became more convenient, so I took the last two courses of the program online. It was a completely different eLearning experience than I had five years earlier. Both courses used the Moodle platform to direct the learning and interactions. I was exposed to a lot of features that I had not experienced on WebCT – forums, videos, surveys, chats, and so on. Because I was so reliant on the course webpages to direct my learning, they greatly impacted my experience in the courses. Both of my online instructors had succeeded in designing the courses to appeal to a variety of technical abilities and learning styles. The course webpages were clearly laid out, easy to use, and generally very welcoming. This had a positive impact on my learning because it was one less thing for me to worry about, meaning I could focus on completing the learning activities and getting to know my classmates.
My only experience with a poorly designed course webpage was the EDUC 4150 course in Fall 2012. Also on the Moodle platform, this course was fairly well-organized and navigable, but after looking deeper I discovered that it was riddled with typos, broken links, and other errors. These flaws negatively impacted my experience because this webpage that I was depending on as a guide was actually causing me frustration, which impeded my ability to focus on learning. Therefore, in my recent experience as an online learner, the design and features of the eLearning platform really set the stage for each course and significantly impacted my experience.
Since I’ve had mostly positive learning experiences with Moodle course webpages, I decided to create my own online courses using that platform. With the assistance of a textbook, I figured out how to develop a course using Moodle on my own. Over the past couple of years, I’ve developed two online courses for the Pacific Horticulture College (PHC) using Moodle. As I designed these courses, I tried to keep in mind the elements of Moodle courses which had appealed to me as a learner – clear weekly layout with general course information at the top, updated links and videos, and weekly discussion forums. After running these online courses a few times, I received largely positive feedback about the ease of use and course structure from my learners. However, I enrolled in the eLearning Certificate Program because I am certain that my courses could be modified to provide an improved learning experience for future learners.
After reading about how important the eLearning platform is in the learning experience, it’s a good time to re-visit this aspect of my online courses. I can now see that although my courses are well-organized and user-friendly, those qualities alone don’t guarantee a positive learning experience. Most online learners also need the course platform to allow online assignment submission, provide feedback, view grades, explore a diversity of media, promote interaction, and offer instructional and technical support (Palmer & Holt, 2010; Siragusa et al., 2007). In other words, I need to go beyond my own expectations as an online learner to take into account a wide variety of learning needs when designing a course webpage. My current online courses are quite simple and don’t include all of the aforementioned additional features. A recent study on Moodle usage indicates that many instructors are not using Moodle to its full potential, which may lead to an incorrect impression of the platform by some learners (Elias, 2010). This study was interesting to read because its findings mirror my own practices as an online instructor thus far. Also, there is a continual evolution of eLearning platforms to allow learners to take control of their own learning rather than be passive recipients of content. The diversity of available tools and social media can be used to encourage the social construction of knowledge in learners (Falvo & Johnson, 2007). By over-simplifying my course webpages, I may be hindering my learners in this regard. In summary, I’ve learned that selecting an LMS is only the first step in designing an effective course webpage. There are many design aspects to consider in order to create a positive experience for the learner.
After researching and reflecting on the impact that the eLearning platform has on the online learning environment, there are two changes I’d like to make to my current practices. First, I’d like to experiment with different eLearning platforms. I chose to use Moodle for my online courses because I was familiar with it, but I must be open to exploring the numerous other LMS options. To make an informed decision about the most suitable eLearning platform for my courses, I need to be familiar with the different features that the other LMSs offer. I hope that in the EDUC 4152 course I can explore the other tools that are available before making a choice for my own teaching. I’ve heard positive comments from my peers about Desire2Learn, so I am particularly interested in exploring that platform. In addition to sampling new platforms, I would also like to incorporate social media into my online courses to add a new element of interaction. As we’ve discussed this week in the class forum, when used appropriately, social media offers advantages in learner collaboration and networking (Lederer, 2012). Using social media would add another dimension to the eLearning platform and would likely appeal to the many learners who are already using social media.
Second, I plan to incorporate more testing before launching an online course. In the past, my pre-launch testing has consisted of me performing a quick check of all the links on the course webpage. I can now see that this testing is inadequate because it doesn’t evaluate the features and overall experience of the eLearning platform. It’s difficult for me as course creator to assess the effectiveness of an eLearning platform from the student perspective, so I plan to ask one or more colleagues or past students to visit the course webpage as a student. Upon visiting the course webpage, the testers would spend time navigating the course, clicking on links, and getting a general feel for the atmosphere and effectiveness of the course website. After the testing, I would ask each tester to fill out a feedback form consisting of the following statements with a Likert rating scale:
- The course webpage was well-organized.
- The course webpage was easy to navigate.
- There were no broken links on the course webpage.
- There were no typos or errors on the course webpage.
- The course webpage had a welcoming look and feel.
- I felt comfortable using this course webpage.
- There was sufficient opportunity for interaction on the course webpage.
- There was a diversity of learning materials on the course webpage.
- I knew how to get in touch with the instructor.
- I knew how to obtain technical support.
There would also be room for comments and suggestions on the feedback form and I would further discuss the outcome of the testing with each participant. The testing would be completed at least four weeks in advance of the course launch date to allow time for changes. The feedback obtained from the testing will help me create a course webpage that is more likely to have a positive impact on the learner’s experience in the course.
Bremer, D., & Bryant, R. (2005). A comparison of two learning management systems: Moodle vs Blackboard. In Proceedings of the 18th Annual Conference of the National Advisory Committee on Computing Qualifications. NACCQ, New Zealand: 135-140.
Ceraulo, S.C. (2005). Benefits of upgrading to an LMS. Distance Education Report, 9(9): 6-7.
Doe, C. (2010). A look at … Online learning communities/Learning management systems. MultiMedia & Internet@ Schools, 17(2): 1-6. Retrieved January 31, 2013 from http://www.internetatschools.com/Articles/Editorial/Features/A-LOOK-AT-…-Online- Learning-Communities-Learning-Management-Systems–61483.aspx
Elias, T. (2010). Universal instructional design principles for Moodle. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 11(2): 110-124.
Falvo, D.A., & Johnson, B.F. (2007). The use of learning management systems in the United States. TechTrends, 51(2): 40-45.
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Lederer, K. (2012). Pros and cons of social media in the classroom. Retrieved January 30, 2013 from http://campustechnology.com/articles/2012/01/19/pros-and-cons-of-social-media-in-the-classroom.aspx
Palmer, S., & Holt, D. (2010). Students’ perceptions of the value of the elements of an online learning environment: Looking back in moving forward. Interactive Learning Environments, 18(2): 135-151.
Siragusa, L., Dixon, K.C., & Dixon, R. (2007). Designing quality e-learning environments in higher education. Proceedings ascilite Singapore: 923-935.