Topic design basics

Shape and structure

The way that the topic is structured online is itself a way for understanding the syllabus – the selection, organisation and representation of ideas and things in the online environment determines the ‘character’ of the topic, and importantly, sets the conditions for learning. The topic site  organises and represents the learning journey. One of the advantages of online learning is that we can see the the organisation of the learning through the topic environment: how activities relate to one another, and how ideas are organised and represented. The structure of the topic will also suggest movement within the topic: how the learning and teaching activities flow one to the other; how users of the site move between activities and resources. For instance learners may circle back to a case at various touch-points in the syllabus, or dip into a case, or work within a case.

It may be helpful to conceive a topic environment metaphorically: a topic might be like a tree, a room, a path, or a garden … these conceptual ideas can help to shape the topic, in terms of both its structure and movement.

Ideas for practice

Format the site as a whole. Put ‘big picture’ items at the top of the topic site, as well as items that the student will return to again and again – assessment details and communications, perhaps case studies, task guides, a schedule of events. Use blocks on the side as reference and connection points for the topic. Use modules to sequence activity according to the topic schedule so that it flows logically (weekly or in blocks of weeks). If you use modules to group items according to function (for instance, assessment activities, topic resources), provide a schedule of activities and due dates where it cannot be missed.

Create 'natural chunks'. A topic is a collection of ideas, activities and resources that have an overall cohesion; however, it is sometimes useful to think about the topic in terms of a few discreet and natural chunks. Chunks can be helpful in assisting learners with site navigation, orientation, completion, or understanding of a task or idea. If you are not sure whether this approach works for your topic, try describing the topic in a few dot points: these dot points are probably the chunks. 

Natural chunks can be about:

  • The subject area (e.g. global perspectives, anatomy of the heart)
  • The type of activity (e.g. reflection, major project, work placement)
  • Activity stages (e.g. preparing for placement, beta testing, reporting)

Chunks can be organised in the topic site to suggest their relationship to each other. You may also need to consider a neutral, general or connecting space that provides a 'home' for activities (such as communications) and resources (such as topic details) that are used across the big ideas. 

Connect instructions, activities and resources. Locate them together where practical. Alternatively, hyperlink between items, or refer to the location of relevant items: 'Refer to the assessment criteria in the Topic Details book'. Contextualise items with descriptions, displayed on the page if not too long. For fully online study, ensure there is enough information to complete the task successfully.

Use three dimensions – provide two layers. Use the ‘face’ of the topic site as a map rich in schema, and build a second layer (for example, by adding a page or book) rich in depth. Keep text on the face of the site to a minimum, to avoid building a long, scrolling site: aim to keep a module contained within a screen view (excluding phones). In the second layer, the same principle applies: contain the page to the screen as a general guide – users will scroll, but ensure that critical information is near the top, just in case. Use a book to modularise larger amounts of text into a series of sequenced pages.

Provide time on task. This will be linked to student workload expectations and provides a useful parameter for judging the depth to which the activity should be taken, for instance: 'Skim the second chapter. This should take about 20 minutes.' Time on task is especially important for online study where the activity uses the internet, because connections are endless and the student needs to know when to stop: 'Find an example of false advertising on the internet and post the link in the discussion forum. Take one hour to complete this activity.'

Navigating the online environment needs to be intuitive. The best way to design for intuition is to think like the end user – keep seeing the site through fresh eyes. Use non-technical terms unless they are linked to the syllabus. Where technology is used and the stakes are high – for instance, with assessable online activities – provide a practice point for using the technology. If the technology is not straightforward to use, link to instructions for use and technical support.  

Instruction is scaffolded: unpacked, chunked, staged and contextualised. As a general rule, granularise large items into discreet parts – for instance, five-minute videos, one-screen pages of text, separate forums for each question, separate pages for each quiz question. This approach allows the learner to locate their place in the task, dip in and out of the online environment, and progress at their own pace. It also facilitates increased movement between items, promoting complexity in the task – for instance, the student can switch between watching a video, participating in a discussion and taking a quiz if it is easy to find their place in each item.

Add visuals to add value. Graphics can add meaning, character and context to the site. They can also act as signposts: a carefully chosen picture to signal a new section, or a familiar image used as an icon to signal a regular activity (for instance, a weekly self-check point, a provocative question). Aim for a consistent style and site placement and keep them small, otherwise they will clutter the site and add to download time.