Topic design basics

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dance steps Designing for learning, including online learning, is not straightforward. The 'steps' in the process are more like dance steps that weave around the dance floor, rather than a linear progression from one idea to the next. The rationale for the design approach in this section is that designing is a creative, intentional activity that moves from fuzzy to sharp, through the combined processes of inquiry, inspiration and strategising. Designing involves a balance of creativity and practical thinking, and maintaining a curiosity about what's possible. Some of the approaches and resources will make sense to you and others won't – that's OK. Feel free to use or adapt them – or develop your own approach.

Some design heuristics
  • think like a learner – be an online learner yourself 
  • be a magpie – look at what others have done 
  • talk to your colleagues – educators, librarians, eLearning professionals
  • talk to your learners – find out what works for them
  • design is continuous – let yourself change your mind as the design matures 
  • let the ideas lead the technology... and be suggested by the technology 

Think of the activities that students (and staff) will do as the living framework of the topic. You can build the content and topic learning materials around the activities to support the learning-by-doing. For instance, if you create a discussion on a hot issue, what resources do the students need from you at that point? Or, is there a prompt at that point for them to create, curate and/or share their own resources? The principle here is that resources support activity, and are placed next to that activity if possible. 

Since assessment, activity and intended learning outcomes should be 'constructively aligned' as a triangle, the topic activities are aligned to the topic learning outcomes. This means you should be able to formally assess those activities. In this way the activities can lead the assessment design. Of course the triangle works the other way too: you can align assessment and learning outcomes, and then design activities that are aligned to assessment. In the end, it should ALL meaningfully align anyway.

Just play. The topic site you are developing is a like a canvas where you can 'play' with different arrangements and sequences of activities. Try dragging the labels around - each move you make will suggest a different topic narrative. You can check the narrative by telling yourself the story of the student and teachers actions through the topic and check that it makes sense. 

Bear in mind the teaching side of the activities as you design. What are the actions the teacher is doing between all the student actions? How does this dynamic interplay support the learning? For instance, where does it make sense to get students' input and feedback? Where and when should teachers have input and feedback to students? Or better, how can students and staff work together as partners in learning

Leave your design loose wherever possible so that there is room for improvisation in the topic. Not everything has to be thought about beforehand. Students, as adults with rich life experiences, appreciate having space to author their own learning activities, make choices and influence the topic. Looseness keeps it interesting, current and relevant for everyone - staff and students alike

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Image: Mambo dance steps, Washington: Joe Mabel