Topic design basics

This resource introduces some basic topic design considerations, and offers a range of ideas for practice, with an emphasis on designing for online

Human and personal

The technology facilitates the online learning experience – it is the virtual space where the student 'sees' the university, the topic, the teaching staff, their classmates, and the activity. Standing in the shoes of the student: What does it feel like? Is it friendly, welcoming? Where is everyone? Who is teaching? One of the advantages of the online environment is that we can create a teaching presence all the time: whenever the student logs on, the teaching begins. It is important that learners feel connected to people, artefacts and ideas rather than to a machine. The learning environment should be professional, but also humanised as much as possible.

Ideas for practice

Use personal and active language to communicate with the student. The student is accessing the FLO site in the present moment – a teaching moment! Address them directly. Include them in the activity: 'Next week we will revisit the key technical terms and use them in context. You might like to revisit the glossary before the tutorial'.

Create a learning community. Online learners generally work alone. The online space can be a place to connect to other students and reduce isolation. Where it makes sense to do so, count participation in social learning activity, such as discussion posts, as part of assessment. Using a variety of tools, create formal and informal spaces for social learning to occur. Students will create their own connection spaces outside the topic – for instance, using Facebook. These are important for autonomy and informal learning, but exercise care that students are not excluded due to use of technology. 

Be active and visible in the FLO site. Create a 'teacher presence' so that students have a sense of you as an integral part of the topic environment. When the student logs on, there is something that you have left behind – a forum post, a short video, a link to an article of interest. Posting a picture of yourself in the 'Topic welcome' block will make you visible and adds a human touch. Include a photo in your online profile and encourage students to do the same.

Provide participation options where possible. Every learner will have preferences in how they like to participate in the online environment: experience, confidence, skills, access, opportunity and personality type all have a part to play. Where practical, provide options for communicating, learning activities, and assessment activities to allow for a 'personalised' topic experience. Ensure equivalency between options in terms of academic merit, student workload and marking workload.

Develop topic 'personality'. Aim to give the topic a recognisable (and memorable) character as a point of connection for the learner. Is it a friendly place full of interest? Is it serious and businesslike? A topic theme or style will help with a cohesive look and feel – a particular color range, image style, layout. Groups can also have personality – be creative in assigning names to groups – or let the group decide what they are called (and rename accordingly).