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

Active strategies

Teaching, learning and assessment are all activities. In the online learning environment, technology can be used to activate, facilitate, capture and share these activities. Designing an engaging and sophisticated activity requires attention to the parts, or stages, of the activity. One approach is to think about activity ‘strings’. Flipped learning is an example of an activity string (e.g. view this video > do the quiz > discuss in your group > debate in the FLO Live session > reflect in your blog).

Interactivity is a two-way activity between elements – people and technology – in the environment. In the above example, viewing the video is an activity (as part of the string) but is not interactive; the quiz, discussion forum and FLO Live sessions are.

Student workload hours are made up of time spent on activities, so count them all: reading, preparing for assessment, discussing, reflecting, as well as attending sessions. Ultimately, try to aim for integration between teaching, learning and assessment activities (constructive alignment).

Ideas for practice 

Be an active teacher in the online environment. The teaching activity is part of the activity string – it builds on and leads to other activity. Post a short video orientation to a new idea or respond to an evidently muddy point. Put something new in the topic site, post something challenging in the forum, post a poll to get some feedback.

Convert static ‘content’ to activity and resources. Start the design process by thinking in terms of activity (strings) and then provide resources to support that activity. For instance, convert a traditional lecture to a collection of bite-sized videos and use these in an activity string that prompts active learning through further investigation, discussion, quizzing, or reflecting. 

Design for asynchronous participation for fully online topics. This caters for the busy fully online student. Scheduled synchronous activity online (for instance using Collaborate) can be altogether optional (e.g. drop in to an open session) or a choice of times given (e.g. sign up for a small group session) if participation is required (counted for assessment purposes). Asynchronous activity can still be dynamic – discussion forums are an example.

Design for a mix of whole class, small group and individual participation strategies. Completed small-group work can be shared with the whole class, especially where groups chose their own focus for the work; this structure exposes the students to a range of ideas and approaches. Try mixing up the groups through the course of the topic – again, this provides variety.

Use the functionality of technology and tools online. Use available tools to direct activity, connect users and activity, and capture online activity. Balance variety with consistency: choose a variety of media and tools to add interest and functionality to the site, but remember that for each technology, ‘tool learning’ is needed. Once the medium is mastered, student efforts can be channelled into the quality of the activity.