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

Connective online

Online environments and activities connect learners with each other, connect learners and teachers, connect teaching teams with each other, and connect everyone to resources and places within the LMS and in the world. Online learning can make full use of the affordances of being in a web-based space, and with good design can integrate this aspect of learning seamlessly into the online activities. Students are likely to enter your topic already well connected to the world through social media and business applications, and will expect a level of connectedness. In fact, students will often develop networks outside of the ‘walls’ of the LMS.

Ideas for practice 

Think about the topic as ‘glue’ for a distributed collection of destinations. This is essentially a curatorial function, with the learning management system acting as a sense-making device that filters, links, provokes and supports activity. If we consider that in many cases learning is located in the world, then the LMS becomes a portal through which the learner accesses the world.

Make use of ‘open’ resources. Sometimes referred to as OERs – open educational resources – any kind of resource can be used for educational purposes. Students are already accessing resources such as literature, videos, websites and forums in order to learn. The formal online learning environment just takes that to another level and asks learners to apply critical judgement: to be discerning and to evaluate the value of these resources and their meaning in context.

Position your expertise in a global context. Along with OERs, there are a plethora of expert voices freely available for learners to tap into. Not all these voices will agree but the topic can support learners to make sense of the diversity. What is your role as a subject expert in this ocean of expertise? You might take a position whereby you model the thinking of the expert in practice, steering attention, prompting reflection, and challenging assumptions.

Add something back to the world. OERs are not just for taking – they are for adding to as well. If you are brave you might adopt an ‘open unless there is a reason not be’ default approach to publishing materials, and make them freely available for use beyond the formal learning environment. If you publish learning materials to free hosting platforms, always perform testing to ensure that there are no restrictions to accessing these resources. Avoid extra log-ins, subscriptions, and software that doesn’t perform everywhere. Also maintain accessibility standards wherever possible.

Make use of publishing on the web to demonstrate learning. Authentic assessments create and publish real artefacts (e.g. blogs, webpages, ePortfolios). Artefacts in the real world can elicit comment from the public and provide another layer of feedback to the student. Consider creating a collection of these using a bookmarking tool as a source of inspiration for other students.

Develop digital literacy skills and digital citizenship. This is true for students and staff. Using the affordances of a connected online world for educational purposes develops skills and confidence that can be applied beyond the topic. It is recommended that requirements to use technology in a topic are reflected in the learning outcomes for that topic. Where possible, allow students to choose their technology as they may already have preferences. This might mean that marking staff need to access a variety of formats of assessment artefacts – this exposure also builds digital literacy. Digital citizenship is the bigger picture of how you use your literacy to interact with the world, and include knowledge of social norms and contexts for applying skills.

Make use of professional learning networks. Staff and students can take advantage of the fact there is an almost unlimited array of professional learning networks using social media and web-based forums, and they are discussing exactly what you are thinking about right now. Tap into these networks to expand your thinking, problem-solve, make contacts, and find resources. Encourage your students to do the same – it’s a professional skill that they can take with them. Technology users are especially prolific sharers of ideas and solutions – this is the best place to problem-solve issues of this nature. Where appropriate, link to the forums as a resource for students.

Make learning mobile. Encourage students to use their devices for ‘anywhere, anytime’ learning. Students can access the topic site from their mobile phones and tablets, thus integrating learning activities into their daily lives. Mobile devices can also be used to create and share media – but be aware that not all students will have one, or want to use their device if they do have one, because downloads on a device can chew up data allowances. Encourage but don’t prescribe – think of alternative ways that students can meet the same objective, for instance by sharing devices in class. Many site-based teaching tasks can be done on mobile devices as well – experiment with ‘mobile teaching’ as well as mobile learning.