If I were being formal, I would start with explaining that my approach to designing online learning spaces is from a user experience perspective, drawing from The Universal Design for Learning Guidelines and is contextualised within the Aotearoa New Zealand context. What I really mean by this is that I want my online spaces to be ones that learners want to occupy.

Digital tools are reasonably ubiquitous, with the majority of courses having some online presence. However, frequently online spaces are a filing cabinet rather than a learning space. I like to conceptualise the online space as its own learning environment and therefore, ask myself some of the questions I ask when I am designing face-to-face learning environments, in particular in this case:

  • How am I practising manaaki (hospitality, care and kindness)?
  • How am I welcoming my learners?
  • Is the space inviting from a learner perspective?

It is more straightforward to know how to welcome and create an inviting environment in a face-to-face context as opposed to an online one. I don’t have the answer to making the perfect online learning space – if I did, I would be writing a patent application rather than a blog post. So here are just five simple things I have picked up on developing more inviting online learning spaces:

1. Always check your content from the student perspective

This first one might seem really simple, but it is often forgotten. As you are building something for your learners, it is important to see it through their eyes. It has saved me several times when I have forgotten to make a piece of content visible! On Blackboard, use the student preview feature, perhaps go one step further and see what your content looks like on the devices your students might have using the “Inspect” tool on Chrome. The Blackboard student preview tool is particularly useful as it starts you from the home screen – what the students first see when they arrive. As you can see from the test course I used in the video below, my test home screen isn’t very inviting or welcoming at the moment.

2. A stitch in time saves nine – plan your space in advance!

This planning falls into two parts – planning the overall structure of what content, activities and interactions you want your students to have, usually based on the existing course structure (e.g. lecture topics and the weeks of the semester) and then the planning of how you are going to layout this content. I do this through creating a wireframe or a storyboard –with the very high-tech paper and pencil method! Here is a quick sketch wireframe which I did to plan a particular section and how it turned out:

3. The three-click rule

The three-click rule is an unofficial rule in web-design that every piece of information should be within three clicks of arriving at a webpage. While there is criticism of this rule, I find it really helps with creating clean and clear navigation. When you plan the layout of your content, consider how many clicks your students will take to get there – the more clicks it is, the more likely it is for your learners to get lost.

4. Mix your media, but make it accessible

As discussed in the framework for Universal Design for Learning, providing multiple means of representation and communicating using various media types has been proven to be more effective for learning. So, mix your media – include video, audio, text, images – but consider the diverse learning community you are teaching. With videos and audio, captioning and transcripts are essential so that all students have access, and are beneficial for English as an additional language learners. All images should have alt-text (this is called Image Description in Blackboard) for screen reader users. Leicester University has an excellent guide for what makes good alt-text.

5. Evaluate and Reflect

Evaluation of your online learning spaces is critical – ask for feedback, look at the usage stats, and reflect on what these mean. You don’t have to wait to the end of an iteration of a course to seek feedback or evaluate how it is working, or not working as the case may be. However, at the end of an iteration, do take the time to evaluate, reflect and refine – and make a note of what you did, it might be useful for a teaching reflection at a later date!  In this reflection process, I always go back to my three original questions:

  • How am I practising manaaki (hospitality, care and kindness)?
  • How am I welcoming my learners?
  • Is the space inviting from a learner perspective?

– Emily Whitehead

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