Five tips to make your online learning space more inviting for your learners

Five tips to make your online learning space more inviting for your learners


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

The ABCs of Curriculum Design

The ABCs of Curriculum Design


One of CfLAT’s main roles is to work alongside staff to help with the design (and redesign) of papers and programmes. We offer support and guidance on all aspects of curriculum development such as creating a graduate profile, designing assessments and planning evaluation strategies. In this blog post, I’m going to talk about one approach we are using to help teams consider the design of teaching and learning activities, using a method called ABC.

What is the ABC learning design method?

The ABC toolkit has been developed by University College London. (ABC stands for Arena Blended Curriculum – ‘Arena’ is a strategic teaching and learning project at UCL)

ABC helps teams to visualise the range of activities they would like their students to engage with across a paper. Around 70 international institutions are currently using ABC to support curriculum design.

During a 90-minute workshop, teams are asked to consider the sequence of activities across the length of the paper. Participants are given a set of cards, each of which represents a learning activity, and they work together place these on a timeline of the paper. The team is then asked to consider how these activities can be supported, particularly through the use of technologies. At the beginning of the workshop teams think about the overall balance of activities and then review these once they have created their timeline. By the end of the workshop, teams have a storyboard which they can use as a basis for building their paper.

The toolkit is under a Creative Commons licence, so can be adapted to suit an institution’s local context. Piki Diamond, Learning and Teaching Consultant and Herewini Easton, Learning and Teaching Advisor, have built on the existing ABC approach to encourage teams to think about how Māori philosophies and approaches can be threaded through the curriculum design in a meaningful way. We are using Mana (integrity, dignity, authority) as the foundation to support this work – how can we design activities in a way that will raise the Mana of our papers, programmes, lecturers and learners? How can make sure the teaching strategies we adopt embody Mana? By doing this, we can support staff to create exciting, relevant bicultural curricula that honour our obligations to the Treaty of Waitangi and promote AUT’s values. As Herewini says “it’s not about embedding Mana into the curriculum, but it’s about extracting the Mana from within the curriculum”.

What are the activity types and where do they come from?

There are six types of activity that staff are asked to consider:

These activity types have a theoretical foundation – they were classified by Diana Laurillard in her research on the development of the Conversational Framework (2012). The different strands of Mana draw on the five Strands of Te Whāriki, The Early Childhood Curriculum (Ministry of Education 2017), and the work of Rose Pere (1997). The principles of constructive alignment (Biggs and Tang, 2011) also underpin the ABC approach – what kinds of activities will help learners meet their learning outcomes and allow them to complete the assessments? As a result of an ABC session, teams may decide that they may want to revisit the paper’s outcomes and assessment.

How have we been using ABC at AUT?

We are currently using ABC with a number of paper and programme teams. These teams are both reshaping existing papers and designing new ones. Feedback has been favourable – in particular participants liked:

  • the rapid design approach – that within 90 minutes, teams have a clear structure for their paper;
  • the way in which ABC encourages participants to think about how existing teaching supports Māori worldviews and how their practice can be developed to strengthen their approaches;
  • the support for thinking about how the blend between the classroom and online spaces could be better developed.

Would you like to try ABC?

We’d be very happy to run an ABC workshop for those teams developing an individual paper and especially programme teams wanting to develop a suite of papers. Working on a set of papers – for example across the first year of a programme – ensures greater coherence in the student learning journey, supports dialogue between teaching teams and identifies opportunities and challenges. You might be at an early stage in your understanding of how to consider Māori worldviews. Please don’t worry – the ABC session is intended as a way identifying the kinds of activities you would like to build into the course and then we can support you further to explore exactly what this means in practice.

Please get in touch with if you’d like to arrange a session.

Further reading/viewing

Biggs, J. and Tang, C. (2011). Teaching for quality learning at university, 4th Edition, Open University Press, UK. Chapter introduces the concept of constructive alignment

This short video provides an overview of constructive alignment

Laurillard, D. (2012). Teaching as a Design Science: Building Pedagogical Patterns for Learning and Technology. New York and London: Routledge.

A short video in which Diana Laurillard explains the six learning types

Pere, R. (1997). Te Wheke: A celebration of infinite wisdom (2nd ed.). Wairoa: Ao Ako Global Learning.

Te Whāriki, The Early Childhood Curriculum

– Dr John Davies

Ako:  What is the problem?

Ako: What is the problem?


The concept of ako describes a teaching and learning relationship, where the educator is also learning from the student …. Ako is grounded in the principle of reciprocity and also recognises that the learner and whānau cannot be separated. (Ka Hikitia, 2008, p.20)

Many articles and strategies acknowledge the conceptual notions of Ako since its published inception as a humanistic paradigm of an effective teaching and learning development model by Dr Rangimarie Rose Pere (1982). From the original stage as a concept, to its re-constructing as principles (Bishop & Glynn, 1999), Ako has become a philosophical teaching and learning framework, that eventually encouraged the New Zealand Ministry of Education to acknowledge the importance of Ako as a teaching and learning ‘method of reciprocity’.

What is the problem?

The problem is that many educators only see Ako as one word and act accordingly. However, there is a vast font of knowledge resting within that one word that needs exploring to find a deeper understanding of Ako and its application in the learning environment.

What is the solution?

This presentation of Ako uses the art of etymology to expound the dimensions of Ako and to expose the concepts within.

Ako: The unconditional shared pathway of disseminating knowledge through teaching and learning. It is in kaiako – teacher, akonga – learner and akomanga – learning environment and is transferable in a range of contexts. Ako could be described as Came et al suggest ‘transformative knowledge development’ (Came, Warbrick, Doole, Hotere-Barnes, Sessa, 2019).

Koa: For effective teaching and learning to occur, there needs to be Koa, satisfaction and enjoyment. The kaiako needs to be satisfied and happy with their paper, content, context and delivery. The akonga needs to enjoy the learning and exploration of their papers and its content. They need to be reflected in the style of delivery and at ease within the learning environment.

Kao: NO! This is the dimension that allows the kaiako or the akonga to negate, query, critique or disagree with content or context of knowledge development. It is a safe space to challenge the status quo and to offer something else in its place.

Oka: Sever the known to the unknown. Taking the critique from Kao, the kaiako and akonga can collaboratively de-construct to re-construct.

Kā Ao: Ka to ignite, Ao universal.  Ka Ao, transformation of knowledge from understanding to enlightenment to a wisedome (wisdom). Ka Ao is when the kaiako and akonga share that moment of,” I get it now”. The Ako moment.

Therefore, Ako is both to teach and to learn and reflects the role-reversal and reciprocity of teaching and learning. In understanding the dimensions of Ako, there is Koa, enjoyment and happiness to teach and learn. There is Kao, saying no to challenge ideas and concepts, so that Oka, can help to de-construct to re-construct. From this process comes Ka ao, enlightenment and illumination, the Ako moment.

So, how can the dimensions of Ako support the transformation of knowledge to inform your practice?


Bishop, R & Glynn, T. (Eds.) (1999). Culture Counts: Changing Power Relations in Education (1st ed). Palmerston North. Dunmore Press Limited.

H.A. Came, I. Warbrick, C. Doole, A. Hotere-Barnes & M. Sessa (2019): He hokinga ki te mauri: strengthening te Tiriti o Waitangi public health education in tertiary education settings, Teaching in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2019.1613357

Ministry of Education. (2008). Ka Hikitia Managing for Success: Māori Education Strategy 2008-2012. (p.20) Wellington, New Zealand: New Zealand Government.

Pere, R. R. (1982). Ako: Concepts and learning in the Māori tradition. Wellington: Te Kōhanga Reo National Trust Board

– Herewini Easton

Introducing CfLAT 2019

Introducing CfLAT 2019


The Centre for Learning and Teaching has provided a wide range of academic, research and technology-enhanced learning services for almost ten years, and 2019 looks like being one of our most transformational years yet.

All those involved in the academic work of the University will perceive the shift of focus back to the quality of teaching and the student experience, now that we can turn our gaze away from PBRF for the next while. The Deputy Vice-Chancellor’s Leadership Cluster continues to explore what we mean by ‘exceptional student experiences’, and CfLAT is critically placed to inform and implement much of this work.

As a challenge to a teacher-centred view, I would suggest that quality teaching is not actually the ultimate objective of our work. The critical outcome is the quality of student learning – how do we make a significant difference in the capability of our graduates to be valued, respectful, productive members of our wider community? The critical component is a focus on student activity, student interactions and relationships, student engagement. While teaching staff are clearly key facilitators of this learning, quality teaching is not the desired endpoint.

In my thinking about quality learning, I am frequently reminded of the work of Professor Diana Laurillard and her Conversational Framework of learning. Prof Laurillard’s premise is that learning is a change in understanding of content and concepts, and this change develops from (often internal) dialogue, whereby a student reflects on and challenges their current conceptual framework, and moves that framework in some way. Providing activities and creating opportunities for that dialogue are the bits of teaching that creates effective learning.

I am aware that my three young grandchildren will most likely live into the 22nd Century – can we imagine the society, the workplaces, the technologies, the leisure activities that they will be part of through this time? Our role is to develop young people to be resilient, to be adaptable, to be accepting of change and difference, and to focus on their place in that society. We are in a time of very rapid change – socially, technologically and economically. As educators we have chosen to take a role to make a difference in our students’ lives – the wide range of skills and experiences within CfLAT can play a significant part in this role.

I invite you to subscribe to this series of blog posts from members of the CfLAT team on a regular basis. I trust there will be ideas and challenges here that will inspire you and your students.

– Mark Northover