Easy course navigation is a critical component of a great online course. According to Quality Matters (QM), an organization dedicated to improving online course quality, one of the requirements for a QM certified course is that the, “Course navigation facilitates ease of use” (QM Standard 8.1), adding, “Navigation throughout the course [should be] consistent, logical, and efficient.” Reducing the amount of scrolling, clicking, and searching means your students can spend more time learning the content and they’ll miss fewer critical details like assignment requirements and due dates, resulting in a better overall experience for both students and instructors. Here are nine ways to improve your students’ ability to get where they need to go.
1. Create a course tour video
According to the Quality Matters Certification Rubric, the first characteristic listed for a quality online course is: “Instructions make clear how to get started and where to find various course components” (QM Standard 1.1). One of the best things an instructor can do to ensure that students know how to get started and find course components is to create a course tour video and make it available on the welcome page. This differs from an “Instructor Welcome” video; a welcome video is typically an overview of the instructor’s background and what the students can expect to learn or achieve in the course, while a course tour is essentially a screen capture of the instructor demonstrating where to find all of the various course elements. If you’ve never done a screen capture, most of our faculty use the program TechSmith Relay, which is available free to ASU faculty. To request a TechSmith Relay account and for tutorials, visit the ASU Online Media Website. The video below is a brief montage of course tours to give you a sense of what these generally look like.
Keep in mind: a typical course tour video can easily span ten minutes or more depending on the depth of the course.
2. Consider ordering your materials and assignments chronologically
When organizing your course materials, consider the ideal chronological order in which students should approach each lecture/reading/assignment and place them into this sequence for each learning module, rather than grouping them by category. In addition to guiding students through an effective and logical sequence of materials, this will minimize the amount of searching, scrolling, and clicking needed to work through the course.
3. Clarify where students should click
Distinguishing where to click in courses can be a difficult and confusing experience for new students. Quality Matters suggests that, “Course pages have links, files, and icons that are labeled with easy-to-understand, self-describing, and meaningful names” (QM Standard 8.1). If your LMS doesn’t clearly and consistently indicate where to click, it’s important for the course designer to guide students using text or other means to avoid confusion. For example: consider the two Blackboard course screenshots from the perspective of a new student wanting to take the Week 1 Quiz. Based on the format of the Week 1 Lectures window (a simple heading with three links below) and the fact that the only difference in the formatting is a thin dotted line, the student might not consider that the heading of the Week 1 Quiz would be a link, potentially leading them to search other pages or to email the instructor.
The second screenshot makes this very clear.
Try to make every link as clear as possible through text and underlined formatting. Additionally, consider removing any blue or underlined text that’s NOT a link and can cause confusion.
4. Maintain a consistent experience for students across weekly modules
Consistency between modules in a course will help students become familiar with the course design. Quality Matters recommends that a, “Consistent layout and design are employed throughout, making content, instructional materials, tools, and media easy to locate from anywhere in the course. Design elements are used repetitively, increasing predictability and intuitiveness” (QM Standard 8.1). Use a similar sequence and visual appearance with your content items from week to week to help the students develop expectations and a routine that will set them up for success.
5. Maintain a consistent experience for students across courses
Before building your course, be sure to review at least one other related course offered in your college to improve consistency for students across multiple courses. If a student has previously worked through a similar course design, it’s more likely that they will immediately know how to find what they’re looking for in a new course. The faculty teaching the other course(s) may have some helpful advice to offer as well.
6. Provide shortcut links
When students need to access an area or page outside of the weekly module area, consider providing direct links for them. For example, if students are required to do a weekly discussion board post, provide a direct link to the specific thread in the weekly module rather than requiring them to go to the main Discussion Board page in the navigation menu to then find the appropriate thread for that week. Another common use of shortcut links is within folders. Provide a return link to the weekly module page to prevent students from using their browser’s “Back” button, which may reload the entire course. Similarly, you can place a link at the end of each module for students to advance to the next one. The screenshot below demonstrates where to find the “Course Link” item in Blackboard.
Note to Blackboard users: Avoid simply copying the URL of a page or assignment for use in links. If the course is copied into another semester, this will cause errors: the URLs are tied to a specific course, and after a course copy, those links will still lead to the old course, which your current students won’t have permission to access. The best way to create links is by using Blackboard’s course link option, which will correctly reconnect the links after each copy. For more information on this potential error, contact your instructional designer.
7. Make videos playable within your course
Nearly all video servers, including YouTube, Vimeo, Wistia, MediaAmp, and others, allow for videos to be played inside learning management systems, referred to as “embedding.” If your video server allows for it, consider embedding videos in your course rather than just providing a link, which leads them to an external website. If this process is new to you, you can find tutorials at the ASU Online Media Website Tutorial Page, or you can ask your instructional designer for assistance.
8. Consider principles of web design
In the world of web navigation, scrolling and clicking are essentially opposites – users access content either by scrolling down a page or by clicking to a different area. Talented website designers thoughtfully balance how users navigate their sites; their goal is to avoid excessive scrolling as well as excessive clicking. This blog briefly explains the advantages and disadvantages of each action. Note: the article supports the modern web design trend of choosing scrolling over clicking, but the structure of your course may be more suitable for folders and other organizational means requiring clicks so use your discretion. If your weekly modules are overflowing with lectures, assignments, supplemental readings, discussion board prompts, and other items, try to find a painless balance of scrolling and/or clicking, and consider reducing, compressing, or combining items where possible.
9. Ask a family member, friend, or colleague for feedback
Getting the feedback of a family member, friend, or colleague can help reveal the “blind spots” that a course designer may develop as he or she subconsciously assumes that the students possess a similar familiarity with course elements. The best candidates for advice are those with no experience with online courses since you may have first-time online students and this group is more likely to have problems with course navigation. Ask them to attempt tasks like “Find out how to complete and submit the first assignment or quiz” or “Find out which readings should be done this week and how to access them” and observe to see if or where they have any trouble.
What are some additional ways that you help students navigate your course?