It’s All About Design (And A Little Magic)

Ever taken an online course that met all of your needs and more? The colors didn’t make you cringe, you could find what you needed, and you didn’t dread the activities you were asked to complete. You thought to yourself, “Wow, that course was very well-designed!” You wished there was a “thumbs up” icon by the course title that you could click.

The course you took likely utilized excellent design in several, if not ALL, of the following areas:

• Interface Design
• Assessment Design
• Learning Object Design
• Technology & Multi-Media Design
• Learning Activity Design

Each of these design areas impact how learners will perceive an online course.


Interface Design

An online course interface is well designed when the course is presented in a logical, easy to navigate, and visually appealing manner. It is dangerous to discount the importance of presentation and ease of use for learners. Whole disciplines dictate what is best in the area of interface design – there are graphic design dos and don’ts, principles of technical writing and information management, as well as web design best practices. It is best to standardize on a presentation format, so learners can get comfortable and know what to expect. High quality content and activities do not alone make an excellent online course. Presentation matters.

Assessment Design

Assessment drives which learning activities are needed an online course. If the assessment methods are inappropriate for an online course, course quality will suffer. For example, if an online course is weighted too heavily towards quizzes and homework, learners may not have ample time for discussion and reflection. If interaction is desired among learners, the evaluation plan must allow for it.

Learning Object Design

Learners need learning objects (such as videos, readings, websites, tutorials etc.) that will help them make sense of course content. If the learning objects in a course aren’t very helpful, (or worse, non-existent), learners will have trouble completing learning activities. The learning activities will seem difficult and irrelevant to learners without the necessary supporting resources. Learning objects should be discussed early on in the course development process because locating and creating these objects can take a significant amount of time.

Technology & Multi-Media Design

Which types of technology and multi-media will be most appropriate for your learners? In order to answer this question, you must analyze your learners and offer appropriate support resources. Some questions to consider:
• Are your learners technology proficient? (It is best to assume “no” unless you know for sure.)
• Will learners need to practice with the technology before they are asked to use it in a learning activity?
• Should only one or two primary technology tools/channels be used in order to simplify the course for learners?
• Would the course content be better explained through the use of multi-media, such as videos, tutorials, or simulations? Is it worth the time investment to create these resources?

These questions help guide the creation of a multi-media and technology plan for the course. Such a plan is important because the development of media resources takes additional time and planning. For example, additional time may be needed for the creation of self-help guides so that learners understand how to use the technology.

Learning Activity Design

Course developers frequently want to jump into Learning Activity Design early on in the course development process. It is one of the most enticing course design elements to work on. After all, it is what your learners will actually BE DOING in the course. However, learning activity design should be considered LAST.

All other design areas impact the design of your learning activities. Once you have a handle on your basic vision for the course, learning activities can be built to meet those parameters. This is advocating both for 1) sketching out the big picture (assessment design) while 2) beginning the actual design process with the details (the learning objects that are absolutely required).

So when you embark on the design of your next course, ask yourself these questions in the following order:
1. What is the environment like where learners will experience the course (interface design)?
2. What is the assessment plan for the course (assessment design)?
3. What are the most fundamental things learners need to know (learning object design)?
4. Which types of technology and media will be utilized (multi-media & technology design)?


5. How will learners interact with course content, other learners, and the instructor (learning activity design)?


So, where does the magic come in? Maybe you’ve skimmed through this post hoping to learn about THE MAGIC. I don’t blame you ☺ While well-researched design principles guide course construction, it is the course designers themselves who ensure that all design elements are artfully woven together – that’s THE MAGIC. And that’s when learners can’t help but exclaim, “Wow, that course was very well-designed!”


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