Instructors who teach in online environments often devote extensive time and energy into designing a Web space that is inviting and useful to students. But frustration inevitably ensues when, despite the careful consideration given to the most logical placement of a discussion forum and the “clearest” instructions provided to students on how to post to the forum, the instructor still receives e-mail from students asking, “So, where is this discussion forum? And what am I supposed to do?” Why has this gap in communication occurred?
One reason for this may be the typically linear design of course sites. Often, learning-management systems adopted by universities have default settings that establish some of the design considerations for the instructors—i.e., the location and style of course navigation. These linear designs generally have the best intentions, since they try to organize information so that students can navigate course material easily, following step-by-step instructions and information.
However, with recent developments in eye-tracking software showing how users really view content on the Web, we can see why this linear design isn’t quite ideal. This video shows a user’s eye movements when scanning IKEA’s Web site, and several other examples available online confirm this rapid pattern of eye movement that jumps all over the page. It’s no wonder, then, that students miss the carefully placed, bolded, and highlighted instructions for turning in an assignment that you were sure everyone would see and follow—considering how the brain ingests and computes information from the screen, it’s easy to see how a linear design style for course materials might not match the ways in which users view the content.
So, what is the solution? Unfortunately, there isn’t a Band-Aid design scheme that addresses this issue, and because instructors are often working within an institutionally mandated learning-management system, course design happens within set boundaries. One important step is usability testing, which can reveal issues that designers can’t see once they are invested in their design decisions. This may seem like an onerous and time-consuming task, but it doesn’t need to be—usability guru Jakob Nielsen recommends five users for testing, but as this data shows, even finding two or three people to look at your course and perform key tasks can give you helpful information to improve your course design.
Another important step is realizing that, just as in face-to-face classrooms, your goal (for students to follow instructions) needs to clearly align with your assessments:
- Include instructions in a logical location, as determined by your course design.
- Ensure that students have seen these instructions. One effective method is to give students a graded quiz at the beginning of the term that asks them to locate important information throughout the online course.
- Show students that following instructions is important by grading them on it. Depending on your class, you might make part of an assignment’s grade based on following the assignment’s instructions, or you could refuse to accept an assignment until the student has followed the directions.
Again, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for designing courses that adhere to the ways users view information on the screen. This also isn’t a “lost cause” for instructors—just because users naturally view Web content in a nonlinear way doesn’t mean that the design of online course materials needs to be completely overhauled. Thoughtful design can help students, but supporting your design with clear expectations and assessments can also help students navigate your course more effectively.