Helping Students Navigate Your Online Course

A photo of an iPad with a calendar open and a desktop keyboard.

The first experience students have in your online course can make a huge impact on the remainder of the class. Creating a clear and easily navigable course in which things are easy to find and that flows logically from one point to the next can help with the attitude students bring to the course, as well as demonstrate your expertise as an educator. A well-organized course design also helps make the course manageable for both you and your students.

Navigation and Online Course Design

An effective online course involves thoughtful online course design. Creating a clear and consistent navigation plan for your course menu and the weeks/modules/units, and then communicating to students how you want them to use the course will help to create a manageable and welcoming learning environment.

How students navigate through the course on a regular basis is an important consideration. Keep in mind the number of clicks it will take learners to move from one area to the next – fewer clicks means easier navigation to and from necessary course components.

An additional area of consideration is consistency within the course. Setting up your course with weekly, modular, or unit divisions that all follow the same type of order (i.e. outcomes, reading assignments, activities, assessments, and checklist) helps to ensure that students know what to expect when moving from one unit of study to the next. This can not only ensure that you receive fewer questions, but it can also significantly ease the anxiety that often occurs with online learners. Lower anxiety within the course means that students also have more time to focus on learning the content and can bring a more welcoming attitude toward building community with their fellow learners.

Orienting Students to Your Online Course Design

During the first week of class, you should explain the structure of your course to your students. Here is an example of an opening announcement for the course with navigation information:

Welcome to class! I'm excited to be your instructor this semester, and I can't wait to get started and get to know each of you better! The following information will help you understand the main menu and getting around in our course. Also, note the tone of this information:

  • Start Here - This is the first place to go for the course. It has all the information you need to walk you through the course and get you ready to start the first Module.
  • Announcements - This is where I will post notifications that grades are ready, reminders, and other important information.
  • Staff Information - This area contains information about me including contact information.
  • Course Information - This area contains general information about the course, communication policies, and information on grading. You will want to read this area thoroughly before the course starts.
  • Syllabus and Calendar - This area contains a printable copy of the course syllabus and a printable course calendar showing due dates and other important schedule information. Please print both out for your records.
  • Modules - This is the area where you will find your readings, assignments, and activities for the course.
  • Discussion Board - This is a link to the discussion area for the class. This is where you will share ideas and information with everyone else in the course.
  • Where to Get Help - This area has helpful links and information such as how to get technical help or contact the library and writing center. There is a printable version of this page that you can print out and keep handy in case of technological glitches!

To get started in our course, please click START HERE on the menu and follow the instructions. I look forward to working with all of you this semester!

As mentioned earlier, using a consistent module structure improves the navigability of online courses. If you use this structure, it is important to explain to students how the modules are structured. Here is an example:

Modules will contain these elements:

  • Module Introduction - This will be a short lecture from me designed to introduce you to the module and to key ideas that we will be studying.
  • Module Outcomes - Here is where you will find the specific outcomes that we plan to accomplish in this module.
  • Readings - The readings assigned for the module.
  • Assignments - This folder will contain your group discussion assignments, the quiz for the module, and your personal journal assignment.
  • Course Blog Assignment - Each module will have a reflective assignment for posting to the course blog.
  • Checklist - A checklist of what you need to have completed for the module to help ensure that you have not missed anything!

In addition, modules will usually contain an extra ungraded learning activity such as a self-assessment, tool spotlight, or special report on a topic. I'm adding these to try to create a little more variety in the course, as well as to expose you to some of the tools and concepts that we are currently working with in instructional design.

Students often have misconceptions about how online courses work. Imagine how a successful student would use your course and then provide that information to your students. Here is an example:

How to Get Organized for This Course

Our course is divided into learning modules which begin on a Monday and end on a Sunday. Each of the modules in our course will run for either two or three weeks, except for the last module, which is only one week long. I have divided our time in the modules up in a way that I hope will give us time to read, discuss, work, and reflect on what we are covering without feeling too rushed.

  • First Week - The first week of the module will be the week in which we read and begin discussing. Your first discussion postings to each of the two module threads will always be due the first week of the module on Thursdays at 11:00 p.m. You will have the rest of the module to complete the remaining response postings required for full credit.
  • Second and Third Weeks - In these weeks, we will work to complete or begin completing assignments and continue discussing with our peers. Anything that is scheduled as due at the end of a module should be turned in no later than 11:00 p.m. on the Sunday the module ends. We will also post to the Course Blog at this point in the module and reflect on what we have been doing and feeling as we read and worked together. This is usually the last step that we take in our learning module, but feel free to post to the Course Blog whenever you feel it is appropriate.

Availability of Materials

I realize that some people read at a faster pace than others. The outcomes, lecture, and readings for Modules 1 and 2 are ready, for the rest of the Modules any reading or assignment information will be finalized no later than the Sunday before the module begins. I will post an announcement each Sunday before a new module letting you know that everything is ready to go. This course has extensive reading and writing associated with it. Please plan your time accordingly.

Getting Organized

There is a course calendar available with the dates for each module, due dates for assignments, and other useful information. Please print out this calendar and keep it handy.

Consider buddying up with at least one other member of the course. This can be extremely helpful on weekends or holidays when you have questions that I am unavailable to answer!

Finally, helping students understand your intent for what they will get from your course provides you with an opportunity to explicate how what they are learning can be of benefit to them in their future coursework or careers. Adding a statement to this effect in your course is a great way to provide relevance, enthusiasm, and demonstrate your knowledge in your field of expertise. For example:

In this course, we will be studying many different aspects of how to create an effective program plan for your library. While the type of library that each of you works in, or will work in, may be different, there are similarities in the planning system for all of them. Focusing on this aspect in the course can be helpful because the reality of our world today is that careers often change over time. Additionally, for those of you who are currently working in a library, the assignment has been made flexible enough for you to adapt it to your current setting. This means that you can potentially create a program in this class that can be implemented within your own workplace. So, be thinking about what types of things you would like to work on, or areas where your administration is hoping to provide service to your patrons. These are areas rich for potential when it comes to our project!

Adding these aspects of navigation and organization to your course will help provide students with a clearer picture of both the course requirements and your feelings about how the course should work.