UX for teaching: designing online courses from a student’s point of view

Gearoid O’Suilleabhain explains how academics can improve the ‘user experience’ of their online courses by looking at the design from a student’s perspective

Gearoid O'Suilleabhain's avatar
Munster Technological University
9 Mar 2021
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Key Details

This video will cover:

00:15  Why you should look at things from a student’s point of view when designing online courses

01:37  Applying the user experience (UX) principles of simplicity and consistency to online teaching

03:47  Designing with accessibility in mind


OK, hi there. My name is Gearoid O’Suilleabhain. I’m the head of the department of technology enhanced learning in the Munster Technological University in Ireland.

My online teaching tip is simply this: look at things from a student’s point of view. Now, this works on a number of different levels.

On the most basic level of course, it just means trying to see your online course or your online module as the average student might. So if, for example, as would often be the case, the home page for your module on your virtual learning environment is kind of the launch pad for everything else, then just ask yourself: how will that present to a student?

What’s going to jump out at them? Is it obvious to them where they can go from here? Is there anything there that might distract them? Now, seeing things from a student’s point of view can also reveal a need to introduce and contextualise what we share with students or ask them to do.

We do a lot of this introducing and contextualising in the face-to-face environment, but sometimes we forget to do it when we move things online. So providing this kind of scaffolding, as it would sometimes be called in this context, is important because it really helps the students understand why we’re telling them certain things, and why we’re directing them in certain ways, and how we’re helping them to achieve their learning goals.

Now, some of these principles like scaffolding, for example, are quite similar to the kinds of things that designers in other areas talk about. So in other contexts, designers will often talk about the need for good usability or, nowadays more commonly, for good user experience.

Definitions of “user experience” will vary quite a bit, but the basic notion is that you’re trying to design something that’s usable, that can be interacted with, with a minimum amount of fuss or frustration, maybe even a certain amount of satisfaction.

So some general principles that can be brought over from the world of UX to the world of online teaching would include things like just doing less.

So the adage “less is more” certainly applies in this context because it’s very easy for your learners to become overloaded with too much information, or be obliged to think about too many different things at the same time. So be on the lookout for ways to reduce, to minimise, to declutter your course for the good of your learners and for the good of their learning.

Another UX principle – a big one – is consistency. So consistency is really key to ensuring good UX whatever the context. So try to be consistent online within and between your modules and your choice of tools and technologies, in the layout, in the look and feel, in the navigational elements and the structural elements, all across the board, and it will help a lot.

A third tip from the world of UX: language, keep it simple. Using clear and consistent words throughout, and keeping the language plain and simple, is going to make things easier for your learners. It will make sure that they can scan and effectively understand things.

A once-overlooked but now very important rule in UX also, is to design with accessibility in mind. So to try to design and develop things to make sure that they’re usable for as many people as possible, including people with disability.

So some staff might also find it useful in this context to review or look at rules and guidelines for what’s known as “universal design for learning”, which really just involves planning flexibility in from the outset, and recognising that learners are varied in terms of their preferences and their needs and capabilities.

OK, short and sweet – that’s it from me. I hope you find something useful in all of that, and the very best of luck in all your online teaching endeavours. Thank you.

This video was produced by Gearoid O’Suilleabhain, head of the department of technology enhanced learning in the Munster Technological University.


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