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How to design a VLE/LMS content structure

Whether you are designing for blended learning, an online MOOC, or organising a collection of learning resources, the curation of your online platform is just as important as the content itself. If you have ever used a virtual learning environment (VLE), or learning management system (LMS), you may have encountered a common problem. Quite often these often powerful and sophisticated platforms are treated simply as a repository for learning resources (or not properly used at all). Folders full of PowerPoints and PDF documents, long lists of links, empty discussion forums, and endless clicking through nested levels of content… sound familiar? It’s pretty common and usually because not enough attention has been paid to the design of the platform spaces, or support for those who will use them.

Whenever I talk to educators about the issues they have with their platform, the fingers of blame tend to point to two main causes: the platforms themselves, and/or the people tasked with populating them. In most cases I have found both positions to be at least partly unfair or misguided.

Pretty much all established learning platforms have certain features and functions in common. They are all generally capable of hosting learning materials, processing assessments, tracking learner progress, and facilitating communication between educators and learners. Whichever one your organisation chooses, there will be some who love it, and some who really, really don’t. There isn’t really a “best” platform or tool when it comes to learning technologies, though some are better suited to certain contexts than others.

Problems associated with learning platforms tend to stem from the way it is configured and used. A good professional development programme, covering the technical skills and digital pedagogy required to use learning technology effectively, is highly recommended. This will support those who use the technology, to develop strategies that maximise the effectiveness of their online and blended learning environments.

Templates and baselines

Some organisations, particularly large-scale course providers, will decide to develop a set of standards for the configuration and use of their learning platform. A university, for example, will often require that all online module spaces should have things like a welcome announcement, links to the course handbook, and reading lists, as a minimum. They may improve upon this by requesting or requiring that every module space includes a quantifiable variety of interactive and social elements, like discussion activities and videos. They will usually, however, permit flexibility across subject areas to allow for pedagogical diversity and experimentation. 

Providers of multi-institutional course catalogues, like FutureLearn, may develop a ‘recipe‘ for course design, based on the learning theories that maximise the effectiveness of their platform, and provide consistency for all of their courses. In the case of FutureLearn, they emphasise storytelling and discussion within their distinctive ‘massive-scale social learning’ approach.

When it comes to designing online learning experiences, “best practices” are not always universal, so it’s important to keep an open and critical mind. When I work with an employer, or an academic course team, I like to explore research on learning strategies for the topic or context in question. For example, research has shown reflective practice and communities of practice to be highly effective learning models for sports coaches, who will do most of their learning in a practical environment. The online learning platform should therefore respond to this through its design.

I will sometimes encounter a unique, context- or subject-specific pedagogical problem, which might be addressed wholly or partly through learning experience design. In such a case I might aim to blend established learning models with elements from other subject areas or contexts. For example, using arts-based learning to explore questions around ethics or identity in science. Interdisciplinary practice, which was characteristic of my own student experiences, appears to be gaining momentum across the educational sectors.

The features of a learning model or approach can and should be used to design the configuration and use of the online learning platform, and therefore the organisation of the content that sits within it.

So how is this done?

Translating a model into an online experience

Learning design involves mapping content and experiences using learning models as a framework. This isn’t just about mapping the order in which topics should be encountered. Rather, it is the how they are encountered that we are interested in here. What is the nature of that encounter and how might we want the learner to respond? Ideally you need to go through this process before designing and developing content for the platform, but that might not always be possible. You may be looking to refresh or migrate an established course perhaps.

Certainly it is a good idea to list all the main features of your platform and any complementary tools you may be able to use, then map them according to their pedagogical strengths. For example, a wiki is great for collaboration, while quizzes are good for practising cognitive skills and testing knowledge. Some tools will have multiple strengths, of course.

You can then organise your tools and features according to your preferred learning models. The examples below show how I have done this with Laurillard’s six learning types, and Bloom’s Taxonomy (the earlier one). I used “wheels” because I like the idea that they can be spun around and don’t have to have a hierarchy, but a table or mind map can work too.

Example 1

Tool wheel 1

Example 2

Tool wheel 2

For the purposes of this exercise, it doesn’t matter too much whether you are heavily invested in the effectiveness of a particular model or not. It’s more of a starting point for organising and articulating your design ideas, and you can try the same exercise with more than one model. 

Next, you can use these as a reference for mapping out a learning journey. Like many learning designers, I don’t know where I’d be without a whiteboard and sticky notes, although nowadays my mapping activities are increasingly facilitated through digital platforms, like Miro

In the example board below, I have created a colour code and selection of “stickers” at the top. These are used to arrange and annotate the content and activities added to the board. In this case, I have included Laurillard’s conversational learning model, Keller’s ARCS motivational model, and Puentedura’s SAMR model. You could also use Bloom’s Taxonomy, your organisation’s values, or whatever elements make up your teaching model, to create a coding or mapping system. You could also develop your system to introduce a gamification strategy.

use of a Miro interactive board

Whichever models and elements are incorporated into your mapping board, remember that they are there as frames for discussion and inspiration, not hard fast rules to govern content

The colour coding of Laurillard’s six learning types is actually inspired by UCL’s ABC Learning Design model, which is based on those principles and is popular in many universities. What’s helpful with the addition of colour (or pattern for a differently accessible version) is that I can see which units have too much or too little of something. Too much turquoise (acquisition) may mean the learning experience is too passive, whereas a lack of blue and yellow (discussion and collaboration) may mean not enough social interaction.

I sometimes use the ARCS motivational model to inspire the order of content and activities so that the learning experience “flows” well. The general principles are as follows. The first items somehow grab the learner’s attention (A) e.g. by presenting shocking statistics. The next items channel the psychological response of the student. They will hit home as to why the topic is relevant (R) and the role the learner could play in response. And then, when their role is established, then their confidence (C) in the subject area needs to be developed through practice and constructive feedback. Finally, a learning outcome or goal may be satisfied (S) through an opportunity to demonstrate, evidence, or reflect on learning.

The mapping can be helpful to plot a learning journey through blended contexts, such as classroom and self-directed learning. They also offer flexible ways to align and sense check work placements running alongside and between other learning activities.

a miro bord mapping out blended learning

Think about how your online platform and extended tools could connect and facilitate the flow of information and experience between different environments. Are you connecting the environments? Not just in between activities, but enabling multiple contexts to be present with each other throughout the learning experience? Consider visual cues, keywords, and themes that may be threaded through taught, self-directed, workplace, and informal learning, thereby tying everything together.

Implementing a design

When the content has been mapped out, the platform can be configured to guide a learning journey. In addition to that, some thought must be given to other ways learners may need to use the spaces. For example, when they want to track down a particular article or video, or all resources on a particular topic. Depending on the platform features, there are various ways to do this. Some platforms will allow learners to view all items of a particular content type associated with the course, e.g. all videos, all discussions. Another approach, which I am starting to use more and more is tagging. If all content is appropriately tagged within a well-defined system, this can be used to create new levels of sophistication across the platform.

Typically, there will be some linearity to the organisation of the content. You may find it helpful to separate self-directed learning activities (reading materials, videos) from the classroom resources (handouts and PowerPoints). With some software and certainly bespoke platforms, it may be possible to organise content into an interactive timetable, or course map. If you decide to do something along these lines, be conscious of the accessibility implications. Tables and interactive maps can be problematic for assistive technologies and for viewing on mobile devices.  

If you have students available to consult then present the options to them and see what they would prefer. Ask them in particular about the things they use the most, and the things that are most important for the success and enjoyment of their learning. These things need to be accessible and prominent – one click away.

If you are going through the process of procuring or developing a brand new learning platform than I would recommend investing plenty of time spent with learners and others who will use the platform, to find out what matters to them. This should cover user experience (UX) concerns, such as user journeys, navigation, branding and icon choices. And it should also cover learning experience design (LX / LXD), which considers how digital environments facilitate, reinforce, or obstruct learning processes. 

Finally, whoever is responsible for designing and populating your online platform, make sure that everyone who uses it has sufficient training and support to enable them to make the most of it… not just a set of guidelines to abide by.

If you are going through any of the processes described in this post and need some help and support, please get in touch about our 1-1 and team tutorials and consultations. 

Bloom, B. S., Englehart, M. D., Furst, E. J., Hill, W. H., & Krathwohl, D. R. (1956). The Taxonomy of educational objectives, handbook I: The Cognitive domain. New York: David McKay Co., Inc.

Keller, J. M. (2009). Motivational design for learning and performance: The ARCS model approach. Springer Science & Business Media.

Laurillard, D. (1993) Rethinking university teaching: a conversational framework for the effective use of learning technologies, 2nd Edition. Taylor & Francis Group

Laurillard, D. (2012). Teaching as a Design Science: Building Pedagogical Patterns for Learning and Technology. London: Routledge.

Puentedura, R.R. (2006) Transformation, Technology, and Education. Presentation and accompanying resources available at: http://hippasus.com/resources/tte/

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Pedagogy

Pedagogy is generally defined as the art, science and craft of teaching. The first pedagogues were Greek slaves who were responsible for caring for and instructing their masters’ children. In fact, the Greek origin of the word means ‘to lead the child’.

So, pedagogy may also be considered to be about nurture and pastoral care, as well as teaching. Despite the reference to children, the term is used fairly comfortably in adult education contexts. However, andragogy, which translates as ‘to lead the man’, may be used to refer specifically to the teaching of adults.

A number of related and derivative terms may be used to define particular fields of pedagogical interest, including digital pedagogycritical pedagogy, and heutagogy.