ACM Logo  An ACM Publication  |  CONTRIBUTE  |  FOLLOW    

Online Learning Indicators

By Erlan Burk / July 2011

Print Email
Comments Instapaper

The online classroom is a virtual meeting place where students spend hours each week in study. Proper classroom design makes the classroom environment inviting, organized, functional, friendly, and comfortable. Improper classroom design can cause an unsuccessful learning experience for students.

But how can one be certain their classroom design is flawed? Potential design problems are addressed below along with methods for eradicating these issues. In reviewing your classroom, if one or more of the following issues are present, there is a strong indication your students are being subjected to an less than optimal the learning experience.

More time can be spent learning course logistics than learning course topics. Course navigation should be as simple as possible. Moving through the classroom should be easy for the student. Navigation of the course should not require extensive interaction. The number of prompts required for the student to move between classroom areas should be as few as possible.

Making the online course format for all weeks similar is one approach for achieving simple logistics. Course navigation buttons should be consistent from week to week. Material and assignment format should also be similar from week to week.

Understanding assignments can require more time than working on them. In navigating the course, the number of transitions between information should be kept to a minimum. For example, a student looking at an assignment should not be required to use extensive links or visit multiple classroom areas in order to obtain information on the assignment.

The assignment description should contain all the information needed to complete the assignment. Students should not be expected to leave the classroom area (through links, etc.) to obtain information for assignments.

An assignment includes only the information necessary for completion. Not enough information causes additional searching for assignment details. Too much information creates confusion. Time is better spent completing the assignment.

Assignments, reference material, and related classroom areas should be available when needed by the student. Extra effort finding assignment information should not be required to complete the assignment.

All assignments for the course should be posted in a classroom area at the beginning of the course and be available throughout the course. This enables students to plan the weeks ahead with personal or professional schedules.

However, classroom areas for posting assignment material should be available only for a week. Students should not be allowed to post assignment material for weeks in advance. This keeps all students moving through classroom assignments together with an opportunity for interaction on assignments.

Incremental assignments can eliminate peak loads in the class workflow. The structure of assignments should be for completion of a topic, or subject, or learning objective, a piece at a time. This structure gives the flexibility for a particular part of the topic to move through the sequence of study.

For example, a business class may have assignments for a project plan. Assignments for the plan are to develop the document in increments - such as a statement of work, a work breakdown, work distribution, and work scheduling. Each week a different part of the project plan is developed as an increment of the whole.

Use of incremental assignments also enables the individualization of assignments. For example, an assignment can be for each student to study and present part of the material for the week to each other. This causes one student to become an expert on the topic and mentor of other students on the material. A quiz covering all the material assures students have learned from each other.

Unreasonable time limits detract from learning. Assignments during the week, and from week to week, should require about the same amount of time to complete. For example, reading should be the same amount each week depending on the difficulty of material. Another example is a course project, due at the end of a course, with parts due incrementally each week during the course.

Knowledge of the material by the course designer is a key factor in this load leveling exercise. The designer estimates what the load level will be. Should the load level prove to be different than estimated, the course design will need to be modified.

Participation assignments are counter-productive to learning objectives. The timing of assignments during the week should be for assignments to be sequenced such that one is due each day of the week. Proper scheduling of assignments automatically provides the participation required by an institution. This eliminates the need for a separate participation grade. When students post assignments, as scheduled, they automatically meet participation requirements.

Non-individualized assignments provide opportunity for plagiarism. Using incremental and individualized assignments eliminate plagiarism. There is no opportunity for plagiarism since each student has a different assignment. Often students learn as much from reading the perspective of other students as they learn from the text or the instructor. Since each student is an expert, the opportunity for plagiarism does not exist.

Multiple activities in the same classroom area are difficult to navigate and update. An assignment should be cohesive and concentrate on a particular area of study, set of learning objectives, or topics. This makes activities easier to navigate. Also, using modular structure for classroom activities enables faster course development and enhances the ability for update.

Confusion results from multiple learning experiences at the same time. Assignments in should be discussion based with students interacting in the classroom as much as possible. Also, assignments should be modular or stand alone. This means analysis assignments for a topic should be separated from the concept discussion assignments on that topic. This separation of activities provides on online course design that is easier to use and makes updating the course easier.

There is a tendency to employ analysis interaction during concept discussion activities. This approach often happens in a teacher driven discussion. The teacher poses leading questions to students encouraging interaction. However, integration of analysis interaction with concept discussion is not the best approach for an effective learning experience.

Geography of students assigned to groups can cause difficulty in communication. Communication is a basic requirement for all groups. Communication between members of the group becomes easier when the geographical area of the group is smaller. Consequently, a recommended approach for group composition is directing students to form groups based on their geographical location.

Exams without verification of identity of the student may cause academic standard issues. The online classroom has checks and policies limiting the use of the password for privacy and security of an individual. However, there is always the possibility that the person taking an online test is not the enrolled student. If a student wishes to be academically dishonest by giving their password to another person, this issue must be solved by a physical check of identification that is not online.

To assure the valid measurement of student learning, many institutions employ proctored testing. The student shows an identification containing a picture to the proctor, then completes the exam under proctor supervision. The proctor then returns the completed final exam to the instructor.


When design issues are absent from the classroom, a course is inviting and comfortable. Students move easily through the logistics of a properly designed course, willingly completing assignments that are inviting and friendly, rather than viewing assignments as a chore. Also, in a properly designed course, students understand and apply concepts rather than strive to meet time constraints or participation requirements.

Proper course design provides the student with a classroom that is organized, functional, and friendly. Students clearly understand expectations for their work from well designed assignments, while plagiarism is absent through use of individualized assignments.

The presence of one or more design issues in a classroom is cause for concern that the learning experience of students will not be optimal. If none of the issues, persist the classroom can be an environment for student success.

About the Author

Erlan Burk is a partner in Concept Management Corporation, an information management and educational consulting firm with offices in Scottsdale, AZ and Salt Lake City, UT. In addition, he is an Assistant Professor at Park University, serving as Program Coordinator of Information and Computer Science, responsible for face-to-face and online programs.


  • There are no comments at this time.