Designing effective digital spaces for student learning

Last week I went on another treasure hunt called locating my course content.

My hunt looked something like this.

First I need to find the content. In one course the content isn’t labelled clearly and isn’t sequenced properly while in another course the modules didn’t get uploaded by mistake (which wasn’t rectified until the end of the day) leading to confusion for myself and other students as to what we are doing this week.

Content is finally located but I need to download and save multiple documents in ppt, pdf and doc form resulting in several types of applications needing to run in order to access content.

‘Why can’t the content just be there in the browser?’ I thought to myself.

I need to write a blogpost on dance resources but first I need to download a word document to find the template to use.

‘Why can’t this task be in wiki form?’ I grumbled.

I also needed to take part in a series of discussion forums which are hidden in different parts of the course management system from where I had to download several powerpoints of information.

“Why can’t I respond where the content is like a blog comment?”

Sometimes learning online feels like I have a stack of unstapled documents thrown at me and it was my job to try and make sense of the jumble before responding and engaging with the course content. Granted I’m a university student, and a graduate one to boot, so probably shouldn’t expect everything spoon-fed to me. However I can’t help but think that through its platform the university is modelling what digital learning is and that model is often one of frustration and disengagement as a learner. We wouldn’t expect this in a physical space why is it ok in a digital one?

But there is some good stuff, I really enjoyed the video footage that some courses are using while some lecturers have been really effective in facilitating student discussion in the forms.

So rather than have another whine-fest I thought I would turn the problem around and ask: what makes effective digital spaces for student learning?

  • Easy to navigate – Is your content easy to find? Is it easy to read on a screen?  Can you print it out? Is your information organised in any sort of sequential order? Does the first lecture link up easily to the second lecture? Is there are central point where you can go back to if you get lost? Do you have RSS feeds enabled so students know when content is uploaded? What about email updates? Can content be accessed on mobile devices?
  • Interactive – Obviously students need to be interacting with each other but it is great when academic staff members are there interacting with students rather than virtually lecturing to them. Students really enjoy it when academic staff members take the time to respond to bulletin boards, it makes us want to respond back. Engaging with elearners in your teaching practice should be changing your pedagogy for the better.
  • Collaborative – Think about the way you assign digital tasks, writing content on bulletin boards/wikis/blogs is one thing, getting students to respond to each other and give feedback on each others work is better.
  • Personalized – What might seem intuitive to one person is probably cumbersome to another. I much prefer reading my content in browser form while some students prefer to print it out. Course platforms should reflect this.
  • Easy feedback mechanisms – Students get that human beings (not to mention computers) aren’t perfect. But there should be an easy way to report any glitches in your system through a feedback button so that problems can be rectified quickly.
  • Multimedia – The technology to upload or stream lectures is there and quite powerful. Set up a youtube channel where users can make comments on the lecture as well as listening to it.  As an online learner I find having to focus on a lengthy powerpoint presentation that was used in lectures without any other information quickly leads to disengagement from my course material.
  • More blending between offline and online students –  I really enjoy interacting on my course’s facebook page but it could be expanded. You know all those little conversations that students sometimes doodle to each-other during class on paper which you might think off as off-task behaviour? Get them to put them online by setting up a twitter hashtag for courses where people can start tweeting conversations from lectures. Doing so might bring in people from other spheres of the education system into your course conversations and suddenly you have a powerful learning tool.
  • Open – As I’ve been going through the process of writing this blog and having long since swallowed the red pill with regards to twitter,  I’ve been blown away by how much of my learning takes place outside of varsity but also by how much learning we hide behind both physical and virtual walls.  What if we opened learning up? What if students from other cities and other countries could drop by on a virtual classroom? What if instead of having students have several associate teachers assigned over the space of their teaching qualification, they could have hundreds of people to call on for advice and guidance on becoming a teacher?

How to do it?

To be honest I’m not a fan of the clunky course management systems like blackboard, cecil, knowledge net etc. when nimbler web 2.0 platforms that encourage user interaction like blogs, dropbox, youtube, twitter, google docs and facebook already exist. However I understand that as a blogger I’m pretty out there as far as putting my learning online for all to see and read. Nevertheless there are privacy settings which institutions can utilize when using web 2.0 platforms but the problem is of course that platforms change rapidly. Will facebook go the way of myspace now that google+ is on the scene? Not sure but I do know the systems I was using to communicate five years ago, msn/yahoo messenger, aren’t nearly as popular these days. In fact neither applications are installed on my computer right now.

What do you think an effective digital learning should look like and feel like?

6 thoughts on “Designing effective digital spaces for student learning

Add yours

  1. Well… as a tertiary teacher I would love to engage in so many of these digital learning strategies, but it takes a huge amount of time and effort, particularly when some of the content delivery systems are so clunky. Quite simply, our workloads are high already, and while it would be great fun to move to digital delivery, the cost in terms of teacher time is very high indeed.

    Having said that, we do deliver all of our material in one form (PDF), in a moderately sensible order. Plus we offer discussion forums which we monitor, but try to stand back from a little, to create space for the students. Teachers have enormous power, and one sure way of killing an interesting and useful discussion is to barge on in with a post from an authority figure.


    1. Hi Deborah,
      As you rightly, point out the content delivery systems aren’t user friendly which is the point I was trying to get across in this post. I thjnk part of the problem stems from the current content management system which my university uses. But it is a useful conversation for school teachers to have as course management systems are utilized in primary and secondary schools as well. So we do need to be thinking about this.

      Deciding when are teaching moments and learning something that I need to be cognisant on my next TE I don’t think I have that well figured out yet!



  2. Stephanie
    I think what you ask for is very reasonable! From this year’s experience of informal learning, it’s been fantastic on twitter etc. I have found the eliminate experience great too. I am looking forward to some of that this weekend.
    You write so clearly and logically, love your thoughtful posts. Keep expecting! Tertiary have no excuse, hope somehow they get to read this!


    1. Hi Kathryn,
      Thanks for stopping by. As I mentioned to Deborah, this problem isn’t unique to tertiary education, as I know of primary schools (which means there are also secondary schools) that are also using various content management systems so as teachers we need to start thinking about these things too!

      And yes I am totally looking forward to Rescon 3!



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