Online Course Module Structure
By Stacey M Johnson, Assistant Director for Educational Technology, Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching
Module is the term that is most often used to describe online lessons or units. Online course modules typically contain content and activities organized to create a clear learning path for students. Before we dig into module structure, there are a few concepts to keep in mind here that will help you design the most valuable learning experience possible.
First, people don’t pay attention to boring things. This is true for you and for me and for our students.
Second, our brains may be able to pay attention to more than one thing at a time but will process things sequentially even when we are doing them simultaneously. Multi-tasking, a common response to boring experiences, reduces the amount of attention we can pay to any particular task. In online courses with the whole internet just a click away, boring = multitasking = low attention = low learning.
So, how do we present online content in a way that makes good use of our brains’ ability to pay attention?
That is where good module design is essential. As the instructor, you have control over many elements of the online learning experience:
- how long lectures are,
- how you sequence content and activities,
- how you check in with students to ensure understanding,
- how you make passive experiences more active,
- how you move students from one experience to another.
You might notice that these are also moves you make in your f2f classroom. Structuring your learning module will require much of the same sort of thoughtfulness that you apply to your lesson planning.
Good modules include some sort of intake through reading, listening, or viewing.
They give students opportunities to process what they have taken in. That processing might look like a discussion, a reading quiz, an application activity, or reflection.
Often, we also require students to demonstrate that they have acquired new knowledge or skills in some way. There’s a whole lot of activities in that category including different kinds of tests, and some of those activities might look similar to processing activities.
One important distinction in module structure is whether the activities will be synchronous or asynchronous. Synchronous means that the instructor and students will be in the same place, whether than be a Zoom room or a f2f classroom, at the same time. Asynchronous means that the instructor and students will be working on the same activity, but will not have fixed times and spaces for meetings. Much online teaching is asynchronous. If you plan to include synchronous activities in your online course or if you are teaching a hybrid course and plan to have some f2f components, you’ll want to make sure to schedule the Zoom session or other live class meetings in your module structure.
Whatever combination of content, learning activities, assessments, and live meetings comprise your module structure, having an idea of the recurring steps in every module provides predictability for your students.
In online teaching, a clear, predictable, well-marked module structure provides a learning path for students to follow. Keeping intake to a maximum of, let’s say, 10 minute bursts will also help students maintain high levels of attention.
Another element to keep in mind when structuring your modules is that no matter how good your structure, no matter how well you keep students’ attention, if you do the same series of activities with no variation day after day, module after module, your students will inevitably get bored, and you will too. So, sticking to the structure while occasionally varying the activities is a good approach.
Reflect on the following questions:
What structure do you have in place in your f2f courses to ensure student learning? Are there predictable routines that allow students to intake, process, and demonstrate knowledge?
How will f2f meetings or synchronous video conferencing figure into your module structure? Will those group meetings be primarily for students to intake, process, or demonstrate knowledge?
On your own paper, jot down a few questions you still have about structuring online course modules. In the next section, note whether any of the examples presented there help to answer your questions.
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