• GradHacker

    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


Designing a Digital Classroom

Tips for making your online course as engaging as an offline one.

October 4, 2015


Heather VanMouwerik is a doctoral candidate in Russian History at the University of California, Riverside. Follow her @hvanmouwerik or check out her website.


I love this time of year!


Finally it is October, and we can start talking about autumn and cool weather (unless you live in SoCal). But it is also time for fresh beginnings, self-reflection, and back-to-school shopping. Many of my friends are primary and secondary school teachers, so my Facebook feed is full of beautiful photos of pristine classrooms. Many teachers spent their entire summer redesigning their classrooms for the new students. From organizing supplies to rearranging desks, teachers sewed, hole-punched, and stapled their way to a classroom specifically designed to inspire their students and promote their educational goals.


As instructors in higher education we are a lot less likely to pay any attention to classroom design, which is understandable since we have no control over our assigned classrooms. I have taught history (and now English) courses all across campus. Sometimes I have a large smart classroom with tons of comfortable chairs and natural light; and other times, it is a cramped closet with no sound system and chalkboards that have seen better days. The only way to deal with these inconsistencies is to create a generic stand alone course that does not rely on a specific set of classroom requirements.


When we start to create online courses we take this antipathy with us, focusing on content over form. Unfortunately, all of the hard work and important lessons become lost in a muddle of visually unappealing or confusing links, disconnected projects, and unclear objectives. As a result students become frustrated, angry, and lost, resulting in high attrition rates and an overall distaste for online learning.


To combat this I suggest a simple cognitive shift: think of your course’s interface as if it was a physical classroom. Then, like the colorful classrooms of your youth, consciously design your course to include clearly articulated objectives, signposts for student success, and predictable organization. These redundancies give students a sense of confidence in their ability to navigate the unfamiliar digital classroom, which, in turn, eliminates student confusion before it begins.


Even within the technological limitations of your institution, there are plenty of opportunities to personalize your digital classroom. Although there are far too many systems and tools available for me to offer specific design advice (for that you will need to talk to the Tech Ed support at your institution), I can suggest things to keep in mind:


  1. Plan all Summer, Teach all Winter: Most teachers I know spend the weeks leading up to the new school year addressing the layout, flow, and look of their classroom. This means that once school begins they can turn all of their attention to teaching. The same principle applies to online class design. You should be able to press the mythical “GO” button, and not have to give your class design a second thought all term. By this I mean have everything done for the entirety of the course on day one—from online lectures and assignments, to PDFs of readings, wikis, and dropboxes. This allows the students to quickly learn how to navigate the online interface, and allows you to focus on the students.

  2. Story Time is at 10 O’Clock Everyday: In my experience students, though they crave the ability to learn at their own pace with a flexible schedule, actually need more structure than many online courses provide. Elementary school classrooms  are built upon the predictability and routine of an unwavering weekly schedule in order to insure student success, a principle equally effective in online classes. In a class I assisted with last winter, the professor required students to read and watch lecture by Tuesday, participate in discussion section on Wednesday, turn in a paper on Friday, and complete an activity on Sunday--every week without fail the same schedule. As a result students had to keep up with the class, doing a little work each week and remaining invested in the course material.

  3. The Reading Corner: My second grade teacher (shout out to Mrs. K!) designated a corner of the classroom to reading. Sometimes we would go over there to read silently; sometimes she would read to all of us there. In hindsight, I appreciate that, by setting aside a space for her students to come together in a common pursuit, she made us into a community of readers on that rug. I believe community and its resulting conviviality is what keeps undergraduates actively engaged in the course. Sadly community is generally lacking in online classes. In a previous post I suggested online discussion sections as a way to address this concern. Other things that you may want to try: group projects, which can be facilitated through shared files on Google Docs and Skype/Hangouts, active discussion boards, or utilizing social media.

  4. Use Glitter Sparingly: Art projects involving glitter can be a fantastic way to spend a rainy afternoon. Yet, they can also be a gigantic mess! New technologies and online tools carry the same potential and threat. Just because something is shiny, it does not mean that you need to include it in your class design. Each tool you bring into the classroom must be accessible for students with disabilities and requires a lot of time to learn, teach, and troubleshoot. I once worked with a professor who wanted to include some sort of digital component to his course, so he made his students turn in their final project on a blog. In my opinion this was a mistake, because the medium did not suit the project. Blogs are meant as a way for one person or team of people to communicate with the masses. In this project there wasn’t a clear audience nor did it make sense for all the students to post their different projects on the same blog. This experience made me aware of how important it is to make sure that each component of an online class fulfills a specific purpose, that your students understand that purpose, and that you have the time and know-how to fully utilize the shiny new tool.

  5. Recess: Even the most meticulously designed classrooms cannot encompass the whole of student learning, so it is important to recognize where the classroom ends and the playground begins. Two key misconceptions of online education are that it must occur on a computer and it must be solitary. In the same class mentioned above, the professor made all of her students go to a library and complete several missions, including take a selfie with a librarian. Although there were grumbles at first, the assignment was a huge success. It forced students to go out and experience the library, befriend a librarian, and overcome any anxiety they had about using the library. Encouraging students to leave the classroom allows instructors to engage students physically as well as intellectually.


What have you done in your online courses to create the feel of a classroom? Has addressing design changed the way you teach?


[Photo by Flickr user hobvias sudoneighm used under Creative Commons License.]


Back to Top