Trade Secret #2: Create a consistent course architecture

By Dr. Marilyn Herie

Institutional Learning Management Systems tend not to be the most intuitive or visually appealing. I create folders for each week’s content, populated with the same kinds of materials in the exact same sequence. This offers a sense of continuity to the online classroom – analogous to holding a face-to-face course in the same room every week. As well, we live in an online culture of continuous and immersive sharing and collaboration. Being explicit about how often you go into the course, timeframes for responding to emails, etc. reassures students that you care and are accessible.

Transcript – Trade Secret #2: Create a consistent course architecture (click to open)

Welcome to secret number two of my online teaching trade secrets series. I’m Marilyn Herie.

I’ve been teaching online for close to two decades and, in my completely asynchronous course, the challenge was how to create a dynamic community of learning where students feel like they can orient themselves week over week over week. Now, my courses were self-created, handcrafted if you will, and so I found that it was really helpful to create a very consistent course architecture and manage student expectations. Now, what do I mean by a consistent course architecture?

In any course, there are tons of different activities, assignments, resources, readings, etc. So I grouped each week’s, i.e. each class, into a module. And this is done in Blackboard but every learning management system has kind of that documents repository. So all they saw was a folder with week one, week two, week three, etc. And then, drilling into those weekly modules, I had a very predictable, consistent way that I structured how I uploaded material into my course. So I always started with a video introduction and it was just a couple minutes long. And what I put in that video introduction was just a very conversational, well, what I’d be saying to students in the first couple of minutes of that particular class. So it was specific to the focus of the content that I was teaching in that class. And the question I asked myself to kind of orient myself to what I would say in that video is, like, what would what would make students care about that particular topic. So it was really kind of some headlines about why this is so interesting and important for us to learn together.

And then I gave a weekly overview which was like a one or two page document, a summary, which would sort of be like a mini lecture. Instead of uploading just a PowerPoint slide deck, which are kind of hard to make sense of, I condensed what would be like a 15 or 20 slide deck into just that one or two page sort of narrative with some of the kind of key highlights about the topic that we were going to address in that particular class. Then I would give links to weekly readings, links to weekly videos or websites, and I always try to include videos as well as readings. There’s tons of great videos out there and I just found students really liked that mix of both readings and videos.

And then finally, what are the weekly activities. And those were often discussion questions that I wanted students to be talking about in the discussion board that week, as well as other activities like, go to this website and take this self-assessment, or go to pick a website on this specific topic and critique it through a lens of theory or implications for practice. Lots of different options for weekly activities.

And so here’s a sort of bird’s eye view of what that, how that, course architecture translated into week three of my addictions treatment course. So there’s my weekly video in one, and then in two you can see the overview there’s a PDF download with just a few sentences describing what we’re talking about in that week. Then you can see I’ve got two readings for students to complete. As well as a five minute video and then our small group discussion questions.

Now, managing expectations is also key because students get into this online course and it’s like, oh it’s all online 24/7. I can do my studying, etc. at two in the morning. Well guess what? I’m asleep at two in the morning so if a student is messaging me Friday night and expecting an answer on Friday night, that might not be quite realistic. There is for our students this culture of continuous sharing and communication, and so just being up front about, you know, if you email me, I promise to respond within 24 hours. And if you email me on a Friday, I’ll try to respond if I can on the weekend but, if it’s not until Monday, please be okay with that.

I also, and here’s a great secret, a little extra nugget, is encourage students to actually email their questions to me in the discussion group. Now, this is a good one because I’m sure that you find in teaching online that you’re getting tons of emails from students to you individually as well as having to go into your online course and engage. By encouraging students to post questions in that week’s discussion with the headline, Question for Marilyn, that gives other students an opportunity to see that question that all of them are probably wanting to ask too, as well as my answer. And if you look at this example, you can see question for Marilyn had, like, the most posts out of all of the different posts in that week up to the point that I did that screenshot. It doesn’t happen right away. So, what typically would happen is, around week two, a student will email me a question or, well, say it’s week one, but whatever, at the beginning of the course. And then I answer their question by email but in my response to them I say, and by the way, I feel like so many other students probably have the same question. Would you be willing to post your question and my answer and subject line question for Marilyn in the course discussion? That would be awesome. Only if you’re comfortable. I’ve never had a student say, no, I won’t do that. In fact, they feel flattered that they are, that their question is being taken seriously, and that it actually reflects what others are doing. Now that student has set a behavior that will make sense and other students will start to follow. It takes a couple of tries but, by week four and week five, students are posting question for Marilyn. The other advantage to shaping that desired behavior is that, if I’m just dipping into the course, I only have 15 minutes, and I want to just do a quick scan, make sure everybody’s doing okay; I see question for Marilyn right away, that’s the thread that I’m going to go to right away and respond to.

The comments from students really expressed their appreciation for that mix of things: the videos, the explanation of the content, and their ability to follow through. That notion that everything was easy to follow did a lot for students’ enjoyment and comfort levels in my course.

So I hope you enjoyed that tip and tune in for the other tips in my online teaching trade secrets.

Check out Dr. Marilyn’s Herie’s other Trade Secrets!

Dr. Marilyn Herie, PhD RSW is Vice President Academic and Chief Learning Officer at Centennial College in Toronto, Canada, with an academic cross-appointment as Assistant Professor (Status Only), University of Toronto Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work. I’ve been engaged in online (and classroom-based) post-secondary teaching and research since 1999. My areas of interest include elearning and classroom teaching, interprofessional education research and evaluation, motivation and change, and social media. I blog about education and teaching-related topics at