Know when to keep it simple

When it comes to developing materials and learning resources for your course, I think it’s important to know when to keep it simple.

We have all seen examples, or know of some, where every possible bell-and-whistle has been applied, in good intention, but the final result has made the course complicated and heavy.

Here are a few tips on how, and why, to keep it simple, which apply as much to online distance learning courses as well as campus courses:

  • Signpost: provide little ‘signposts’ to learning resources, assignment details, marking criteria, timetables, etc. to help the student. The larger the course or course materials then the more complicated the course structure could be, and the more lost a students will find themselves in your course. 
  • Audio: Instead of the introductory ‘welcome’ (text) message why not record it and let the students hear you welcome them? If you have multiple sections within the course why not use a short audio recording that introduces the materials. This could explain what they’ll find and where / how, why they need them, what they are expected to do, and what (support, guidance, etc.) they can expect of you during the course.
  • Video: As above.
  • Activities: Don’t be too quick to drop one if it didn’t work with one student cohort, but don’t keep it if it confuses students or impairs the flow of their learning. Make an activity tool fit the learning requirement, not the other way round. Above all, talk to your Learning Technologist, let them help you find a suitable tool or technique to fit the learning outcome.
  • Use structure: If you use a VLE or LMS of some kind (Blackboard, Moodle, etc) then it’s highly likely you can create folders and apply a structure to how the resources are presented, and how the student can navigate around them. Use it. To have all resources available on the one page/level is confusing and a daunting prospect. Split them into natural sections, based on study weeks, topic or subject area, etc.
  • Use Discussion Boards (DF): While some subjects and some resources don’t need a DF, students might benefit from having one. Online courses often have one specifically for each activity, but why not one for general chat and non-specific questions? Students could help each other?
  • Student voice: Try different activities within your course. You will learn each student’s ‘voice’ which will help if questions arise on originality of assessments, as well as help identify quiet ones who may be struggling.
  • Images: Why write long-hand about a theory, concept, historical episode, experiment, outcome, etc. when an image could help present the same information? An image could be historical photo, graph, workflow diagram, etc.


  • Presentations: Yes, you can upload your presentation, but is it enough to stand up on it’s own without your narrative that you give in the lecture? Consider adding audio to each slide. Also make sure you signpost the file – include information about why you’ve uploaded it and what the student is to do with it?
  • Library: Use it. If you bring the library resources into your course, students are more likely to use it to find their own. Engage the library team to find electronic resources. If the one you need isn’t available, consider using one that is.
  • Reflection: Many courses offer students an area for reflection (blog / journal) on the resources, what they’re reading, etc. Use it. You will also be learning about them and about how the course is working (hopefully) or new resources or techniques yo u weren’t aware of before.
  • PDFs: Keep the provision of PDFs to a minimum. Putting a whole heap of PDFs into your course does make it look simple and ‘clean’. But it also make s for a very text heavy, static, monotone learning experience. I haven’t come across one person who would prefer a series of PDFs for their learning materials instead of more interactive or engaging resources.
  • Mobile learning: By keeping a well structured, well signposted, and well maintained course, you are making a course that’s easier to navigate and therefore easier to use on multiple devices. Especially mobile ones, where screen real-estate is at a premium and needs to be used wisely.

What about you .. what do you do with learning materials and resources to keep it simple, to engage students, or to provide a simpler learning experience?

 Image source: Signpost (CC BY 2.0)