Kevin Pack, Communication Intern for The Wheel

Designing a Course Website: A Student’s Perspective

Dear Faculty,

This post was written by a communication intern for The Wheel, Kevin Pack. Kevin Pack is a third year computer science student at UC Davis. He is interested in software development, music, and education. As a new communication intern for The Wheel, Kevin is looking forward to exploring the applications and effects of instructional technology at UC Davis. 

Making the sudden shift from in-person courses to remote classes has challenged students and instructors alike this spring quarter, 2020. As UC Davis scholars participate in social distancing, we greatly appreciate organized and easily accessible online courses. The course website for my computer architecture course (taught by Dr. Jason Lowe-Power) makes accessing class materials and learning new content convenient and enjoyable. As this website has highlighted the importance of organization and intuitive design for online courses, instructors may want to consider some of these techniques in designing their course websites, whether they be on UC Davis Canvas or otherwise. 

  • Organize information with modules. In the computer architecture course website, the lecture materials are clearly organized into modules that consist of several lecture videos, quizzes, and assignments. In Canvas, modules work as “buckets” that allow instructors to store all of the files, videos, discussion pages, and assignments that a student will need to access a specific portion of the course. This greatly improves organization and helps clarify what is required of students for each module. 
  • Control the flow of content with pages. Professor Lowe-Power’s module pages (example) often begin with a fun and relevant comic strip, followed by a list of the required readings, some text introducing the content, and then several embedded videos with brief descriptions. Organizing a module in this manner gives the content a clear progression and uses the medium of a webpage for online instruction to its fullest effect.
  • Create bite-size videos. Professor Lowe-Power’s course website has several 7-20 minute lecture videos embedded into a page for each section of the course. Playlists of shorter videos are more approachable than a single long lecture video, for they keep the information neatly organized, and allow students to take screen breaks without losing their place. 
  • Create focused navigation bars. Lowe-Power’s course site utilizes a navigation bar at the top of the site that links to lecture materials, a due date calendar, the syllabus, and assignment resources. Prioritizing only the most important links on this panel significantly improves clarity and cuts down on time searching for the correct link. I recommend that in Canvas instructors should limit their navigation bars to only the frequently used pages. 
  • Contribute to open educational resources. A bonus effect of course websites is that they make information open to the public instead locking it behind a paywall. Professor Lowe-Power, a proponent of open education, states “if I cared about my intellectual property staying mine and not getting out, then I wouldn’t be able to do what I do.” Canvas has a setting that allows instructors to make their courses publicly visible while keeping student data private. 

Although these improvements can all be made in Canvas, Lowe-Power claims that for an instructor with some computing experience, a course website is “just as easy to develop as putting everything in Canvas.” He notes that instructors only need experience with “Git, Github, and Markdown” to create a similar website. Lowe-Power created his site with a static site generator called Jekyll, which hosts websites directly from a Github repository. 

As students spend more time online for their education, they appreciate interfaces that are organized, intuitive, and easy to use. Instructors might consider some of these techniques as they prepare for future online courses. 

Post Author: Alexandria Rockey

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