7.1 Designing VLE

Ghislain Maurice N. Isabwe

Designing and developing learning environment taking into consideration:

  • Knowledge about rapidly changing academic, professional, family, leisure/play contexts and practices
  • Knowledge of needs, abilities and preferences of diverse groups of learners
  • Knowledge of curricula
  • Reducing the gap between academic and real life context

If you had limited resources, would you focus on improving the usability of existing features or invest more efforts into increasing the features, some kind of a product that you could show at the end of the research/ development project?

Design principles

Good design principles derive from elements of psychology and human cognition. That includes for example the need to minimize memory load, to sustain attention and focus, to minimize mental efforts in information processing, to produce artifacts that are easier to recognize rather than to have to recall them.

Benyon (2014) suggested a set of design principles that can help in designing interactive systems for human use. Even though these principles are drawn from a purely technology design perspective, they should be considered at all levels of designing a digital environment to support teaching and learning.


  • Principles 1–4 are concerned with access, ease of learning and remembering (learnability):
    • Visibility
    • Consistency
    • Familiarity
    • Affordance
  • Principles 5–7 are concerned with ease of use
    • Navigation
    • Control
    • Feedback
  • Principles 8 and 9 are concerned with safety
    • Recovery
    • Constraints
  • Principles 10–12 are concerned with accommodating differences between people and respecting those differences (accommodation)
    • Flexibility
    • Style
    • Conviviality

In addition to the above standardised design principles, it´s important to remember that design is about users and not devices or technology. Therefore, it is important to understand the target users and the problems they are facing. For example, a VLE for children should be significantly different from the one intended for graduate students; particularly from a design perspective. That can consist of, for example, decisions regarding the layout, typography, graphics design, aesthetics and semantics.

VLE design considerations

A VLE can be designed with consideration to different key aspects. In most of cases, VLEs are designed within a framework already provided by providers of educational solutions such as Learning Management System. It can be argued that a useful LMS should support a minimum of functionalities to support:

  • Learning activities and Learning resources
  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Assessment
  • Multiple-devices (Personal Computers, Tablets and Smartphones)

Besides considerations for the minimum functionality, the design should also take care of the key elements that a potential user would be concerned with. For instance, the navigational structure, learning tasks and assignments structure, learning content quality and quantity, content format (media types). Although there is no black and white approach to this, the design decisions will most likely depend on the type of the course, for example full online, blended learning course or a supplement to face-to-face course.

The designer should be aware of what level of involvement a tutor/mentor will have to support students in the course. The critical thing is pre-determination of the roles and the conversations that will take place between the learners and tutors/mentors.  That has strong implications on the type, framing of the content, layout of the content and the interaction of the content i.e. between the main content and supplementary content. How the readings interface with the rest of the content: do you use video to explain things, do you use more diagrammatic sort of explanations and mapping type of things to show data rather than having a lot of text to explain concepts?

Most learners would prefer relatively simplified notes, course notes, a very clear layout about how they fall into the programme, how they follow the curriculum, the timetable or semester plan and the assignments. There should also be and a lot of space left for readings and other materials as support materials.

There is a whole issue on this because, the first time a course is made, there can be very very detailed course notes and some more less readings. Then the designer should go through the reading and take out the most informative parts and put those into the course notes. Students tend to read course notes instead of other readings. Therefore, the course notes should contain the most important and key points in the course. However, this can make some of the students a little lazier in looking for additional reading materials.

When a tutor/mentor looks at a course, s/he should have a clear view of what a student can do within the course environment, what a student can add to the course, where is the student role in this course; and that is very critical. It is very easy to create an online module that is pretty much the same as a module in the traditional class, where a textbook is taken into the course and put it into the VLE and teach that in class.

A course in a VLE should be treated as a living product. It should be continuously redesigned over the course of years. The designer and tutor/mentor should keep looking at how s/he could adapt it, and how the role of the online piece fits with everything else s/he does to teach. There can be a need to go for more blended offerings, for example introducing workshops into the course, inserting elements of gamification and elements of the other people creating parts/pieces of the course. Tutors/mentors and designers can generate the flow of the course together in many ways. A course should be looked at in different ways, how people develop information, how they develop it further, so it is not a passive static course, that is a very alive and active course in terms of content.

In terms if delivery of the actual content to the students; in the beginning one can go with the idea of not actually teaching the content, but commenting on the content, having a discussion about the content. Get students to read the content and come to class with it, plus creating assignments, creating a whole hour long or two hours discussion on the content. Obviously the time notion will vary depending on whether the discussions are synchronous or asynchronous.

Unsupervised reading of learning resources can be efficient and effective for learners who really grasp bits of information/online information in very easy ways. But there are also learners who are audio, hard to reach, learners who want to have somebody take them through this, have them ask questions and listened to via some kind of a live interface. Questions may be asked in course cafés, Facebook pages and other discussions forum, but the best combination would be having the tutor come in and, may be, actually tutoring the first part and may be coming into discussions in the second hour or so.

One of the the critical elements is making courses interactive, in a sense that the students feel like they are building towards the final part of the course and their work is contributing to the development of that course. The role of the learner/student in the environment should be visible in terms of what they are expected to contribute.  Obviously, that depends on the course: some courses are fluid; adaptive learning, adapting to the people taking the course. Such kind of courses allow for building the course elements as the learners´ progress through the syllabus and the curriculum as a whole. For example, if the outcome of the course is creating a thesis or developing a product, It is desirable to see students contributing to the inputs for the whole class and also for themselves going forward. They are thinking towards what they are building; they are thinking towards what the usage of the material is all the way through. The opposite approach would be to say, “here is information for the first part of the course, you are going to have all of this for now, and the next part you will get something else”. Ideally, learners should be able to think about the end game, while they are taking the course, and understand the relevance of each element in within the course. The purpose of each course element is very specific to the subjective end of the course in each learner´s mind.

Specification of requirements for learners´ contribution should be dictated by the type of the course, the field of study and the learners themselves. One thing is creating a lot of things that happen within the course, unfinished artifacts and allowing learners to finish those artifacts. This can be for a team, within a course café, or individual assignments. However, It should also be possible to take those elements into the next piece (learning phase), like in gaming. Sometimes, a tutor works with learners to contribute new content within the ongoing course. Other times, a class is reusing that for the next year or semester whereby the tutor can take that work and ask learners to improve on that work. Or learners would be required to extend that work by using new types of input which allows the work to be augmented. Learners should have ownership of the course content all the way through.

Designing content and navigation

There are several media types that are found in most VLE. It is not so uncommon to find a page containing text content, graphics, photos, videos and audio clips. But, it is important to understand why such and such media should be placed on a page and how the learner should navigate between different media types as well as through several pages making a VLE.

Experienced VLE designers first look at the content specifically. And then step back pedagogically and say how they think this content will achieve optimised interests of learners, engagement and retention. There is a lot of subjectivity in this, hence there are times one should step back to let see what someone else says about their design. A designer should look at every module in the course, the way that films are produced, and look at a number of aspects depending on what the course is about. It is advisable to look at a course from the impact points. What are the 4 or 5 critical impact points within each module? What are the bits that you want to get across?

You can come back to each of those impact points and envision their roles and uses. They can all be textual, or you can break them up into multiple, smaller texts. But, the experience suggests that If you really need to pull something out, then you should probably use a different formatting, different font size or style. That is to really make learners step out a bit and understand some of the stuff under that impact point. It is a bit like a “skimming technique”. Students always say “what can I skim”? How do you skim? A tutor can explain to them that one of the things that s/he always look for is where these impact points are within the structure.

From a narrative point of view, in a movie for example, someone writing a story, the way they write those points is different; how people remember, how to make sure someone remembers the key points. For instance, in a movie, if someone is killed by a gun, there can be a scene showing the gun, and that gun comes back later so the audience can remember the related event. A tutor/mentor/designer should look at a course more from a narrative point of view rather than from a traditional academic stand.

People are getting access to more opportunities for interactive narratives, including those involving multisensory interactions with multiple media formats (video, text, animations etc.). Optimising any given impact point is critical. How to make that point in a best way that works for learners or learner groups can be different from one module to another. Any given module should be considered individually, and not as an overall course. For example, It is not possible to tell exactly how many videos as a percentage of what one should have in a course. It is better to look at the purpose of the videos, how to optimise them rather than the number. If you use many, then you reduce the impact. If you put too little, then of course it is just text and students may get lost. It is a matter of understanding the balance between different media formats. There is no rule of thumb on every module or sub-module as to the need that you have to have text, graphics, video etc. It is also a good idea to leave enough space for students to make some of the content such as videos and graphics. That can encourage them to go back to the material and understand what they could contribute to the story, helping in developing the story. Learning through making and co-creation of knowledge can be well supported by thoughtful design of VLEs.

Now that all the learning materiel is available, it is important to design the navigation of the information, navigation within the environment itself. How to optimise the navigation across different learning resources and tasks, in order to avoid getting lost in the process of learning within a VLE?

Navigation is absolutely critical because people will not get to the content if the navigation is poor. They wouldn´t bother. Online learning has changed a lot over the years, most LMS are becoming much more intuitive, and much more compatible with new media formats (in early day, the majority was intended for text-based content). The navigation has changed because now most of them have a landing page, which can have interactive elements on it, some click-throughs, which provides a good way for learners to get to elements within the course. It allows to think more into sort of gaming, attitudes towards what they are doing to get into the course. What is critical within the course is the possibility to break down the content into:

  • summary content,
  • key content,
  • detailed content,
  • additional readings/resources

There should be clear indications of where to find critical information, but in general terms, what learners need to have is a very simple navigation through the things the teachers demand of them. It is not an issue If it is something they want themselves, for example knowing their grades, they can easily find that. It is the things that tutors/mentors want that should change. Teachers want learners to find those things that are considered the most important to the course. The navigation to those must be spot on. One of the possible approaches is to use within-VLE links to various parts of the VLE and maintain a consistent navigation structure between summary content, key content, detailed content, additional reading resources and assignments.

Designing learning tasks

Learning tasks, also referred to as “student tasks” are an important, integral part of the VLE. They help to emphasise the role of the student in that environment. There are several aspects of creating students´ tasks: what are the most important elements of creating a task within a VLE? What are the general principles, even though they may differ from a course to another? How do you make it visible that learning tasks are directly linked to assessment? How can the assignments be more considered as part of learning from a learner´s perspective?

In principle all learning tasks and assignments have to contribute to the furthering of the course and the learner´s ability to traverse the course. It is not so much just about purely trying to establish whether learners have actually retained the information, it is more about how they apply the information. In higher education, most of the tasks given should be application based tasks rather than those of repeating things, finding the information within the content (text, video, graphics etc.). Generally speaking, access to information is becoming more important than retention. Application based tasks help to take learners to the next step. Today´s learners, especially the youth, are more used to moving through levels (for example in gaming, loyalty clubs etc). They need to feel the real purpose of learning and see that they are constantly making progress.

One of the most practical ways of learning content is to really understand the key concepts within the content. Rather than learning facts and definitions such as “mobile learning is ABCD”; tutors should get learners to deconstruct what “Mobile learning” is, for example using a technique called CLA “Causal Layered Analysis”. Using the CLA technique, a tutor can ask students to say what is the content, how do they describe the content, what is the context of that content, what is the paradigm that this content delivers or changes or reflects, as well as what are the signifiers and symbols that content or ideas follows or reflect. Students tasks should bring out their ability to deconstruct, reconstruct, reconceptualise the content, and make a meaning of their own out of the given content. In most of cases, students´ tasks should reflect the “thinking like a DJ concept”: it is all about deconstructing and reconstructing. The best way to learn complex/abstract concepts is to deconstruct and reconstruct them in the learner´s own way.

It should be noted that no content is similar, or weighted similarly, some are background information, others are critical to drive the course further. What the tutor/mentor have to look at is what is the application of this information. His/her task is much more about creating tasks for applying what they have learnt rather than retaining and feeding that back to him/her. To achieve this, it is advisable to create students´ tasks based at the top of the pyramid of Bloom´s taxonomy, focusing on higher order cognitive skills.

Going back to Bloom´s work, some value norms can be established for a typical graduate level course: 30 % for creativity and originality, 20 % for being future focused, 25 % for content understanding & application and 25% for reflection. Typical questions driving students´ tasks creation can include: What does that mean? What is the next level of this information? How do you take this information forward? One is knowing it and generally applying it, the other one is how do we take this information to another level? A tutor/mentor can teach the basic level that students need to know. The student´s task is to add things to it, expand it, augment it. The tutor´s expectation from students is not just to take what s/he delivered, but to build upon than depending on their interest for their own development. Leave some space for them to do that and give some rewards point for them actually doing that. It is preferable to adopt how professional organisations work with regards to competence development: did you learn it, can you apply it, can you work with it, can you augment it or not?

Designing for communication and collaboration

Supporting communication and interaction for feedback, access to content (online & offline) as well as collaboration is definitely one of the salient features of a usable VLE.

Student support in online learning (video lecture)

Next: Assessment

Home  About  1 Introduction  2 Quality education  3 E-pedagogy
4 Self-instructional   5 Collaborative    6 Make courses
7 Design VLEs   8 Assessment  9 Transition  10  ToC