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The Study Hall

Online Course Design - Keep It Super Simple

"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler." -- Albert Einstein

If you’ve ever watched a Scooby Doo cartoon, you’ll know that the gang often attempts to catch the bad guy with an overly complicated Rube Goldberg machine that usually ends up trapping poor Scooby instead. Ruh roh! Traditional LMS are similar: they’ve transformed a good idea into an often silly and painfully slow combination of steps, levers, and pulleys that end up hindering both teachers and learners.

He should have just stuck to Scooby Snacks.
He should have just stuck to Scooby Snacks.

A simple approach is always going to win. This is true for the LMS as well as for course designs. Canvas gives you the power to quickly embed multimedia and hypertext anywhere in your course. But with great power comes great responsibility. We want learners to focus on the learning activity, and not be weighed down by extraneous cognitive load1 that may arise from complicated or confusing design choices. Here are some tips that will help teachers and course designers keep instruction super simple:

1. Less is more. In general:

    • Tear down the wallpaper. Avoid media as decoration; instead, grab students’ attention with relevant stories and anecdotes.

Shaggy in a hall of mirrors with a robot.
Shaggy in a hall of mirrors with a robot.

2. Use hyperlinks (wisely). Canvas makes it easy to contextualize new material with one-click hyperlinks in our rich text editor. Referring back to previous learning and pointing forward to upcoming activities can reinforce course goals. But remember that too many hyperlinks may adversely affect cognitive load5, so be selective.

3. Clear, concise directions. Students need explicit directions (except when they don’t). But if we want students to read those directions, paying attention to the critical bits, we need to write as concisely as possible. Rubrics and Outcomes will help ensure that your assessment criteria are neatly expressed with clear ties to course goals.

4. Stay on target. Being able to clearly articulate how every learning activity maps to a specific outcome is one way of keeping the weeds out of the garden. If you can’t identify how a reading, activity, or assessment supports a course outcome, chances are you don’t need it.

Worst homepage ever.
Worst homepage ever.

5. Free up the homepage. Because many students will see it every time they access the course, keep your home page free of static, one-time-use information better suited for Announcements. And while every course needs a home page, don’t forget that students may prefer to use links in the Canvas Activity Stream, their To Do list, or Notifications to instantly access course resources. With this in mind it’s possible to design a Canvas course that doesn’t rely on a home page at all, but rather engages learners continually and opportunely.

So, while Canvas’s simple interface and rich feature set makes it easier to do more with your courses, remember Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s words, “Perfection is reached not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”


Keep learning,
Jared Stein

EduTech Wiki, "Cognitive Load"

Steve Krug, "Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability"

Ruth Colvin Clark, Frank Nguyen, John Sweller, "Efficiency in learning: evidence-based guidelines to manage cognitive load"

Richard E. Mayer, Roxana Moreno, "Nine Ways to Reduce Cognitive Overload in Multimedia Learning"

A. Shapiro, D. Niederhauser, "Learning from hypertext: Research issues and findings"