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Estelle and Melvin Gelman LibraryEckles Library at the Mount Vernon CampusVirginia Science and Technology Campus Library

Online Course Layout: Navigation, Structure, Look and Feel

Whether you use Blackboard or another online platform, there are certain basic functions and design elements that should appear in all courses. These are listed below. You can get an overview of these from the Quality Matters rubric described in the section Evaluating Your Course Design.

Ten Design Tips

  • Consider how students will get ready for your course. For instance, in many programs it is customary to email students an introduction and key information before the official course start.
  • Create a clear starting point for your course. You might, for instance, create a heading at the top of your course menu and put key course start-up information in that section. This can include a welcome message, technology requirements for the course along with key dates, instructions on reviewing the syllabus, and books to order.
  • Create an "introduce yourself" discussion board, blog or wiki due in the first few days of the course. This lets you see who has made it to your course. It also begins a process of student communication that can continue throughout the course.
  • Organize the course menu with meaningful names and clear, logical order for all menu items.  In an online course, the menu is very often designed by week. So all materials for Week 1 go there, Week 2, Week 3, etc. You delete or change any of the default menu items in Blackboard and give them more descriptive and meaningful names by which to students. Create Dividers or Sub headers to segment the menu, if appropriate.
  • Have all links open in a new page. Whether it's a link to the web or a document, choose the option to have that item open in a new window. This will help keep the user present in the existing Blackboard while still accessing the new resource. This is real help when students are trying to refer to multiple resources and access assignments and activities because they can juggle and re-arrange windows on the desk top as they see fit.
  • Name course parts and sections consistently throughout the course.
  • Provide a visual calendar of course work and assignments.
  • Provide clear information on how students can find help. Depending on your topic, you might create a designated discussion board or wiki you check daily for student questions. This can eliminate emails and start students giving and receiving answers in a central point.
  • Tie assignments, activities and discussions together with clear instructions. When materials are posted as files without much explanation, students can find it hard to follow what they are being asked to do. For example, when setting up the description of an Assignment, it can be helpful to reiterate guidelines and due dates, even if this information is provided in the syllabus.
  • Establish a clean visual style for your course pages. Modern web design keeps the “text” version of menu items, rather than using the “buttons” style. Use a consistent color scheme, avoiding red/green/purple combinations that are hard for color blind individuals to navigate. Use type fonts like Arial and Verdana which are sans serif and thus more readable online. Reserve serif fonts, such as Times New Roman, for printed pages.

Overview of Notable Functions in Blackboard

Below are the top 15 functions in Blackboard every online instructor should know about. There are many more tools to learn as you become more experienced but you will want to be sure to know about these. For help, contact the Instructional Technology Lab.

  • Add a Guest Lecturer. This option creates an electronic "pass" for guests you would like to invite into your course. It is access through the Tools > More Tools option in.
  • Add a TA. TAs have access to your course with access to the Grade Center and the ability to edit all course content. You add TAs through the Tools > More Tools option. Because of the Grade Center access, students registered for the course should never be granted TA status because of student privacy protections.
  • Assignments. Students can upload files directly to their course. Instructors can then download the student files from the Grade Center, provide feedback and grades, and return the student work back into the Grade Center.
  • Communication Tools
    • Announcements. Students see these upon entering the course, and they can be emailed to students’ GW email accounts.
    • Blogs. Students and instructors can share thoughts about topics, either in a class-wide blog setting or an individual journal setting, in which only instructors view student journal entries.
    • Collaborate. Instructors can schedule a real time (synchronous), fully online “class session,” with voice, text, polling, and some video capabilities. Sessions can be recorded and accessed at a later time. This tool allows instructors to upload and show PowerPoint presentations, take students on a Web Tour, poll the class, and much more.
    • Discussion Board. Students and instructors can discuss topics in an asynchronous, threaded fashion.
    • Email. Many options are provided for emailing all students, TAs, and selected individuals from the course and the Grade Center.
    • Wikis. Students and instructors can contribute information in a one- or multiple-page format. They can use the wiki to create, for example, a peer-developed and reviewed course resource.
  • Groups. Instructors can group students randomly, manually, or by online sign-up sheet. This tool can be useful for setting up project or case study groups. Groups have their own Discussion Boards, File Exchange, and other tools.
  • Grade Center. Students will expect to be able to mark their progress online through this central location for recording course grades. Some items are graded manually, others, such as discreet-point answer questions on tests, can be calculated automatically. For further assistance using the Grade Center, please contact the Instructional Technology Lab at 202-994-0485.
  • Open in New Window. Every time you upload a file or image or you link to a website, Blackboard provides an option to open in a new window. Selecting this option is great for learning because students can stay located within the online course while using outside material. Students also arrange, and rearrange, multiple materials to suit their needs. The one exception to this is when you want images to appear on an item's page for display purposes.
  • WYSIWYG editor. Short for What You See is What You Get (WYSIWYG), the editor is the familiar-looking box that appears every time you choose to edit a page. Use the attach file and linking options in the editor to put files and links right into a page of text just as we have in this website. If you use the upload file function, your files appear as a list at the top of each item you create. There is no descriptive text for students to follow, just a list of links, so you lose explanations and context. If you're scratching your head reading this, contact the Instructional Technology Lab and they can explain.