Activities and goals

goal: image by Olle Svensson (via Flickr)

image by Olle Svensson (via Flickr)

One of the most obvious (but not always deeply considered) aspects of a VLE course is that it is a web site: a collection of interlinked, contextually unified web pages. We should, therefore, be able to learn something from the experience and research of mainstream web design into how people interact with web sites.

Probably the foremost lesson is that, by and large, people come to the web with a goal in mind (96% of the time, according to a study by Xerox, reported by Jakob Nielsen). With a VLE course, students are unlikely to drop by just to hang out (wouldn’t you worry about their social engagement with University life?); they come to carry out a task.

Almost always they’ll already know the task before they log in. It will be the one you’ve asked them to complete when you last spoke to them, or they were notified of it through the course’s News Forum, or they planned it with their peers during a previous collaborative activity. Occasionally, that task will be to find out whether there’s any work for them to complete, but they’ll have that aim in mind before logging in.

The course layout is going to help students most, therefore, if the tasks are clearly signposted, so that they spend as little time as possible figuring out where to click and as much time as possible getting on with it. So, one of the main tricks of effective course design will be successful signposting.

There are two main routes to this, which can be combined. Firstly, canny use of language in the links within the course can really help people spot the one they need (the text of a link comes from the name you give the activity it links to).  Secondly, a number of visual techniques can draw attention to particularly important/current tasks.


Since the course participants are coming to do something, a link that tells them what task it leads to will be easier to identify as the one they need. This recognition should be even surer if the link is in effect an instruction, beginning with a verb. For example, rather than a forum being called “Project discussion forum”, if it’s named “Discuss project ideas with your peers” learners should recognise more readily what they are to do via the link.

This is particularly true if you have a number of different activities in the same topic (and therefore listed near each other); a series of links all beginning with the same words (e.g. the topic title) will be harder to decipher (“do I need this one to do x, or that one?”). The aim is to be precisely descriptive without being wordy and the first couple of words have a great importance, because of the way people scan web pages (as reported by Jakob Nielsen).

There’s a limit to how much text you can (or should) use for the link. My suggestion is that you make it a kind of “headline” instruction; you’ll put detailed instructions in the description box for the activity or resource.

You can find excellent advice on writing links and for the web more generally on the blog of Matt Lingard, LSE’s “reluctant technologist”.

The Visual:

Rule-of-thumb number one is that people’s attention is attracted by difference. Things that are positioned away from everything else, or are a different colour (including weight, since bold text appears darker), or a different size attract attention to themselves (which can also work against you if unintended hotspots of focus are created). So use contrasting colours, bold text and unusual positioning sparingly and try to save it for when you have something you are sure is a task priority for all your students.

Rule-of-thumb number two is that things towards the top of a page gather more attention. This is because people scan down the page looking for a match to their goal and will try the first close fit they find, rather than read the whole page then select the best match. In other words, as Matt observes, they “satisfice“. This is one reason why the “scroll of death” concept has emerged, identifying the problem for students in finding and using current tasks that are nevertheless buried down the course page in topic 10. There are a number of tactics for overcoming this, beyond the inbuilt Moodle navigation tools or course menu block:

  1. Keep the introductory topic content to a minimum: there will be times when reading the overall course information is the goal of a student, but this is likely to peak during the start of a course and possibly immediately prior to summative assessments. You might choose to have the core course documents and information in another topic section that sits at the bottom, underneath the ongoing activities, but if you keep it at the top, I’d recommend it is quite heavily pruned following that initial stage, so that the newly current tasks can appear closer to the top of the page.
  2. If you know that your students will be tackling roughly the same set of activities at roughly the same time, you could arrange your topic sections so that the current one is always in position number 1. You will need to give clear section titles, to counteract the fact that last month’s topic 1 is not this month’s topic 1 (or lobby to have the topic numbering removed) and you will need to move the topic sections in a consistent way, so that students can find their previous activities without having to hunt for them too hard, but this may work for you.
  3. With the same caveat as tactic 2, of needing to be sure your students will be roughly at the same point in the course, you can use the section highlight (the lightbulb icon on the right of topic boxes – but not in weekly format, which has automatic highlighting of the current week). This won’t remove the need to scroll if the topic is lower down the course, but does use the difference principle of rule-of-thumb one to draw attention to the current section.
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1 comment for “Activities and goals

  1. April 8, 2011 at 9:09 am

    Good informative article on the importance of user experience on University portal sites!

    After working in e-Commerce management for a National retail company I can only reiterate what Tony is saying about the importance of keeping websites simple and focused! I see too many business websites nowadays which publish “all singing and dancing” pages, with a high degree of flash content, that do not meet users needs…as Tony states, users of the portal site come with a goal in mind!

    Keep your content and page layout simple! Position content correctly and at the top of your pages to make information easy to find.

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