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Author Phil HillBlog

Student Panels: Non-traditional students and consistency in course navigation

By 2019-06-025 Comments

Two weeks ago I had the chance to deliver the keynote at an Athabasca University’s Community-Wide Conversation on Future Virtual Learning Environment. Athabasca is a Canadian university in Alberta with a long history of providing distance education to nontraditional student populations. “Virtual learning environment” in this case refers to an ecosystem of learning applications, and not a sole focus on the LMS.

After my keynote I had the chance to watch a student panel moderated by Provost and VP Academic Matt Prineas. When the students were asked about their biggest frustrations, or opportunities for improvement, 1One was a student council president who said his few is quite consistent with other students the panel reached a quick consensus that I shared online.

What they described was that as adults with jobs, families, and lives outside of school, it is frustrating for them to face barriers, or friction, that get in the way of their coursework. Several of my professors put their assignments under this left column menu, but for another course I have to remember that the assignments are named differently and located under the top row pull-down menu taking multiple clicks to access. Why do I have to remember different paths to find the basics that I need to complete this course? (paraphrasing here).

This is a common theme I have heard in several student panels at conferences as well as in many student interviews I’ve conducted for e-Literate TV or for consulting work. I also think it is an under explored issue given the importance of institutions moving beyond residential on-campus programs for 18 – 24 year olds. 2Yes, I know that the ‘traditional / nontraditional’ language is flawed. And this feedback also applies to hybrid courses as well as fully-online ones. Providing access to educational programs to working adults, students with families, first-generation students, and others means more than just enrollment and course registration. We need to understand the context of how students are working to get their degrees or certificates, and we should minimize barriers for them.

None of this is to argue for a rote, surface-level interpretation of student comments on a panel. We need further study and understanding of how widespread is this desire for navigational consistency, how best to improve our learning environments, and even how to meet needs without falling prey to consumer-driven reactions that are not beneficial to students. There is complexity here to understand.

Tanya Joosten, Co-Director and Principal Investigator at National Research Center for Distance Education and Technological Advancements (DETA), chimed in that she has also seen this feedback and is working on further research on the subject.

I am looking forward to reading the DETA research when it is available.

Mike Caulfield asked a relevant question about the deeper meaning of student feedback on this subject.

This is a good point that deserves further analysis. There is also a risk, however, of using this concern as an excuse to not fully listening to students, and I do not think that consistent navigation must imply cookie cutter course designs. While consistent course designs can be influenced by learning platform usage, the bigger issue there is departmental and institutional policy along with professional development for faculty.

I do not hear students asking for cookie-cutter courses, and I have had several interviews with students who also appreciate different course design and learning experiences. But there are a set of basics – syllabus, grade books, assignments, calendar, etc – that if the course uses them, then they shouldn’t be hard to find. And hard to find has implications across a program, not just a course.

There is an added benefit to consistent navigation in addressing accessibility concerns and moving towards Universal Design. The University of Arkansas at Little Rock summarized in a valuable post “Ten Steps Toward Universal Design of Online Courses”, with the second item as “Provide simple, consistent navigation.”

The broader message goes beyond course navigation in an LMS, of course, and it gets into the need to better understand the learning experiences of nontraditional students and the need to listen to students more often. Kudos to Athabasca University for a valuable event and specifically for the student panel.

While I will not be able to attend, I am looking forward to hearing from the student panel at the upcoming Online Teaching Conference to be moderated by Pat James and Kevin Kelly. Consider this post as my attempt to influence the questions.


  • Barry Dahl says:

    It’s funny how these conversations continue to arise, just with different voices voicing the same concerns. Circa 2001-ish, we started having these conversations at my former college and throughout the state system. Every few years we’d have another round of conversations about online courses being the same without them being the same-shaped cookies – with consistent navigation being the driving “thing” that was desired.
    Here’s just one example lamenting “poor navigation” from an LTAC Summit in 2007, panelist from Ryerson U, from my old Desire2Blog:

    “we have been hampered by the cottage model of online course development, where the faculty member is responsible for the development of the electronic course content, which leads to an inconsistent student experience, high support costs, limited volume, limited rich media, poor navigation, and no brand. But you also get happy faculty, no management grief from faculty, and less change and fast startup.”

    Some things never change, or at least take more than 20 years to change.

  • Ritchie Boyd says:

    After 30 years in the biz, I had to chuckle at this post, and Barry’s comment.
    So I propose a thought experiment.
    Imagine 30 years ago. A student (forget about traditional vs nontrad, that’s a distraction) walks into a classroom and the chairs are all facing the front in nice tidy rows. No problem, they sit down and prepare to absorb. But if a student walks into a room where the chairs are in a circle facing outward, then whoa, they’re going to need some explaining, scaffolding, and prompting.

    Same with online, IMHO- if you can’t be bothered or don’t have the bandwidth to create an engaging and interesting (and accessible) online space, then by all means you should be encouraged (without shame) to adopt a cookie cutter layout with all the usual accessibility, UX guides, and signposts etc..

    We shouldn’t force anyone to be edgy, but we should indeed have high expectations of those who are. Most of the time, they’re fine with that.
    Thanks Phil.

  • Phil Hill says:

    Barry – thanks for reminding about the persistent nature of this quandry (hopefully it is more slow-moving than timeless) and for reminder of Desire2Blog. Miss that one.

    Richie – great point on physical classroom analogy. One student in the panel used the example of a campus where some buildings have signs on the wall, some have no signs, others put signs on pathway (or even the more extreme example of no maps or signs on buildings). Both good ways to think of it. Don’t make it hard to find basics and get into the actual learning experience.

  • Phil,

    Thanks for joining us in Edmonton last May–your address & conversations continue to resonate in our community!

    I’m interested by your comment that concerns over the dreaded “cookie cutter design” should not be an excuse to not fully listen to concern of our students. As some of the commentators point out, this is an old & somewhat circular debate that doesn’t benefit learners. The frustration you heard on stage is real.

    Additionally, I think our commitment to consistent navigation is just a first step; it’s about meeting basic quality standards and at least not getting in the way of learners with unnecessary “cognitive load” & distraction. Beyond simply eliminating structural barriers, how do we build a culture, policies, and platforms that can help us identify and scale enhancements in learning pathways?

    Whatever the answer, I’d suggest, it has to include listening to our learners and genuinely engaging with their experience. Thanks for helping us do so!

  • Phil Hill says:

    Matt, thanks for the note and opportunity to speak at your event.