Torria-DavisThis is a guest post from Torria Davis, Ph.D. an award-winning course designer, who mentors university professors creating engaging online courses for the Online and Professional Studies Division of California Baptist University, in Riverside, CA. She is also a Blackboard MVP.

The strategies for effective online course design have changed a lot over the years. This year I celebrate five years as an instructional designer and over the years I have been involved in more than 225 course evaluation and redesign projects. With the development of new skills such as basic HTML, CSS, a variety of web tools, and authoring software such as Camtasia, Captivate, and Articulate Storyline, it’s been an amazing professional growth journey.

Bb Module Table of Contents

Figure 1 – An example of a “hot mess” in the Blackboard Module Table of Contents

As I reflect on my first year as in instructional designer, I remember one of my earliest course redesign projects, which was to convert our face-to-face online teaching and learning training to a blended format. Desperately wanting faculty in the blended format to have access to the same activities and supplemental resources as the participants of the face-to-face format, I designed several learning modules that looked like Figure 1, what I affectionately refer to as a “hot mess.” Why a hot mess? Many technologies were introduced at one time, excessive amounts of nice-to-know content flooded the course, several related content items were created as individual resources, and supplemental resources mixed in with required resources (Davis, 2015). As a result, folders nested in folders, each containing an abundance of content, were difficult to navigate. Finding any one specific content item was more like a scavenger hunt, taking your attention away from learning. Overall, faculty were frustrated and overwhelmed. And just imagine having several learning modules with similar complexity. Yikes!

An important lesson learned from this experience was the recognition that online courses didn’t need to overflow with content to be rigorous and effective. Today, each of eight learning modules within an eight week course averages five content items. You, too, can avoid a M.E.S.S.I. course design by adhering to the following course design suggestions:

#1: Minimize new technologies introduced to students

New tools can be a great way to introduce different ways of interacting with content, but it can be a challenge for students to learn how to use them. Remember, every new technology introduced requires content items that explain its use. Evaluate whether this is necessary, as it may interfere with your learning objectives.

#2: Eliminate nice-to-know (but not need-to-know) content

Students, especially adult learners balancing work and family priorities, do not have unlimited amounts of time for reviewing instructional resources. To help students focus on learning objectives, separate or label optional content. Adding hyperlinked text to short phrases within instructional text can help minimize the number of content items.

#3: Streamline related content

For example, if you are building an assignment, that contains a video explanation, a couple of journal articles to analyze, an assignment exemplar that conveys evaluation criteria, and a “how-to” screen shot image, considering combining all these resources into one content item, instead of four separate content items.

#4: Separate important but unrelated content items

Everyone will agree the course syllabus is an important item to include. However, it doesn’t have to be placed within the unit of instruction. Similarly, important items like a course orientation, syllabus review video, and technology help files should not be placed in learning modules with instructional resources. Instead, consider placing these items in a week zero folder, or on a welcome page accessible from the course menu.

#5: Integrate web tools into online course design

Some web tools allow you to combine different types of resources and media, such as the LiveBinder, an electronic notebook, shown in Figure 2 below. Five content items are included in the notebook and only one content item is created in the LMS. Embedding a web tool that contains several items eliminates the need to create separate content items in the LMS. Web tools such as VoiceThread, LiveBinder, Glogster, and Zaption are easy to use and allow you to combine a variety of multimedia into one single content item.

It’s my hope that these suggestions will help you avoid the M.E.S.S.I. course design I experienced my first year of instructional design. For more ideas on visually designing the content pages of your course visit the companion site of my new book, Visual Design for Online Learning and subscribe to my blog to receive a copy of “Web Tools for Course Design” at


Davis, T. (2015). Visual Design for Online Learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass


Figure 2 – an example of Livebinder, a web tool.

Case study: online learning course quality and compliance with accessibility standards

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