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

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, 1 the panel reached a quick consensus that I shared online.

Consistent message from student panels re online Ed: make it easy to navigate and find materials, and don’t make excuses. *Not* an argument for carbon copy course designs.

— Phil Hill (@PhilOnEdTech) May 21, 2019

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. 2 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.

We have some similar findings on our research…"ease of learning"

— Tanya Joosten (@tjoosten) May 21, 2019

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.

If ”cookie cutter” means not having to retrain yourself on the system, where your prof. hides files, things you have to do, etc… then a big YES. The only thing worse than a disorganized online course is trying to find something on an insurer’s website.

— Chris Edwards (@chris3edwards) May 21, 2019

This is critical. We need better #ux training for instructors to help them consider the moves their students make through course websites and materials. How might we encourage instructors to adopt "focus group" practices for their teaching materials? Paging @MGisu82 here! https://t.co/1zWxYRPPU1

— Dr. Jenae Cohn (@[email protected]) (@Jenae_Cohn) May 21, 2019

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.

1 One was a student council president who said his few is quite consistent with other students

2 Yes, I know that the ‘traditional / nontraditional’ language is flawed. And this feedback also applies to hybrid courses as well as fully-online ones.