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Course Design for the WWW - Keeping Online Students Onside

Allison Brown,

Teaching and Learning Centre


Herb Thompson

School of Economics

Murdoch University



How do online courses differ from traditional university courses? What are the new learning demands made on students in online courses? Which particular design features optimise the teaching and learning process in an online delivery mode?

In this paper we explore these questions based on a case study in the design and development of an online economics course at Murdoch University.

This course uses hypertext to develop an interconnected and interdisciplinary knowledge base. Relevant connections are made not only within the course itself via WWW sites but also to other courses in the discipline and to other disciplines. The instructional design challenge was to help students navigate through such a rich information environment and to help them to intellectually engage with and develop a critical perspective on the information available to them. The need for online student learning resources and supports became evident during the development process. Electronic links between tutors and students, and a class exchange/discussion list facility were also seen as crucial to building an interactive community of learners in this course.

This paper outlines the pedagogical underpinnings of this approach and considers the implications for instructional design, student learning support and evaluation.


As a result of collaboration between innovative economics teachers and the instructional designer at Murdoch University the first online economics course Economic Thought and Controversy has been published on the WWW. Four other online economics courses are currently under development and there is a 3-4 year plan to put the entire degree programme online.

The aim of the project was to explore ways in which developments in the communications technologies could be used to support more learner-centred approaches to teaching and learning in economics. Traditionally teaching in economics has tended to follow the information transmission model: the lecturer selects a body of knowledge, organises it into a single course package and transmits this to students in a largely one way flow of communication from lecturer to student. The student in this model is regarded as the passive recipient of this information. This information transmission model was prevalent in both internal and external modes of delivery and in many other disciplines as well as from economics.

Early developments in online course formats were often little more than an electronic repackaging of this information transmission methodology characterised by long scrolling screeds of text; a continuation of the one-way flow of information from lecturer to students; little navigational structure; and rudimentary levels of interaction ("click to continue"). The WWW is often used as just another information source, albeit an extremely rich one. The underlying premises in this kind of design are that information equates to knowledge and that providing information equates to teaching.

Our design is based on a different view of the relationship between information and knowledge. We agree with Megarry [1989:50] that:

"Knowledge is not merely a collection of facts. Although we may be able to memorise isolated undigested facts for a short while at least, meaningful learning demands that we internalise the information: we break it down, digest it and locate it in our pre-existing, highly complex web of interconnected knowledge and ideas, building fresh links and restructuring old ones."

This view is supported by Laurillard [1993] and Jonassen et al [1993] who argue that knowledge is constructed through the active participation of the learner in trying to arrive at and articulate their own personal understandings of new ideas and concepts. Simply providing information, or even access to it is not enough. Learners need opportunities to reflect on the new material, discuss their tentative understandings with others, actively search for more information to throw light on areas of interest or difficulty and build conceptual connections to their own existing knowledge base. We were looking in our design for ways in which the WWW could be used to encourage learners to become more active in their learning and to interact and collaborate with others in the learning process.

The most obvious advantage of the WWW is that it allows the publication of a rich array of learning resources. The Murdoch online course Economic Thought and Controversy deliberately seeks to give learners more self directed access to this rich information base. It is designed around a series of topics, readings and activities exploring different schools of economic thought. The important difference is that each topic is presented in a hypertext format thus allowing a degree of learner control as to what information will be accessed and in what order. Relevant links to outside sources are built into the text itself, thus the lecturer's voice is one of many possible voices in the exploration of a topic. Links are made at the point where relevant information interconnects with other information, rather than the traditional add on 'for further information' section at the end of a topic or lecture or set of notes.

The advantage of using a hypertext approach to presenting information is that the learners can choose for themselves which pathway they want to explore. Megarry [1989:50] argues that giving the learner more autonomy in choosing how to interact with the information base makes for more effective learning. This self directed access is an important facet of learner-centred course design and the WWW facilitates immediate access at the point of need. It also enables students to self pace, either exploring issues about a topic of interest more deeply, or spending less time on concepts that are already understood. Students in this environment are no longer "passive learners attempting to mimic what they see and hear from the expert teacher" [Collins & Berge, 1995, p6], but more active participants in the creation of knowledge and meaning.

Economic Thought and Controversy has taken the hypertext approach a step further. Not only are students able to explore the linkages between theory, applications, models and paradigms within the confines of the course itself, they are also encouraged to explore the interconnections to other courses in the discipline through further hyperlinks. The second stage of our project consists of publishing more online courses of economics that are hyperlinked to each other. Thus the traditional boundaries between single boxed courses in economics are being overcome through the use of hypertext. It is now possible for a whole body of economic knowledge to be presented in an interconnected framework. If knowledge building depends upon learners making connections with and between new and old concepts then hypertext is highly suited for facilitating this process.

A further layer of hypertext which has been built into this course, highlighting cross links to other disciplines. This layer enables students to see economics in broader social contexts. Links to courses in sociology, politics, history, and environmental science for example, draw connections between historical influences and economic theory building or the environmental and social impact of economics in practice.


It is this feature of the design that makes this course unique. The use of hypertext in this way has allowed the development of an interconnected, interdisciplinary knowledge base. It has also encouraged more collaborative curriculum planning across the economics department and a move away from stand alone economics course packages.

Interactive Collaboration

Having access to a rich information source and the freedom for learners to determine their own pathways through it is only one half of the equation. Students also need to be able to collaborate in the learning process and this is the second half of the equation that is most commonly missing in many current online courses. Harasim [1990:43] describes peer interaction amongst students as a critical variable in learning. In order to 'come to know', learners need to construct their knowledge by acting upon it, reformulating it, making their own personal interpretation of it, sharing it with others and building upon these ideas and concepts through the reactions and responses of their peers.

Online education offers a potentially rich social learning environment which supports and facilitates such active learning collaboration and research into online education [Harasim, 1990, 1995] underlines the importance of computer mediated communications to effective teaching and learning in the online environment.

Discussion List

Collaborative learning is supported in this course by the inclusion of the "Discussion List" facility. The discussion list is fully automated for ease of use and all members of the online class receive all the messages posted there. The discussion list categorises and files the postings by topic and recently developed discussion list software enables a record of threaded messages to be kept. This allows for new comments to be categorised and grouped accordingly for later reference. As the discussion list provides a written transcript of the online discussion, it builds into a further rich resource: a collaboratively built knowledge base about the topics being discussed. Webb [1989], in a message map analysis of interaction patterns in discussion lists, found that students do respond to the messages of others, adding on and building to the ideas proposed.

Online discussion has a number of advantages over oral real time discussion. The asynchronous nature of online discussion allows learners to respond at a time that best suits them. It allows students time to reflect on or further research the topic before responding. Hiltz [1986:98] found that 'time for reflection' was an important factor in learning effectiveness. It also allows students to seek clarification or help from others immediately the need arises or to learn from whatever discussion is taking place even though they may not themselves have initiated it.

All of these features contribute to the learner-centredness of the design of the course Economic Thought and Controversy in that they facilitate user control over a number of learning situations: the time of the interaction, the number of interactions learners choose to make and the time taken to reflect on the issue before a contribution is made.

Online discussion also provides a more egalitarian learning environment. The physical anonymity of the contributors is a great equaliser; more reclusive learners no longer need to struggle for a 'turn to speak'; they can make a contribution to the discussion whenever they like with the surety that it will be 'heard' by all class members. Hiltz [1994] found that even students for whom English is a second language find the written medium of online discussion to be less threatening in that they can take longer to formulate their positions and can edit and re-edit their responses before posting them to the list.

In evaluating online courses Harasim [1987] found learners identified the following aspects of online education as beneficial: the increased interaction in terms of both quantity and intensity: better access to group knowledge and support; a more democratic learning environment; convenience of access and increased motivation.

The text based nature of online discussion also has a significant impact on knowledge building. The connections between writing and thinking explored in the 60s by language theorists such as Vygotsky [1962] continue to have relevance in this new medium and lend insights into the way in which written online discussion can contribute to the construction of meaning. They argue that it is through the actual process of writing our thoughts and working them over that we really come to understand. The written record allows for revision and encourages self reflection and these are important learning strategies for developing an understanding of new concepts.

Instructional Design of Discussion List

In the course Economic Thought ant Controversy, a conscious part of the design was to include a discussion related to each topic of the course. Rather than just provide this discussion list facility and hope that students might use it and start talking to each other, students are asked to take part in the discussion and to refer to their readings to substantiate their contributions. HAVE YOUR SAY!

Think about the following topic, look at relevant readings, and then post your comments or responses to the discussion list

Discussion List Topic 2

With increasing specialisation also comes increasing ignorance. The replacement of 'political economy' with economics may have signalled the discipline's death knell.

The discussion topics themselves were deliberately controversial to stimulate engagement by participants and to encourage learners to question their own understanding and to seek more information or clarification.

Harasim [1990:51] argues that "online educational interactions, being revisable, archivable and retrievable, augment the user's control over the substance and process of the interactions." This learner-centredness, combined with active participation in an interactive collaborative written environment lays the groundwork for deep learning to occur, through the construction, revision and sharing of knowledge.

Active Learning

Active learning is further encouraged in this design by the inclusion of learner activities in each topic of the course:

These activities are non-assessable and are included as aids to learning. They encourage learners to act on the information in some way: putting ideas into written form; drawing ideas together and analysing them; interacting with others to further develop ideas. Students can choose how much time to give to these activities.

Lockwood's research into self directed activities [1992] found that learning effectiveness improved if such activities were included in distance education courses. The Learning Activities included in Economic Thought and Controversy were designed to help learners to develop cognitive learning strategies. Students are encouraged to keep learning journals, to develop concept maps and to access resources for help with developing learning skills.

Interface Design

The ultimate usefulness of hypertext, computer mediated communications systems and cognitive learning strategies as described in this paper depend on an appropriate interface design to enable trouble free and easy access to these features. The interface design must provide ease of navigation, a sense of human interaction, helpfulness and responsiveness to the needs of learners studying in an information rich, self directed medium. Learners need to feel confident that they know where they are at any one point in the course and that they can easily make contact with others as the need arises.

5. Start thinking about your essay. Look over the essay topics and analyse the questions. Identify the initial reading that you will need to do and put aside time to pursue this reading.

With these specifications in mind, the interface was designed in a table format with a navigation bar as a fixed constant in the left hand table, and a larger scrollable right hand table containing the hyperlinked economics topics. The navigation bar appears on every screen in the same place, no matter which hyperlinks the student chooses to follow in the right hand table. Thus the common problem of getting lost in the hypertext web is overcome with the fixed navigation bar.

The Index Button on the navigation bar allows students to navigate their way throughout the entire course. They can access an entire overview of the course and check on their progress through it with the Study Organiser Button. The study organiser helps students to develop an appropriate timetable for study and helps them to stay on track.

The Study Help Button provides immediate online assistance with essay writing, making contributions to discussion lists, referencing, preparing for examinations, technical help,


using email etc. Students can access this site at the point of need.

In addition, hyperlinks to the Study Help Button are made at appropriate parts of the course, for example, taking part in the first discussion topic, or when an essay is due.

You can find helpful information on essay writing in the Study Help button.

Should students have particular learning problems that can't be resolved through the Study Help section or on the discussion list with their classmates, they are able to contact their tutor at any time, through the Email Tutor Button. This provides a fully automated screen set up with the tutor's email address and space for the message to by typed. Any email sent to the tutor is private. The tutor email facility helps to establish a learning environment that is helpful, responsive and most importantly, human.

The inclusion of the tutor on the navigation bar helps to remind students that they have not been abandoned. The role of the teacher in an online environment is radically different to more tradition teacher-learner relationships. Once teachers have completed the syllabus and instructional design of the online course their role is then to observe, monitor, facilitate and provide information as appropriate, not to deliver a course in a fixed and rigid one-way format.

The Discussion List facility, 'Have Your Say!' is also located on the navigation bar to give prominence to its importance to learning in the course and to enable learners to access it no matter where they are in the topics. Should learners need clarification of any concept they come across in the hypertext topics they can immediately send a message to the discussion list asking for peer feedback. They can also quickly and easily share information about any new WWW sites they have discovered by clicking on the discussion list facility no matter where their hyperlinked searches take them.

Both trouble shooting and formative evaluation of the course is facilitated by the Feedback Button in the navigation bar. Through this facility students are encouraged to make comments on any aspect of the course - the usefulness of the learning activities, the appropriateness of the assessment, the usefulness of the readings, any technical problems with the site and access to it, at the immediate time the point occurs to them.

Most courses are usually evaluated once they have been completed and a lot of valuable course improvement information tends to be lost because students can't remember it well after the event or don't want to linger over an evaluation when the course is completed. The feedback goes directly to the course coordinator and provides important data on what works well in the course and what doesn't, both in terms of content and technology. It also means that problems can be rectified during the current delivery of the course rather than in subsequent courses as is the case with printed course materials.


This paper has outlined some advantages to be gained from teaching in an online format. It has discussed the advantages of the hypertextual organisation of information and the importance of encouraging students to take an active approach to their learning. It has also pointed to the benefits of collaborative learning and has detailed ways in which the new computer mediated communcations systems can support this approach. The paper agues that attention to instructional and interface design is essential so that all of these elements can be linked in a coherent, meaningful and helpful way for the students.

The online instructional design outlined in this paper provides a rich learning experience in a personalised supportive framework. At the same time it promotes self discipline and requires students to take more responsibility for their learning. It is more important than ever in this new and abundantly rich information age that we develop self motivated learners who are able to find appropriate information, make meaning of it and share their understandings with others.


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(c) Allison Brown and Herb Thompson


The author(s) assign to ASCILITE and educational and non-profit institutions a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The author(s) also grant a non-exclusive licence to ASCILITE to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and on CD-ROM and in printed form with the ASCILITE 97 conference papers, and for the documents to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the authors.


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