A Modular Course Design Benefits Online Instructor and Students

Andrea Henne, dean of online and distributed learning in the San Diego Community College District, recommends creating online courses composed of modules—discrete, self-contained learning experiences—and uses a course development method that specifies what to include in each module.

Creating online courses based on modules can benefit the instructor and students. Modular design offers the following benefits:

  • Expedited course creation:Often, the task of creating an online course is daunting for the faculty member. Focusing on the components that go into a single module at a time simplifies the process, enabling instructors to more thoughtfully design each learning component. After an instructor has created that first module, he or she has established a framework for creating subsequent modules. “Once you’re happy with the structure and you’ve decided how students are going to interact with the material and what they’re going to turn in and how you’re going to do pre-assessment and post-assessment, the course design process is well on its way,” Henne says. In addition, by working on one module at a time, instructors can more easily see how each activity relates to the course syllabus and desired learning outcomes.
  • Simplified course updates:Modular design enables instructors to target specific parts of the course for improvement without having to overhaul the entire course. With a modular course, for example, textbook changes might mean simply changing the page numbers of assigned readings or reordering the modules to match the new sequence of the textbook chapters. In addition, modules are portable. They can be easily removed for use in other courses or course management systems, Henne says.
  • Consistency for users:By incorporating the same types of components in each course module, students quickly pick up on the course’s rhythms and patterns and have a better idea of what to expect than if the course were designed using a varying structure. “Often online students get a little bit lost, and they don’t understand what they’re expected to do. But if the course follows a format that’s recognizable and comfortable, then the second week and subsequent weeks are consistent,” Henne says.

Henne uses a template or “modular matrix” that outlines the components for each learning module. The template is not a cookie-cutter approach to online course design but rather a set of recommendations that instructors might find useful.

The following are the components Henne recommends for each module:

  • Pre-assessment: Each module should include an activity that determines students’ initial knowledge of a topic before taking part in the learning activities within the module. The results of this activity can be compared to assessment results at the end of the module to measure achievement of learning outcomes.
  • Learning objectives: These are specific statements, including the actions, performance criteria, and conditions of what students will be able to do upon completing the module.
  • Assigned reading: Specify chapters, pages, documents, slides, lecture notes and provide guided reading suggestions or points for students to look out for in the reading.
  • Assigned writing: Writing assignments can range from posts to the discussion board to formal papers. Each assignment should have a clear explanation of expectations and evaluation criteria.
  • Exercises/activities: Each module should have an interactive activity for the entire class or for groups, which encourages critical thinking and practical application of the material covered in the learning module.
  • For further study: Take advantage of the rich resources on the Internet and provided by publisher websites to enhance learning and stimulate students’ curiosity to dig deeper into the subject matter.
  • Post-assessment: The end-of-module assessment should be in the same format (e.g., essay or quiz questions) as the pre-assessment to measure student progress.

Excerpted from A Guide to Creating Modular Courses, February 2007, Online Classroom.