The Curator: 3 Design Aspects in an E-Learning Experience

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Careful planning goes into the design of an e-learning course. Are you delivering a learning experience that is useful, usable, and desirable?

The Curator - 3 Design Aspects in an E-Learning Experience
Credit: fatir29 / Shutterstock © 2018

A Walk in the Park

Can you recall your first experience at a theme park? That moment you walked past the ticket booth, through the turnstile, wondering what to explore first? There were likely several sights, sounds, and smells pleading for your attention. And if an existential crisis ever were to engulf you it would be curbed by a large theme park map with a soothing insight: You Are Here.

Similarly, an e-learning course hosts an experience. The learning experience that you offer your students may still be unknown, unintentional, or misunderstood; nevertheless, you are offering an experience. An e-learning course with 77 content tabs, for example, may evoke a feeling among your students of being overwhelmed, just as presenting the plagiarism policy as the homepage of your course (you know who you are) may elicit a rigid first impression. This is where we can learn from the curators of the theme park experience—by meticulously curating a course to include enough "thrill" for our accelerated student and enough "support" for our remedial student, while still leaving enough room for every student's self-expression.

The Language of Design

Designing a learning experience for an online environment such as a learning management system (LMS) requires an alternative way of thinking compared to designing a face-to-face course. "Paper in hand" does not translate to "paper in online folder." Even with new technological advances, online environments do not offer the same sensory encounter as that of a contact session where the student can see the lecturer's hand gestures or hear a page turn in a classmate's textbook. This does not mean that an e-learning experience cannot afford a sensory experience—only that nonlinear environments require nonlinear thinking.

Designers are used to thinking in opposites: large and small, conceptual and pragmatic, human and technical. This is not a jack-of-all-trades. Instead, it is a shaper of behavior.

Jon Kolko

When developing a new product, Jon Kolko, a multifaceted designer, uses empathy design to conceive the intended user experience. He refers to three aspects to gauge the outcome of the product: Is it useful? Is it usable? and Is it desirable? In the realm of teaching and learning, where the course is the product and the students are the users, how can this design approach help faculty create a dialogue between the student and the course, offering a learning experience with impact? These three design considerations may serve as an opportunity to reflect on the learning experience we offer our students.


Is the student really at the center of our student-centered approach? If yes, then why are some students still disengaged or unsuccessful in our e-learning environments? Are we really listening to the students' needs, abilities, and desires?

Consider the following:

  • Anyone who has children has likely encountered a lot of "why" questions. Why this, why that, and why now? Likewise, in our e-learning courses, students (myself included) dwell on the "why." Do you include the value of your learning activities, the rationale behind choosing a textbook, or even your value as their lecturer? This is not about explaining yourself but about providing students with context to commit to what you're asking of them.
  • Students admire course designs that intentionally contribute to their world of work. As an instructional designer, I often encourage faculty to be pragmatic about this—not only saying that this course will open up more career opportunities for students but actually integrating the world of work into the course. Have you considered showing students how to reference your course for their résumé? Or aligning an activity with current (creditable) content you find on social media? Or embedding hyperlinks that showcase possible future careers?


A course is usable if it is user friendly, easy to navigate, and functional. Wielding the LMS course as if it is a storeroom for previously paper-based materials does not score high on the usability factor, even if all the materials promise usefulness.

Consider the following:

  • Strive for minimalism and a streamlined, "less is more" approach. How many mouse clicks does it take your students to arrive at a specific resource?
  • Do your students spend their time and energy on content mastery, or does your course structure get in the way? The web design book Don't Make Me Think encourages a restrained design that helps users focus on the content and end goal. Similar to websites, the structure of an e-learning course should not distract or confuse but rather enhance student learning.
  • Do you have your own "theme park map"? When I interact with faculty as an instructional designer, I refer to it as the learning path. The learning path provides students with an overview of their journey from the start of the course to course completion, enabling them to pinpoint their progress throughout.
  • Is everything working? There is almost nothing more frustrating than a learning activity not working as it should. Testing every element of your course is imperative before roll-out. The MIT Media Lab coined the phrase "Deploy or Die" for a good reason. However, the idiom has received much critique due to the word "die," so maybe this version is better: Test for Best.


Out of these three design aspects, desirability may be the most difficult to achieve. Designing a course that motivates students to participate and materials that students enjoy interacting with requires an understanding of what is desirable to the student.

Consider the following:

  • The course "climate" refers to the mood your course exudes. Is your course climate welcoming, confident, and inviting? Or is it cold, unplanned, and unpleasant? It may sound pedantic, but styling such as the color, font, and size of every element plays a role in creating a particular mood.
  • Do you humanize your course materials? In an e-learning course, the student is working on a device or computer, but this does not mean that the experience should feel robotic or the correspondence machine-like. Do your students feel as if they are interacting with another human being?
  • Again, imagine yourself at a theme park. You can choose to go left toward the Ferris wheel, right toward the water rides, or straight ahead to the fiercest roller coaster. To the theme park curator, it doesn't matter which path you decide on, because the curator knows it's not about the activity but the experience. Are you offering students various options to express themselves? Do you have different paths that lead to the same end objective? This can also be achieved with adaptive learning tools available in some learning management systems.
  • Pop culture can be leveraged in your design. Several successful design concepts have been used in the University of the Free State's e-learning courses—a few favorites include an emoticons theme for a communications course, "Grammar Goose" as a mascot for a language course, and an Eiffel Tower virtual experience in a French language course. In an Ancient Greece history course, when students meet a set of criteria, they can access digital ancient relics, such as Achilles' helmet or Poseidon's trident, to add to their online inventory. What gamification elements could you add to your course? What story does your course tell? Keep in mind that a design concept should be timeless, relevant, and one that you know thoroughly well. (Note to self: do not spend days designing Star Wars themed e-learning environments for non–Star Wars fans!)

We Know We Can Do Better: Tell Us How

E-learning courses need not only be a doorway to downloads but could be leveraged to guide students in an experience that is relevant (useful), easy to navigate (usable), and alluring (desirable). How have you achieved this in your e-learning courses? Let us know in the Comment section below.

Linley Fourie is a Senior Instructional Designer at the University of the Free State in South Africa.

© 2018 Linley Fourie. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY 4.0 International License.