Learning Design, Student Choice

Group of students at the business school, University of Sydney

How to design engaging online environments where students choose activities and their own path through learning? This is what our team set out to discover, well before COVID-19 and lockdown hit higher education.  

If you’ve used Canvas before, you’ll know that it is structured in a modular,  sequential way.  That structure is sometimes limiting. Students rarely start at the same point and progress in a linear way from learning outcomes to a teacher-defined goal. But how to break away from the ‘Previous’ and ‘Next’ buttons?

Learning Design That Bends

We wanted students to actively prepare for tutorials, rather than passively listening to lectures. In short, we wanted to bend and stretch Canvas to a learning design where students could choose their own learning sequence. 

The flexible design was a good match for The Future of Business, a first-year subject that introduces students to wicked problems, business frameworks, and tools to tackle global challenges. But we soon realised that the re-design was complex with such a large diverse cohort. So much so that the Unit Coordinator Dr Anish Purkayastha said: 

It’s like changing the wheels of a moving car.

Where Did We Start?

Careful planning was needed. We started small by rethinking one week’s lecture into a non-linear and interactive Canvas module. The co-design team worked on a paper prototype to arrange learning content and activity into smaller discrete sub-topics that could be learnt in any sequence. We reimagined content as activities with a suite of software tools to support interaction. The page design also directs student attention by maximising white space and minimising distraction (Sweller et al., 1998). This online prototype gave us insights on a smaller scale.   

The Learning Design: ‘Learn, Apply and Connect’

Students chose their own path through Canvas, depending on which topics were most relevant to their own learning. They could learn, apply or connect by skipping ahead or return to areas of interest or need. Students could also choose activities. We designed to make an impression and convey a sense of fun (Velestianos, 2016). In short, the design was intended to be flexible and engaging.  

Students could choose from many different activity types and media. For example, we designed optional self-check exercises, such as quizzes, drag and drop activities, and summaries. Short videos of academics and industry experts helped create teacher presence in the prototype (Garrison, 2007). An Instagram feed was embedded to connect more broadly to business communities. As below, complex business concepts were developed as interactive diagrams so students could explore them in detail. Try for yourself below.

Learning with others in a social community is crucial (Wenger, 2010), so there were activities for students to interact online, via social polls and online bulletin boards. Students could apply and discuss business issues and concepts in online discussions. Last, but not least, self-reflection wrapped up the week.  

And the Results?

Students navigated the prototype in unexpected ways! The user navigation data we collected from Canvas suggested that students took advantage of the many different ways to learn, apply and connect. We also checked students interaction data to understand what and how they chose to engage online and to inform future iterations, according to a Design-Based Research (DBR) methodology (McKenney & Reeves, 2018).  

Overall, flexibility and choice emerged as the key design affordances. But also the readiness of students to learn in this way is a factor. From focus groups, we learnt that students liked this type of learning but that it needs more self-direction than the usual lecture attendance. One way we are addressing this is to talk about active learning to students.  

Self-directed learning

Also, few students contributed to discussion. We think one week was too short to build a Community of Inquiry in the discussion (Garrison, 2007). Students had little experience with this type of activity and there may have been other factors influencing contribution. Certainly some students learned by ‘lurking’ in forums, by reading rather than actively contributing (Bozkurt et al., 2020). 

What Now?

The Business Co-Design team has extended the non-linear design to an exciting new Unit called Leading in a Post-Crisis World and we continue to innovate and refine what active learning means online.  

Watch this space for more research on discussion and connection online. Because now, more than ever, we think it’s critical to have engaging online interaction.  

For more information, check out the conference paper presented on this prototype at Bend me, stretch me: Connecting learning design to choice (Vallis & Shalavin, 2020). You can also view it in the ASCILITE 2020 Conference proceedings [PDF 701kb] 


Bozkurt, A., Koutropoulos, A., Singh, L., & Honeychurch, S. (2020). On lurking: Multiple perspectives on lurking within an educational community. The Internet and Higher Education, 44, 100709. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.iheduc.2019.100709

Garrison, D.R. (2007). Online Community of Inquiry Review: Social, Cognitive, and Teaching Presence issues. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 11, 61-72.

McKenney, S., & Reeves, T. C. (2018). Conducting Educational Design Research (Second edition.). Routledge.

Vallis, C., Bryant, P., & Huber, E. (2020). A CLaS on its own: Connected Learning at Scale. https://doi.org/10.25910/KJM1-5X45

Veletsianos, G. (2016).Digital Learning Environments. In Rushby, N. & Surry D. (Eds) Handbook of Learning Technologies (pp. 242-260). Wiley. 

Wenger, E. (n.d.). Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems: the Career of a Concept. In Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice (pp. 179–198). Springer London. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-84996-133-2_11 

About the author

Published by Carmen Vallis

Carmen is an educational designer, researcher, and writer based on Wangal land in Sydney, Australia. Lurks on twitter and LinkedIn @cjvallis.

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