Many universities had to pivot their teaching into an online space in response to the COVID-19 health crisis in 2020. In fact they may have had to repeat this pivot again and again depending on their location. How can we leverage the lessons learned from our design and redesign of these spaces to provide superior student learning experiences?
A classification of designs
A group of researchers at the University of Sydney Business School set out to examine the online designs that were used during the first COVID crisis in 2020. Our study involved the development of a classification system to appraise our rapidly transitioned online units of study. Underpinned by active learning pedagogy, 234 online learning sites were reviewed based on what drove the design and pedagogy, and three types of sites emerged, content, student and teacher-centred.
These elements are closely linked to Garrison, Anderson and Archer’s (1999) community of inquiry (COI) theory, which stipulates that a meaningful learning experience requires developing a sense of community between students and teachers through teacher presence, social presence and cognitive presence. Having a community in online settings increases student’s satisfaction because it supports quality collaboration, including information dissemination and access to support (Rovai, 2011).
These online sites were then appraised using a revised course evaluation checklist developed for Canvas users as a foundational and customisable tool to guide and help improve the designs (Johnson et al., 2019). For more details on the checklist and our adaptation see our concise paper presented at the ASCILITE 2020 virtual conference.
We found that more than half (54%) of the sites were mostly content-centred, almost a third (30%) were mostly student-centred and a minority (16%) were mostly teacher-centred. Findings also indicated that the overall range of quality of sites was mirrored across all three types, with the majority categorised as ‘good’.
The analysis of the design elements of sites categorised as ‘good’ helped us distinguish between ‘good’ online learning environments in theory and ‘good’ sites in practice. In the latter, we found that ‘good’ sites were defined by their ease of navigation, richness of content, their support and promotion of active engagement with content, inclusion of peers and staff and the presence of two-way communication channels.
Given the rapid, turbulent nature of placing education entirely online during the pandemic, these results are encouraging. Analysis of the design elements of this typology will help us build capacity in the design of online learning environments. Furthermore, mapping student feedback data to our appraisals will enable us to better guide our pedagogical practice in business education.
How have you changed your online course design as a result of what you have learned from the past year of teaching and/or learning online? Tell us your story in the comments box below.
Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (1999). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2–3), 87–105.
Johnson, D., Keefe, E., Philips, L., Lattke, M., & Gibbons, T., (2019). Course Evaluation Checklist v2.0. Salt Lake City, UT: Canvas. Retrieved from
Rovai, A. P. (2000). Building and sustaining community in asynchronous learning networks. The Internet and Higher Education, 3(4), 285–297
About the author
Associate Professor Elaine Huber has been designing curriculum and teaching adults for over 20 years and is currently the Academic Director of the Business Co-Design team at the University of Sydney.