Sometimes there is just too much content in an online course. As developers we can make it unnecessarily difficult for a student to find an effective and efficient learning path.

Sometimes this ‘over delivery’ could be an attempt to cater to different learning styles or provide alternatives, but I believe that more often than not it is a failure of course design – a failure to select and sequence content drawing on a coherent learning design approach.

A fantastically useful concept to address this problem is ‘constructive alignment’. It basically involves keeping the end in sight. Constructive alignment starts with the outcomes and aligns teaching and assessment to those outcomes.

Since 1999  Australian psychologist John Biggs has worked on a model of constructive alignment for designing teaching and assessment. He developed his model in the higher education sector, but it highly consistent with the vocational training agenda and in TAFE NSW we have taken it to mean:

  • Clear and meaningful assessment tasks are explained at the beginning of each unit of study
  • Then learning activities prepare students for the assessment tasks.
  • Resources and support services help students successfully complete the learning activities and assessment tasks.

So students know what they should be able to do at the end of a course – what they will be assessed on and that the activities they are doing are building the skills they will need to demonstrate.

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When a course is not well aligned, problems emerge.

A common one is mismatch between the outcome and the assessment or the activities, such as interactive and/or practical tasks that are assessed only with writing tasks or knowledge quizzes. Or assessing critical thinking skills with recall activities.

Sometimes activities can seem irrelevant. In one example students were asked to produce digital stories because the course developer thought students would find the process engaging – but it wasn’t clear to the students why they were producing the labour intensive stories and most of the class did not participate in the activity.

An online discussion topic can be beautifully written, enticingly provocative, of the moment and yet still fail to muster any substantial participation from students. Many a teacher has lost their enthusiasm for online learning at this point. But again, constructive alignment suggests what the problem might be. Why will these time poor students engage in this discussion if it is not clear how it s building competency in the tasks that will be assessed?

Having too much content in the course can obscure constructive alignment. The student is not sure which of the resources they should engage with. We need to be clear about what’s in the course and why it’s there.

One strategy is to  offer multiple levels of commitment.

Identify the essential resources, and separate them from additional resources, still explaining why each one might be helpful.

Another way to do this is to look at the kind of time commitment involved.

Here’s an example:

If you want to learn more about constructive alignment you may want to invest half an hour watching this excellent video from Phillip Dawson (now at Deakin University). Please note that this video does not have captions.

If you have a couple of hours you will find this article extract useful.

Biggs, J  (1999) Teaching for enhanced learning pp 63 – 70 (Links to an external site.)

And if you would like to invest more time learning about constructive alignment, this book is recommended.

Biggs, J  and C Tang (2007) Teaching for quality learning at university (Links to an external site.) (Third edition)