Standard 3. Design and layout


3.0: A logical, consistent, and uncluttered layout is established. The course is easy to navigate (related content organized together, self-evident titles).

Organization is one of the most important parts of an online course, and complicated course layout and poor navigation contributes directly to student confusion and a poor overall learning experience (Bristol & Zerwekh, 2011). The course should be designed so students can easily navigate and progress through a logical sequence and pace. This is achieved through consistency in layout and delivery of information types in regular order within learning modules.

The key factor in organization of an online course is consistency—from the overall color scheme and page design to the layout and structure of learning modules, assignments, and rubrics. Redundancy and repetition are favored, as it helps students navigate easily to relevant information without having to search extensively. By consistently sequencing online course overviews, content, learning activities, and interactions, students can routinely access what they need within each module and anticipate where to find new course materials.


3.1: “Locked”, timed-release, or mark-as-done pages to access any locked material are explained to students.

Any course material that is not readily available to students should be explained in the syllabus and/or course site. Students need to be made aware of the purpose of the lock, when the material will be released, and why the locking is necessary and/or conducive to their learning. Providing guidance on when timed responses and/or locked material are required enables students to anticipate workload and be better organized. Additionally, some students may need more time for accommodations or extraneous circumstances. Communicating which aspects of the course site may be timed or locked is critical to promoting student success in online courses.


3.2: Consistent naming and phrasing are used throughout, abbreviations are avoided, and assignments are named/numbered appropriately.

Students need consistency in the presentation of course materials and assessments to avoid confusion and frustration, which can stymie learning. Each semester, students must familiarize themselves with multiple different course sites. While you’re familiar with all course materials, they are learning to navigate the online platform, your organization and presentation system, and internalizing the content. What may seem like minor inconsistencies to you can be very confusing and frustrating for students.


3.3: Headers are used throughout each page allowing for the content to be easily viewed.

Titles and headers play an important role in catching the interest of the reader and guiding their progress through information. By using titles and headers, instructors can effectively guide students through the course, while setting expectations about what to anticipate along the way. Additionally, using headers makes your course more accessible for students with visual impairments. Text content with appropriately nested headers (in both HTML and MS Word/PDF) is easier for screen readers to process. Instead of displaying as visual content, screen readers convert course text to speech so that students can listen to the course content. Screen readers insert pauses for periods, semi-colons, commas, question marks, exclamation points, and ends of paragraphs.

For ease in meeting accessibility standards, the Office of Digital Learning suggests creating accessible course content in WebCampus pages rather than loading Word or PDF documents.


3.4: Instructions are provided for all assignments and assessments and are descriptive, clear, and free of grammatical errors.

A student’s academic engagement and success depend on many things. In an online course, one element of importance is how well a student understands what they are supposed to do, when, and how, so that they can meet the expectations and objectives of the activity, and get feedback to improve their understanding and learning, make progress, and complete the course successfully. This standard is intended to ensure that all course instructions are clear, findable, consistent, well written, and free of ambiguity or error.

Online course instructions are the voice of the instructor and set the tone for course interactions. Clear instructions help students to function in the digital environment without having to repeatedly ask for clarification. Instructions can be communicated in many different forms, including orientations, introductions, announcements, guidelines, rubrics, personalized feedback on assignments, etc.

Well-written instructions should address various “What, Where, How, Why, and When” statements:

  • What students need to do
  • When they need to do it by
  • Where they can find the assessment and material
  • Why they need to do it
  • How it relates to course, module, or program objectives
  • How they will be assessed
  • When they can expect feedback
  • How late the assessment can be submitted

Such information provides students with the necessary guidance and confidence to successfully complete specific tasks, activities, assignments, interactions, or assessments in the course.

Finally, the instructor is considered the expert in the classroom, and course materials should reflect that expertise, which includes spelling and grammar. Errors in spelling and grammar can cause some students to question the quality of the course or program. It is common to glance over writing errors, but it is important to check for grammatical and spelling errors before sharing it with students.


3.5: Broken links, incorrect due dates, or irrelevant information have been removed/updated.

Errors throughout the course site can be frustrating and confusing for students. While the instructor knows the material and course site, the students do not. Broken links, incorrect due dates, and any other erroneous material are corrected or removed. Easily accessible multimedia content facilitates ease of use.