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Improving Course Navigation Experience for Students

higher education #easy navigation#student learning‌ #course navigation

We're piloting Canvas currently and are somewhat disappointed by the experience of feeling lost in a course. We're looking for workarounds. The absence of breadcrumbs and being able to "bookmark" or "save" the page to return to later on are just a couple of needed features.

We're telling faculty to point students to the Modules "page" to orient themselves, to ensure links open in new windows/tabs so students don't get kicked out of the course, and to name pages and modules keeping in mind this navigation issue.

Any other workarounds you've heard of?

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saurilio  Some of my favorite navigation strategies to improve student user experience UX/UI:

  • Keep the Homepage brief and inviting. 
    • A Start Here button, full course name, an image, and the instructor contact info--so it isn't buried on page 8 of the Syllabus.  If students can't find the course content, it won't matter how great it was, unfortunately.
    • Link the "Start Here"  text button to the Modules navigation list view--rather than any particular page in modules.
      • If you are new, there are multiple steps to a custom homepage. Go first to navigation menu Pages tab--> "View all pages" button. Make and save a homepage. Then, click navigation menu Pages-->View All Pages again to see the list view. Look for the gear cog on the far right of your new page to "Set as Frontpage." Go to the Nav menu "Home" and on the far right, you can see controls to Choose the Homepage. You'll only see your custom page if it is first set as Frontpage (the first page you see on the Pages nav. 
      • Bonus: a Start Here button is QM Quality Matters rubric compliant! (Example linked to my personal -Dev site/play place.)
    • Be aware that the course Navigation Menu is not sticky--it disappears from view if the homepage is too long! Users are instantly lost.  Keep homepage short and get students right to modules. 
  • Put everything you want students to encounter into the Modules--in the precise order in which you want students to view content. This is your design opportunity for student-centered courses.
    • Hide other navigation options once you use Modules. Avoid multiple routes to partial content. Students are less likely to get lost or attempt assignments without doing the readings, etc. if other nav options are hidden. Students also get lost clicking nav items with no purpose.
    • Modules will display anything you want, inside or outside Canvas.  Make modules options your friend.
    • (* My controversial solution: I place the Syllabus as the first content page inside modules. I skip the Syllabus tool because you can't turn off the auto-generated shortcut to assignments--tempting students to once again, attempt quizzes and assignments without seeing all module content. Hopefully, this will be corrected in the future. )
    • The more that Modules are organized, logical, chronologically arranged, and complete, the more students will trust the course and instructor. This cuts down on complaints, frustration, lawsuits, and attempts to skip perceived busy-work. 
  • Create Overview pages for each week/module.
    • Keep the same format for all Overview Pages. (Predictability is vital. Designers get bored, but students get lost!) Content should be exciting, not navigation.
    • Include Overview Page interior headings for "This Week" and "Readings and Activities."  
    • List module-level objectives on each overview page in casual, conversational language from a student perspective of "What's in it for me?" 
    • The Overview page is ideal to tell students when to begin a lengthy project! Due dates only tell them when it has to be completed.
    • Embed videos, articles, and links to all websites or files/readings. 
    • Include a different image--or color scheme--on each overview page to help students recognize automatically when they are reviewing or seeing new content. 
    • Avoid Module "Text headers" option for important information. They disappear from view in the "Next" navigation. Instead, use a regular content page with a title and no content. Looks the same, doesn't disappear.
  • Use Due Dates to trigger student-friendly reminder systems. (Skip the Available and Until date settings unless absolutely essential--such as with a Final Exam. It is a maintenance burden and usually counterproductive.) 
    • If you use due dates, the Calendar tool takes care of itself.
    • Avoid the global menu Calendar tool--especially when training new faculty or designers--or they will make a mess with it. Once someone is at expert level, the calendar has some interesting functions, but it is useless for those who don't have a good mental map of their course yet. 
    • Avoid date-specific text. Due dates in the Assignment settings can be updated more easily.  Dates hidden inside the assignment instructions will constantly be wrong. Avoid the maintenance burden. 
  • Explore the Student "mark as done" requirement for modules. This is restrictive, but may solve some of your goals for students' knowing "Where have I been?" Otherwise, well-named Overview pages will really help a lot. 
  • Look into QM or another Online course quality tool to benefit all of your courses. 
  • Think of Quizzes tool as an auto-grading tool.  If something has a right answer, it can be auto-graded.
    • Leverage your teachers' time by auto-grading when you can, then save their input for the most precious feedback and interactions. 
  • Think of Assignments tab as "everything you want to grade." If you need a column in the gradebook, the Assignments tab creates it.  
    • Hide Assignments navigation tab when you use Modules. The assignment ordering looks different to students than it does to the teacher anyway! 
    • Tip: Assignments tab constructs the gradebook to calculate correctly for the teacher's expectations. Modules present the student-centered path through your content. 
  • Remember: Peripheral tools like Quizzes and graded Discussions appear in the Assignments tab only when they are published. 
    • Discussions tool is very handy and easy to grade in Speedgrader. You must click the easily-missed settings box "graded" to make all of the assignment settings appear in your Discussion.
      • Well-worded discussion questions are essential for online courses, and helpful for all courses.
      • Discussions are student-to-student contact, adding value to a course. Good discussions also help ensure your school's online courses meet Title IV Federal Pell Grant criteria. 
    • Hide Quizzes and other navigation items once you use modules. Quality control is up to you--making sure everything is in modules! Benefit: less skipping, missing, and confusion for faculty and students alike. 
    • For classroom or hybrid classes that still share some content on paper (such as a paper Final Exam) use an assignment as a placeholder/grade column-maker. Select the setting "On paper" and use the directions box to explain. 
  • Consider templating a Course Materials introductory module to solve problems before they start, prevent lawsuits, and basically calm your students and faculty. 
    • Tab code can condense multiple content pages together into tidy tabs--once the wording is finalized. 
    • My favorite boilerplate content pages are named:
      • Syllabus
      • Institutional Syllabus
      • Tentative Weekly Schedule
      • Meet Your Instructor
      • Computer Requirements and Skills Needed for this Course (include links to any free software from your school and links to Canvas guides for computer specs, etc.)
      • Get Help: Canvas & Tech Support
      • How to navigate this course (Course map)
      • Security, Privacy Policies, Accessibility, and Attributions
      • Communication Policies and Student Expectations
      • Discussion Etiquette and Instructions
      • Preparation Assignment for Canvas (message instructor on inbox, notification settings to reduce junk email and get announcements, submit a practice assignment)
      • Introduce Yourself Discussion (Instructor participates)
      • Pre-Post course Surveys/Feedback forms  (My school uses a Canvas assignment with Qualtrics embedded because Canvas survey replies from the Quizzes tool don't compile into a spreadsheet.)
  • Avoid linking from one Canvas page to another Canvas page.  (I call these Inception-style links, after the movie.)
    • Although Canvas implemented a helper feature of retaining the modules "Next" button, Canvas-to-Canvas links are tricky and usually cause problems. --Exception: the homepage "Start Here" button directing to the modules list.
    • If you feel you must interrupt your Canvas content flow with a link to another place in Canvas, use this Code snippet: target="_blank"  --to open Canvas again in a neighboring tab.(Looks and behaves like an outside weblink and students can close out of one tab and be right where they left off.)
      • Add ^ this snippet to your HTML to open Canvas-to-Canvas linked content in a neighboring tab, similar to the way an outside link to a website opens. 
      • Example: Keep Discussion instructions short and focused by including a Discussion Etiquette and Instructions page in the introductory Course Materials module.
      • Complete all discussion readings and questions with a final line, like this: For complete instructions, review Discussions Etiquette and Instructions (opens in a new tab). 

Rachel thank you for that amazing post! I am also of a UX mindset and I agree with everything you recommend. 

I'm having a hard time convincing some that a Modules-based course does not need other options in the main Course Navigation, i.e.; Assignments, Quizzes, Discussions, Pages, etc. Users have come to expect Modules to contain all course content in chronological order, thus eliminating the need for redundant navigation links that clutter the UI. I believe Hicks law would support this.

Do you recommend any studies or references to help convince the naysayers?

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Ahh...convincing.    @fowleste   The way I convinced myself took 3 1/2 years of intense and tedious customer service for faculty/courses seeing the same issues, repeatedly and having to puzzle through them, repeatedly. I wouldn't wish that learning experience on anyone, though it was certainly convincing for me. I'm still providing support as I design though I like to manage upstream now, when possible.

I've also said, (in other posts such as More Reasons #5 at the bottom) that it is excruciating to watch videos of a new user struggling with a Canvas course you've designed when the navigation seems so obvious! Nope. That is painfully personal UX and the teacher in me can't live with knowing that course design itself can be an obstacle to learning. Not every action that seems kind is really kind. (This is why I recommend doing the personal pre-work of quality control on Modules, making sure every assignment, content page, link, due date, and quiz is present in the precise order you want students to experience them. Then you hide other navigation avenues that allow skipping. Make a homepage button that lands students exactly at the list view of modules, not inside a page, not with confusing options.)

Quote from the above-linked Syllabus tool post: "*Real-life experience: I was a student in a course where, at the end of week 3, over 1/3 of the class hadn't found the actual course content in Modules but they thought they had. 1/3 of the class had clicked on Assignments and Quizzes at the bottom of the Syllabus and attempted them without even knowing there was anything else to see!   Fortunately or Unfortunately, only 1/3 of the good students followed the directions to read the Syllabus first, so only 1/3 were angry and betrayed by the experience."

The Tao of Rachael: Course content needs to be varied and interesting. Course navigation needs to be utterly predictable.

Caveat* Even terrible navigation will kind-of work if you do it the same way every time, in every course. Students only crash a few times and then they can potentially figure out the designer's misguided mental map and overcome it. Interesting, creative masterpieces of custom-coded navigation only prove the rule until they are scalable and maintainable by non-digital-native faculty. 

Keep in mind these apples and oranges: When multiple formats are allowed for students to accomplish an assignment, that is a trendy, sensitive way for students to express themselves and remain vested in their work. When multiple navigation routes through materials are possible, that is a guarantee that some vital content will be missed. 

I understand that not everyone will agree on what qualifies as simplicity on Canvas. For inspiration, I recommend you rely less on experienced teachers or those who consider themselves experienced Canvas users and instead talk with those who give daily tech support to lost students, angry faculty, and great courses that students mysteriously hate. 

There is a chasm between what we think ought to work, and what really works.  Sometimes we get "design bored" and try to add interest in the wrong ways. Sometimes we fight built-in Canvas features due to lack of understanding or lack of flexibility, creating unnecessary parallel features and failing to leverage existing tools that benefit students. Sometimes we get confused by hype (ie, the training industry loves to speculate that LMS and the next button are dead. They aren't higher ed., are they?)

Article: Why Simplicity Is So Incredibly Important In UX Design 

"Explain it like I'm 5."--Credited to Nobel Prize-Winning Physicist Dick Feynman

Quality Matters Rubric created to evaluate online courses only, but it still has a lot of Ah-ha moments for lecture courses too.  QM  is the best tool I've found so far. 

Thank you Rachel, that was an incredible speedy and insightful response.

I too came to the absolute realization about the course navigation after a few years handling teacher/student support. It was very frustrating to hear the same issues of access and navigation again and again. 

I do refer faculty to QM Standard 8.1 Course navigation facilitates ease of use. I argue students should just simply go to Modules to access their course content, start at the top and end at the bottom. Very simple. I would love QM to add an example to their annotations to support a minimalist approach to course navigation.

You use the word "skipping" to describe a student bypassing the Modules to access assessments. I haven't tried using that word yet, and it might resonate with some. I hope you don't mind if I steal your line "Course content needs to be varied and interesting. Course navigation needs to be utterly predictable." I'm not sure if you borrowed that from somewhere but that is a good one!

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Please use that quote. My invented fortune cookie! Thanks. 

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Oh yes, Hicks law. Just re-read.  Yes, there is a tendency to think that variety and multiple routes are a bonus, but it can backfire. It takes a lot of time, decisions, and explaining  (cognitive burden) when that attention is needed for more urgent things, like the content! 

In conducting Faculty trainings and teaching students, I came to realize that boredom and overwhelm can look similar on the faces of your audience. haha

(Too many choices can backfire, and Canvas navigation is one example. My analogy is that it is like taking a toddler to a huge ice cream store. You can end up with a lot of tears and tantrums, and nobody gets any ice cream. Depending on the overwhelm potential, sometimes it is better before you even go in to say, "You can have vanilla or strawberry.")

Smiley Happy

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Stephen, So glad to hear you use QM.  That rubric can really focus your efforts and do away with the worst course offenses. 

I fell in love with QM because their first dozen items matched my personal support checklist that I assembled from frequently asked questions and my most common fixes offered during course support sessions. I feel like QM nailed it! So many common problems aren't a mystery anymore. The word is out. 

Faculty spend tremendous effort to be the smartest person in the room with something to offer their students. Unfortunately, learning new software (like Canvas) has a way of making people feel stupid and nobody likes that. Rushing to fix the situation sometimes leads to missing the real problem or creating elaborate new ones. 

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Thanks so much Rachel for taking the time to provide such a comprehensive reply!

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Hi Suzanne

We have looked at design tools that integrate with Canvas to improve the navigation and interface. Three we looked at were Crystal Delta, Everspring and CIDI Labs. All seem to improve the interface by  supporting consistent page layout and navigation with icons, blocks, heading styles, banners.

One of the features CIDI Labs has is a modules menu that can automatically navigate to the first page of each module. This menu can be auto- generated but it would be better if you could set the style, colours and icons. 

I have always wanted a page tracker that shows a learner where they are, what they have completed and clicking will take them to that page. I dont think the above tools have perfected this but they are close.

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CIDI Labs tools can do a lot to help the visual layout of your content pages and quick building of repetitive elements of courses--if that is your greatest need.  The improved page layout can inspire confidence your learners and add to your school's overall professionalism in courses that are already working well.  (I have found these layout tools to be sadly lacking when it comes to helping instructors understand the student experience of their courses.)

*Caveat: You mentioned that Canvas is a new "pilot" experience for your school in your UX request. At this stage, your needs are not tied to a slick alternative layout or course building-speed. Early on, your school's design template is more successful if you understand exactly what each Canvas feature is built to do--and not do--and how it all fits together into a cohesive course. It is all too common for new users to get frustrated by missing information and accidentally fight the programmed Canvas features that already exist. In this stage, your instructional designers/faculty are building a mental map of the course layout. 

It may be tempting to reinvent alternative navigation structures or tinker with the HTML. Instead, save your energy by collecting some example Canvas courses that work well using the existing built-in tools that *yay* can be maintained by the instructor without breaking any code or accidentally creating dead ends. 

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Hi Rachel

I responded to Suzanne without thoroughly reading your excellent advice in your first post. Yes - we are looking at two different requirements here. Firstly, instructional design (we tend to use the term learning design more in Australia) and secondly user interface design. There can be a lot of overlap, hence the need for a strong collaborative approach when determining a good course navigation experience for learners.

We have just found a few neat interactive feature in Canvas that allows an inline multiple choice question to check the learner's understanding. This can be set so that you need to answer it correctly before the Next button can be accessed at the bottom of the page.

We have just found a few neat interactive feature in Canvas that allows an inline multiple choice question to check the learner's understanding. This can be set so that you need to answer it correctly before the Next button can be accessed at the bottom of the page.

How do you access this feature ?  thanks 

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I know that feature exists in CidiTools. It may also be possible in free H5P but I haven't tested that to see if it hides the next button until the knowledge check is completed. 

An alternative in Canvas-only would be to set modules to require all items to be done in order.  Then add a 2-3 questions quiz in the quiz tool with the name "Knowledge Check" at the end of each module.

CidiTools is a compatible software subscription from an outside company. I like CidiTools, and the quote below definitely applies:

"The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency."

Bill Gates

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HI Ian

Apologies for not answering earlier - Rachael is correct - this is a feature of Cidilabs Design Tools. It is working really well for us.

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Thank you,  @a1224143 ‌

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Rachel - thank you for your great advice. I've been using Canvas for about three years now, and have implemented several of these methods. However, I really like some of your ideas and am going to give some of them a try. I am also going teach a workshop on this topic in January (2020). A student mentioned to me that of all the courses she has in Canvas, my course is the easiest to navigate. That gave me the idea to share some of these ideas with my coworkers at a workshop. If you have additional information you are willing to share to help our students' experience be a more meaningful one. THANK YOU! Smiley Happy

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 @steeletm ‌ You'll see me repeat this in various posts and blogs:  Whatever navigation choices you make, if you are consistent your students will figure it out much more quickly and successfully. 

Your idea of sharing a successful navigation plan with fellow instructors is a good one. The learning curve for user experience is steep and the students suffer the most. (UX Design Puzzles versus Speed ) 

Teachers new to Canvas can be understandably frustrated  ("But why doesn't it work this way?") or have a natural desire to be creative, but Navigation is not the place to get creative.  Navigation needs to be utterly predictable!

Even if your course has some navigation problems or dead ends, if you are consistent, students can eventually figure it out.  In my experience, if every course is different, the institution looks unprofessional and the general attitude of student trust and optimism toward the teachers starts to erode. Teachers are distracted managing complaints, irritated by the LMS that is supposed to help. No one wants that. 

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Unpack those Docs!  Best Practices for Course Design

saurilio More ideas for schools or instructors who are transitioning to Canvas. 

Start with a best practice to prevent cascading errors or maintenance burdens. 

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It's cool that you design the service so that it is more convenient for students to use the service. I am sometimes surprised by services that help students with homework that have an incomprehensible design. That's why I'm used to using this professional paper writing service right away because this service at least has a clear interface.

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