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What are your top 5 design must-haves?

Hi all! I hope you don't mind me popping in, I have instructional design experience, but only briefly, at my previous job. I'm now working for a tiny liberal arts college and as I was researching the trend in instructional design I encountered an interesting article on the importance of instructional design, but also the role in such positions in widening the gap between high and lower budget and sized schools. 

My current school has no instructional guidelines at all and no one on staff to officially create them. My position is as close as we have, so I'm looking into it. I've stumbled upon two others on staff in different (non ID related) roles who have previous experience in this area, and as we're about to launch a curriculum overhaul, it seems the perfect time to pitch adding at least a baseline few elements. 

So here's my question: for a school that is likely years away from a single dedicated instructional designer (much less a full instructional design team), what are your top 5 must-haves in a course before it goes out the door? Where is the highest impact in instructional standard or design that will get us thinking about the most important things and seeing an impact sooner rather than later? 

I can't launch into a full one on one ADDIE analysis with each faculty member on every one of our nearly 300 courses, nor would I get any support from the faculty or dean in doing so, but if I can pitch a few specific, high impact practices, and ask that they be included in the redesigned courses, I think I might be able to find traction. 

What are your thoughts? To be clear, we currently have no requirements for course elements at all other than a basic template for the syllabus. Courses are not yet required to have any online presence. 

Here are some of my initial thoughts for instructional and general design, in no particular order, after a day or two of thinking casually about this:

  • Incorporate a branded (or at least on-brand-ish) home page for the new courses based on if they are core or specialization to give the new curriculum a unifying theme and connection to the new branding and initiatives
  • Prioritize at least one activity per course (could be flexible, based on course objectives) emphasizing social learning to make the most of our small size, on campus classes and close community
  • Require the basic learning modalities be present in all new courses 
  • Encourage (or require?) some competency based elements to allow for individualized learning
  • Assist building faculty in doing a backwards analysis of each new course in the early stages
  • Standardizing a few key course components to assist in ease of use, especially for later in life learners (we're a brand new Canvas school), thinking course navigation, a few set of set up options such as modules or a home page or both, etc

Basically, I just need your thoughts of things I can promote to a culture that doesn't see the importance of instructional design (and won't require a full support staff to implement) but can make small, high visibility/impact changes. 

What are your top five in a class before it goes live, if you could only have five? Assume you're starting at a baseline of word documents on a professor's PC (MAYBE dumped into the Canvas files, if we're lucky) that are often printed or emailed to the students, and in-person lectures and discussions with traditional papers and tests. 

46 Replies

Hi Amanda,

I just wanted to give you my two cents on pitching consistency, because it's really important. You could reference universal principles of design and talk about QM or other rubrics and how they emphasize it, but I just use the analogy of book publishing.

Nobody goes to a book publisher wanting the glossary in the front, the table of contents in the back, and for it to be made into an inverted triangle shape book with the binding on the top hoping that makes their book to stand out from all the others on the shelf. Why? Because books have been around a long time and after they evolved from scrolls into what they are today, even the digital format is in the same consistent structure as we've been using. You can find the publishing information is in the same place for all books worldwide!

The structure should be invisible to the user, period, so as not to distract from the content. Too many people are worrying about their course looking cookie cutter are wasting their time IMHO. Too often their learning objectives, content, activities, and/or assessments need some kind of attention, and that's they should be focused on. And since we're talking about where to put thing, I put those content pages in the modules. I do not think it's a good idea to have pages enabled for students. Have you ever gone looking for a page to edit in a huge class with a bunch of pages? It's horrible even when I know what I"m looking for. A student wouldn't know what to look for and when. Unless, of course, they want back to the syllabus, did some sleuthing, and maybe emailed the instructor what the name of that page is.


The book example is good, and a lot of our faculty are authors, so I think that would make sense to them. Thank you for that analogy!

Community Contributor

I'm sitting here with a canvas trainer, and here are her top three design things she suggests sharing with all faculty that are building their own courses.

  1. Clean up the course menu - take away everything you aren't using.
  2. the home pag - engage, inform, guide navigation.  Engage but putting some kind of visual - a banner, an image.  Inform - choose the most important information used throughout the course.  Navigation - Guide them where they go: "
  3. Leverage modules - customize when things open automatically, organize, set prerequisites.
Community Participant

Those are all manageable, great advice, thank her for me! I think all three of those are going to make the final cut. I have to be careful not to poke too close to the actual curriculum design too often (I'm not faculty and not officially in any sort of curriculum role) so although I think I'm going to share  @emily ‌'s simplified backwards design chart, and other than that, stick to just Canvas changes, so I'm not seen as overstepping into the curriculum world too early. 

Community Participant

Thank you so much everyone! I'm still looking for suggestions and loving the conversations here, so please keep posting if you like! 

After reviewing the suggestions and looking at what might be feasible for my school right now, I boiled it down to four main recommendations, which I linked to as part of a larger proposal. Most of the rest of the letter is pretty specific to my school, but I thought I would share the recommendations, since you all helped create them! Feel free to copy/edit/use any of this if it helps you!

Instructional Design Proposal - Google Docs 

EDIT: I posted this above, but since this is sort of the 'summary' comment, I'll repost it here.  @bethany_winslow ‌ suggested the  @johnmartin ‌ resources, which led me down a rabbit trail to this awesome gamified course design video. It's 23 minutes, so I annotated it for easier access. Feel free to pass it along if you find it interesting! I'm hoping to do more videos like this, but they have to be on youtube (Canvas video tutorials are unfortunately on Vimeo). If you know of any great ones on Youtube let me know!

Hi Amanda:

You bring up a very good point about overstepping your role at your school. I am in the enviable position of being the Canvas Admin at my school with 20 years teaching experience at other schools and still currently teaching. I guess the new aged term would be, "I gots cred, Man". Cannot tell you useful this is.

Community Participant

You can, lol, I'm quite aware Smiley Happy Fortunately I have a line to the curriculum committee via a bit of a back way, so I'm hoping that this will go to my boss then the president then come back (in whatever edited form) as part of the curriculum change, vs something from me Smiley Happy I guess we'll see though, wish me luck!

Amanda it sounds like you have 'creds' too. Just like  @kmeeusen 

Every bit helps to get wheels in motion.


amandabass‌ - I was looking in the community for something and happened to stumble your discussion. Thank you for posting your question! On my wish list for the longest time (3+ years) was the idea of creating a checklist of what should be included in a quality Canvas course. I've been working on that project for the past few months with a couple of other amazing colleagues,  @erin_keefe_1 ‌ and Deactivated user‌ and I'm happy to report Course Evaluation Checklist was recently posted in the Canvas Community. I've added the link here in hopes that it helps you and others! I'd love to hear your feedback. 

Community Contributor

Any time I start a list, I remind myself how inadequate my perspective can be. However, I am going to bark up my own tree which may or many not be what you were looking for. Admittedly the rubrics and QM additions are good...if not necessary when considering a DistEd program.

I wanted to share a super-quick list of 3rd party sites that instructors or designers can go to in order to spruce up their courses (within the boundaries, of course Smiley Wink ) - I learned about this design resource from a canvas training (no relation). It's a great free resource, and it only gets better with money - but it's fully functional for free! - Often times an instructor has a design idea but I feel limited in trying to meet or match their plan. This is really basic, really simple, and it can get you a full set of matching buttons that are customizable. - Just a fun scrolling text, probably more of a K-12 pitch, but clever nonetheless. - For a designer, resources like this are just handy. I find that I don't use it for a while, then all the sudden I remember where I can  hamburger icon...

...and now for a few sources of resources;