Setting up your course platform

Girl sitting on the floor trying to piece together several wooden blocks.

When designing an online orientation program, we often spend a lot of time thinking about and creating our content and learning activities. We want them to be high quality so that students remain engaged and meet our learning outcomes. What can sometimes be neglected along the way is the design of the course platform, but this is also a critical component to success. Every effort should be made to ensure a course has a high degree of usability.

Usability: a measure of how easily learners can complete the tasks associated with completing the course, such as enrolling in the course platform, navigating through the course, uploading assignments, posting in forums, watching video clips, or submitting quiz answers.

Usability is important, as students who struggle to complete the basic tasks associated with completing a course are more likely to become frustrated, less likely to be motivated to engage with course content, and less likely to complete the course. Usability is especially important in an online orientation; since the course is so short, and is not mandatory, students are generally unwilling to invest much time in learning the system.

Structure and navigation

If a student can’t easily navigate your course and understand what is required, you’re going to have difficulty getting them to complete the program.

  • Right from the beginning of the course, you should provide students with a clear picture of what is required to complete the course. The home page should provide an overview of all the modules and topics being covered; sub-topics should also be made obvious from the home page, as this has been found to increase the rate at which those topics are accessed, and provides students with more context about what is contained within a module.
  • The course should be laid out in a way that ensures all content, activities and features are easy to access, and not hidden in hard-to-find places. If a student can’t find an activity, or can’t find their way back to an activity, they can’t complete it!
  • Help a student following along with your larger narrative, and you progression through a topic, by organizing information logically, with related ideas grouped together, and unrelated ideas separated out. These groupings should be obvious to the students, which can be done by using headings, page breaks, and visual indicators of separation, such as lines or boxes.
  • Navigating from one piece of content to the next should be a clear and easy process, with as few steps required as possible. Every time a student has to actively think about what to do next, as opposed to just clicking ‘next,’ there is an increased chance that they will opt to abandon the course altogether.
  • The system should provide clear and obvious information about a student’s progress. Make it easy to identify which activities have been completed, which remain, and how much work is left.


In an online orientation program, providing clear instructions is critical. Students need to understand what they are being asked to do within an activity from a learning and application perspective (i.e. choose the correct answer from the list, match the item with the correct price) and then also be provided with instructions on how to do that within the learning system (e.g. click the correct answer to select, drag the item to the corresponding price tag). Instructions on how to complete actions often aren’t required in face-to-face learning as the actions to take are intuitive, but this often doesn’t translate to the online environment. Online, a student also has less contextual clues indicating what to do, cannot observe their peers, and does not have immediate access to an instructor for assistance. Instructions needs to be incredibly clear and detailed.

Technology help

It’s impossible to create an online orientation program and avoid technology; the use of technology is inherent in the fact that you are creating an online program. When creating an online orientation program, it’s important to mitigate any possible technology problems, as every time a student encounters a tech problem, their probability of completing the program decreases. You should test your course rigourously, making sure every component works the way you intended. Enlist multiple people to help test who are able to view the course with fresh eyes. You should also test your program using a variety of devices including laptops, tablets, and mobile phones, and both PCs and Macs. You should also test on all the common web browsers. Your program may work perfectly well on one device, or in one browser, but not at all on another. After rapidly transitioning our program to a new LMS for summer 2020, we discovered post-launch that some activities didn’t work in Safari, and had to come up with a strategy on the spot to overcome that issue. Would not recommend.

Even after you rigourously test your program, it’s inevitable that some students will encounter problems of some sort, whether it’s the fault of the system, or they’ve done something incorrectly. It’s important to ensure that tech help is readily available, and to communicate that to students.

  • Provide students with an email or phone number they can use to contact someone if they are having difficulties.
  • If you can proactively identify possible issues a student may encounter, provide solutions in an FAQ (you can bet that “don’t use Safari” now lives in our FAQ!).
  • Create a “help” discussion board within the course, where students can both post questions, and provide solutions to other students.
  • Depending on the complexity of your course, you may also wish to encourage students to take a virtual tour of the course environment before they start the program, so they can proactively solve any problems before they dive into the content.


While you don’t necessarily have to be a professional graphic designer to create an online orientation program, it’s important to recognize that the look and feel of course activities matters. Pages should be visual appealing, with thought given to colours, shapes, fonts, and white space. Students spend a lot of time online, and can be very judgemental about the quality of the content they consume. A visually appealing design increases the time a student will spend on the page, and leads them to believe that the course is easily navigable. It quite literally increases their desire to engage with the course, so take advantage!   

Designing your content and learning activities is important, but leave time to design your learning platform too!


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Featured image by Gabby K from Pexels

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