Five tips for better online course navigation

Five tips for better online course navigation

We’ve found that one often overlooked way to improve the effectiveness of an online course is to improve its navigation. When navigation is clear and intuitive, learners find it easy to move through a course or simulation. Here are five tips for better online course navigation:

  1. Keep navigation simple and uncluttered. We’ve found some confusion over this principle because of the influence of design for the Internet, where many web pages are deliberately jam-packed with points of entry that are meant to entice casual browsers—lots of hyperlinks and clickable elements. In contrast, for online learning, the idea is to reduce the number of distractions—the simpler and fewer navigational elements the better. A basic navigational listing of course assignments and elements (usually placed flush left), and “next” and “previous” arrows or buttons often meets this need.
  2. Number or label the learning units (modules, assignments, quizzes, etc.) in a way that helps the learner understand its relative location in the course. Many learners find it helpful in orienting themselves; thus, “Module 2: Art of the Renaissance” and a nested assignment numbered “2.05 Leonardo DaVinci’s Art” is to be preferred over an organizing system without numbering. While many learning management systems allow users to resume a course where they left off, some don’t—numbered modules and assignments can be of great value in helping learners to locate their last completed work.
  3. Provide learners with a comprehensive navigational overview of the course (the equivalent of a “site map” for an Internet site). This can be accomplished through an expandable navigation listing, a pull-down menu of all content in the course, or through a simple “Course overview” or “Course outline” link that leads to a global overview. Further, the learner should be able to click to any of the content elements in the overview. (Most learning management systems (LMSs) should be able to offer this functionality.)
  4. Offer clear instructions on how to navigate. You might think that all learners will understand that an arrow pointing to the right represents sequential progress in a course. You would be wrong. Learners need explanations next to arrows or buttons (“Previous,” “Next”) and especially need help at the start of a course (“Click here to begin course”). Don’t assume that unlabeled icons or symbols will be understood—recognize that learners have varying levels of Web experience.
  5. Make sure navigation is accessible for people with disabilities (including compliance with the government’s Section 508 guidelines). The goal is to have your online courses accessible to a screenreader. Some LMS vendors have adapted their systems to comply with these guidelines. Course and instructional designers need to be aware of the need to properly label internal navigational devices (buttons, arrows, etc.) so they can be read by a screenreader.

How can you know whether your navigation works for the learner? Ask! We’ve found that focused feedback from learners and partner organizations helps pinpoint problems in navigation—for example, confusing or missing instructions. Even when you’re sure you are meeting the needs of learners, it’s good practice to occasionally probe for feedback on ease of use of your navigation. Of course, when it’s is well-conceived and well-executed, online course navigation is almost invisible to the user.


Copyright © 2011 MindEdge, Inc.

3 thoughts on “Five tips for better online course navigation

  1. I think the point on creating a numeric sequences to your module and sections to be quite helpful. Having a description but giving the student a greater sense of the sequence is excellent.

  2. Providing a navigational overview is extremely helpful. Everything is available to reader and then he/she can drill down into the specific areas for more information.

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