Online Learning Modules

From E-Learning Faculty Modules


Contents

Module Summary

In online learning, a common “chunk” or learning sequence is the “module.” A module is a coherent unit of learning, albeit without an obvious definition or learning length (except that it has to be < than the course). This brief article summarize some basic facts about modules in online learning.

Takeaways

Learners will...

  • review what an online learning module is, its basic structure, what an online learning modular template may look like, and some common variances in learning modules
  • consider the granularity or size of an online learning module and some common ways that such modules are sized
  • think about why learning modules tend to be consistent in particular learning sequences (and related benefits to learning)
  • brainstorm some non-modular online learning designs and consider these strengths and weaknesses
  • think about how online learning modules are used in various online learning contexts, automated learning contexts, F2F learning contexts, and blended learning contexts


Module Pretest

1. What is an online learning module? What is the basic structure of an online learning module? If one is to build a modular template, what would that template look like, and why? What sorts of common variances are there in learning modules?

2. What is the granularity (or size) of an online learning module? How is a module sized?

3. Why are learning modules generally consistent in particular learning sequences? Are there some benefits to learning with consistency in modular design? What are some advantages of building online learning in modular form?

4. What are some non-modular approaches to designing online learning sequences, and what are strengths and weaknesses of some of these approaches?

5. How are online learning modules used in various online learning contexts? Automated learning contexts? In F2F learning contexts? In blended learning contexts?


Main Contents

1. What is an online learning module? What is the basic structure of an online learning module? If one is to build a modular template, what would that template look like, and why? What sorts of common variances are there in learning modules?


An online learning module. An online learning module may be designed in multiple ways, but the core element is that the contents inside a module is often co-related, and the learning objects within a module may be experienced as a sequence. Technically, modules may be comprised of any of the following:

  • a folder of digital learning contents (within a learning management system)
  • a sequence of related videos with interspersed assessments
  • a related section of an outline or navigable tree of learning contents

A basic structure. Beyond a sequence, from simple-to-complex, from foundational to more advanced, modules may be structured in different ways and with different contents. A comprehensive module may contain the following elements:

  • A name
  • Descriptive metadata
  • Defined learning objectives
  • Learning contents
  • Learning practices
  • Learning assignments
  • Social learning assignments / interactivity
  • Learning assessments (both formative and summative), with feedback to learners
  • Learning outcomes

The above elements may be in different modalities: texts, articles, imagery, maps, audio files, video files, simulations, discussion boards, and so on. (Module names should not generally list time periods: Week 1, Week 2, etc. Rather, the labeling should be by module number: Module 1, Module 2, etc. The reason for this is that time in online learning may be “accordianed” on various LMSes, so a learning design may be used for a two-week condensed course as well as for a half-summer session or a full semester (17 weeks).

Modules may vary in terms of uniformity to diversity. Some modules may be standalone interludes, for example, focused on one aspect in a sequence of learning…such as a module on the term project or a module on a special aspect of the learning. Interlude modules will not necessarily contain the various elements of a comprehensive module but will fit in the general learning sequence of an online course.

A modular template. The template for a basic module will vary depending on the instructional design. To state the obvious, a template should contain all possible elements in a module. Designers can select from the options in the design.

Common variances in learning modules. Learning modules should have consistent naming protocols. They should have defined learning objectives and learning outcomes, and the elements within the module should be aligned with those learning objectives and learning outcomes. Cognitive scaffolding may be included to help learners on both ends of the bell curve—those who are not quite at the level of the main learners for an online learning sequences, and those who are somewhat expert and capable who may be at risk of boredom.

What are some common variances between modules (beyond topics, levels of learning, and so on)? Sizes of modules may vary (within a certain range). The content types may vary. The contents may also come from a variety of sources. Back in the day, most designers tried to ensure that all digital contents were hosted in the local instance of the LMS, but given the stability and robustness of various video-sharing social sites (and the need for sophisticated web-based video players and voice-to-text auto-transcription), video contents may well be hosted outside the LMS.

Finally, modules are generally created in order to enable their use in different sequences of learning--whether in long courses, short courses, or stand-alone learning contexts. (This same idea applies to digital learning objects, which are seen to be interchangeable and sequence-able, depending on the technological understructures and on intellectual property rights releases.)


2. What is the granularity (or size) of an online learning module? How is a module sized?


The “granularity” of an online learning module varies, depending on the following:

  • topic and subject domain
  • the target learners
  • the technologies
  • the learning context, and other factors

Based on time spent on the learning, some modules are as short as 5 – 10 minutes of learning while others may consist of a week or more of learning. Instructional designers look for natural breaks in learning, and that may vary based on the learning objectives, the available contents, and the experiential depth and capabilities of the learners. In other cases, there are pre-set breakpoints in a learning sequence, which may fit naturally with starts- and ends- for modules. For example, a 17-week semester may have natural breaks every week or every two weeks or every month.


3. Why are learning modules generally consistent in particular learning sequences? Are there some benefits to learning with consistency in modular design? What are some advantages of building online learning in modular form?


Learning modules tend to be fairly consistent over a long learning sequence, even if there are a few one-off designs. The reason for this is that consistency helps set learner expectations, and if those expectations are met and followed-through on, it helps learners use their cognition on the actual learning. There is less mental energy spent trying to find patterns in the learning (if the learning modules are poorly designed).

Some benefits to using modular builds are that “chunking” enables learners to tackle a piece of the learning at a time, so they are not overwhelmed. Having short sequences of learning enables the solid capture of the learning, the reinforcement of that learning, and a short rest, before moving on to the next piece of the learning.


4. What are some non-modular approaches to designing online learning sequences, and what are strengths and weaknesses of some of these approaches?


While this work focuses on online learning modules, there are many other ways to design online learning. They include some of the following:

  • straight sequences without chunking
  • project-based learning (such as in design courses)
  • case-solving (based on cases)
  • evolving simulation (with learners acting based on roles)
  • and others.

Straight sequences are not uncommon, and these just proceed generally in a foundational to more advanced levels. Project-based learning may focus on group projects or individual projects, and many of these may focus more on group dynamics instead of chunked sequencing. The sequencing may be informed by phases in the development of the particular projects. Both case-based and simulation-based learning are usually for higher level learning sequences because of the assumed complexity of foundational knowledge.

The “strengths” and “weaknesses” of different learning sequences may be determined in part by the fit to the target learners. If the fit is strong, that means that the learning is effective. All good. If the fit is poor, that means that learning is not occurring in an effective way, and a partial or total redesign may be required.


5. How are online learning modules used in various online learning contexts? Automated learning contexts? In F2F learning contexts? In blended learning contexts?


In online learning, modules may be used for the learning described in Question 1. It may also be used for cognitive scaffolding, with opt-in modules for those who need extra prep, extra practice, or different approaches to understanding difficult ideas.

Modules in automated learning contexts are the building blocks of the automated learning sequences, which may or may not be “gated” (with performance requirements to proceed to the next levels).

In F2F learning contexts, modules may be used for the following:

  • live demonstrations
  • learner discussions
  • learner group assignments
  • individual learner assignments
  • learner assessments, and others

Here, digital contents are augmented with in-person work.

In a blended context, courses which occur both F2F and online, modules may be used pretty much for any part of the learning.

Examples

A number of publicly available massive open online courses (MOOCs) are built in a modular way. Some commercial training entities also design their trainings in segments or modules.

How To

ModularSequencing.jpg

Possible Pitfalls

A module is not an answer to every online learning context (nor for blended, or F2F contexts, either). It is one tool among others for the design of learning. A module, if designed well, does align with the research on “chunking” for effective consumption, but there is room for empirical research in this area.

Module Post-Test

1. What is an online learning module? What is the basic structure of an online learning module? If one is to build a modular template, what would that template look like, and why? What sorts of common variances are there in learning modules?

2. What is the granularity (or size) of an online learning module? How is a module sized?

3. Why are learning modules generally consistent in particular learning sequences? Are there some benefits to learning with consistency in modular design? What are some advantages of building online learning in modular form?

4. What are some non-modular approaches to designing online learning sequences, and what are strengths and weaknesses of some of these approaches?

5. How are online learning modules used in various online learning contexts? Automated learning contexts? In F2F learning contexts? In blended learning contexts?


References

Extra Resources