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Disruptions to learning and teaching in higher education during Covid-19 resulted in an abrupt shift towards online curricula (Salas-Pilco et al., 2022). This presented a range of concerns and vulnerabilities, from infrastructure challenges (Baker et al., 2021) to integrity concerns (García-Peñalvo et al., 2021), with lasting consequences for learner satisfaction and engagement.

To address the online learner experience, we redesigned an online sociology course in teacher education, specifically, to consider the design processes and features that would ‘work best’ in improving satisfaction and engagement (see Sheridan & Gigliotti, 2023). A central tenet was the need to optimise learning for all students. The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework provides practical ideas, proposing multiple means of: 1) engagement (interests & motivation); 2) representation (ways of acquiring information); and 3) action/expression (learners demonstrate what they know). What occurred were increased choice and autonomy, a focus on relevance, value and authenticity, and a reduction in online distractions.

We used Fink’s (2007) curriculum model of integrated course design (ICD) and Fink’s (2003) interactive taxonomy of significant learning model as guidelines to improve engagement and satisfaction for our course redesign. The redesign resulted in an increase in student engagement, through explicit learning goals, an expanded variety of learning challenges and regular feedback. Students had the opportunity to manage information and resources, plan and pace their own learning, and monitor their own progress. They engaged in reflective practice – connecting ideas and building self-regulation.

Prior to the start of the course, students were asked what they wanted in their online environment. Learners wanted user-friendly learning spaces, engaging presentations, depth of content and social engagement. At the end of the course, what students reported as most useful were: video material; live online classes; the opportunity to work at their own pace; and a user-friendly Moodle site. Final interviews highlighted the value of having a variety of learning approaches and visual materials. Learners wanted ‘learning’ that offered a work/life balance and social opportunity with peers. What was particularly helpful was: a weekly checklist; regular communications; pre-recorded short lectures; and regular quizzes and feedback.

‘The online curriculum design framework offers practical implications for the profession that can be used to build “best” practice features into online curricula.’

The online curriculum design framework offers practical implications for the profession (see Figure 1) that can be used to build ‘best’ practice features into online curricula. Particular attention is paid to learners’ needs and how to respond to those needs, as well as situational factors of higher education – that is, policy, context and institutional technologies. Specifically, there is focus for incorporating ideas such as active learning – what students need to learn, how and what to learn and how it will be known that students have achieved goals (Fink, 2007) – and an ongoing process of review, reflection and evaluation of significant learning opportunities (Fink, 2007).


Figure 1: Online curriculum redesign framework

The UDL framework considers three levels of learner development – access, build and internalise. These levels are important for ongoing engagement and students’ learning growth towards the executive functions (for example goal directed, self-regulation).

Final thought

Students in higher education are now less tolerant of online environments that are difficult to navigate and curriculums that do not meet their learning needs. Higher education institutions need to support academics with appropriate infrastructure, professional development opportunities and professional expertise in curriculum design. Academics will need to become curriculum designers in partnership with instructional designers and students in designing ‘what works best’ in online curricula.

This blog is based on the article ‘Designing online teaching curriculum to optimise learning for all students in higher education’ by Lynn Sheridan and Amanda Gigliotti, published in the Curriculum Journal.