Now that we’ve taken a look at all the special features of Moodle, and it has certainly raised your expectations level to a much higher level. Moodle has a lot of nifty capabilities, but they are only useful if they are applied in the service of effective course design.

In this chapter we will explore different ways in which you can deploy Moodle to develop an effective course design. If you are a professor in higher education, you are an expert in your field. You know more about your discipline than 99 percent of the rest of humanity. Universities do a great job helping people become domain experts and researchers. They do a poor job of teaching those experts how to teach. Unfortunately, the very process of becoming an expert makes it more difficult to teach novices. Cognitive research has shown that as people become more expert, they lose the ability to explain why and how they do certain basic tasks. The higher the level of expertise, the less conscious access you tend to have to the fundamentals of what you do. To achieve expertise, you need to develop a level of automatic performance for basic skills so you can concentrate your mental resources on the more difficult tasks.

Much of our preparation of teachers assumes teaching comes naturally. Since we’ve all been to school, we must know how to teach. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Creating effective learning environments requires training and careful preparation.

In this chapter, we hope to give you some ideas and background from which you can develop your courses. We’ll spend some time talking about learning environments in general, and then we’ll talk about how to apply everything you’ve learned so far to your courses. We’ll also provide some design patterns for different types of courses that research and experience have shown to be successful.

What is a Learning Environment?

Since we’re developing an instructional environment, it would be a good idea to have a definition of what we’re hoping to develop. What makes a web-based learning environment different from a web site? How is a web learning environment different from Amazon or Wikipedia?

The answer is: learning goals and feedback.

Learning environments have very specific goals for students. Most other web environments are there for users to achieve their own goals. They provide information, a way to buy things, or a way to connect with other people. People come to these environments of their own volition and can participate at whatever level they choose.

Learning environments are unique because they provide goals for students to achieve, goals they are currently unable to meet on their own. Your course objectives define a set of goals for students, goals they would not normally set for themselves. These goals define how students will interact with the material, other students, and you.

For example, if you are teaching a large survey course, the course goal will be to introduce the main concepts of the field to your students. In an advanced theory course, you will want students to demonstrate the ability to reason critically about advanced topics, and possibly synthesize their own ideas. These goals should be just beyond what your students can achieve right now. They may not even know what goals to set for themselves, so you need to at least suggest goals and performance levels for them.

The second defining feature of learning environments is feedback. Feedback is critical for students to monitor their progress as they pursue the course goals. Goal-oriented feedback is one of the critical defining aspects of a learning environment. If a student doesn’t receive feedback, he has no way of knowing if he is closer to achieving the goals of the class or not. Other types of information environments can’t provide feedback to their users because the users, not the environment, define their own goals. The only exception is an online game, which defines external goals and measures the player’s progress toward them.

Feedback in a learning environment can take many forms. Tests and quizzes are frequently used tools for measuring student progress. They can provide feedback to students in the form of right and wrong answers or a percentage score. Homework can also provide feedback to students about their understanding of the materials. Less formal feedback might include interaction with students in class, conversations with experts, or applying new knowledge in a work setting. The key is to structure the feedback in useful ways so students can measure themselves against the course goals.

These two features make learning environments unique. Moodle provides you with tools to implement these ideas in unique ways. Moodle’s educational philosophy guides how those tools are designed and can influence how you structure your learning environment.

Course Design Patterns

Design patterns are abstract solutions to recurring design problems. The term was originally used in architecture, but it has been applied more recently to software design. In architecture, the placement of doors, gates, windows, and other elements are design patterns that recur in many buildings. The idea of a lobby in a large office building is a design pattern. Over time, these patterns become almost invisible to us as we are continually exposed to them. Changing a pattern can lead to the discovery of an entirely new way of interacting with a space.

Instructional design patterns are similar. There are abstract solutions to the design challenges that occur in many courses. We can abstract four basic course types in higher education:

  • Introductory survey course: These tend to be large lecture courses designed to expose students to basic concepts, vocabulary, and foundational ideas.
  • Skills development course: These courses are designed to apply the ideas introduced in the beginning courses. Labs, recitations, workshops, and second-level courses tend to fall into this category. While there is discussion of theory, applying the theory to problems is the core of the course.
  • Theory/discussion course: In more advanced courses, students are expected to think critically about research and theory. Application is typically secondary to the discussion of the theory itself.
  • Capstone course: Many programs have some sort of summative experience that enables students to demonstrate what they have learned in their course of study.

While there are variations and combinations of these course archetypes, these categories cover most of the courses taught in most universities.

Understanding the abstract problem types is the first step toward designing a solution pattern. We also need principles of quality that will help us decide which patterns will be more likely to result in a better solution. Every professor develops a response to the course archetypes. The question is which solutions are more likely to result in a quality course?

Fortunately, the American Association for Higher Education (AAHE) has come up with some recommendations for high-quality university courses. The AAHE has published 12 recommendations in 3 categories:

  • Culture:
    • High expectations
    • Respect for diverse talents and learning styles
    • Emphasis on early undergraduate years
  • Curriculum:
    • Coherence in learning
    • Synthesizing experience
    • Ongoing practice of learned skills
    • Integration of education with experience
  • Instruction:
    • Active learning
    • Assessment and prompt feedback
    • Collaboration
    • Adequate time on task
    • Out-of-class contact with faculty

It would be impossible to apply all 12 of these principles in every class. But a course that integrates as many of these principles as possible will likely be of higher quality than one that doesn’t.

Fortunately, many of the tools in Moodle lend themselves well to realizing these quality principles. Let’s take a look at how to apply the tools in Moodle to meeting these quality principles in the four class types.

Introductory Survey Course

The introductory survey course tends to be a large lecture course. The primary goal is to expose students to the basic concepts and vocabulary of a field of study. In the best case, this course helps students develop a basic conceptual structure that serves as the foundation for more advanced courses.

There tend to be two primary, related problems to address in these courses. First, their large size makes it difficult to assess open-ended assignments such as projects and reports. Second, student motivation is difficult to maintain due to the course’s large size and its nature. Students who are required to take the course may find it difficult to engage in the subject matter, and long lectures are hard for anyone to get excited about.

A survey course might focus on quality measures like assessment and prompt feedback, adequate time on task, ongoing practice of learned skills, active learning, and high expectations. So how can we use the Moodle tools and the above principles to create a successful survey course?

  • Groups: The key to success in a large class is the strategic use of groups. To promote active learning, create a group project that students must complete by the end of the semester. Such a project cuts down on the number of submissions you need to grade and provides students with opportunities for collaboration. Moodle has a number of tools to help student groups communicate and collaborate, including forums and wikis, which we’ll explore below.

  • Resources: Posting your lecture notes before each lecture will help students stay engaged by giving them a structure for taking notes. Before each lecture, post an outline of the upcoming class to help students plan ahead for that class. Use the data from a short quiz or choice to target your lecture to the areas students find most difficult or interesting.

    Alternatively, move yourself from being the source of information in the course to being a helpful tutor. Post your lecture notes, your lecture in MP3, and any reading assignments. Then use the face-to-face time to answer questions, demonstrate problem solving, and provide feedback to students on their work. Moving the information delivery portion of the course online will free up your face-to-face time to provide valuable coaching and support for your students, even in large lecture courses. This will promote active learning and prompt feedback within your course.

  • Quizzes: Use the quiz tool to provide a small quiz for each reading assignment. This will reward students for completing the reading and allow them to test their understanding of the material. Each quiz should be relatively low-stakes, but all of them taken together could add up to a significant part of the student’s score. These small quizzes will provide assessment, prompt feedback, and help students spend adequate time on task. Again, be sure to use the data from the quiz to modify your lecture, or class discussion, to focus on the areas where students need more support.

  • Forums: A mix of class forums and group forums can be an effective tool for collaboration, active learning, and out-of-class contact with faculty. Forums for questions to the instructors and for general course discussion are great for class discussions. Each group should also have a discussion area for reading groups and lectures. Be sure to seed the discussion each week with a good question that will require students to apply the concepts they’ve learned during that week. Bring the best questions and discussions to the attention of the whole class to help motivate students. Create a class forum for the submission of final group projects. Everyone can see the projects, and each group needs to post the project only once. You can make this a Q & A forum, so students can’t see other students’ postings until they post their own.

  • Glossaries: A good glossary is critical when students are learning a new vocabulary. You can use the glossary to promote active learning by assigning a different group to create definitions for each week or topic. You and the other students can rate submissions based on their usefulness. Be sure to turn on autolinking to get the most benefit.

  • Databases: While large courses can be difficult to manage, they also provide many minds for collaborative work. In introductory courses, the database module can be a very useful tool. Students can create databases of important figures in the field, collect data for course projects, post quiz questions, or simply create small biographies of themselves. You can leverage the large numbers of students in the course to create rich resources for the students to use as they study.

  • Wikis: Each group should have a group wiki for their course project that they can submit at the end of the semester. Using a wiki this way promotes active learning and collaboration.

  • Lessons: Learning vocabulary is difficult without a lot of practice. To provide another opportunity for assessment and feedback, create a series of vocabulary flash cards in the lesson module to help students drill themselves on the new concepts. You could also replace static lectures with lessons on important topics, which will provide students with immediate feedback on the topic, rather than reading something and then receiving feedback later.

  • Messaging: Students in large-format courses can easily get lost. If students get into trouble with the course material, or simply lose motivation, they may disengage from the course and risk failure. The messaging system gives you a useful tool for communicating with students who are not engaging with the course site. Filter your students by last login, and send regular messages to those who haven’t visited the course site in a while. This will let them know you are interested in their success and encourage them to reengage.

  • Roles and capabilities: In a large-format course, it can be difficult to manage all of the forums, glossaries, and databases yourself. Giving students a level of responsibility for different areas of the course can increase motivation and engagement. Give each group of student’s moderator privileges on a different forum each week. Students will study harder to make sure they know what they are talking about when it is their turn to moderate. Giving other groups capabilities to approve glossary entries or database entries will give them a sense of ownership in the course.

Combine these tools to create an effective learning environment. Each week or topic should have lecture notes, a glossary, a quiz or quizzes, and a forum. At the beginning of the course, post the course glossary, the course forum, and your syllabus. At the end of the course, post the final-project forum.

Skills Development Course

The skills development course is generally the second-level class in a course of study. The aim of this course is to give students the opportunity to apply the basic concepts learned in the survey course and explore one aspect of the field in more detail. These are usually workshop or lab courses that focus on a project or the repetitive application of important skills. The goals of this course type include development of automaticity in some skills, refining skill performances, and beginning to develop flexibility in skill application.

Skills development courses require continuous feedback and assessment. Engaged students need feedback so they can know if they are performing the skills correctly. They also need resources to help them troubleshoot when they cannot solve a problem on their own. You can create an effective practice environment for skills development with the following tools in Moodle:

  • Resources: As students practice on their own, they will need information resources to help them diagnose their mistakes. If you can post demonstrations, step-by-step instructions, or other aids for students as they practice on their own, you’ll make it easier for them to succeed and eliminate a lot of repetitive questions.

  • Forums: Forums provide valuable opportunities for your students to help each other. Set up a forum for each topic or week and have students ask each other for assistance with course assignments. Allow post ratings in these forums to reward students who provide assistance to their classmates. This encourages collaboration and gives students an important out-of-class communication channel for support. You can also use the forums for students to post their work and receive feedback from their peers. With a well-structured scoring guide and good exemplars, students can help each other improve their work with well-reasoned critiques.

  • Quizzes: If your class is focused on math skills, you can use the calculated-question type to provide your students with unlimited practice opportunities. Create a library of questions for each topic and let students take the quiz as many times as they’d like. Each time, they will see a different set of questions. Other types of courses can use the quiz module to test the students’ ability to apply basic concepts, provide graduated practice, and provide an opportunity to practice other types of skills.

  • Lessons: Well-constructed lessons give students the opportunity to apply their skills and receive immediate feedback. Each page in the lesson should challenge students to use the skills they are developing in the course, and either provide direct feedback or allow them to explore the consequences of their actions in a simulation type of environment.

  • Databases: There is a lot of evidence to suggest people learn effectively when they are producing new materials for other people. In a skills course, you can use the database to give students a place to create practice assignments for each other, which you can then use in quizzes or lessons to provide additional practice, and spread the work of developing a good course.

  • Roles and capabilities: As student’s progress in their capabilities, they can take on more responsibility for their own learning. In a skills course, you may want to give groups of students the ability to develop a quiz for other students, pulling questions from pools developed by you, by a publisher, or ones they write themselves. Set up new lessons for them to add new lesson pages, developing new practice opportunities for other students.

Theory/Discussion Course

A discussion course focuses on readings and the discussion of ideas. These are usually senior or graduate-level courses that focus on discussions of theory and research. There is little practical application. Instead, ideas are discussed, debated, and critiqued. The emphasis is on reasoning, presenting evidence from the research literature, and critical thinking.

Student motivation is typically not a problem in these courses. Students who take advanced courses are usually interested in the subject. However, it can be difficult to create opportunities for active learning and provide prompt feedback. Fortunately, there are a few Moodle tools that can help you overcome these issues:

  • Blogs: Critical thinking and analysis of theory typically require periods of private reflection along with public discussion. Encourage students to actively engage in these activities by providing them with the opportunity to blog about the course topics. Having students keep a blog in Moodle rather than a journal on paper allows you to give them feedback on their entries without interrupting the writing process. You can encourage students to use their blogs by bringing the most insightful or interesting entries for discussion in class or a forum.

  • Databases: One of the hallmarks of most theory courses is a large amount of reading, usually from original research. To help your students keep on top of the reading, create a database and ask them to submit a short summary or abstract of the papers they read. This strategy will reward them for keeping up with the reading and encourage them to actively engage with the reading. It will also provide the students (and you) with an annotated bibliography at the end of the course.

  • Choice: As stimulation for conversation, include a choice each week. Poll the class about a controversial point in the reading or discussion. Combine this with a forum asking students to explain their responses.

  • Forums: Forums are one of the keys to a successful discussion course. Forums allow students to compose their thoughts and focus on the content of their responses. Encourage careful, well-reasoned postings in the forum by scoring posts. Encourage more active engagement by assigning groups of students as moderators for different topics.

  • Wikis: A class wiki can be used to create a shared understanding of the ideas under discussion. After each discussion, students should be encouraged to share their notes on the course wiki for other students to learn from their perspectives on what was important or interesting. At the end of the semester, students will have a synopsis of the entire class to take with them.

  • Roles and capabilities: In a theory course, the collaborative construction of knowledge and artifacts is the most powerful method for engaging students. Students can create activities, artifacts, and other materials for each other, developing their critical-reasoning abilities through the creative development of learning materials for other students. In a theory course, you can override the student role at the course level to enable students more permissions throughout the course, then set role overrides in those areas where you need to restrict their access. This encourages students to actively construct the course web site for each other.

Capstone Course

Capstone courses are usually focused around a final project that requires students to demonstrate what they have learned during their course of study. In graduate school, these courses are focused around a thesis or dissertation. In undergraduate study, students are expected to produce a paper or other artifact. These project-based courses present challenges for both the instructor and students. Students need to be able to apply skills they may have learned several years ago, and may have not used since. Instructors need to ensure the project is stimulating and interesting. Moodle can provide activities to meet these challenges:

  • Assignments: You can help students structure the task by assigning a set of deliverables over the course of the semester. Each deliverable should be a one- or two-week project you collect with an assignment. For example, if students are writing a paper, you could collect an annotated bibliography, a subject proposal, an outline, a couple of early drafts, and a final draft.

  • Messaging: Use messaging as a private feedback channel so students can discuss their work. As they work on each section of the project, they will need to ask questions about the assignment and their performance. A record of all discussions is kept in the message history for each student.

  • Blogs: Part of a student’s capstone experience is reflecting on what he has learned over the course of study. Blogs can act as a tool for reflection and as a project notebook. Encourage students to use their blogs for both activities.


This chapter enlightens few design patterns in which you can deploy Moodle to develop an effective course design for your class. These design patterns are abstract starting points for designing a solution that works in your class. We’ve tried to recommend patterns that we have seen work, or that other researchers have reported to be successful. They are not the final word on effective course design by any means. But they can provide a useful starting place when thinking about how to use Moodle to promote learning in your course.