Small things, big impacts

Featured instructor: Roland Vegso

During the pivot to online education in Spring 2020, Professor Roland Vegso converted his Literary and Critical Theory course from face-to-face to an online course. He prioritized small organizational features that ended up making a big difference for his students. The following video tour of his course addresses five core ideas: organization and removing barriers to student learning; establishing instructor presence; building community; using technology intentionally and effectively; and small tips that help instructors teach and students learn easier.

When we create our online classes, we know exactly where everything is in the course site. The organization, navigation, and instructions make perfect sense to us. We know when we intend to communicate with students or grade their work, so we’re not worried about it. But when we put the shoe on the other foot, when we are the student in an online environment that we did not design, we have rather a different experience. Suddenly we may be confused about the layout of the class. We may not understand the scoring system. It may not be clear where to submit an assignment or when the test will be open. We might be waiting for an answer from our instructor, with no sense of when or whether we’ll hear back. We can experience a million little anxieties when we take a class online.

Darby & Lang, 2019, p. 206, Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes

Darby also notes that currently most instructors teaching online have not taken many online courses (Darby & Lang, 2019, p. xix). Consequently, teachers may create great content, but not realize that the navigation of the course itself has a profound impact on the student experience, including students’ ability to learn the content itself.

While learning in an online environment, a student’s brainpower is split between 1) the logistics of finding and using the learning materials in your course and 2) processing the concepts you present in auditory and visual means. The demands of the learning environment are called "cognitive load." Best practice recommends reducing the extraneous cognitive load to free up cognitive resources for learning.

This video points out a few simple ways to use the module format in Canvas to reduce cognitive load by improving course navigation, so students have more available processing capacity for the content (Zheng, 2009).


Darby, F., & Lang, J. M. (2019). Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, Jossey-Bass.

Zheng, R. (2009). Cognitive Effects of Multimedia Learning. IGI Global.

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