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The importance of structure in your online learning environment

At this time of year gardens are springing into life. All around us we see magnificent displays of flowers, often in what on the surface appears to be a jumbled mass of colour and form. However, if we look closely we can see that what at first glance may appear to be a careless array of plants is actually a carefully designed display, with a clear structure beneath. Every garden is unique, combining the characteristics of its many plants into one glorious experience, but the best gardens are built on a defined structure.

Similarly, every lesson is different - every class, every student, every teacher - and once you bring them all together that is when the magic of the classroom takes place. By its very nature, teaching and learning is a ‘messy’ process and it needs to be in order to allow everyone involved to take part fully. But this apparent messiness is only possible because of the carefully thought-out structure underlying it.

Such a structure exists at two levels - the curriculum and the lesson. A solid curriculum design ensures that there is continuity throughout the course, allowing the student to progress logically, with each lesson following on naturally from the previous one. Topics and themes are scaffolded so that the learner is able to build on their understanding and have the skills to apply their knowledge successfully.

Lesson structure lets the teacher lead their students through the content to be covered so that they are not overwhelmed, and have the support they need to make progress. A variety of materials and activities are used to engage learners, challenge them appropriately and help them learn from each other.

Technology and edtech in particular can provide a solution for the management and organisation of curricular and teaching resources and can provide a format to mirror their structure. However, this needs careful thought and design if it is to be useful for teachers, students, and parents. 

Start with a plan: In any good design, form follows function so start by thinking about the purpose of your online environment. Is it to be a document repository, an online learning environment, a parent engagement portal, or some combination of all three? The structure you create needs to support your end purpose right from the beginning.

Keep it simple: There can be a tendency to try and cover everything right from the start, but this does not always bring about the best results. Stay focused on the purpose you defined previously and get that established first. Once you are ready you can start to add to your structure, but make sure you don’t just ‘bolt’ sections on as you need them - have an ongoing development plan that has simplicity at its heart.

Be consistent: Whilst you may know where you keep resources, you need to make it easy for teachers, students and parents to locate them as well. The best way to do this is with a consistent and coherent structure across different areas. Make it easy for them to learn how to navigate your site, rather than having to understand all of the different sections.

Consider your audience: Use access permissions in your online environment to stop it becoming too cluttered for each user. Students in Year 11 probably don’t need to be able to view materials designed for Year 7 so make sure that only the relevant resources are available to different groups. This will ensure that navigation stays clean and simple and is not overwhelming for the user. Present your learning materials in manageable chunks that follow the structure of your courses and lessons - it is much easier to go to one place for everything I need for a particular lesson, rather than having to find and open multiple files, documents, and presentations. 

Keep things tidy: Make sure you keep everything manageable with regular ‘pruning’. There will be resources that are used year on year, but to stop them getting lost in a mess of resources it is important to review your content and remove anything which is no longer used or required. This will stop your learning environment from becoming overgrown and difficult to navigate. The harder it is to find a resource, the less likely people are to look.

A good structure will ensure that you are able to use materials again and again, with different classes year on year. Teachers will find it easier to collaborate with each other, students will be able to access the resources they need and parents will be in a better position to support their children in their learning. Like any garden, the structure underlying it might not seem prominent or exciting from the outside, but it is the foundation that allows the contents to be used to best effect and stops it from becoming overgrown and ultimately unusable.

“A garden requires patient labor and attention. Plants do not grow merely to satisfy ambitions or to fulfill good intentions. They thrive because someone expended effort on them.”

Liberty Hyde Bailey

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