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Author: Suzanne Zak

With today's technologically savvy student, the online learning environment should be an effective platform for course delivery. And it is—for some. But attrition rates for online courses remain high. How is it possible to have a nation of higher-education students who understand how to operate a plethora of ubiquitous electronic devices, yet they cannot figure out where to go once logged into an e-learning class? What are some of the barriers to e-learning that stand in the way of today's tech-savvy students? How can our online courses be designed to help students navigate and complete them?


One of the first challenges for the student in an online environment is understanding the layout of the course. Online learning puts the student in the center or in control of his or her learning (Fee, 2009), both in navigating the course and doing the work. Unlike the traditional classroom, where the instructor sets the agenda for the class and determines the content for that class, in an online environment, the student is in control of the experience. The student must be motivated to log on and navigate the environment in order to achieve the learning outcomes.

Creating and designing an environment that is user-friendly, aesthetically pleasing, and useful seems to be the greatest challenge in promoting student retention and engagement. A study conducted by Robins and Holmes found that, based on appearance, users judge the credibility of a website in 3.42 seconds (Robins & Holmes, 2008, p. 9). Also in these seconds, students respond emotionally to what they see. Images can communicate complex concepts in a succinct manner, yet many online environments focus on written content, using words more than imagery. In addition, students can be overwhelmed when they enter an online course for the first time and see too many assignments or areas to navigate.

Announcements page

To help students with their initial login experience, create an announcements page that includes an image or banner on the top and a “read this first” tab on the left-hand side of the page that provides a general overview of the course environment and demonstrates how the course is set up. It is also helpful to include a short video in this section that introduces you and the course layout.

Many LMSs include a calendar or homepage the students are sent to once they log in. When students enter a specific course, if they see another home page, they can easily miss assignments that are due. In my teaching experience, having the announcements set as the entrance point for the course helps keep students on task. Most LMSs have the ability to email an announcement, so students can be reminded of upcoming deadlines. Having announcements in both places helps students plan (Ishtaiwa & Abulibdeh, 2012).

Consistency is key

With online learning, consistency from the educator and course environment seems to be key in keeping students engaged throughout the semester. Besides the discussion board, emails are the number one source of communication. Online learning environments are largely asynchronous by nature. The advantage to online learning is its flexibility, allowing students access to course information and assignment completion 24/7. While the educator is not expected to be “on” 24/7, timely responses to students' questions, problems, or concerns can help maintain forward momentum. In a regular semester, it is not unreasonable for students to expect a response from their instructor within 24 to 36 hours during weekdays. The more consistent and timely the communication, the better the rapport that develops between the students and teacher, helping students feel connected to the class and content.

Consistency with course content and deadlines is essential for student success. An online course environment typically employs weekly or biweekly lessons. Educators who faithfully stick to their schedules create a consistency for students to follow, enabling predictability to help students keep on task. Students become accustomed to an online rhythm that usually entails reading, watching a video, listening, or writing. It is of utmost importance to keep those tasks consistent throughout the semester.

Three elements of course design that make a big difference in course completion for students include a course layout that is aesthetically pleasing and uses pictures and text, not text only; communication from the educator; and consistent schedules and activities. Keeping these elements in mind will greatly add to the success of your online course!


Fee, K. (2009). Delivering E-Learning: A Complete Strategy for Design, Application and Assessment (1st ed.). Kogan Page.

Ishtaiwa, F. F., & Abulibdeh, E. S. (2012). The Impact of Asynchronous e-Learning Tools on Interaction and Learning in a Blended Course. International Journal of Instructional Media, 39(2), 141–159.

Robins, D., & Holmes, J. (2008). Aesthetics and credibility in web site design. Information Processing & Management, 44(1), 386–399. doi:10.1016/j.ipm.2007.02.003


Suzanne Zak is an Ed.D.C.T. candidate in music and music education at Teachers College, Columbia University.