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Editor’s Note: This is a detailed study relating instructional design and preferred learning to effectiveness of online learning. It specifically addresses the use of text, voice and animations on networks with limited bandwidth, and benefits from student feedback through questionnaires and written statements on design elements that contributed to effective learning.


Designing Online Learning Environments
for Distance Learning

T. A. Weerasinghe, R. Ramberg, K. P. Hewagamage
Sweden and Sri Lanka


The design of an online learning environment (OLE) and its content of a distance educational programme can be considered as a major factor in success or failure of the learning environment and the respective learning programme. Therefore, the role of the instructional designers who design online learning environments for distance learning programmes has become demanding. To support instructional designers to be effective, they are provided with instructional design guidelines. However, most of these guidelines are not specific and not easily applicable. Therefore, we were motivated to create sets of icable instructional design guidelines that were easy to follow. We selected an OLE which was already reported as successful in achieving learning effectiveness and student satisfaction. We gathered students’ experiences using the OLE for their studies and analysed the data to find what design components of the OLE led to learner satisfaction, what design strategies and features for learning content led to the learning effectiveness, and whether there was a relationship between students’ learning style preferences and learning design preferences. The findings of the data analysis were presented in a form of instructional design guidelines for instructional designers designing online learning materials for novice online learners following distance learning programmes on computer applications and information technology.

Keywords: instructional design guidelines, online learning, distance learning programmes


Instructional designers can design learning content with media elements like text, images, videos, audio clips. Animations and learning environments can be designed with components such as interactive learning content, activities, discussion forums and quizzes. It is the instructional designers’ responsibility to design learning components and learning contexts with appropriate media elements to facilitate learning (Tessmer & Richey 1997). However, it is difficult to design online learning materials for distance learners who do not have regular contacts with teachers. Instructional designers need to design the learning material not only with target subject content to be studied alone but also with appropriate guidance and support that learners require to do their studies successfully. Also, some researchers claim that most of the e-learning programmes fail as a result of their poorly designed learning materials (Bork & Britton Jr., 1998; Ismail, 2002). This implies that the design of an OLE and its content can result in success or failure of the learning programme and the OLE through which the learning programme is delivered. Successfulness of an OLE can be measured with the students’ satisfaction with the OLE (Levy 2007) and the effectiveness of the OLE for students to achieve their learning objectives by scoring high marks at examinations. Therefore, it is important to study the design components and features of well designed learning materials in distance learning programmes which lead to student satisfaction and learning effectiveness.

There are different findings reported in the e-learning literature regarding components and features of online learning environments which lead to learner satisfaction and learning effectiveness. For example, Rovai and Barnum (2003) report that student satisfaction and students’ perceived learning can be significantly influenced by using strategies that promote active online interactions whereas Ecom, Wen and Ashill (2006) report that they could not find any positive relationship between interactions and students’ perceived learning.

Other than the course components and design features, student’ learning style preferences can also have an impact on the student satisfaction (Piccoli, Ahmed & Ives, 2001) and learning effectiveness  (Kim & Sonnenwald, 2002) in an online learning environment.  Therefore, it is important to consider students’ learning style preferences in designing and delivering online courses (Bostrom et al., 1990). Smith and Woody (2000) suggest that inconsistencies between different reports in the e-learning literature on effectiveness of multimedia instructions may reflect the interaction between the teaching styles and learning styles. When students are not taught but are supposed to learn by themselves, they have to learn with the media and instructions on the distance learning material. Therefore, instructional designers need to know which design components and media elements should be designed for learner satisfaction and learning effectiveness of students having different learning style preferences. Also, instructional designers will find it useful if findings of design experiments in online learning environments can contribute to instructional guidelines to help the instructional designers.

Existing literature provides guidelines to design e-learning materials (e.g. Brown et al., 2002; Goodyear, 2001; Young, 2003). However, Grabinger (1993) reveals that there is a need for empirically based set of instructional design guidelines to facilitate learning. Further, Grabinger recommends three general guidelines; ‘provide macro level organisation’ (organizing the elements on the template), ‘use structure to create micro level of organization’ (use a structure to arrange the learning content on the interface) and ‘provide visual interest’. However, these guidelines lack specific information that an instructional designer can easily follow. Also, they do not specifically target designing OLEs for learner satisfaction and learning effectiveness.  Therefore, a contribution to the field of instructional design would be to provide sets of easily applicable instructional design guidelines with specific information for instructional designers to design OLEs for learner satisfaction and learning effectiveness.

In a previous paper we reported an OLE which was successful in achieving learner satisfaction and learning effectiveness (Weerasinghe et al., 2008). In this paper we discuss the design features, components of the OLE and design strategies used to design the OLE which led to its successfulness as perceived by the students. This paper attempts to provide comprehensive and easy applicable sets of instructional design guidelines for instructional designers designing online learning materials for novice online learners following distance learning programmes on computer applications and information technology.

Design of an Online Learning Environment

University of Colombo School of Computing (UCSC), Sri Lanka, conducts an external degree programme called Bachelor of Information Technology (BIT). UCSC does not provide any face-to-face teaching to the BIT students and, in order to provide necessary guidance and support, UCSC introduced an OLE through a Learning Management System (LMS) at http://lms.bit.lk/lms/. UCSC needs to improve this OLE to provide the necessary support that the BIT students require to complete their degrees successfully. Therefore, the goal of designing our OLE was to achieve learner satisfaction and learning effectiveness where learner satisfaction was measured with learners’ attitudes towards the OLE and the learning effectiveness was measured with how well students could score, at the examinations by using only the OLE for their studies.

The students’ learning experiences presented in this paper were obtained with respect to the learning contents designed and developed for a practical subject of a course in the first Semester of the BIT programme. The learning objectives targeted at the skills and the knowledge enhancement by using the Dreamweaver application to design and develop Web sites. For example learning content on how to create a hyperlink using the Dreamweaver application software targeted the students’ achieving necessary skills to create hyperlinks using the tools available in the application. On the other hand to discuss the importance of creating light weight content for web sites, students needed to acquire some knowledge using the OLE.

Theoretical Perspectives for Designing the OnlineLearning Environment

The online learning materials were systematically designed and developed according to an e-learning content development process which was defined based on a well known instructional system development (ISD) model, ADDIE (Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation and Evaluation) (Weerasinghe et al., 2007). The content development process affirms that online learning content should be designed according to sets of design principles. This paper presents those design principles as design guidelines.

Design guidelines of the OLE were inspired by the principles of the three main directions of learning theories; behaviourism, cognitivism and constructivism. Behaviourism and cognitivism both support structuring of the learning content in small sections, preparing learning objectives and measuring students’ learning achievements based on those predefined objectives (Mergel, 1998). If principles of only these two objectivist theories are considered in designing of online learning content, then the online learning content is assumed to perform as a teacher whose job is to transfer the knowledge to the learners (Phillips, 1998). According to Phillips, the learners in an objectivist learning environment are considered as ‘empty vessels’. Therefore students in an OLE are not supposed to bring new ideas and construct knowledge by active involvement in the OLE.

Learning environments which actively involve learners in constructing their knowledge through their own experiences are designed according to the principles of constructivist learning theories. According to constructivism pre-defined learning objectives are not always predictable and learning is more open to the students (Mergel, 1998). Therefore, learning activities in a constructivist OLE do not aim to achieve a predefined set of learning objectives and it is difficult to design assessments and grade students’ learning achievements in a constructivist OLE.

The design of our OLE was further supported by Gagne’s nine events of instruction: gaining attention; informing the learner of the learning objectives; stimulating recall of prior knowledge; presenting the stimulus material; providing learning guidance; eliciting the performance; providing informative feedback; assessing the performance; and enhancing retention and transfer (Gagne et al., 2005). These were derived from principles of the objectivist theories of learning (Mergel, 1998). By referring to many learning and instructional design theories, Merrill (2002) has reported five fundamental prescriptions for effective instruction (Learning is promoted when learners engage in a task-centred instructional strategy, observe a demonstration, apply new knowledge, activate prior knowledge or experience and when learners integrate their new knowledge into their everyday world.). We found that those prescriptions closely relate with our reasoning of promoting learning in the OLE. Also, our design ideas were nourished by the perspectives of problem based learning and inquiry based learning activities implemented on social constructivist learning settings. However, we did not limit our research to any particular learning or instructional design theory and we did not use any particular instructional design model in designing the OLE and its content.

Learning Styles

There can be learners with different styles of learning in an OLE. A student’s learning style preference can be a significant factor contributing to his/her academic achievements (Cassidy & Eachus, 2000). Therefore, understanding of thelearning style preferences of students helps to design courses to facilitate learning of individual students (Peng, 2002). There are different models to characterise learning styles. Peter Honey and Alan Mumford developed a learning style model with four categories based on Kolb’s learning style theory (Chapman, 2003). The four categories of learning styles are activist, theorist, reflector and pragmatist. According to the explanation done by Honey (2007);

§  Activists like to learn by doing. They like to take challenges and experience new things. They want to try out exercises or participate in activities without thinking of the consequences.

§sReflectors learn by observing and thinking about what happened. They listen carefully to everyone, think over all ideas and repeat the learning when they get a chance to do it.

§  Theorists like to see concepts, models and the overall image of the lesson. The content needs to be presented in an order and explained from the simple things to details.

§  Pragmatists learn best when they are given a chance to practice what is immediately demonstrated or explained.  They enjoy experimenting with new ideas.

Learning Style Questionnaire (LSQ) is an instrument developed by Peter Honey and Alan Mumford to find the learning style preferences of the learners. It has been used and commented as a valid and reliable learning style questionnaire by many researchers (e.g. Allinson & Hayes, 1988; Fung et al., 1993; Owens & Barnes, 1992). LSQ has two versions; one with 80 questions and the other one with 40 questions (40-item LSQ). According to Honey (2007) 40-item LSQ is designed for young learners who are not in managerial roles. The majority of the BIT students who participated in this study belong to the age group of 20-25 years. Therefore, we decided to use Honey’s and Mumford’s 40-item LSQ to identify the students’ learning style preferences.

The online learning content was designed to support learners having any of the four different types of learning styles; activist, reflector, theorist and pragmatist. For example, note pages with full textual descriptions were linked to the main interfaces to support the theorists and activity pages having activities based on the learning content were linked to the main interfaces to support activists.

Instructional Design Guidelines used for Designing the OLE and its Content

The design of the OLE and its content was done focusing on three main aspects; structure of the learning content, presentation of the learning content with multimedia, and design of learning activities and evaluations. In order to help instructional designers in designing the online learning content, UCSC introduced a set of instructional design guidelines for each of those focal aspects. The guidelines were formed based on the previous experience of the UCSC in designing online courses and teaching for several years using OLEs.

Structuring Learning Content:

The learning content was analysed and the learning objectives were defined at the beginning of the instructional design process. The learning content was structured and constructively aligned with the learning objectives according to the following set of guidelines.

  • Display the learning outcomes of the course at the beginning of the course and display the learning objectives of each section at the beginning of its section content. Learning outcomes of the course were shown to the learner on top of the menu page which was named as ‘Topic Outline’ (Figure 1) which listed links to access the course sections. A course section contained lot of sub-sections and the learning objectives of a section were displayed on top of the list of its sub-sections.
  • Order the learning content according to the syllabus - The students received the syllabus once they were registered for the semester. Therefore in order to help them easily find the learning content that they wanted to study, the learning content in the OLE was organized according to the order of lesson titles in the syllabus.
  • Further divide the learning content into small units and place them on an appropriate navigational system - Usually learners start learning with a wide-angle view of the learning content that lacks detail information (Reigeluth et al., 1980). Therefore we organized the learning content from general to detail using hyperlinks. When a student clicked on a sub-section title on the Topic Outline page, it opened a window with three frames showing a list of unit titles on the left frame, the learning content of a unit on the right frame (Figure 2) and site name and main navigation on the top frame. Each unit contains the main page of interactive learning content (MIL page), one or more activity pages, note pages and several other interactive learning content pages (OIL) which contain detailed descriptions of the content on the MIL page.
Figure 1: Topic Outline page

Figure 2: User interface with interactive learning content


§  Add activities to each unit of the learning content. Activities were designed for each unit of the learning content. Students access an activity page by clicking on the activity button (Figure 2) on the appropriate MIL page

§  Add at least one quiz to the end of each section of a course.  Students evaluate their learning achievements after completing a section of the course. There was a link on the ‘Topic Outline’ page at the appropriate course section to access its quiz.

§  Add discussion forums and chat rooms where required. Students access forums and the chat room of the course section from the hyperlinks on the Topic Outline page.

Presenting Learning Content with Multimedia:

The interactive learning content was designed with contexts having features of the “real world” settings (Jonassen et al., 1995) and they were built with different types of media like text, graphics, audio and animations. These were used to gain the attention of learners, present learning objectives and the learning content as described in Gagne’s events of instructions and to design demonstrations and simulations to engage students in task-centred instructional strategies as described in Merrill’s prescriptions for effective instructions.


Stemler (1997) notes that in designing computer based learning content the designers should consider that people read text on a computer screen 28% slower than that on a paper. Therefore, if we place lots of text on one page, the learners have to keep their eyes on one page for a long time and that may strain their eyes. Also, normally learners tend to print out the lengthy text and read them offline rather than reading them online. Therefore, if we need to make learners study the learning content online, we need to limit the amount of text that we place on one page and design the text to make them easily readable. Following are the set of text design guidelines that we used to design our text content.

§ Limit the amount of text on one page - We extracted the most important texts that were needed to deliver information to the learner from the student manual and used them to design the text on the interactive learning page.

§ Divide the text area into blocks of text as needed - In order to make the text content easily readable, we divided the text into blocks and kept space between blocks of text.

§ Use lists to present text if possible or else design the text in short paragraphs. Usually learners make short notes in lists and that helps them to easily read and remember the notes. Therefore, we preferred to design the text in lists. However, we used short paragraphs in places like introductions where explanations should be included. We defined a rule to design text in paragraphs: use not more than three lines of text in one paragraph and use short sentences.

§ Use simple English language - The learning content was designed for Sri Lankan students whose first language is not English. Therefore, we used simple English language to design the instructions in the online learning content.

§ Use a tool tip to explain the technical/scientific terms used in the text area - Technical or scientific words or phrases on the online learning content were explained in tool tips (pop up text label) linked to the relevant words or phrases.

§ Bold key words - We used boldface key words in the text content to make them easily identified and readable. Text on the online learning content was mainly designed in black and different sizes of text were used to differentiate titles from normal text.

 Selecting or deciding media elements/clips:

The media elements should be carefully used in meeting the pedagogical requirements of the course.  Designers of online learning content add audio clips with narrations to their learning materials to support the learners who are already used to learning by listening which is basically practiced in schools. However, the results of a study conducted by Kim and Gilman (2008) imply that simply adding narrations in voice does not enhance learning from visuals. Also, adding audio clips to content makes the learning material heavy and causes access problems. According to Nah (2003) Web users’ tolerable waiting time for information retrieval is approximately two seconds and according to Galletta (2004), if the designer’s goal is to motivate learners to continue their studies in the OLE or revisit the OLE, then the download time should be kept below 4 seconds. Therefore, it is important to design light weight content for Web-based instructional material. Berge (1998) reports that text and graphics can be accessed easily over low bandwidth networks. Our OLE was designed especially for students in Sri Lanka where students have fewer computer facilities and poor network bandwidth (Gunawardana, 2005). For this reason, voice narrations were not added to the online learning content. The learning content was presented using text with animations or graphics (Figure 3). In order to avoid accessibility problems that can be caused by having heavy files, we agreed upon a weight limit for all media elements selected or designed to have in the online learning environment. Other than that the instructional media for the online learning were selected based on the following set of guidelines.

Figure 3: a page with a simple animation

§  Check whether a simple graphic can be used to clarify the meaning of the text - Graphics can be used to create interest in learning and clarify meaning.

§  If not add/design a Flash animation to simplify the meaning of the text - Animations for presenting learning content should be used only where animations are essential.

§  Check the database for available media elements before designing a new one - It is important to maintain a repository of media content used to design learning content. That helps the design team to share and reuse what they produce.


Graphics were used to design the online learning content to create interest in learning and also to simplify the meaning of text. Lee and Boling (1999) report that simple and clear images are more effective for instruction and they can prevent loss of learner motivation while studying with the computer. In addition, we used the following set of guidelines to design the graphics in our online learning content.

In order to make the information on graphics clearly identified by the students;

Use the example on the foreground and non-examples on the background

Use bright colours to clearly show foreground picture while keeping the background in light colours

Use design effects to highlight the idea you want to transfer to the audience

Label the parts of the picture where necessary with clear text

Do not keep illegible or unnecessary text on graphics - When reusing images having text, we need to remove the text if that text is not needed for the new learning content. Text on some images may become illegible when we resize the images for the new design work and we should remove them from the images or replace them with readable text before inserting them to the learning material.

Sometimes we create or find graphics with text on the background and if we place them along with the text content on the learning material, the leaner may find it difficult to read the text. Also, Gestalt theory states that text and graphics should have sufficient differences to make them easily identified separately (Leflore, 2000). Therefore, we have to,

Add picture borders if a picture also contains some text or change its background colour to a different colour which will not negatively influence the clarity of the text on the image or on the text area of the learning material.

Keep some space between graphics and the surrounding text


Images can be used to design animations. However, that may exceed the weight limit of the file that the students can access.  Therefore, images which are used to design animations should be carefully selected.

We used Flash animations to gain attention, demonstrate flows of information, create simulations and to handle the learner-content interactions where animations were necessities to design the learning context. They were designed according to the following set of guidelines.

§  Keep it as simple as possible

§  Add user control buttons (Stop, Play, Replay, Pause, etc) where necessary

§  Do not make your animation play in a loop. Add a replay button to the end of the movie.

Interactivity handling:

Animations can be designed to handle interactivity and according to Dewald et al. (2000) interactivity handling is “key to active learning and reinforcement” (p. 38). However, animations can be heavy and may not be a good selection for designing interactivity needed for some types of learner-content interactions. Therefore, we defined the following set of guidelines and followed them in handling the learner content-interactions in the online learning material.

§  Check whether a simple script can handle the interactivity

§  If not add/design interactivity using Flash animations

§  Check the database for available media elements before designing a new one

Designing Learning Activities and Evaluations:

The interactions on the OLE can be designed to make it highly student-centred (Harasim, 1989). Most of the interactions in our OLE were designed to be associated with learning activities, quizzes and discussion forums.


There were mainly two types of learning activities; activities designed on activity pages and activities designed based on forums. A learning activity on an activity page was designed based on the learning content of the course unit to which it belonged. That type of activity provided an opportunity for the learners to immediately apply new knowledge that they gained from the learning. Activities designed based on the forums were designed having at least some relevancy to the content discussed in a sub-section of the learning content. The instructional design of those activities was inspired by the problem-based learning. They helped learners to apply or integrate new knowledge into the contexts outside the OLE and also to interact with other students and teachers. The activities were designed according to the following set of guidelines.

§  Check whether it helps students to achieve their learning objectives - It was important to make sure it addressed one or more than one learning objectives of the lesson because we designed the learning evaluations targeting at the learning objectives.

§  Design different types of activities - Different types of interactive learning activities were designed using Flash animations and JavaScript or forums in the LMS.

§  Divide complex activities into small activities if possible - Complex learning activities were provided through scaffolding where, at the beginning of a lesson, activities were provided with a guided or help text (Figure 4) and at the end of the lesson activities were provided without guided or help text (Figure 5). These types of activities were given in steps (set of small activities). 

Figure 4: Practice simulation
with guided text

Figure 5: Activity simulation
without guided text
  • If one completing activity leads to another activity, then place them both on an internal navigational structure
  • Give clear and appropriate instructions – The students should be able to clearly understand what is expected from them (what they should do as a whole and what they should post to the LMS). However, if students had questions regarding the activities they could discuss it with others using forums.
  • Add guided or help text where appropriate – If a learning activity was designed based on a simulation, we added guided or help text to motivate the learners to complete the activity. Activities which might need further clarifications for individual students were designed based on forums (Figure 6) and students could ask questions and get help from other students and the teacher.
  • Add relevant feedback for the students’ interactions - Students in an OLE need to receive feedback to their responses. Therefore, we added automatic feedback to most of the activities. The activities which led to learner-learner interactions and learner-teacher interactions where students could receive feedback from the teacher and the other students were designed based on forums in the LMS. 

In addition to activity forums, we had discussion forums (Figure 7) which provided a discussion topic. The students had to learn by expressing ideas, commenting on others’ ideas, asking questions and replying to others’ questions with respect to the topic in the discussion forum.

Figure 6: Activity forum

Figure 7: Discussion forum

Evaluations (quizzes):

We attempted to constructively align interactive learning content on the course units, activities and other components of the OLE with the relevant learning objectives. In order to determine whether students achieved the desired learning objectives, we created quizzes with a set of multiple choice questions. Those quizzes provided an opportunity for the students to evaluate their learning achievements by themselves. 

Our instructional designers did not have much to do with designing the quizzes. The subject matter expert (course coordinator or the person responsible of providing teaching materials to the instructional designers) provided the questions for quizzes and assignments. The instructional designers added them to the LMS. However, in designing a quiz, we needed to make sure we:

§  Used only the questions given or accepted by the subject matter expert

§  Placed the quiz at the end of each course section

§  Added questions to the appropriate quiz. The questions on a quiz should be based only on the course section where it is placed.

Student Experiences using the OLE

In a previous paper we reported that the students of our OLE were satisfied about the OLE and they were managed to learn more efficiently only using the OLE once they got used to it (Weerasinghe et al., 2008). Also, the results reported on in that paper implied that the OLE could support learners having different learning style preferences. In this paper we report;
(1) what design components lead to the student satisfaction towards the OLE and its content, (2) what design features and strategies lead to the learning effectiveness as perceived by the students and (3) whether there is a relationship between students’ learning styles and their learning design preferences.

The students’ experiences were gathered using debriefings and four types of questionnaires;

1.    LSQ: 40-item Learning Style Questionnaire obtained from Peter Honey and Mumford publications- Students rated a set of 40 statements. Each statement asked whether the student agreed or disagreed with it. (The same questionnaire and result sets were reported in our previous paper.)

2.    LEEQ (Learning Environment Evaluation Questionnaire): A questionnaire addressing students’ specific attitudes towards the facilities and features available in the OLE in the LMS.

3.    LCEQ (Learning Content Evaluation Questionnaire): A questionnaire targeting at students’ experience and attitudes towards elements of interactive learning content such as graphics, animations, simulations and activities.

LEEQ and LCEQ were developed by the authors of this paper and they consisted of questions on a Likert Scale, dichotomous questions, filter or contingency questions and unstructured or open-ended questions which let students write their comments freely.

The students’ learning experiences reported on in this paper were gathered from three face-to-face meetings; two meetings during the semester and one after the final examination. The LSQ was distributed among the students during the first meeting which was reported on in a previous paper (Weerasinghe et al., 2008). The students who expressed their willingness to participate in future meetings were invited for the second and the third meetings. Only 27 students participated in all three meetings. Among them, there were 9 females and 18 males and the majority of them belonged to the 20-25 age group.

The students answered the LEEQ and participated in the debriefing session at all three meetings. At the third meeting students answered the LCEQ as well.

The first author of this paper played multiple roles in the design experiment reported on in this paper. She worked as the instructional designer, content developer, the author of the student manual and the teacher of the course. Another instructional designer of the UCSC who was officially responsible for the course development work helped the first author of this paper in packaging and uploading the learning content to the LMS.

Design components that led to student satisfaction

The students’ reports on the LCEQ and the debriefings were used to find the design components and features that led to the student satisfaction towards the OLE.

Student experiences reported on in debriefings:

At the first meeting the majority of the students appreciated the OLE for delivering downloadable student manuals and providing quizzes. However, when moving from the first meeting to the third meeting, the students appreciated the interactive learning content and the forums as much as the quizzes. At the third meeting the students did not even talk about the student manuals instead they expressed their satisfaction towards the components like interactive learning content, private messaging, chat room, forums and quizzes on the OLE. They reported that those components were quite useful in their studies. However, they added that they would have liked to have more scheduled chat sessions and audio-video content.

Student experiences reported on in the LCEQ:

Graph 1: Student satisfaction towards the components of the OLE

We drew a graph (Graph1) based on the student satisfaction towards the components of the OLE reported on in the LCEQ. Students’ appreciated interactive learning content more than the other components on the OLE (Graph 1). The features of the interactive learning content were appreciated especially for their helpfulness and usefulness for learning.

Design features and strategies that led to learning effectiveness
(as perceived by the students):

Structure of the learning content:

At the third meeting the students reported on in the LEEQ that the available navigation structure to access the learning content was quite appropriate and user-friendly. More than 70 % of the students commented that contents in OLE were properly organized on the Topic Outline page (menu page).

Design of the learning content:

About 60% of the students, who participated in the third meeting, reported on in the LCEQ that online learning material had been very useful and altogether more than 96% of the students replied that it had been useful in their studies (Table 1). One student reported, “Studying material gave me a big help that I never expected. When there was a problem we received so many related answers from our colleagues. I would like if this LMS will help us in our future studies too.” Another student noted that she could apply the knowledge she obtained from the OLE in her other studies. She reported, “The LMS content encouraged us to do the BIT exam well. The LMS content was very useful to us. We learned a lot from them. I could use the knowledge I obtained from BIT online learning content in my other exams in IT.”

Table 1
 Students’ appreciation of design elements of the learning content

Online learning content was useful for the studies


Learning Objectives were clear and could achieve them


Online learning content was useful for the studies


Animations clarified the text content


Animations with guided text explained the steps or procedures


Simulations helped to study the lesson


Graphics clarified the meaning of text


The students’ ratings for the design features of the learning content were very high (Table 2). A student who did not attend any formal teaching sessions for BIT degree courses reported: “This was the first time I experience such a learning method. As a student who was totally dependent on the LMS content, I regard that everything in it is good, especially the interactive learning content. It was easy to memorize facts when they were presented in lists and with interactive animations.”

The students found that simulations, other animations and graphics were very helpful to them in learning the lessons (Table 2). Following are three quotes taken from LCEQ.

1.    “Slides were very interesting to see. So, we could study without getting bored.”

2.    “Animated lessons were very good and easier to remember than studying them through notes.”

3.    “Interactive learning contents were very useful to understand the theories.”

The text on the online learning content was appreciated for its simple language, font size and font type (Table 2). Also, the presentation of text content in lists was appreciated by the students.  For example; one student reported on in the LCEQ “OLE presented all the lessons in summaries. Therefore, we could finish the lesson quickly having knowledge about what we saw and read in the content.” Another student reported, “Lesson content was presented in bullets and it is useful to learn without wasting time.”

About 56% of the students found that there was not adequate amount of text on a page and 52% found that there was not enough white space between the blocks of text (Table 2). In the debriefing session students said that there were some pages with too much text. Their comments relating to this problem referred to another course in the LMS but not to our online learning content. However, we appreciated this comment because it helped us to improve our set of instructional design guidelines presented in the next section of this paper.

Table 2
Design features of text

Simple Language


Adequate amount of text on one page


There was enough white space between the blocks of text


Size of the text is appropriate


Font type is good to read the text for a long time


Design of the Learning Activities:

The students of our OLE found that the learning activities on the OLE were quite helpful in their studies (Table 3). Also, according to our students’ reports, they could be online and study using the OLE for an average of 2.5 hours per visit. That can be interpreted as that the students found learning in the OLE interesting and, when the students were given autonomy for their own learning, they could learn for a longer duration of time.

At the first meeting we found that there were only 26% self-studying students who reported that they did not get any formal teaching for BIT degree studies in our sample. However, at the third meeting, more than 85% replied that they were already or could be self-studying students in the OLE. Also, about 96% of the students reported that they could learn actively in the OLE. In elaborating their own replies in the questionnaire, the students reported that OLE made them actively involved in learning with different types of learning activities and they could collaboratively study with other students through forums and private messages in the LMS.

Table 3
 Impact of the learning activities of OLE for learning

Activities were helpful for learning


Activities could be completed after studying the learning content


Forums helped to discuss the learning activities


Forums helped to discuss other learning problems


Practice Quiz helped to evaluate learning achievements


Could actively learn in the OLE


Was or can be a self-learner in the OLE


Maximum duration of learning time per visit


Even though we designed discussion and activity forums we did not design any group learning activities due to administration and online facilitation problems in the BIT degree programme. However, surprisingly more than half of our students found forums helpful for discussing the learning activities with others in the LMS. Also, the students found the forums useful in discussing their problems related to learning. Following are some of the comments given by the students regarding the helpfulness of forums.

1.    “Subject Discussions were helpful to share our knowledge with others and to get more opinions from them.”

2.    “I could ask questions from the teacher and the students.”

3.    “When there was a problem we received so many related answers from our colleagues.”

The students could evaluate their learning achievements by themselves using Practice Quizzes. The students reported that quizzes helped them to study the important areas of the lessons and face the exam confidently. One of the students commented “Almost all the LMS questions were based on the syllabus. When I completed a section I could go to the particular LMS quiz and evaluate my knowledge. That was a huge benefit to me”.

LSPs and their relationship to students’ learning design preferences:

The LSQ (Learning Style Questionnaire) reported that there were 8 Activists, 12 Reflectors, 7 Theorists and 5 Pragmatists in our sample (Weerasinghe et al., 2008). The students’ preferences for design components on the OLE (students’ learning design preferences) reported on in the LCEQ were analysed with the students’ learning style preference (LSP)s. The results revealed that the students had appreciated the features of the learning content which supported their own learning styles. For example, activists were happy about the online learning content because they could do the activities and discuss them in forums with the other students and the teacher; reflectors were happy about the animated lessons which helped them to remember the lessons more easily than the text based notes (shaded area A in Table 4). Further, the students had requested more features or facilities that would again support their own learning styles. For example, pragmatists needed to have more support for the practical activities while theorists requested the UCSC to provide them with a search facility to find text in the learning content (The shaded area B in Table 4).

Table 4
Relationship between the students’ LSPs and learning design preferences






I like online learning material.

Content presented in point form; could learn without wasting time

Could discuss subject problems with the teacher and other students

Could study the lessons with pictures, animations and activities of interest

Lessons in summaries; could study quickly

Interactive learning content; very useful in our studies

Received hands on experience in using software without having it running in the computer

Interactive learning content; could solve our problems


Animated lessons; easier to remember than going through notes


Could do the activities and discuss in forums

Practice quiz and activities; very useful.

The learning content; very clear and easy to understand

Could ask questions from the teacher and students

Interesting and could complete lessons without getting bored.

Encouraged us to do the examination well.

Had all learning content

Practice quizzes;  helped to study the key areas of the lessons and evaluate learning achievements

Simulations explaining how to do the tasks

Could use that knowledge in other activities /examinations

Subject discussions;  useful to share my knowledge and get more ideas from others

Had all learning content we need to study






I like to have some more features /facilities

Add more challenging activities, activities that lead to experiments and group activities


Provide more activities and quizzes


Upload all content earlier so that we can go through them several times before the exam

Upload all content earlier so that we can go through them several times before the exam

Provide more quizzes


Give more support for practical activities


Add search facility to find text in the learning content

Add a help page and a guide to use the LMS

Improvements to instructional design guidelines

The student experiences reported on in this paper assert that we have used appropriate instructional design guidelines to design our online learning content. Further they provided implications to add a few more guidelines to enhance learner satisfaction and learning effectiveness in the future design of the OLE.

Design components that lead to student satisfaction 

The results shown on Graph 1 and the students’ experiences reported on in the debriefings show that student satisfaction towards the OLE was led by its interactive learning content and practice quizzes and learning activities. Learner-content interactions were a major factor in those components. Therefore, our results can be interpreted as that learner-content interactions lead to student satisfaction in the OLE. This complies with results reported by Rovai and Barnum (2003).

Design Features and Strategies that Lead to Learning Effectiveness

Structuring learning content:

The students’ experiences reported on in the LEEQ assured that the contents of our OLE were well organized and placed on an appropriate navigational system. Also, the students of our OLE reported that OLE helped them to learn without wasting time. Therefore, the students’ comments reported on in this paper imply that the structure and organization of the learning content on an appropriate navigational system enabled students to quickly select what they wanted to learn. However, during the debriefings the students requested addition of:

  • student guides to use the OLE, and
  • contact information of student support services like technical guidance to the Topic Outline page.

Presenting learning content with media:

Selecting media for learning:

The students’ comments on the overall functionality of the interactive learning content were mainly focused on features such as learner engagement, interactivity and accessibility of the learning content. Therefore, in deciding what media is suitable for a learning content, the instructional designers should consider whether it;

  • can motivate the learners
  • can entice the learners
  • is constructively aligned with the learning objectives
  • can handle or support interactivity
  • will not exceed the weight limit that the network can have


Text in blocks having short paragraphs or lists with bold key words helped the students to go through the learning content easily and quickly. Further, the reports of our students implied that they were motivated to go through the detailed information and do the activities placed on hyperlinks. However, about half of the students of this study reported that they found too much text and too little white space on the online learning content pages in the LMS (Table 2). Therefore, we added two more guidelines to the set of text design guidelines. 

  • Keep one line of white space between blocks of text to increase readability
  • If main page is having text that cannot be easily accommodated in the available space on the template then redesign the text (Identify the key text and place it on the main page and add the other text to the links on the main page or place the text on consecutive main pages.)


More than 90% of our students found the graphics on the learning content useful for understanding the meaning of the text content. This implies that we have designed the graphics on the online learning material to support learning and it may agree with Carney and Levin (2002) who concluded that carefully constructed graphics can enhance learning from text. However, there were a few students who reported access problems to some of the graphics. This comment helped us to improve one of our design guidelines.

  • Check the weight of the graphic before adding it to the online learning content. If it exceeds 500KB then split it into two using graphic-editing software and add them close to one another on the online learning content.


Almost all the students who participated in this study replied that animations in the online learning material helped them to understand the concepts. Also, according to the students’ comments the simulations on the online learning material enabled them to get the hands on experience in using the Web-design application without even having it installed in their computers. Therefore, the students’ experiences reported on in this paper can strengthen the reasoning of Syrjakov, Berdux & Szczerbicka (2000) who noted that not only the quality but also the efficiency of an e- learning material can be enhanced by using animations. However, the debriefings reported that the students needed more time to read the text on animations. Also, our students’ suggested that if an animation plays text, then it is important to have control buttons to allow them to control the pace of it. Therefore, we added two more guidelines to our set of guidelines to design animations.

Play the text more slowly in an animation which contains text and graphics

Design the animation with steps and add control buttons to allow learners to control the pace.


There were only a few audio files in our learning content. The rest of the audio files were not added mainly to avoid the exceeding of weight limit of the animation file. However, at the debriefing the students replied that they would have liked to have audio playing with animations. Therefore, we decided to improve the last guideline in our list as follows to design the animations for online learning content.

Add audio where necessary if it is not going to exceed the weight limit of the file

Add audio control buttons

Make sure that students without having audio playing facilities can also receive the same message in text or in text and graphics

Designing activities and quizzes:

The results we reported on in a previous paper implied that our students could efficiently use the OLE and its content in their studies (Weerasinghe, et al., 2008). Based on the analysis of student experiences, we can conclude that most of the students found online learning activities (Table 3) and learning content (Table 1) useful in their studies and they could learn actively in the OLE. This implies that our students could actively construct knowledge using the OLE. Even though forum participation was not compulsory for doing the activities, more than half of our students reported that discussions with other students and the teacher via forums were useful in their studies. However, the students’ reports on debriefing revealed that they preferred to have links to access the relevant forums from the interface of the interactive activity or the learning content. This leads us to add the following guideline to our list of guidelines to design learning activities.

§  If a lesson activity leads to a forum discussion, link the discussion to the activity.

§  If there is an activity based on a lesson page or a sub-section of a lesson which leads to a forum, then give the link to access that forum within the learning content itself.

Students’ learning styles and their learning design preferences

Consider the learning style preferences in designing online learning content - By analysing the students’ experiences it became clear that our students appreciated the features of the OLE with respect to their own learning styles. However, according to Honey (2007) students can have more than one learning style preference and their learning style preferences can change over the time. Therefore, it is important to consider the requirements of the learners with different learning style preferences in designing distance OLEs.


An OLE which was reported as successful in achieving learner satisfaction and learning effectiveness was further studied to determine which design components led to the learner satisfaction and what design strategies and features led to the learning effectiveness. Student learning experiences in the OLE were gathered using questionnaires and debriefings. Data was analysed to find relationships between students’ learning style preferences and students’ learning design preferences. We found that our students were satisfied with the design of the interactive learning content, learning activities and the evaluations. Learning effectiveness was influenced by the structure of the learning content and design of the interactive learning content, activities and quizzes. We found that there was a relationship between the students’ learning styles and the students’ learning design preferences. These findings helped us to improve our instructional design guidelines for novice online learners of distance learning programmes using computer applications and information technology.


We received help from the staff at the e-Learning Centre of the University of Colombo School of Computing to carry out the work reported on in this paper. The research was funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.


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About the Authors

Thushani Alwis Weersinghe is a Ph.D. student at the department of computer and systems sciences, Stockholm University and the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), Sweden. Her research area is online learning environments and she has a special interest on designing online learning environments for distance learning programmes. She is on leave from the University of Colombo School of Computing (UCSC), Sri Lanka. She worked as a teacher and also as a Team Leader of the e-Learning Centre at the University of Colombo School of Computing (UCSC).

e-mail: thushani@dsv.su.se. Tel: +468161668

Robert Ramberg (Ph.D. in cognitive psychology) is a Professor in Computer and Systems Sciences at Stockholm University. He is the research director of the knowledge and communication laboratory at the department of computer and systems sciences, Stockholm University and the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), Sweden. In his research he has particularly focussed theories of learning (socio-cultural perspectives on learning and cognition), pedagogy and how these theories must be adapted when designing and evaluating computer based learning and training environments. Of particular interest has been how artefacts of various kinds (IT and other tools) mediate human action, collaboration and learning.

e-mail: robban@dsv.su.se. Tel: +468164914

Dr. K. P. Hewagamage obtained his B.Sc. special degree in Computer Science (First Class Honors) from the University of Colombo and the Doctor of Information Engineering from Hiroshima University in Japan.  Professor Mohan Award for the outstanding computer science graduate in 1994, the best paper award at IEEE  International Conference of Visual Languages in 1999, an award for the excellence in research by the University of Colombo in 2004 and 2006, are some of awards received for his academic activities. He has more than 60 publications in international peer reviewed journals and conference proceedings. He is a senior member of IEEE, an academic advocate of ISACA, a member of ACM and current chair of IEEE Computer Society Chapter in Sri Lanka. Dr. K. P. Hewagamage is a senior lecturer in computer science and the head of e-Learning Centre at the University of Colombo School of Computing (UCSC).

e-mail: kph@ucsc.cmb.ac.lk Tel: +94112581245

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