Toward a Definition of Design Principles for Online Educational Environments

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Physical and Online Space: an Architectural Parallel

A parallel can be made between physical and online environments by analysing how space is constructed, populated, and used. Once a parallel is established, the design of online environments can be treated similarly to the design of physical places, in terms of construction, distribution, access, and maintenance.

The following table shows a direct parallel between some architecture and design related activities performed in the physical and online space:

Activity Physical Space Online Space
Portability of entities Rarely possible (for buildings) Possible
Modification of entities Slow, expensive Fast, cheap
Reversibility to original state Rarely possible, very slow Possible, fast
Distribution of elements (geographical organisation) Continuous Discrete
Parties involved in the design and building process Multiple, often in conflict, often difficult to access Reduced, easily accessible
Length of negotiation process Long Short
Design responsibility Shared with local governments Shared between system managers (co-ordinators) and users

Table 1. Activities in physical and online space

Architectural designers can have an active and important role in the construction of online environments, for several reasons:

The design of online places can be approached as an architectural task also because it involves the production of an environment that creates a sense of community. Designers must heuristically assemble functionalities and comfort, plus take into account content, in place of structure. Normally, when we walk around buildings we are not overcome by structural details that may interfere with the normal activities in the building. Similarly, technology should not interfere with the regular conduction of activities in online places.

Elements of online design can be compared with their physical architecture counterparts, and implemented specifically for the online medium, as shown in the following table:

Online elements Architectural counterparts Realisation
Quantitative relationship between information and layers of access How many "rooms" (links, pages) must be crossed before reaching the wanted one Reducing the number of passages (eg. "clicks" ) to reach wanted information
Organisation in areas of similar functionalities Classical function based organisation: day/night, public/private Indexing of information
Possibility to contact or isolate oneself from others Division of the inside from the outside Enable privacy (eg. with encryption), build forums-like environments (both synchronous and asynchronous)
Level of user engagement in the place design Personalisation of space Let users decide what to put in their personal places
User’s ownership Ownership of the place, personal effects Give users total access and control over their "real estate"
Comfort in inhabiting the place (moving around, participating in activities, and similar) Elements of comfort, such as, materials, furniture, textures, colours Provide a series of items that can be used when designing a place (eg. colour schemes, graphic design elements)
Possibility of transforming and evolving for collective purposes Community feedback on planning decisions Provide forums to discuss changes related to a site design

Table 2. Online elements and architectural counterparts

Educational environments pose themselves to be very good examples of how design principles can be used to obtain environments that facilitate and encourage a specific set of functionalities. Educational strategies are moving from being fixed and parameterised – that is with very static educational goals and traditional techniques – to being driven by self-discovery and personal goals.

These changes in the way knowledge is approached need to be reflected also in the kinds of online environments that support educational initiatives. Designers must redefine and generate a set of principles to be followed when designing online educational environments, as much as there are principles of "good design" that are followed in the design of physical places.

Some Principles of Online Learning and Training

The online learner likes to be at the centre of the learning experience. One of the main differences with traditional learning techniques is that each learner can now choose the what and when, sometimes even the how. As long as a central "spine" is provided – this is a central thread that functions as a path, so the learner can understand in full where she is going and what she is doing – and educational material is organised to be easily accessible from various branches of the spine, the learner is left free to move around, choosing the modalities of her learning experience. Relational databases can greatly help in the production of educational material that is tailored "on the spot," according to each learner. Databases serving web pages for educational purposes should be designed in conjunction with educators, keeping in mind the organisation of course content and the learning experience.

Organising levels of content from easy to difficult, skipping, browsing, and dynamic exercises, which allow to understand the solution process beside knowledge transfer, are the keys to flexibility and efficiency. The presence of a tutor who gives feedback and puts the learner on the right track is probably the most difficult "translation" in an online learning experience. Although online learning environments provide synchronous tools that can be used to communicate directly with tutors and co-ordinators, research shows that web based courses may not provide the quality and quantity of information that a learning experience requires, through teacher immediacy (La Rose et al. 1988). Seeking a replica of face-to-face lectures in an online environment, could be very time consuming, and likely to be unsuccessful. Instead of trying to re-create real life situations, efforts can be directed toward extending and integrating access to information in its various formats – video, audio, streaming media – some of which can support synchronicity.

The success of a learning experience greatly depends on the integration of information formats, and the quality of access that leaves the learner with the highest freedom to choose what, how, and when.

Some Design Principles for Online Educational Environments

The first principle is to design an environment that integrates all the possible channels and formats used in the learning experience. To do so, using a single cross-platform "means of transport," like the World Wide Web, facilitates integration and user access.

There are two main components in the design of an online educational environment:

The visual layout

Having a user-friendly interface always facilitates content accessibility and maintenance. Online environments are highly visual places that are almost always accessed using the "click and go" metaphor: click, if you want to see some more. Thus, the visual layout is a high priority, as it is the door through which content is accessed.

Pleasant graphic design and intuitive navigational tools should be designed to be coherent with the course content and activities. For example, a high concentration of information on a web page can be made clearer by the use of coloured paths that gather under the same colour the same kind of information. Or, once some content, like subsequent sections of learning material, has been viewed, that content can be made "less accessible" by colouring it in a more neutral colour, or pushing it at the bottom of the list.

Visually, it should be clear at a first glance what content appears on a web page, and how to find more information on a particular issue. Learning occurs in stages, and having each stage clearly distinguished from another helps the learner to know what she has done, and she is going to do in the future. Mapping the course content through visual items is one way of providing an orientation for learners.

A good visual layout for online learning environments uses few constant colours and text fonts, and avoids confusing the learner with information not related to that particular stage of learning.

The information architecture

Information related to a unit of study is articulated in two big categories:

A clear map of administrative and educational content, and an indication on how to reach the information or tools needed, makes the online experience easier and thorough.

database_ts.jpg (18792 bytes)Databases are of great help in organising and retrieving information, through query and input forms. Almost all kinds of databases can now be accessed through a network, allowing a considerable range of operations and good levels of control.

Using web pages designed ad hoc to interrogate the database used for a particular unit of study, it is possible to dynamically generate pages with course content and administrative details. The freshest information is always available, it can be customised according to each learner’s needs, and it can be easily maintained by a number of users. Online learning environments should look at database applications that enhance the interactivity and the personalisation of the environment.

An important driver for the design of online educational environments is, precisely, customisation. Since the learner wants to decide the when and how, she should be given the possibility to operate on the quality and quantity of information on which she is working at a particular time. In static environments – where the content is not dynamically generated "on the spot" by database access – there is the disadvantage and inflexibility of freezing a situation which might not be the best for the learner. Since the nature of the computer medium allows excellent flexibility in the organisation of content, online educational environments should take full advantage of this flexibility and design interfaces with the highest possible level of interaction.

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Compared to other forms of computer-based learning, online education has got the big advantage of being

As we are seeing online education growing very quickly, there is the increased need to identify design principles for organising the educational content. These principles can be found by looking at metaphors, such as the architectural metaphor, that offer design techniques (Cicognani 2000).

If on the one hand it is very important that information is presented clearly to the learner, using correct visual design techniques and simple interfaces, on the other the organisation of information must reflect an order in the way content is presented and accessed. Databases greatly help the production of dynamic learning material without interfering with the learning experience. Design activities should look at both sides to achieve the immediateness and effectiveness that online learning requires. While offering increased flexibility and personalisation, online learning can at times become frustrating if the technology is shaky and inappropriate. Too much information also creates semantic pollution that should be avoided if educators want an effective and decisive take off of online learning.


Cicognani, A. (2000) Architecture for Online Environments. In B. Kolko (ed.) Virtual Publics: Policy and Community in an Electronic Age (in press). New York: University of Columbia Press.

LaRose, R., Gregg, J. & Eastin, M. (1988) Audiographic Telecourses for the Web: An Experiment. Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, 4 (2). Retrieved on 1 October 1999 from the World Wide Web: