VIU Campus

Course Architecture

In the building and construction world, architecture refers to the careful and thoughtful plan behind the design of a structure.  In the higher education world, courses are like buildings; they are structures designed to support and house a variety of learning activities, experiences and expectations.  Instructors design the course before they and their students live in it, creating a blueprint that guides what the structure will look like and how the course will function.  

Learning outcomes, assessment strategies, learning sequences, timelines and expectations are all key elements within a blueprint that require not only thoughtful design, but clear communication. When we design courses, we are creating a blueprint for that structure.

“Architecture provides a sense of place and support of all types of human activity. Architecture helps the man-made fit in harmony with the environment while enriching lives and promoting health and well-being…”

"What is Architecture" - Royal Architectural Institute of Canada

Why course architecture matters

The planning, sequencing and communicating of learning materials and experiences has a significant impact on how students and instructors experience the learning environment.  Well-sequenced and well-crafted course architecture that is clearly communicated makes materials and expectations accessible for students, enabling them greater ease of engagement, a higher level of motivation and persistence, and ultimately a better chance of success in the course.  When course materials and experiences do not follow a well-defined and well-organized structure, or when they exist without a thoughtful blueprint, students and instructors may struggle to follow learning sequences, access course materials, and understand what’s expected of them.  Thoughtful and effective course architecture, on the other hand, results in a more student-centered and accessible experience that increases student engagement and success. 

Considerations for designing effective course architecture

Instructors should be intentional in first identifying and articulating the key design elements in a course. These elements include learning outcomes, assessment strategies (both formative and summative), and the types of learning activities that will be included in a course. The first step in the blueprinting of any course is reflecting on and designing these pieces.  But another important step is ensuring that these conceptual pieces are also communicated to students, most often in the course outline or syllabus.

Instructors should consider the overall layout of a course and how themes, concepts, and time will be organized or “chunked” within a course.  Will the course be divided into concepts? Units? Weeks? What sections will exist within a course, and what will be embedded into each section?

There are no hard and fast rules in deciding on how to “chunk” course material and time other than division of some sort is recommended.  Chunking a course breaks it into manageable parts that are more digestible and more accessible for students and instructors. Instructors will have to decide for themselves what makes the most sense in terms of chunking and sequencing, taking into consideration course material, expectations, timelines, and student needs. But once decided, the chunking should be consistent and shared with students.

One’s course blueprint should also consider the scheduling of various course components, timelines for those components, and any deadlines or key dates.  Instructors should find a way to map out the timeline of a course, and identify when activities and assignments will fall.  Schedules can have some flexibility built-in to allow for shifting processes, and to enable greater accessibility for students.  Organizing and articulating timelines can provide structure and support time management skills that help work toward the achievement of course learning outcomes.

In addition to course content and scheduling, instructors should consider a blueprint for communication.  Key questions to consider include:

  • How and when can students connect with an instructor?
  • What is the turn-around time that students can expect when waiting to hear back from an instructor?
  • What expectations and/or policies exist for respectful in-class communication between peers? With the instructor?

Guidelines can also be co-designed with students during the early stages of a course.  Discussing and co-designing expectations around professional communication and engagement can build shared agency in such processes, resulting in greater buy-in from students, less confusion about expectations, and more professional communication demonstrated in a course. 

Finally, all of these above elements, once designed, culminate in the course outline or syllabus.  This document is in essence a blueprint that structures and communicates course content, goals, expectations, timelines, assessments, and policies.  For more information on how to create a course syllabus that clearly outlines key design components of a course, please see. [link to resources on syllabus]

Tips and strategies for effective course architecture: Online and blended learning environments

In addition to the above tips and strategies, which are inclusive of all teaching environments, instructors teaching in fully online or in blended environments will also want to consider best practices in organizing and presenting course material in digital spaces.

Best practices include:

As mentioned above, chunking material is important to any course structure, but takes on even more significance in the digital world where visual structure is important.  Too much content, or content that is inconsistently chunked, can be confusing or can lead to memory overload or the inability to process material.  Conceptually, material will have to be divided, but instructors also have to pay attention to visually organizing material into visually and cognitively digestible chunks to support student access and understanding of material. 

An introductory module should provide a welcoming overview of the course, and include the syllabus; links to student supports and campus resources; any additional key information; and an option to complete the VIULearn course orientation [link here].

If there are synchronous zoom sessions, embed links to these zoom sessions in the appropriate modules so that students can access them. 

Whenever possible, use the hyperlink function within VIULearn to enable students to cross-access relevant material.  For example, if you are referencing an assignment in a module, provide a link to the assignment information.  If students need to reference a reading for an assignment, provide the link to that reading in the outline of the assignment.  This helps students find and access material quickly within VIULearn. 

Choose a naming convention that makes sense to you, and use it consistently when naming files, materials, and activities.  For example, if you embed reading files into a module, name them something like “Criminology 101. Section 2. [title of reading]. Week 1.  Consistent naming conventions can also support students in accessing materials quickly. 

The checklist tool in VIULearn can be invaluable for supporting students in understanding what is expected of them within a module and helping them achieve success within that module. 

Two VIULearn examples of course architecture

Would you like to take a peek into your colleagues’ VIULearn course shells? In this recorded Show N Share session, two VIU teaching faculty, Ravi Mohabeer (Media Studies) and Stephanie Boychuk (Adult Basic Education) each share and discuss their VIULearn course shells, highlighting how they have designed the asynchronous part of their course. They discuss not only how they structure the course, but the reasons behind the choices they make and their reflections on how it’s going.  An excellent resource that highlights course architecture from the lived experience of two VIU instructors. 

Book a consultation 

CIEL specialists are available for consultations to discuss and support planning and designing course architecture, or to discuss any ideas on this webpage. Please email learnsupport@viu.ca to set up a one-on-one meeting with one of our specialists.