17 User Experience for Course Websites

Strive to make sure your course website is simple to navigate and your learning materials are easy to find. You can borrow from the field of web usability–with its emphasis on user experience–to learn how to make language, layout and navigation decisions that will naturally create a more usable experience for your students, which will allow them to focus on learning in your course rather than hunting for content.

Creating a usable experience in your online course environment also means you’ll spend less time answering questions.

These best practices show the type of user experience design thinking that can help you understand how to apply a user experience framework to your course design decisions [1]:

  • Create a Start Here page or module to orient students to your course site and how you’ve organized it.
  • Maintain consistent language between the course syllabus and course site, i.e., refer to “Capstone paper” always as that and not, additionally, as “Final project”, “Capstone activity”, or etc. (so students don’t have to wonder whether you’re talking about the same thing).
  • Submit a request to library Course Reserves for links to all library articles which will be easy for your students to access from your online course site. This practice helps the Libraries maintain accurate subscriptions and puts the links at your students’ fingertips so they can spend more time reading and less time searching.
  • Replace course content as needed to address the current literature on the subject.
  • Include your image and contact information in a prominent place either on the main page of your course website or from the Syllabus in the Canvas course navigation, so students know how to get in touch with you.
  • Use text headings to break up content and make it easier for students to find the information they’re looking for (and make sure you follow accessible formatting practices.
  • Use page templates for standard recurring pages (e.g., assignment sheets and module or unit overview pages), to increase predictability; this helps students learn how to learn from your site.
  • Clearly differentiate between required versus optional resources and activities.
  • Write hyperlink text so that it can be understood out of context, e.g., “How to write a hyperlink (PDF)”, rather than “Click here for more information” because links should make sense out of context. (Learn more about accessible hyperlinks.)
  • Include captioned multimedia to give students options for how they will interact with your course materials.
  • Use the Canvas Link Validator to check external links in your course site each semester and run UDOIT to test the accessibility of your entire Canvas course site.

Creating a usable experience in your online course environment also will mean you’ll spend less time answering questions such as, “What are we supposed to do this week?” and “Where can I find the readings?” …which allows you to focus on teaching and interacting with students about content rather than administrative details.

The best practices listed above will require the use of Canvas technical skills, e.g., creating pages and modules, managing files, and utilizing accessibility checkers. For more information and training on these technical skills, see https://it.umn.edu/technology/canvas

Additional Resources


  1. Fandrey, A., & McNamara, A. (August 2015). Web Usability Meets Course Website Usability. University of Wisconsin-Madison Distance Teaching and Learning Conference Proceedings.

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Guidelines for Online Teaching and Design by TeachingSupport@UMN.edu and Faculty Development for Online Teaching task group is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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