It’s not uncommon for online courses in higher education to include instructional resources from a wide range of sources. Resources may include digital content from textbooks (e.g. flashcards), images used in campus-based courses, freely available content from the Internet, print or ebooks from publishers, activities pulled from open education resource repositories, and others.  Some of the material is placed within the course environment, some sits outside.

The “cut-n-paste” functionality of the Internet has made this “bricolage” approach to course design easy and, therefore, inevitable. However, the bricolage approach has also increased the prevalence of online courses with weak instructional coherence, coordination and consistency. By relying on materials from a wide range of sources – each built by different organizations, to serve different users, and to fit into different contexts – we, inevitably, decrease the degree to which each unit of instructional material aligns with the other materials. In the end, it’s learning outcomes that are compromised.

Symptoms of Incoherent Course Design

Instructional materials and activities drawn from a variety of sources can differ in a variety of ways that impact instructional quality. Differences include:

  • Level of difficulty. Instructional materials gathered from different sources are designed for students at very different levels of subject mastery and comprehension.
  • Terminology. Different sources often employ different terminology to describe similar information.  While these differences are often small, and may seem inconsequential to subject matter experts, they can easily confuse learners that are new to the curriculum.
  • Pace of instruction. Each instructional element implicitly assumes a certain pace of instruction through which the student will progress through the material.
  • Level of detail/depth. Instructional elements include different amounts of detail. Asking students to move between instructional materials that include different levels of detail may make it more difficult for them to identify what information is essential, and what is not.
  • Organizational principles. Every instructional element is designed to operate in a particular structure and design environments. Pulling items out of one context and dropping them in another adds unintended (and instructionally useless) complexity.
  • Design features. Visual design features, such as use of color and icons, can be used effectively to improve comprehension and ease of use, but they must be applied consistently.

Barriers to Coherent Course Design

In the classroom setting, the bulk of the instruction is created by and funneled through a single source: the instructor. As a result, instructional coherency tends to occur naturally. In online education a number of factors work against coherency:

  • The ease with which we can find related instructional content on the Internet;
  • Confusing regulations concerning use of copyrighted material on the Internet;
  • The inability of institution staff to produce a wide range of instructional materials at a low cost (due, largely, to the lack of economies of scale in the dominant business model of online education);
  • Insufficient incentives for faculty to dedicate additional time to course design and development, given prevailing compensation and incentive models.
  • The lack of professional development resources for instructors responsible for course design.

These inconsistencies make it more difficult for the educator to provide students with coherent and effective learning. The quality of learning can suffer and the need for student support – from the instructor, staff and others – is heightened. Students should be able to focus all of their limited energies on learning, not on trying to understand the different levels, styles, pace, and sequencing in a grab-bag of instructional element. This coherency, in turn, allows the instructor to focus her time on teaching and supporting students, rather than compensating for inconsistent and instructionally incoherent course design.

In a well-designed course, the instructional materials are fully integrated and coordinated, pitched at the appropriate level of difficulty, presented to the learner with the ideal amount of detail, and have consistent design features (color, navigation). Each element in a course should be built according to a single, overarching design – coherent, coordinated, and consistent.


Keith Hampson, PhD is the founder of digital / edu / strategy, a research and consulting service that helps colleges, universities and education businesses develop better strategies for maximizing value. 


  1. __Unfortunately, Policymakers are not held accountable to fully understand these important issues as well as Faculty and Educational Resources Design professionals do. __ “Coherent, Coordinated, and Consistent Design of Online Courses” is a topic that is missing from the agenda at the BCcampus hosted Open Textbook Summit, being held this week. _ _ NOTE: Live Streaming is being provided – Day One of the Summit, Wednesday, April 16, 2014, will be live-streamed 8:30-3:30 PST (Pacific Standard Time). _


  2. Thanks for this, Don. Very interesting.
    Coherency of this type (the term is used in very different ways in education) runs counter to the organization and occupational expectations of traditional higher ed. The institutions are highly decentralized, of course, and this works against providing coherent and coordinated instruction across courses. But, as I tried to suggest in my post, there is inconsistency within each course as well – partly due to the ease with which we can pluck content from multiple sources, and partly due to the need to find “free stuff” to fill our courses because of a lack of sufficient investment in each course.


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