Organizing LMS and Website Navigation

Helping your students find the right page.

Ryan Edel | 08/24/2023

Clearly, a website needs a clear layout.  Visitors need to know where to go, especially when it's an educational website.  My students visiting the site need to know which pages to visit and in which order, especially since they need quick access to the concepts and assignments specific to that week.  But what's the best way to make that happen?

Key Highlights

Navigation Is Key...and Maybe Impossible?

Organizing Thoughts for Others

When setting up online courses on a learning management system (LMS), it's essential that every page be clearly labelled.  To make this happen, you need to do some backwards planning in course design, and from there it feels relatively simply to set up everything.

The difference with websites, however, is that they don't have the preestablished structure of an LMS.  With websites — especially on platforms like Google Sites — you have the freedom to set up whatever navigation system you like.  The benefit is that you can make it look pretty and potentially more user-friendly than your institution's LMS — the downside is that your students aren't already familiar with the structure, so it takes more work to ensure your website actually makes sense.  And in looking over early pages on this UDL site, I'm secretely horrified by how poorly I put together some of these pages.

The LMS Advantage: The System Organizes Everything

With a teaching website, part of the challenge comes from the fact that there are three main types of pages to include:

In this setup, you want to build a linear order for students to access all their material — you don't want them flailing around in search of tonight's homework.  LMS platforms are naturally built to accommodate this need — assignments, quizzes, discussions, and informational pages all have their specific link types, often with icons.  Additionally, many platforms provide modules so you can arrange these different pages in the order that students would need to access them.  Students simply scroll down the long list of course materials, click on the link for today, and that's it.

Because an LMS platform already integrates vast quantities of data to calculate student grades and control access, most platforms also include a calendar to show assignment deadlines, often across multiple courses.  If an instructor designs a good course with assignments and deadlines, a student doesn't even need to go to the specific course shell to see which assignments are due when.  And if you change a due date, it automatically updates the calendar or perhaps even sends out a notification.

LMS Disadvantage: Hard to Share Materials

For online learning, those functions are absolutely essential, and for in-person courses they can significantly streamline communication.  But privacy concerns keep these functions limited to your current students — with Canvas, I've noticed that links to many resources and videos I uploaded to Canvas for past courses are simply not available to students in new sections, even when I've copied an entire course.  This gets very frustrating after I've put in the hours of work to craft a course.

Additionally, an LMS puts you at the mercy of your institution.  This semester, I realized that all the Canvas courses I built at Heartland before Covid simply don't exist in the system anymore.  I'm not heartbroken because most of those materials got copied into my more recent courses, but I know I lost some materials.  If those were my only copies, I would be rather upset.

This issue becomes even more acute if you switch institutions.  When I worked at Illinois State University, we used Blackboard and ReggieNet (built from Sakai), and I no longer have copies of any of the materials I typed into those programs.  At that time, I didn't use online materials nearly as often as I do now, but I did build a couple online creative writing courses.  Had I been more conscientious, I might have typed those materials first in Google Docs and then copied them over, but I wasn't thinking that far ahead.

LMS Resources

Whatever school you're teaching at, you likely have access to a specific LMS for that institution.  But in case youre institution doesn't have an LMS or your teaching your own courses on the side, here are some LMS platforms worth considering:

Canvas Free-for-Teacher offers a free preview tool to provide students with content and assignments.  I'm not sure if the free version offers as many tools as you would need, but it would be a great way to get to know the system.  Canvas is the system used here at Heartland Community College.

Moodle for Download and Paid Moodle Cloud offer a relatively easy platform for your teaching needs.  Moodle was one of the first LMS platforms I ever used, and it took time to manually install it on my personal website.  For security and ease of upgrades, I would recommend a cloud hosting solution, but you do have to pay an annual fee.

Google Classroom is the platform I use at YouthBuild McLean County, but the free edition is only available to qualifying educational organizations.

List of 25 Free Learning Management Systems on EdApp.  No, I have not tried all these systems!  But this looks like a helpful list for both teachers and organizations.

Websites: Freedom and Sharing Require Responsibility

A Good Page Is a Page Users Can Find

This is not to say that I made a terrible website — it's just not very user friendly.  For example, I found three really great pages about Multimodality, but they aren't linked together, and I don't know if any other pages on the site link to them.  The page I put together explaining sources as related to Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" is another thoughtful and well-researched page, but I couldn't figure out where it's actually placed on this website.  Sure, I can find it an edit it, but is there a way for students to find it?  Or do I need to provide a directly link from Canvas?

Linear versus Webbed Curriculums

An LMS offers a linear setup for courses — resources are listed, and students click on a title.  This is partly to streamline navigation, but it also makes sense due to privacy and the linear nature of teaching — every student will access every page in order, and you don't want students from other courses to access those pages.

For websites, however, you're not limited this way — you can set up courses that access the same resources.  But when you do this, linearity is lost.  If I have an English 101 and 102 that both use the same Multimodality page, then students who land on that page don't have an easy way back to the course.

I see two potential solutions for this:

Those Multimodal Pages

Navigation Styles

Method 1: Lists with Units and Topics

One of the easiest approaches is simply to list each unit, and then give each unit two or three pages to cover the concepts and assignments.  Naturally, the unit page would provide a short overview with descriptions of each link, and but you could easily skip ahead if needed.  On a smartphone, this setup creates a nice, smooth vertical list, but the list can look strange if the screen size scrunches the units together in an uneven manner.

Here's an example of how that would look:

Unit 1

Unit 2

Unit 3

Method 2: Buttons

In terms of visual appearance, I'm very fond of buttons.  They look great on almost any browser, plus the larger size makes them easier to use on tablets and smartphones.  They do, however, take up a lot of room, and this limits the amount of text you can fit into the link.  Also, Google Sites doesn't let you adjust the font size inside the button, so the only way to indicate button importance is by adjusting the size...but you can't have different-sized buttons in the same column, so forget the gentle hierarchy of topics I built above.  Also, every button requires a URL, so that can get in the way of aesthetics.

In this example here, I've mixed buttons and headings to visually indicate that the user is on Article 3.  (In reality, there is no page for Article 3.  I have no idea why I never made one.)  Notice that the four buttons look very good, but these four links take almost as much froom as the nine links I would have above.  Also, the screen size could lead to uneven scrunching.

Method 3: Dropdown Menus

Dropdown menus may offer the most elegant solution.  You could easily have a list of eight units or modules, and then students could click on the one that's most applicable.  With this approach, the material under the dropdown could be as long as you like since it won't clutter the screen unless a student clicks on it.  I think this could be especially useful for a syllbus, since it would save the time of having to navigate through a whole document or a massive series of webpages.

This approach does take far more room than the other methods, but it also allows for the largest quantity of text.  The dropdown headings are very well spaced for easy navigation, and this allows for much longer titles than you get for either the unit lists or the buttons approaches above.  And since everything is tucked away until a student clicks on the unit, you can give full descriptions for each link, and this may help with navigation.

In the preview screens, this approach provides the most consistent look across devices, so I think I may have to start using this more often.

Unit 1: Primary Sources

Unit 2: Multimodality and Article 1

Unit 3: Multimodality and Article 2

The Verdict?  It Depends.

So is there a single best approach?  I think it depends on what you're going for.  If you have just a few links, then I'd recommend the buttons — they work great for just three or four pages that students will go through.  The short list approach of Method 1 works well if you have a moderate number of links — I think this approach can work well with 12-18 links, but anything more than ten will probably look a bit cluttered.  So if you're doing a full syllabus like the modules you build in your LMS, the dropdown menus of Method 3 are likely your best bet.