Course Formats in Moodle

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Summary: Of the five types of course formats available at University of Minnesota, the default Topics format with all sections shown on one page is often the best choice. You may have context-specific reasons for choosing one of the other four formats.


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The University of Minnesota Moodle instance includes five course formats that affect the layout and navigation options for your course website. Ever wondered which of these five is best? This article provides a framework for thinking about this critical decision.

Topics format

The default course format when you request a new U of M Moodle site, the Topics format is implicated in creating the “scroll of death” for students. However, it is the format of choice for a user of adaptive technologies. The Topics format comes in two “flavors”. You can show all topics on one page (the long scroll), or one section per page, which looks like this:

Topics format showing one section per page. The general section is exposed and all topic sections are collapsed. A screen notation gives a summary of the activities located within each section. 

The Topics format lets keyboard-only users navigate course pages just as quickly as those using a mouse. Since topic sections are clearly labeled, keyboard users are able to scan through the contents of a course homepage and use their browser’s page search function (command F on a Mac or control F on a PC) to quickly find what they’re looking for.

To maximize accessibility using the Topics format, make sure sections are clearly and accurately labeled, corresponding with the units or dates of class meetings as listed in your syllabus.

The “scroll of death”--where all your course content is displayed on the main page of the site and gets longer as the semester goes on--can cause anxiety, particularly for people with hidden disabilities. To control it, consider these techniques:

  • Use the Page tool to write an extended message to students describing that week’s activities
  • Group activities by week, unit or topic, rather than by activity type (e.g., don’t put all the readings in one section, all the presentation slides in another section, etc.)
  • Ensure you refer to each activity by the same name every time you refer to it; even slight variations, such as calling it “Journal Assignment” in the syllabus and “Journal Activity” in the Moodle site, can cause confusion.

Explore the activity autolinking filter (Administration > Filters > Activity names auto-linking) as a way to automatically create links around your Moodle site, which can help students to search for specific course activities. See activity names auto-linking in action in this video:


Flexible sections

The Flexible Sections format functions similarly to the Topics format but with the additional option to nest topics under a larger parent unit, for example if you wanted to place several weeks’ worth of subtopic materials under one parent topic. When not nested, topics can be collapsed to mitigate long scroll:

If set up correctly, a course that utilizes Flexible Sections can be accessible. Give topics descriptive names that relate to their content, and use parent topics (the top level, under which others are nested) as a place to store content that will be used in multiple subtopics in order to make that content easy for students to find. 

Flexible Sections does, however, present three fairly significant usability issues: 

  • Collapse/expand visual cues. Unlike the instructor view, there is not a visual cue for students that alerts students they must click to expand a collapsed section. The collapsed content looks like a hyperlink, and some students might miss material that is located in a collapsed section. 

    Whatever state the section is in on the edit side for instructors (expanded or collapsed) is the state that appears for students. So if you use flexible sections, be deliberate and predictable about which sections you leave expanded and collapsed.
  • Navigation. Backward navigation out of topics that are nested under more than one layer does not show students how many levels “down” in the nesting structure they are. In general, the visual nesting cues rely on minimal indentation on the course home page, making it difficult to tell what topics are nested under what. The visual confusion is compounded by additional use of page labels, which can look like expanded section headers. If you use flexible sections, minimize the use of page labels to group sections of content within a single topic, as well as the number of levels of nested topics.
  • Page search. When items are collapsed on a page, students can’t do a page search (command F on a Mac or control F on a PC) to find content they know is somewhere on the page; they have to find the section that contains the content they’re looking for. If you use flexible sections, make sure to also activate the Activities side block, which gives students an alternate method of locating course activities.


Onetopic format

The Onetopic format essentially functions like a Topics formatted course page with all topics collapsed and displayed as tabs. Like Topics format, Onetopic comes in two “flavors”, either show all sections on one page, or one section per page. However, the “show all one sections per page” is a misnomer; showing all sections on one page results in a set of tabs displayed at the top of the screen, with the general section displayed beneath them. Students can navigate to sections either by clicking the tabs or the alternative navigation arrows at the bottom right of the screen.

Onetopic format showing one section at a time places the general section at top and displays it at all times, while students can click into tabbed sections located below the general section.

Both flavors of Onetopic format greatly reduce the amount of content that the student initially sees when they access your course site. The tradeoff is that it also prevents them from being able to do a full page search to find what they’re looking for; they need to be on the topic tab that contains the activity they’re looking for.

The Onetopic format is also difficult for keyboard-only users because they must navigate through every tab before they can access the content of the page every time unless they use the control/command + F function.

Single activity

The Single Activity format is the simplest format available; it allows you to display to your students just one piece of content, usually a discussion forum. You would use this format only if you really only have one activity that you will want students to access during the course.

Weekly format

The Weekly format functions exactly the same as the Topics format but autofills the weeks of the semester based on a start date, rather than allowing you to provide unique topic names for each section. The Weekly format relies on students remembering precisely when the content was presented to them. For this reason a page created using the Topics format with accurately named topics may be more accessible than a Weekly format course page.

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