I have been mentoring scores of online instructors using Moodle since the start of the pandemic. One of the main areas of improvement that I suggest for course improvement is reorganizing of their course content. There is a particular need for instructors to step back and re-imagine their courses from a student’s perspective.
To start, I have found that instructors can improve their courses by tightening up the introductory topic. Known as the zero topic in Moodle, the top topic should should only contain important organizational an communication items. These include course, instructor, and institution information. Other items that are commonly found in the zero topics are a course glossary, teacher announcements, an attendance widget, a course forum and a link to a virtual classroom. In my recent experience, I have also found that overwhelmed instructors that are new to online teaching simply populate the zero topic in a chronological order as resources and activities are added. This results in a long list and a super topic at the top of the course in which learners and teachers start to lose track of any structure. Items that have accumulated in the zero topic should be redistributed into the course topics or modules below the top topic or into HTML blocks.
The practical problem with positioning all of the administrative documents in the zero topic is that it becomes bloated and spans the length of the screen. This is amplified on tablets or mobile phones. in Moodle, the zero topic sits on top of the current course topic so students must scroll downward to view their activities and resources.
What is the purpose of your zero topic? When we develop our courses, we tend to add our administrative content at the top as this is the first place that the learners will look for guidance and protocols. Instructors should take a step back and define what should be positioned in a lean zero topic. Lean because it will not occupy too much screen space. As well, the information should be relevant to learning on a daily basis. Otherwise, it may be relocated or compacted in the course.
Possible Zero Topic Reduction Solutions for Online Teachers
Here are some possible ways to reduce the intrusiveness of the zero topic in Moodle courses. These may not be practical for all situations, but some may help learners as they navigate through their courses in the future.
- Use folders and sub folders in the zero topic. Positioning required institutional and departmental documents, such as a course outline or code of conduct, in a single folder in the zero topic can save space in the zero topic. These will also be easily accessible to the students.
- Move file content into HTML blocks. An example of this would be to place all course and server support links in to an HTML block instead of in the zero topic. As well, some Moodle links can be positioned in to HTML blocks such as a link to the course’s virtual classroom tool, Zoom or BigBlueButton, or a course scheduler.
- An obvious action would be to reorganize content placing items into relevant topics and delete duplicated content in the zero topic.
- Make a review topic and move elements from the zero topic into it. This can house summative activities and resources such as course glossaries, review quizzes, or checklists.
- Remove any downward links in the zero topic, any are present, since navigation is taken care of in the Navigation Drawer. There should be no need to have any downward links in the zero topic.
- Change the name of zero topic to make it more relevant. Leaving the top topic as the server default, in our case General, or with no title doe snot inform learners of the purpose of the zero topic.
- Create an archive or overflow topic and position it at the bottom of the course. Redundant resources and activities can be moved into this topic as they have served their purpose. An example of this is a virtual treasure hunt that is intended for the first week of classes. This can be safely stored in the Archive topic and re-positioned at the start of the following term.
- Finally, I have noticed that instructors use labels in their zero topic. While visually appealing in some cases, these do not add to the number of downward scrolls all course participants endure during the term. Possibly these could be removed after the firs week of term to preserve valuable screen real estate for relevant resources and activity links. If a course provides an introductory video/audio to inject a human element in to a course, possible a Moodle a Page could be used as the vehicle to save space in the zero topic
Why not just hide resources and activities in the zero topic so the students will not see them? This is an obvious solution, however, instructors still have to interleave between items in the zero topic, hidden or shown. I guess this is one version of self-help for teachers we read so much about during these times.
The Zero topic is often ignored by instructors as they are focused on instruction and improving the course content and topics while they are teaching. If instructors have time, they should consider viewing their courses at the end of each term to see how they can improve the learners’ experience. An efficient and small zero topic is one way to make their courses more user friendly.