Talking “Templates”

[A friendly conversation about the use of templates in Canvas…and in grocery stores.]

Pen: Hi Todd! I want to talk about templates. As you know, I recently moved to the Seattle area. For the most part, the move has gone smoothly, but I’m really struggling with my new grocery store. Nothing is where it was in my old store! Grocery shopping has become a major drag. It takes about 50% longer to do my weekly shopping and I’m usually grumpy by the time I check out because I’ve had to walk the whole store to find tofu. Part of me wishes that all grocery stores followed the same organizational pattern so I would know exactly where the tofu is in any grocery store I entered.

I think my grocery store troubles might be a good way to think about the issue of standardization in online course sites, specifically using templates to organize courses. You probably like your grocery store.

Todd: Hey Pen, writing this out is a good idea. Thanks for the opportunity.

So, you mean you wish every store followed the same organizational pattern that makes sense to you, today? Should stores in Alabama be the same layout as the ones in Washington? What about small rural stores that do not have the same amount of groceries as their urban counterparts, or that carry completely different types of foods to fit local tastes? How do those get organized? What about stores that have both groceries and hardware items? How do they fit the “template”?

The skill for learners is understanding patterns. All patterns. And not just in the LMS du jour, but in math problems and relationships. It is a deeply valuable skill that is not attached to any “content” or subject area or to the management of learning.

I like the stores I visit. I do not mind “looking” or feeling a bit lost. It is a challenge and opportunity to learn. I do like the metaphor of the grocery store and on a larger level, if they all look the same, where does that stop? As a store owner in Nebraska, will I have to lay out my store just like the store in Connecticut? How far would you take it?

Pen: “Where does it end?” is such an important question!

I study social movements in the 1960s and one of the things many national groups really struggled with was how to balance a desire for “participatory democracy” with the need for effective leadership. Stick with me here…this is actually related to templates! Some groups eschewed leaders altogether and opted to have every issue processed by the whole group. It was often hard to move forward because people were constantly getting caught in the weeds and spending too much time just figuring out how to make decisions. In other words, the structures (or lack thereof) of their environments inhibited their engagement of the issues.

Would I want all grocery stores to look exactly the same…maybe some days I wish for that! No, I’m kidding, I would definitely want to leave room for local variation. But ultimately my goal is to get home so I can start doing creative things with the tofu I bought. That’s what I really want to spend my time doing. Finding a structure that promotes efficiency and helps focus students while also accommodating creativity would be ideal.

How do you feel about using templates in online courses?

Todd: In my experience working with faculty, most faculty want to make courses unique to their vision of the course. So there is that. I have also run into many issues with faculty who get templates, but do not know how to use them. It is kinda like giving someone a car who does not know how to drive. That may seem like a stretch, but the result is the same. There are crashes and emergencies. Students want know where to go and how to get there.

I think we all want to know where we are, what to expect, and how to get to where we need to go. And those are features I think faculty need to create in the courses they build. Do they all do that? No. Will a template solve that? Partly, but with the cost of possible crashes.

I see it as a “give a person to fish and they eat for a day, teach a person to fish… “ sort of scenario.

Can you give me an example or two of how you see templates being useful?

Pen: You’re so right about faculty typically wanting their courses to be their courses. Good on them for taking ownership of what they do!

As my grocery store labors suggest, I’m drawn to the idea of templates. What appeals to me most is the consistency they offer. I’ve taught dozens of online courses and I’ve also taken a few. I would never support an initiative that forced faculty to adopt the same course structure; the structure of a course should emerge from its learning outcomes. But as a student, I really appreciated when there was consistency in the basic LMS menu across courses in the program. No matter what course I took in the program, I knew where the syllabus or Community Forum was going to be or how to get help because the basic menu was always the same. Because I didn’t have to reorient myself to basic functions and resources every time I took a new course, I was able to focus my attention on the content and activities.

As a professor, I loved templates because they usually preloaded a bunch of helpful links into my course, including links to the library, online writing center, counseling office, and tech support, which were all accessible through a “Support” or “Resources” link in the basic menu. The template also helped me keep my course tidy. The templated menu was long enough to be helpful, but short enough to not overwhelm students with options.

Do you see pitfalls in the application of a template for the basic menu? How might other templates go wrong?

Todd: I do if the faculty or students do not know what is in the template basic menu or how to use it. And that does happen. But, I think that we can agree on a template that say, does not have unused elements in it. Or that we will always have “announcements” as the second element in the navigation because it is used often and we think that the most important, and most often used course elements should be at the top of the navigation options. Links to academic and technical help are also necessary in a course and should be easy to find for students.

Or even that the faculty will have a thoughtful, accessible, and meaningful course introduction as part of their course is something I would say could be “in a template.” Seems silly, but even that can be a battle, and my idea of “meaningful” may not be yours…

For me, from the 10,000 foot view, faculty all want to be the choreographers of the learning activities and materials used. Or at least be in control of them. And templates, depending on how they are shared and used, can remove some of that control.

Pen: Yeah, the issue of control is really the nut of it, isn’t it? It makes a difference who develops the template. The best templates will be minimal in nature and will emerge out of inclusive conversations among and between faculty and instructional designers. Developing a template is a process of balancing standardization and variation. The cupcake tin at the top of this post is a terrific visual metaphor for this! While the tin facilitates creating, baking, and carrying cupcakes, it doesn’t prescribe what type of ingredients you can put in your batter or how to decorate your cupcakes. There’s lots of room for creativity and variation.

At the end of the day, if our design process privileges students’ experiences and needs, rather than faculty’s need for autonomy, then the case for using templates is pretty strong.

Todd Conaway is the lead Instructional Designer in the Office of Digital Learning and Innovation and affiliate faculty in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at University of Washington | Bothell.

Penelope Adams Moon is Assistant Director of Online Learning in the Office of Digital Learning and Innovation and affiliate faculty in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington | Bothell. 


Huun, Kathleen; Hughes, Lisa. “Autonomy among Thieves: Template Course Design for Student and Faculty Success.” Journal of Educators Online, v11 n2 spec iss May 2014



“cupcake pan” feature image by Josh May