What is a course? In technical terms it’s considered a unit of teaching, in more practical terms I just see it as content. Text content, image content, video content, quiz content, etc. When it comes to planning your strategy for creating a course the content comes first. That content must be well organized in a manner clear enough for all people to understand. People who will have to write, edit, or otherwise work with the content.
I won’t tell you how exactly to create your content but I can try to help you keep everything organized. Good organization reduces issues. Issues that will arise due poor and unclear communication usually caused by poor organization. Since my role is in production I see these issues all the time.
The first thing you need to decide is your file naming convention. Once decided, never deviate from that convention. When people are looking at digital files they start with a file browser. Microsoft’s Explorer, Apple’s Finder, Google Docs, and Dropbox are all examples of different file browsers. They all have one thing in common and that is that they will display a list of files in alphanumeric order by default. If you start your filenames with numbers they will appear higher in the list than any filenames starting with letters.
You should never use punctuation, spaces, or other special characters in your filenames. They can cause issues or errors on certain operating systems. Mixing lowercase and CamelCase in your filenames will cause issues on Windows operating systems. Microsoft’s Explorer will see MyFile.txt and myfile.txt as the same file.
The only safe non-alphanumeric characters you can use in filenames are dashes and underscores. My_file.txt and my-file.txt are safe. “my file.txt”, my*file.txt, my~file.txt, my.file.txt are examples of dangerous filenames.
If you are using a version control system (good for you!) then you will not need to worry about maintaining many copies of your files and adding version numbers to the filenames. If you must have version numbers in your filenames they should come after the semantic name parts of your filenames.
One way to organize your filenames is to use a date at the beginning. If you go with this convention then the only date format to be used in filenames is year-month-day or YYYYMMDD format. You should never use words for the month or day if you are using dates to keep your files organized though. April comes before January if you do that!
If you are going to use numbers at the start of filenames then you need to consider how many files you expect to have when they are all complete. This will determine how many digits all files will need to have in order to sort correctly regardless of the file browser used. If you will have less than 10 files a single digit (1_image.jpeg, 2_image.jpeg, 3_image.jpeg) will be fine. If you expect to have have more than 9 files then you must use 2 digits (01_image.jpeg, 02_image.jpeg, 03_image.jpeg) with leading zeros where necessary. If you expect to have more than 99 files then you must use 3 digits with leading zeros as appropriate. If you do not use leading zeros, then the default sort order of files can end up like this: 1.txt, 100.txt, 2.txt, 3.txt, 30.txt. They may not sort that way in Microsoft’s Explorer or Apple’s Finder but those are not the only file browsers will be used to view your list of files.
It’s easy to end up with filenames that are too long to read without effort if you aren’t diligent about keeping them short. Long filenames require more time for a human to read than short filenames. Long filenames will also get cut off in some file browsers. If you want a number I suggest keeping your filenames to less than 30 characters – not including the file extension.
Let’s say that you want to create a course about mice. You know that you want to have either unique pages or unique sections to divide your content up. The unique names would be Reproduction Cycle of the Common Field Mouse, Laboratory Mice vs Field Mice, Subgenera, The Diet of Field Mice, and Sense of Smell.
Those filenames are a great start. The filenames are not so long that they are hard to read or might get cut of due to width restrictions on the name column of other file browsers. You might be wondering why I have not used the word mice in every filename. That’s because using the same word(s) in every filename gets redundant very fast. Redundancies like that do not help a human to quickly determine the context they are looking for when trying to figure out what to do with these files. Every character of a filename should convey as much information about the content in that file with as few characters as possible. These files all live in a folder, and the foldername that contains these files has the word mice in it.
Still there is a problem with our current filenames because they are not displayed in the correct order. If I give these files to someone else how are they supposed to know the correct order of my content? The correct order of the content is important for anyone to understand the proper context of things. If you are trying to teach someone how to make a pizza from scratch you don’t want to explain the ideal pepperoni placement before you’ve explained how to make the sauce or dough. I could clearly communicate the order of these files as part of my communication with someone else on my team when these files are sent to them. That’s more time I’m spending communicating via text or voice though. It’s much better if I make the order clear in the filename to help remove any potential ambiguities or confusion in the future.
Let’s say I want Jill Hill to proofread what I’ve written. I can now send these files to her and she won’t have any confusion about what order this content is to be in but we still have a slight problem. I want Jill to send them back to me after proofreading and making corrections to my content but I still want to have my original files to compare against. You see, Jill is an expert at English and grammar while I am the expert on mice in our group. I want to make sure that my proofreader has not changed nor broken the message that I intend to communicate in my content. So I ask Jill to append her initials to the end of the filenames that she edits and sends back to me.
Once I’ve confirmed that Jill’s edits are good, I will delete the original files and keep only the proofread files. There’s no sense in keeping many versions of my content around, it can only promote confusion if I do. The files in my project folder will always be the most current or final versions of the files. My preference is to delete the original files and then remove the _jh from the corrected content filenames after I verify that they are good. Doing this will reduce the chance that I (or anyone else) can get confused about which version of any of the files is the actual final version as the project moves forward.
If for any reason you must keep many versions of the same files around, it is best to make a new folder for each version or revision of the files. Having 2 or more versions of the same files in the same folder will lead to confusion for someone at some point so just don’t do it.
I’ve also taken steps to prevent the filenames growing longer with each edit or revision of the content in the files by removing her initials from the end of the filenames. If I need to send these files to other people as well for their edits of the content I do not want to end up with filenames that have -jh-fg-bb-de-ww-br-ff.txt at the end. That just creates more text for someone to decipher and can lead to confusion.
Of course, if everyone on your team is using a version control system then you will not need to add anything for version numbering to the filenames. The version control system takes care of that for you!
Your file and folder naming convention is the first thing that needs to in place. Once decided, never deviate from that convention throughout your content creation and production processes. You may need to revisit the files a year or more later and you won’t remember everything that much later. Being diligent about the naming scheme will help you in the long-term as much as it does others in the short-term.
If your file names are not organized well before you start creating content you will run in to problems in later stages of development. I’ve been working with digital files shared amongst several people since the 1990s and I’ve seen a lot of errors and mistakes made. I’ve made plenty of mistakes myself as well. These are problems that can easily be avoided with just a little bit of planning though.