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Design and Develop Wisely

5 minute video on “How to Design your Online Course
Design Wisely

Video on “How to Design your Online Course”

Every online course is a journey, with a starting place, a pathway, and a destination. The key to keeping our online students on track is directly related to the design of the online course. This overview of course design effective practices will provide insight into the design work that goes into planning and developing an online course. But keep in mind that effective online course design is a journey of iteration and continuous improvement. There is a lot to know, always something that can be improved, and always more to learn.

Teaching online starts long before the semester begins – it starts when you identify the course objectives and determine the selection of activities for engagement, related assessments, and the course content layout/navigation — to achieve those objectives. In essence, lay out a map for the learner’s journey – a map with three distinct parts, each of which need to be in alignment with your learning objectives: content, interaction, and assessment.


Online course content needs to be clearly structured and presented, and navigation cues need to be available for students to find their way through that content. Clear and consistent titles and labels of course areas and documents function as advance organizers in an online course. Explicit instructions with icons or symbols are also effective means for aiding navigation, and should be paired with a brief navigational overview of the course in the course welcome area and announcements.

In online courses, this translates into course content that is structured into a logical chunks, or modules. When you begin to develop an online course, you will need to develop clearly described lesson modules that present learning pathways for students to take as they journey through the course content and activities.

Online course content can include required readings, along with resources for students to explore, including audio, video, games, simulations, websites, and journal articles. Your objective with your online content is to provide signage to guide your students through their exploration of the content and structure their learning engagement with the key concepts presented.

Feedback and assessments along the way are key, and will take up a significant portion of your online course development time (see the Manage Course Delivery section for related effective practices). Keeping students on track means establishing a sense of progression along the way, giving students ample opportunities to make their thinking and learning visible to you and their classmates, and making sure that students know when, and how they are meeting course goals and objectives.


We get to know our face-to-face students through conversations before, during, and after class. Through those conversations we find ways of assessing who they are, who they want to be, what they know, what they don’t know, what they still need to learn, what drives them, what challenges them, etc. Sometimes we plan those conversations in advance, and at other times, they are spontaneous.

As in your face-to-face courses, your online courses should open with interaction activities that build a sense of class community, including developing ice-breaking activities/interactions, personal profiles, welcome messages, and areas in the course for non-course related conversation.

When you teach online, designing interaction into your course and providing areas where students can reflect, share, and demonstrate their learning are the keys to success. When a student is challenged by a concept, you have the opportunity in the online learning environment to invite other students to share their perspectives in the discussion forum, and explain their understanding to help resolve that challenge. When a student is curious, you have the opportunity to provide more links to related online resources, and introduce them to your professional colleagues to encourage that curiosity. Giving student options and choices in how they demonstrate their thinking, learning, understanding, and application of the course materials is also good practice.

When a student is lost in an online course, you have the opportunity to provide directions that will explicitly guide them through the readings, assignments, and activities.

Taking the time to anticipate student questions, and develop clear interaction guidelines will save you time and cut down on student issues when you begin to teach online. It will also help you frame a strategy for managing your online classroom.


Evaluating student progress is a key component of any learning experience. How do we know that our students are learning? How do we know how, when, what, or why our students are learning?

The words “assessment” and “evaluation” are often used interchangeably, but what do they really mean? Assessment refers to learner performance, and serves to help us decide if/what our students are learning, and where improvements in learning are needed. Evaluation refers to the systematic process of determining the value of the learning experience, and serves to help us decide if our goals (and course design) are effective.

In online learning, we use a combination of assessment (to guide student progress), and evaluation (to keep our assessments in alignment with our learning goals) to find ways of knowing how, when, what, and why our students are learning.

Palloff & Pratt (2009) present various principles for effective online assessment:

  • Design learner-centered assessments that include opportunities for reflection.
  • Design and include grading rubrics for the assessment of contributions to discussions, as well as for all assignments, projects, and collaborations.
  • Include collaborative assessments through public posting of papers and projects.
  • Encourage students to develop skills in providing feedback by modeling what is expected.
  • Ask for and incorporate student input into how assessment should be conducted.
  • Design assessments that are clear, easy to understand, and likely to work in the online environment.
    Adapted from Assessing the Online Learner: Resources and Strategies for Faculty, R. Palloff & K. Pratt. Copyright © 2009 John Wiley & Sons Inc.

So, what is likely to work in the online environment? Think about the types of assessments that you use in your face-to-face classes. Exams, quizzes, research papers, reflective essays, case studies, problem sets, presentations, etc. All of these can be translated into online assessments with careful planning and design. The key to success in working with online assessments is continuous review and improvement of your approach, along with continuous evaluation of student results.

Managing student expectations is always important in all aspects of online teaching and learning. Make sure your students know how they will be graded, and when they can expect grades and feedback from you. Feedback is a critical component of all student learning, and you will learn, over time, the best ways to incorporate individual and peer feedback processes into your courses through carefully structured online assignments.

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OLC OSCQR Course Design Scorecard
The OLC/OSCQR Online Course Quality Rubric with integrated accessibility standards.

Online Course Design: 13 Strategies for Teaching in a Web-based Distance Learning Environment
Good online course design begins with a clear understanding of learning outcomes and ways to engage students, while creating activities that allow students to take some control of their learning. This report from Faculty Focus offers proven strategies that you can use right away to design and develop learner-centered online course.

Top 10 Rules for Developing Your First Online Course
Another resource from Faculty Focus, this article shares “must know” advice to instructors new to teaching online.

10 suggestions for smarter online course design
5 Quick Tips for Improving Your Instructional Design
Authentic Online Assessment
Online Assessment Techniques (OATs)
Alternatives to Lecture
Supporting Online Learner Success
Supporting Online Academic Honesty