Online/distance Course Design Basics

instructors-distance-ed-basic-design-principle-photoIf you were a student in your course, would you know:

  • How and when to begin?
  • What technology you will need, how to use it, and how to get help?
  • What to do on day 1, week 1, etc.?
  • How you are expected to participate?
  • How to communicate with your instructor?
  • How you will be evaluated?
  • How to check your current grade?

As the course developer / instructor, your role is both to design the course content AND manage the course.

As with a traditional classroom course, this process begins long before the first day of the class.

The more forethought you put into envisioning how you want the course to run, anticipating each person’s role in the course, and explicitly defining how you will communicate this to your students, the smoother the course will be.

A well designed course will have fewer problems and will result in a more satisfactory experience for instructor and student.

Design considerations

Consider the following questions when planning your course:

How will the course be paced?

The course will either be self study (self-paced) or group-paced (teacher-paced.)

How will content be delivered and formatted?

Your course’s content may be:

  • Synchronous (posted files, recorded webinars, URLs, textbook, course pack, DVD/CD,and podcasts)
  • Face-to-face (in person exams, labs, classes)
  • A combination of methods

What assessment modes will be used?

Students can be assessed through online quizzes, online surveys, non-graded self assessments, online homework submissions, and/or required discussions.

How will class communication occur?

Communication during the course can be through a shared calendar, chat, whiteboard, webinar, email, threaded discussion, blog, journal, and/or audio recording. The course instructor may choose to communicate individually, in a group, or to the class as a whole. 

Developing the course

chunking-the-course“Chunk” the course.

Break the course into lessons, units, modules:

  • Typically one chunk per week
  • Use the syllabus as reference

Define the structure of each chunk. Be sure to include:

  • Introduction and overview section
  • Content section
  • Participation component
  • Graded assignments

Develop lessons:

  • Develop the graded assignments
  • Use new technology tools and software

Develop assessments, making sure to include:

  • Self-assessment opportunities
  • A variety of options for delivering online exams

Remember to consider a need for user authentication to show that student is remaining academically honest. 

Syllabus/introductory video

On the course syllabus be sure to include: 

  • Instructor contact information
  • Participation expectations, including explicit details
  • Class communication policies
  • Grading policies (online courses generally allow more flexibility in deadlines)

Refer to the list of  points to consider when creating the syllabus, including an introductory video.


When should the instructor welcome letter be sent?

Coordinate this with the ODL office so you know what information students are getting and when.

When should students be added to course?

Registrar class lists are available approximately 3 weeks before semester begins and GP-IDEA partners share lists approximately 2 weeks before semester begins. Exceptions may need to be made for non-ISU participants.

How much content needs to be online for students?

The course content varies depending on how the course is “chunked.” All online content can be hidden from students. 

Timing considerations

  • Prerecorded content. If the instructor uses prerecorded content, reserve studio time and editing time. 
  • HTML pages. If posting HTML pages, consider letting a technical support staff  code and post it. However, be sure  that they have sufficient development time.

Online course DON'TS

How to mess up your online course in 8 simple steps:

  1. Don’t give students any information about the course until the first official day of class.  In a traditional class, students don’t get information ahead of time so why should online students? They figure it all out in a couple weeks.

  2. Base your entire online class on the PowerPoints that you use in the classroom. Don’t annotate your old PowerPoints in any way. This is what students are used to getting in big lecture hall courses. Why change anything just because it is being taught through a different mode?

  3. Include many (at least 20) links to external sources in every unit. Students want to know everything related to a subject. Adding suggested viewing guidelines might hamper what they explore.

  4. Include as many links between your content pages as possible. This will demonstrate that the entire course contents is interrelated. Don’t worry if some students get lost or confused.

  5. Expect chat to be large part of your course. Students who sign up for “any time, any where” classes don’t really mind being informed - once the class begins - that they must attend a chat room every Tuesday night at 7pm.

  6. Avoid getting bogged down checking the course every day for new messages. Online students are independent learners and will understand that you are very busy and can’t always get back to their email for 3, or 4, or 5 days at a time.

  7. Don’t worry about the technology demands placed on the students. They are young and understand all this stuff. They all have great Internet access because they use Facebook and watch YouTube all the time. If they don’t know how to use it, they will ask a friend.

  8. Since it is your course, make sure to tackle ALL the design and programming steps by yourself. Don’t worry that this takes time away from developing your content and managing the class.

  • Tools