Best Practices for Online Course Design and Development

Divide the course content into weekly modules

Online courses provide students with the flexibility they need to work around job, family, or other schedules; busy students, however, still need structure to stay on pace and interact with their fellow classmates.

For a 16-week semester, try sub-dividing your course into 16 topics. Then package all of the materials that students need to complete each topic together into one module.

Resource: This TILT video shows how a course built with modules in Canvas can look:

An Online Course Designed with Modules in Canvas

Write measurable learning objectives for each module

Writing learning objectives is one of the most important elements in designing a course. They inform students as to what they should be able to do once they have completed a module or topic. They also guide the design of assignments that measure how well the objectives have been met.

Bloom's Taxonomy provides a helpful framework for writing learning objectives, and for considering what levels of knowledge, skills and abilities you are asking students to achieve.

Resources: The following webpage provides an overviews and examples of how to use Bloom's taxonomy:

Bloom's Taxonomy by Vanderbilt University

Use clear, consistent organization and navigation

Set up your course in Canvas with a clear, consistent flow so that students spend their time learning the material, not trying to find it. For instance:

  1. Pique students' attention with an introduction or overview
  2. List the learning objectives
  3. Provide the readings, lectures, videos or other content that students need to accomplish those learning objectives
  4. Assess how well students have achieved the learning objectives with assignments, discussions, quizzes or other assessments.

Resource: This TILT video shows one way to organize materials within modules in Canvas:

Organization of an Online Course in Canvas

Create your syllabus

The syllabus is the contract with the students. It contains contact information, course expectations, university policies (e.g., academic integrity policy), grading criteria, assignment information and points, and a variety of other elements that provide clear direction for the students.

Resource: TILT created a syllabus template that instructors can use as a starting point for their online courses:

TILT Syllabus Template

Foster community

An online course largely takes place through a computer screen, but there are several ways to personalize your course to foster community and increase student engagement.

You might start the course with an "icebreaker" discussion, provide a space for students to discuss non-course related topics, or post a brief webcam video introducing yourself.

Example: TILT helped Psychology instructor Randall Swaim create this introductory video in which he shares a little bit about himself with his online students:

Meet Randall Swaim, Ph.D

Resource: This article provides ten specific tips for fostering community in online courses:

Ten Ways to Overcome Barriers to Student Engagement Online by The College of William and Mary

Focus your materials

Excess content can make it difficult for students to identify the main points. Prioritize the important concepts (based on your learning objectives), and provide focused material to illustrate each one.

For example, if you have a PowerPoint slideshow for a 50-minute lecture, try distilling that into smaller mini-lectures, each focused on one concept, and record audio narration to create 10 to 15-minute presentation(s).

Resource: This article provides an introduction to "chunking" and specific tips to try this in your own course:

4 Tips for Content Chunking in e-Learning by eLearning Industry

Show, don't tell (using video)

Some concepts are just easier to explain in a visual form. If a lesson has a lot of visual information (e.g., watching a mock counseling session, science demonstration), it may be more effective to simply show the concept rather than attempt to describe it.

Example: TILT helped Physics instructor Marty Gelfand create this video demonstration for a Natural Sciences Education course:

NSCI 619 – Wave Machine Demo

Create opportunities for students to learn from each other

To facilitate the deeper learning that occurs when students interact with their classmates, be creative with how you use online discussion forums.

For instance, students can debate an issue with no correct answer, share videos of relevant observations from their communities, create presentations to teach a course concept, ask each other questions to prepare for exams, or create a one-minute pitch talk and receive feedback from their peers.

Online video conferencing tools are also available for students to interact in real-time and can be used for collaborating on group projects, for role plays, and more.

The best use of peer-to-peer learning should be determined by your learning objectives and is not necessarily limited by technology.

Resource: This article describes some fears, advantages and approaches to incorporating peer learning:

The Benefits of Peer Learning

Create assignments that imitate real-world situations; set clear expectations

Assignments that imitate real-world situations provide students with practical skills and a clear connection between their class work and their future careers or lives. Technology can expand, not limit, your options for creating real-life assignments. In addition to writing papers and exams, students can:

  1. create videos
  2. map places of interest in their communities
  3. debate controversial topics

The design of your assignments should be guided by your learning objectives.

Because there is no class time with which to discuss the details of an assignment in an online course, clear instructions and grading criteria are especially important. For each assignment, include a rubric, due dates, and any other special instructions or requirements.

The following two assignments are used in online courses at CSU:

SOWK 511: Joni and Tim

In this video [15 min 00 sec], the instructor and a helper play the roles of therapist and client. Students are asked to critique the therapist's strengths and areas for improvement in a discussion forum:

CHEM 245 — Alkyl Halide Problems

In this video [7 min 26 sec], the instructor provides examples for the students in order to prepare them for problems that the students will need to solve as part of the homework assignment.

Use universally designed materials

Universal Design for Learning is a strategy for creating course materials that are accessible to diverse students and technologies, whether students are using a mobile device to access course materials, are sight or hearing-impaired, or have a learning disability.

Luckily, creating files that are accessible to students with disabilities also makes those files more user-friendly for all students. As one example, using headings and styles to format Word documents enables all users to quickly view a table of contents and provides visual, hierarchical structure.

Resource: CSU's Accessibility by Design website provides step-by-step instructions for creating accessible electronic files.

Accessibility by Design