The Do's and Don't's of Online Course Design

This section on online course design focuses on the foundational (and widely accepted) practices to structure your online course effectively.

Introduction: Essential Considerations

Welcome to this module on online course design!

This module will introduce you to the important elements of online design as they pertain to you and your students. What matters in regard to you are essential questions you must ask yourself before you begin structuring your course for online delivery. What matters in regard to your students is the major shift in their learning habits from the F2F classroom to the online learning classroom that comes with big trade-offs in how they learn. Re-structuring your course begins with assessing how learner-centered your existing course design (and your teaching practices) already are, then benchmarking these against established online course design practices ... because online course design is implicitly learner-centered. Here's an opportunity to stop doing what doesn't work and do more of what does.

Let's start first with your students then return to you. 

Your students in relation to online course design

Online course design is founded on self-paced, self-regulated learning. This means your students no longer attend a pre-structured schedule of face-to-face (F2F) courses for which they are required to show up, engage, then leave. These F2F courses are generally instructor-paced, founded on a pre-determined schedule that rarely changes throughout the term, and come with multiple opportunities for students to communicate, engage and get questions answered in real time. Not so with online courses. In online courses, students have to learn to pace themselves, organize and regulate their own schedules, and communicate, engage and get questions answered in deferred time, which we refer to as asynchrounous learning. This means that many students will likely struggle with self-discipline, organization, motivation, and time management. They will be asked to manage their learning in smaller and more frequent chunks of time, communicate mostly in writing, and receive less direct contact and instruction from you.

You in relation to online course design

In short, your students will no longer be coming to you ... so you must consider first and foremost how best to come to them, how to reach them, by bridging the multiple issues related to self-paced and self-regulated learning, asynchronous communication and engagement, and lack of an F2F learning community.

In addition, you too no longer have a pre-structured class schedule, and must consider how to manage your time, the course demands, and the constant and ongoing written communication. (It never ends!) Your self-regulation process must consider how best to create online presence, community and engagement, and to provide students with multiple ways to engage with the learning.

So, let's begin. Please download, print and complete the

Learner-centered teaching checklist.

This checklist aims to help you determine how learner-centered your teaching already is. By briefly self-assessing your own teaching, you will be able to focus your time and attention within these modules on what really matters to you, because you cannot do everything featured here and will have to prioritize.

Instructions: On the checklist, enter examples of your own practices that correspond to the learner-centred principles of teaching and examples provided. This is the column called "Examples from your own teaching (and your course)".

If you are moving an existing F2F course (that you have taught before) into an online environment, it may be more useful to focus on a single chapter or unit that typically takes 1-2 weeks to instruct, and use it as your frame of reference. Choose one that you do particular well or that students respond well to, and dig into what you really do and how you do it in relation to learner-centered design. If you have not taught this course before, use the checklist as a general self-assessment.

We will discuss why this exercise is relevant in the next page of this book. Only later, after you have completed the two Design and Delivery modules, will you (officially) return to the checklist and prioritize your time and energy based on what you have learned. Spend 25-30 minutes on this activity.

Ultimately, you must ask yourself:

How are you going to spend your time to maximize the opportunities for your students to learn, based on accepted principles of online design and delivery, the current content of your own course, and an honest and authentic assessment of your practices as an instructor?

Additional Resources

The above list (Carnegie Mellon University) presents the basic principles that underlie effective learning. These principles are distilled from research from a variety of disciplines.