How to Design an Online Course

Online learning is becoming more popular with each passing year. Many prefer online courses because of the convenience while others note challenges for interactive and engaged learning. Before you start designing your course, it's important to recognize the differences that will make lesson plans originally designed for an in-person class an imperfect fit for your online class. By focusing on ease of use and emphasizing interactive activities, you can adapt those lesson plans more effectively or even design your own online lesson plan from scratch.

Research how others have taught similar courses.

There is nothing wrong with borrowing or remixing material that other teachers have used for similar courses. You can save yourself a lot of time and maximize the quality of your content by reading other curriculums and adapting it to your class. Use your preferred search engine to find available course outlines or ask other teachers you know that have taught the course.

Make sure that material you find online isn't licensed or you'll need to get permission to use it. If you aren't sure if content is licensed, play it safe and ask anyway.

Start with an outline of the material.

With online courses, it will be more difficult to control the flow of information as students can chose how much time to spend in a given sitting and what order to go in. Because of this, it is especially important that your content is organized consistently and with purpose. Divide the core subject matter into major units or modules and create further subdivisions that guide students through the content.

Make extensive use of overviews before each module or even each subpoint. This will help the students understand what they'll be learning before they get started.

Try to be consistent with the amount of information, the amount of time required, and the number of assignments for each module. This will help students adjust to the pace of the course early on and prevent confusion.

Determine learning objectives.

Decide what you want students to get out of the course as a whole and out of each individual unit. These outcomes should be explicitly stated to the students and guide your development of the content. Start with objectives for individual units. Focus on analytic goals such as "Understand the economic and political causes of World War I," rather than goals related to memory like "Learn the important dates leading up to World War I." Clear learning objectives will make it easier to design assessments like tests and paper assignments.

Use a professional text.

Find a professional textbook that covers your subject matter. Use the table of contents as a guide for how you outline your material and develop the specific content. Textbooks will often include ideas for assignments, discussion activities, and sample quizzes that will help you populate the content. Talk to your school's administration before selecting a book. They may have a contract set up with certain companies.

Don't feel as though you have to follow the book exactly. The books will often include information that is superfluous for your class's purpose.

Understand your Learning Management System.

A Learning Management System (LMS) is the software that you and your students will use to navigate the course. Each LMS has unique features and understanding their strengths and weaknesses will guide you in terms of what types of content you can or should use.

The most popular LMSs are BlackBoard, Edmodo, Moodle, SumTotal, and SkillSoft.

If you have some software development skills, you may want to consider an open source LMS. These software are free to use and will allow you to manually change aspects of the code to tailor the LMS to your preference. The downside is that they usually don't come with a customer support service.

Talk to your school's administrators. Most schools have a contract with a specific LMS provider or will simply provide a preferred suggestion. If you need to select your own, ask other teachers what they prefer.

Create message boards.

One of the most significant limitations of online learning is that students can't interact with you or each other as directly. If you don't include an interactive aspect of the course, the education students are receiving will be little better than if they simply bought a textbook and read it on their own. Message boards are an available feature on all major LMSs and will enable you to teach in the Socratic tradition where students debate, ask questions, and offer personal reflections on the content.

Give students relatively brief (300 words or so) writing assignments and then require them to respond to each other's submissions. These writing prompts should evoke some controversy and allow room for differing and contradictory responses.

Each unit should include some kind of interactive assignment so that students are consistently engaged. This type of assignment may be more difficult for math or science course. However, you can use message boards to encourage students to explain how they worked out certain problems or applied formulas.

You'll want to outline some rule of engagement in the syllabus to ensure that everyone on the message board is respectful and refrains from personal attacks. It may help to stay away from questions that involve particularly hot button political issues unless they're directly related to the content.

Break up students into discussion groups.

Some online courses, particularly MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course), will have hundreds of participants that make discussions onerous. Assign students into groups with no more than 20 members. This will facilitate more effective message board discussions.

This can also build familiarity that makes it easier for students to form study groups and help each other through the course material.

Don't over rely on exams.

A closed-book policy can be difficult or impossible to enforce for online courses and open-book exams will do little to test knowledge retention. Prioritize written assignments, especially ones that involve critical discussion on your message boards, over multiple choice exams.

If you do include traditional exams in your lesson plan, they should be based largely on written responses and include a time limit.

Host live Q&A sessions.

A great way to build a personal connection with your students is to host a live video session where students can ask questions and you can answer in real-time. Many LMSs will offer a live video feature but if it isn't available, you can invite students to a Skype session.

Many live video programs will allow students to type in questions in a message bank while you answer over the video stream. You can also request that students send you questions via email before the session.

Create an introductory video.

To build a personal connection with your students, create a brief introductory video. Include a personal introduction and explain your background in the subject matter to build ethos. You will also want to provide an overview of the course material including the expected learning outcomes, the specific material that will be covered, and a list of the major assignments.

Make your content searchable.

While it is good to encourage students to use the outline to guide them through the course, a search function is critical to allowing them to easily go backwards through the material and remind themselves of previous lessons. Most LMSs will have search functions readily available but it is a good idea to make sure your content is searchable and make adjustments if necessary.

Use accessible document formats.

Students may not have certain document viewing softwares or their computers may have limited capabilities for viewing certain front-end coding languages. To avoid issues, save all documents in with Word or PDF formats and, if you are altering the coding language, leave it in HTML. This will assure everyone can view your documents and pages for free.

When you save a document, there will be a dropdown menu under the bar where you change the documents name. It will include options to save the document as a PDF or as a Word document.

Have backup plans for technical difficulties.

Glitches and temporary outages are essentially unavoidable when using complex online software like an LMS. When they do happen, you will likely be inundated with emails from angry and confused students, especially if a technical difficult occurs before a deadline or exam. Prepare for these situations either by printing out materials to distribute, postponing assignments or developing your materials so that students can continue to work even when they can't access the LMS.

If you are using a professional LMS, include contact information for the customer service department on the syllabus.

Incorporate assistive technologies.

Some students will have hearing, eyesight, learning or other disabilities that make online technologies difficult for them. Most LMS systems will offer accommodations like out-loud readers or text enlargement for the sight impaired.

Speak with your school administrator about your school's disability accessibility policies and include necessary information on your syllabus.

Perform a dry run.

It's important to run through your course on the live site before your class begins. This is especially important if you are creating a significant amount of new content. Focus on the flow of the material, how easy it is to access different modules, and check for errors.

You may want to ask another teacher or a student with some available time to run through it. After you've spent a lot of time developing content, it can be difficult to see it with fresh eyes.

Article source: wikiHow wikiHow is a group effort to create a great resource: the world's largest free how to manual. wikiHow articles help people solve their everyday problems. wikiHow licenses all content under a Creative Commons License. The license allows wikiHow content to be used freely for noncommercial purposes. The Creative Commons License also allows for the creation of derivative works.

Learn more at