Designing An Online Course

The Big Picture

If you are considering teaching online or are looking for ideas to freshen-up your current online course, you have come to the right resource. Designing for the online environment presents unique challenges, but it also opens a world of exciting possibilities for engaging students in their learning. Online education is not an “alternative” to traditional classroom learning. According to a 10 year study conducted by the Online Learning Consortium, 6.7 million students have taken at least one online course and roughly thirty-two percent of all higher-education students now take at least one online course during their educational career. And these numbers continue to rise. But despite more interest (from students and academic leaders) and enrollment in the online format, student success rates in online classes lags behind their face-to-face counterparts. So, we cannot afford to ignore the online format, but how do we design effectively for the unique teaching and learning challenges it presents?

Start with the learning; moving from solutions to possibilities!

It is common when transitioning to the online environment to start with the question, “how can I do this online?”. If we approach it from this standpoint, we can get stuck looking for ways to mimic or retrofit face-to-face activities. This can be a frustrating and even disappointing solution goose chase. A more productive approach is to start with the question, “what do my students need to learn?”. Using the learning as the focal point, you can more easily navigate the amazing possibilities presented by the online environment.

The the most effective teaching principles apply regardless of modality and often stand the test of time. Consider the principles identified by 50 years of research by A. Chickering and  Z. Gamson in the “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education.” (AAHE Bulletin, March 1987):

  • encourage faculty-to-student interaction
  • encourage student-to-student interaction
  • promote active learning
  • communicate high expectations
  • facilitate time on task
  • provide rich, rapid feedback
  • respect diverse learning

Although the study was conducted in 1987, these principles identified are amongst the most frequently referenced by online course designers as best practices. Keep these strategies in mind as you examine and approach your course design.

Actualizing Best Practice

Before you start! Collect all the materials you use to teach your course.

Organization is key to any project. Gather all the resources from previous courses you have taught, content and instructional materials you have researched or picked-up from colleagues, etc.. Put them in a format/file and store in a way you can easily access (computer, online or USB Drive). This includes your district competencies, syllabi, notes, textbook, lectures, hand-outs, quizzes, exams, assignments/papers/projects, online resources, journal articles, and any other pertinent resources. Ask your department or colleagues for resources specific to your subject area. Sample syllabi, lessons and even course templates may be available to get you started. Taking the time to organize up front will save you lots of time later, so don’t skip this critical part of the process.

Before you start! Establish a timeframe and goals.

Designing a quality course takes time. You need to dedicate constructive and uninterrupted time to plan, design and build. How long it takes is a function of where you are starting (new design or redesign) and your other obligations (work, family, etc.). To ensure your success, establish a realistic timeframe and set goals/benchmarks and deadlines.

1. Map your course by identifying the learning units.

You have probably heard the phrase that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Whether teaching online, face-to-face or hybrid the first step to any course design is building a map so you know where the course is going. This map should outline the major learning destinations (units/topics) of your course. The unit/topics will become your modules (course building blocks). These blocks may be a concept you wish to examine, a chapter, or some other “chunk”. We are chunking the material by unit/topic rather than time (e.g. weeks) or book chapter. Then if we need to adapt the course in the future to a shorter schedule (such as a summer class instead of a semester) or the textbook changes, we can absorb this change without a major revision to the course.

To identify these topics/units, review your district course competencies and look for major learning themes. Other sources of themes can be found by reviewing your textbook or other source material. Indicate which of the course competencies aligns (will be addressed) by that unit/topic. Note that a single unit/topic may address several course competencies and that competencies may also overlap units/topics.

Course Map Sample

Course Map Sample

Tip: Avoid the temptation to create a unit for each competency, or even worse each chapter in your book! This will overwhelm you and the learner. Typically you should have no more than 5-7 major units. If you have more, they are probably too task oriented…if less, they are too wide in scope.

Resources: Use this Course Map Worksheet to outline your course themes and units. A wonderful digital alternative for mapping out your course can be found tools like Popplet or Mindmeister. These brainstorming applications make it easy to quickly map out a course and even share your efforts with colleagues to get feedback and support.

2. Map your modules (learning units).

Now that you have your course map, it is time to dig-in to each module (learning unit). Start with mapping a more typical module for your course. This will serve as a template for your other modules. Each module will have a similar structure, but it is important for you to take your time to map each of your modules. Thoughtful analysis now will pay off as you begin to build your course. These maps can also serve as an excellent visual way to introduce students to each module.

The module map should include the specific unit:

  • Materials/Technology (textbook chapters, article readings, lectures, digital tools, videos, podcasts, etc.)
  • Activities (formative assessments, practice opportunities, etc.)
  • Assignments (worksheets, discussions, papers, etc.)
  • Assessments (summative tests, projects, papers, etc.)

Plan for interaction! Make sure your course is rich in opportunities for students to engage with the content, with you and with each other. This means creating diverse activities like discussions, group work, case studies and collaborative problem-solving. Also, be sure to select resources that are relevant and present a variety of viewpoints and meet different learning styles. Consider multimedia, periodicals, web resources, etc.

Module Map Sample

Module Map Sample

Like the course map, indicate which of the district course competencies aligns (will be addressed) by that unit/topic. Remember that a single module may address several course competencies and that competencies may also overlap units/topics.

Tip: Don’t get too caught up in specifics. This map should be an outline of the unit NOT the individual lessons.

Resources: Use this Module Map Worksheet to outline each module or use a tool like Popplet or Mindmeister.

University of Michigan, Center for Research on Teaching & Learning; Active Learning Strategies

North Carolina Index of Learning Styles Questionnaire

3. Establish your learning unit (module) objectives.

The course and module maps reflect the big picture learning in your course, but what do we want students to learn as a result of completing all the work in each module? We need to create learning objectives. A learning objectives is a measurable outcome statement that captures specifically what skills, knowledge, attitudes learners should be able to exhibit following instruction.

To understand the purpose of learning objectives, let’s use the six questions (Who?, What?, Where?, When?, Why? and How?).

Q: What are they?

A: To define what the student should be able to do as an outcome of learning the content concept(s).

Q: Who are they for?

A: For both instructors and students. For instructors they help focus and guide instruction and for students they provide a clear purpose for all the learning activities.

Q: When/Where to use them?

A: To determine if learning was accomplished (outcome).

Q: Why use them?

A: To determine if learning was accomplished (outcome).

Q: How to use them?

A: To design valid assessment tasks and strategies to measure the students’ success of content concept(s) learned (alignment).

Creating Learning Objectives

It is essential to build measurable and clear objectives that outline what is expected of the learner. These objectives will make it easy to align the rest of your course and will serve to communicate learning expectations to students.

Using Blooms Taxonomy to find Measurable Verbs – Benjamin Bloom and a committee of colleagues identified three domains of learning and objectives can be written for any type of learning (Skills, Knowledge and Attitude). Bloom, and later Anderson & Krathwohl, also outlined categories of thinking. Learning objectives should encourage students to reach higher orders of thinking through careful scaffolding of concepts (structuring learning to build on prior concept knowledge). Using actionable verbs you can create objectives that target learning within these learning types and categories. It is very important that these verbs are measurable so that you can assess whether students understood the concept(s). For example:

Non-measurable verbs: understood, appreciate, learn.

Measurable verbs: explain, discuss, compare, etc.

ABCD Method – An easy framework for creating learning objectives is the A.B.C.D. method. This stands for Audience, Behavior, Condition and Degree. Learning objectives that contain each of these elements will clearly outline the learning that is to be achieved after completing each module.

Watch this brief video to learn more.

Tip: Each module should have approximately 3-5 learning objectives. If you have more, your objectives may be too task oriented or your module theme could be too broad.


Use this Blooms Taxonomy Levels Guide to find verbs for your learning objectives. This handy spreadsheet also includes ideas for assignments, activities and assessments that align with these verbs.

Penn State University offers a wonderful interactive tutorial to create objectives according to the ABCD method.

Use the University of Central Florida Objective Builder to create measurable objectives according to the ABCD method.

4. Align your module (activities, assignments, materials/technology and assessments) to the objectives.

We all love our course content! As a result, it is tempting to throw everything into your course in an effort to spark that same love in the heart of your students. But how do students know what is important and essential to their learning? How do we help them focus?

Achieving Alignment through a Conceptual Framework

Using the learning objectives you can become more selective in what you include in your course. This selection process is known as alignment. Alignment occurs when the course component (activity, assignment, material, technology and/or assessment) will help the student meet the learning objectives. To get started, build a Conceptual Framework for each module. In this framework outline the learning by identifying the course competencies and learning objectives for the module. Then review the course components (each piece of your module that you identified in the module map process) and see if they fit (align), i.e. contribute to the student achieving the stated learning objective. If a component does not align you need to either change the objective, change the course component or if it is essential to keep this non-aligned component, make sure that it is clearly identified as supplemental.

Tip: Make sure that your framework is as detailed as possible. This framework can be used to provide learners with an overview of each unit that includes what they are to learn (competencies/objectives), with what (activity, assignment, material, technology and/or assessment) and where (in class or online). As an option, you can add a sequence and timeframe to your framework and you have outlined a complete module schedule for your students!

Resources: Use the Module Conceptual Framework Form for a course to check your module alignment.

5. Establish clear outcomes to assess learning.

You are almost ready to start putting your course online! But before you do, you need to consider how you will assess student learning. Assessment is more than just tests, quizzes and final projects. Truly “informative” assessment helps students measure their progress and helps to guide your instruction.

Summative and Formative

Assessments come in two varieties, summative and formative. Summative Assessment evaluates student learning, skill and academic achievement at the end of a defined instructional period (i.e. project, unit, course, semester, etc.). Formative Assessments monitor student learning through formal and informal processes to gather evidence to improve learning (i.e. guiding learning from concept to concept, activity to activity and lesson to lesson; identifying clarifications and misconceptions before moving on to the next concept).

C.A.T.s (Classroom Assessment Techniques)

One highly effective type of Formative Assessment is called a C.A.T. (Classroom Assessment Technique). These serve two main purposes, 1) assesses how well your students are learning the content and 2) provides invaluable feedback to guide instruction. C.A.T.s also serve to regularly check that your students are participating and comprehending the content before they get to a Summative Assessment. Regular and purposeful use of C.A.T.s allows the learner to apply and practice what is taught and keeps them engaged in the course more frequently. These opportunities directly contribute to student success and retention.

Tip: Well designed C.A.T.s include a planning, implementing and responding phase.


Using C.A.T.s in Online Courses (created by Terry Ann Morris, Ph.D) is a wonderful site that translates traditional face-to-face classroom assessment techniques into online activities.


In order to authentically assess student learning you need to communicate expectations and provide informative and reliable feedback. This can be done by creating a rubric that defines criteria and the quality of the learners work. They measure how well students use knowledge and skills in a real context or for an authentic task (i.e. presentation, problem-solving, experiment, report, participation, etc.).

There are two types of rubrics: holistic and analytical. Holistic Rubrics are broad, make a general judgment to provide summative feedback about overall student performance on a learning task. Analytical Rubrics are more complex and multi-dimensional, providing formative feedback about specific criteria of a learning task.

Tip: Begin by researching previously developed rubrics to get ideas and then make your own. Also consider designing and/or getting feedback from a colleague. This will help you develop stronger rubrics. Don’t worry about every detail, rubrics will be fine tuned from use.


University of Colorado – Denver: Creating a Rubric, an Online Tutorial for Faculty is a great way to be introduced to the world of rubrics.

RubiStar and rCampus Rubric Gallery are both repositories where educators share rubrics. You can search these resources by grade, subject and project.

6. Start building your course.

Congratulations the hard work is done! No really, it is! You have mapped your course and your modules, created measurable objectives, aligned all your course components (activities, assignment, materials/technology and assessments) and designed meaningful and varied assessments. So now what? You are ready to put your course online! Let’s look at strategies to purposefully approach this process.

Strategy 1: Look at Sample Courses

Examine other online courses to see the features and design elements that you think serve your learning goals. Most faculty like to start by viewing a course in their own discipline, but don’t stop there. You’ll get a wealth design ideas from courses regardless of the subject area. Good design is not content specific.

MCC Courses

MCC provides previews a sampling of online classes at our eLearning Site. This is a great place to start.

Canvas Courses

Canvas is our Learning Management System (LMS) for MCCCD. View courses from a variety of colleges that use our LMS Canvas in the Canvas Catalog. For even more course samples using Canvas explore by feature.

Open Source Courses

Go beyond Canvas to discover even more amazing course designs.

    • Merlot provides peer reviewed online teaching and learning materials.
    • edEx Courses are made available by the Harvard Extension School’s Open Learning Initiative. Featuring Harvard faculty, the noncredit courses are open to the public. You do not need to register to view the lecture videos.
    • The MIT Open Courseware Initiative makes MIT course materials that are used in the teaching of almost all undergraduate and graduate subjects available on the web, free of charge, to any user anywhere in the world.

Strategy 2: Identify Quality & Aligned Content Materials

You may want to find additional resources to supplement your own content. The key is make sure that all of your content (regardless of source) aligns with the learning objectives as outlined in Step 3.

Open Educational Resources & the Creative Commons

Open Educational Resources (OER) are freely accessible, open licensed, teaching and learning materials. There are worldwide repositories for the sharing and use of OER. Materials are available in almost any subject area and can include a single image, assignment or activity OR a full textbook and even an entire course.

OER Commons

Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources

Creative Commons resources are less specific and include a variety of resources (educational in purpose or not) that can be used under specific more open licensing arrangements than traditional copyright process. Items include clip art, images, videos, music and more.

Find CC-licensed Works 

Publisher Content

Publishers often create online courses and course materials that go with your textbook.  Talk to your publisher to receive access to the content. Often, you can select the materials and customize it to reach your learning objectives.

Strategy 3: Going beyond Accessibility; Engage in Universal Design

Regardless of where you get your content from, it needs to be accessible. But more than that, your content needs to be Universal. Universal Design or UDL is a set of best practices to help instructors meet the needs of all learners. From designing pages that can be read by mobile devices to screen readers, UDL is about considering the wide diversity of learner needs, not just abilities.

MCC Center for Teaching & Learning, Creating Accessible Course Materials

University of Northern Colorado, Universal Design for Learning Tutorial

Strategy 4: Using Canvas

Canvas is the MCCCD adopted Learning Management System (LMS). It is called a learning management system because the focus is on the facilitation of learning, not on the storage of content. You will find that Canvas provides wonderful opportunities to enrich the online learning environment, including a built-in multimedia tool, the Edu Apps Center, quizzes, discussions, group and peer review, collaborative documents and so much more!

Canvas is designed to support modules! So, all that hard work you have done mapping out each of your learning units will pay off now. To get started with Canvas take advantage of one of the many opportunities to learn how the system works.

Canvas 101 is an open enrollment course that will walk you through the basics of setting up a new course in Canvas. To enroll, simply click on the “Join this course” button on the Course Home Page. There is no facilitator, but it is a good series of self exercises.

Canvas 102 Demo Videos Pt 1-3, a comprehensive over 3 hour presentation of all things Canvas for instructors.

The Canvas Guides (software developer guides) cover all major features of Canvas by question topic. They are easy to navigate and mostly image-based walk thru demonstrations of how to use a particular feature.

The MCC CTL Getting Started with Canvas in 10 Steps Guide is basic primer to get a first time user off the ground.

The MCC Center for Teaching and Learning also offers in-person training for teaching with Canvas. Please visit our calendar for information on upcoming learning opportunities. Stay up-to-date with all things Canvas by visiting the CTL LMS News.

Resources for Students – If you are looking for Canvas Guides to assist your students, point them to the Canvas Tutorials and 101 Course. This course will walk students through all the major features of Canvas making it easy for you to focus on teaching, rather than troubleshooting technology and navigation.

Strategy 5: Getting Started Module

MCC has created a “start here” template module for instructors to import into their courses. This module contains valuable resources and activities to get your students started on the right foot including navigating Canvas, links to key college resources, a best practice syllabus outline and more!

Research shows that students need specific information and activities at the beginning of a class to be successful.  Take advantage of this ready made module that includes all of these basics! Download the template. Once you bring template in to your Canvas course, you can modify it to meet your specific needs. Instructions on how to import the template are included within the resource.

Final Thoughts

Relax! You won’t be creating the perfect online course, at least not the first time you teach it. It takes teaching an online course a few semesters to improve and enhance it. Continue to experiment with new approaches, refining your teaching according to your learning objectives and the feedback of your students. We highly recommend including a Course Survey in your final module so that you can collect valuable data and insights from the student perspective on the design, content and delivery of your course. Give yourself permission to be a student too – to learn over time. This guide will help you create a very good online course to start with. You can improve it from there!

Design + Delivery = Learning

Even a well-designed course can fall short without purposeful delivery throughout the course. Delivery includes pacing, feedback, communication, monitoring and adjusting instruction, etc.. that will actively engage and support the diverse learner needs. Continue your professional development by researching and exploring resources on best practices on instructional delivery.

Wearing Four Pairs of Shoes: The Roles of E-Learning Facilitators, by Ed Hootstein discusses the different roles of instruction in the online environment.

Faculty Focus: A Checklist for Facilitating Online Courses, by Mary Bart is useful step-by-step guide to plan for your online course delivery from before the course starts until the final week. It includes an Assessing Online Facilitation worksheet that is very helpful.

RIT Online Course Design, Time on Task discusses how to manage the pacing and work of your course. It includes a calculator that translates time allocation for face-to-face activities to the online environment.