Topics Map > Online Instruction > Designing Online Courses
This document is part of a larger collection of documents on online instruction from the Center for Teaching, Learning and Mentoring's Instructional Resources KnowledgeBase. See more online instruction documents from that collection.
Course planning is perhaps the most critical component of online course design. It involves the high-level conceptualization of the course’s big ideas, essential questions, desired outcomes or objectives, and planning all major components that will comprise the course content and learning activities. A good course plan provides a blueprint of what and how the students will learn in a course.
Why is it important?
The overall quality and success of an online course significantly depend on the advanced planning that goes into that course. Course planning helps ensure that an online course has been developed with intention and, as a result, is complete, organized, and aligned across its major components—all for the ultimate benefit of the online learners.
Most importantly, course planning must be done before a course is launched so that the time required to continue developing the course will not compete with the time it takes to teach online effectively.
How to put it into practice?
With the proliferation of online education and a tremendous variety in online course types, various standards for evaluating online courses have been developed. One of the most well-known and widely used programs is Quality Matters.
Used by more than 900 colleges and universities, including UW-Madison, Quality Matters is a nationally recognized, faculty-centered, peer-review process designed to certify the quality of online and blended courses. The Quality Matters program is centered around a rubric developed by faculty for faculty based on extensive research and instructional design best practices to guide in developing, reviewing, and maintaining online courses.
The Quality Matters Rubric consists of eight General Review Standards and 43 Specific Review Standards—all selected because research, national standards, and instructional design principles have found that these elements positively impact student learning. How do you start achieving these important design standards?
Putting course design into practice involves the following progressive planning milestones:
Ask essential questions
Those who successfully plan for an online course will consider the foundational knowledge and enduring understandings that learners should gain from the course and then use that as the basis for choosing instructional materials, activities, assignments, and assessments.
Therefore, good course planning starts by asking: what are the essential questions, foundational knowledge, or key skills students need to know?
What is the most important thing that you want your students to learn or be able to do after taking your course? Imagine getting on an elevator five years from now and encountering a former student. What should that student recall as the one big idea from the course?
One way to approach this is to treat course topics with depth rather than breadth. Students will be left with key takeaways and durable knowledge that will help them support future learning.
Backward design is the approach that puts those essential questions into action and guides the selection of course content.
Backward design involves three distinct stages:
- Identify the desired result of the instruction
- Determine acceptable evidence
- Plan experiences and instruction (i.e., learning strategies, resources, and activities)
In the first stage, instructors will identify the learning goals, outcomes, competencies, and/or skills learners should retain after taking the online course. As we covered earlier, they will also narrow down the course's big ideas and essential questions.
In the second stage, instructors will determine how students should demonstrate their knowledge and abilities. This includes choosing assignments and assessments in alignment with the objectives identified in the first stage and self-reflection tasks that have learners consider their progress.
In the third and final stage, instructors will plan the learning resources and activities that will best help students reach the course's stated objectives. Ideally, varied learning materials that can be tailored to learners' different needs, abilities, and interests will be incorporated.
Organization and navigation
After instructors have determined the essential questions and gone through the backward design process, the organization and navigation of the online course need to be planned.
Good course organization and navigation require a thoughtful layout and logical framework. While there is no “right” way to organize a course, it is important for instructors to be deliberate in their choices and carry them through the entire course structure. This is critical for student learning. A clear organization helps guide students through the course and allows them to focus on the instructional content rather than making them try to figure out where they should go and what they should do.
Effective ways to organize a course:
- Break up long content segments and establish a module-, unit-, or week-based framework for the various instructional topics and components. This is what’s known as “chunking.”
- Have each new topic build on the one that came before it. This way, the material becomes increasingly complex and challenging as the course progresses.
- Integrate each new idea, topic, or theme with the preceding ones.
- As you would in a face-to-face course, incorporate repetitive elements and activities, such as discussions.
- Include summary statements after each chunk of content, transition statements connecting adjacent chunks, and introductory statements for each subsequent chunk.
- Provide a structure for learning so that students know what is expected of them and where they should go to complete assigned activities. A clearly defined weekly or regular rhythm (like the example on this page) can help online learners manage their time, understand expectations, and complete tasks.
- Use this course map template to help plan your course.
- Chunk course content for eLearning.
- Create a Quality Matters account to access the rubric and course review tools.
- Coordinate a course rhythm using templates (see option 3).
Consider how you can structure learning activities and interactions within the rhythm of your course. The figure above is one of four rhythm chart examples that you can download as an Excel file. These charts show how an online course can be organized to provide a weekly rhythm and clear expectations for your students. Thank you to Professor Dietram Scheufele and Instructional Designer Kevin Thompson for the above example.