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.
Materials about course planning
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, and desired outcomes or objectives, along with planning all of the 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.
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 effectively teach online.
With the proliferation of online education and a tremendous variety in the types of online courses, a variety of 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 of which were 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:
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 that 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:
In the first stage, instructors will identify the learning goals, outcomes, competencies, and/or skills that learners should retain after taking the online course. As we covered earlier, they will also narrow down the big ideas and essential questions of the course.
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, as well as self-reflection tasks that have learners consider their own progress.
In the third and final stage, instructors will plan the learning resources and activities that will best help students reach the stated objectives of the course. Ideally, varied learning materials will be incorporated that can be tailored to the different needs, abilities, and interests of learners.
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 one “right” way to organize a course, it is important for instructors to be deliberate in their choices and to 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:
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 you 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.