Instructional materials for online courses

Developing instructional materials for an online course

Instructional materials are the content or information conveyed within a course. These include the lectures, readings, textbooks, multimedia components, and other resources in a course. These materials can be used in both face-to-face and online classrooms; however, some must be modified or redesigned to be effective for the online environment. The best instructional materials align with all other course elements, including the learning objectives, assessments, and activities.

Why is it important?

Instructional materials provide the core information students will experience, learn, and apply during a course. They hold the power to either engage or demotivate students. This is especially true for online courses, which rely on a thoughtful and complete collection of instructional materials that students will access, explore, absorb, and reference as they proceed in a course.

Therefore, such materials must be carefully planned, selected, organized, refined, and used in a course for maximum effect. The planning and selection of instructional materials should consider the breadth and depth of content to optimize student learning.

How to put it into practice?

Consider these questions as you select instructional materials for your course:

  • Are the scope and coverage appropriate?
  • What will learners read/explore?
  • What will learners view/hear?
  • What could learners experience/create?
  • Will you find or create this material?
  • Do materials and media support and align with the stated learning objectives?
  • Is there sufficient interactivity and engagement?
Instructors and/or instructional designers should cast a wide net and aim for various materials to include in their courses. At the same time, they should ensure that the course has the appropriate combination of instructional materials. Below are just a few categories of instructional content to include in an online course.

Note: Select the plus sign or headings to reveal additional content.



Lectures resembling traditional instruction are acceptable in the online classroom; however, the instructor should ensure they serve a unique purpose among the other instructional materials. Lectures, whether video- or text-based, should not be so lengthy as to monopolize the learner’s time spent in the online classroom; they should complement the other instructional materials. Instructors are advised to “chunk” or organize shorter segments of lecture material logically throughout the course.

Tips on developing lectures

  • Consider the appropriate scope and coverage of the content to convey; exclude irrelevant or unnecessary information.
  • Break up or group content into smaller, logical segments so students experience it more efficiently.
  • Pacing is very important during lecture recordings.
  • Invite guest speakers to add variety.
  • Integrate interactivity and opportunity for engagement wherever possible.
  • Ensure lectures are accessible by providing transcripts and captions for all video content.
  • Avoid long video lectures, as most students don’t finish watching them; five to ten minutes of mini-lectures are more engaging.

Digital media

Digital media encompasses all audio, video, and visual content, including lectures that instructors might want to put in their courses. This instructional material engages multiple learner senses, including sight, sound, and sometimes touch, where the media is interactive.

Selecting digital media for a course requires that instructors consider certain aspects, such as technical feasibility for both the creator and the media's audience. Other aspects to consider include how to provide accessible content and whether to find existing materials or create content (and the associated time-cost-benefit analysis).

Types of digital media

  • Images or screen captures
  • Videos or computer screencasts to demonstrate math, business processes, or art techniques
  • Narrated PowerPoint presentations or other mini-lecture recordings using computer software to record video and audio
  • Movie clips to provide examples of concepts or metaphors for discussion
  • Audio recordings of instructor explanations (i.e., podcasts)
  • Videos or audio recordings of guest expert presentations or interviews
  • On-location videos to demonstrate real-world settings or processes
  • Learner-created video or audio materials

Open educational resources (OER)

Open Educational Resources (OERs) are fantastic instructional materials because they are free to reuse, adapt, and share. Moreover, they have been created and curated by educational professionals. OERs might include lesson plans, quizzes, online articles, digital media, databases, simulations, etc. They can be found in large collections or through search engines and range from individual images to entire courses.

The following are eight steps to OER integration

  1. Find an OER that will help support course or module-level objectives.
  2. Assess the quality of the OER.
  3. Check for license compatibility.
  4. Eliminate extraneous content within the OER.
  5. Identify areas of localization.
  6. Remix the OER with other educational materials, if applicable.
  7. Determine the logistics (including providing clear instructions) of using the OER within the lesson or module.
  8. Devise a method to evaluate if the OER was effective and contributed to learning.

Source: OER Handbook for educators.

More information about open educational resources is available through the following open educational resources:


A course syllabus is a vital instructional resource as it can succinctly convey all the important information that students need to know regarding:

  • Course learning outcomes/objectives (required)
  • Number of credit hours associated with the course
  • How credit hours are met by the course (required)
  • Course organization and content
  • Technical support
  • Course expectations and policies
  • Grading criteria (including for online discussions)
  • Online participation expectations
  • Major deadlines
  • Instructor communication expectations and contact information
  • Required texts or materials

Tips for creating syllabi for online courses

  • Make any necessary adjustments to a syllabus previously used in a face-to-face course to ensure that it accurately represents the requirements for the online environment.
  • Communicate all expectations and deadlines about every aspect of the course as you would on the first day of a face-to-face class.
  • Explicitly state online participation expectations. This includes any guidelines you have for logging on, posting in the discussion board, participating in group work, and being present for webinars or real-time chats.
  • Identify the crucial information for the syllabus to be useful to online students. Ask someone else to review it to ensure that the expectations and assignments are clearly explained.

For a complete set of syllabi recommendations, including required syllabus elements, please download and review the UW-Madison syllabus template.

Review the course syllabi information on the Teaching and Learning website for more details.

Accessibility and universal design

Per university, state, and federal policies and laws, all instructional content must be accessible to all students. Most critically, this includes all students with disabilities, which can be visual, auditory, physical, and/or cognitive. Fortunately, an accessible design implemented in pursuing such mandates has the secondary benefit of helping all students learn on an equal footing.

This secondary benefit is the idea behind Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which assumes that good design benefits all learners regardless of ability or background. To this end, there are simple steps that online instructors can take to significantly improve the accessibility of their courses.

Tips for designing accessibility into online courses

  • Use templates provided by campus learning management systems (LMS), such as Canvas, as they have already been developed for accessibility.
  • Please carefully follow all directions in the LMS and include all requested information, such as image descriptions for blind or visually impaired students using screen readers.
  • Use tools such as Adobe Acrobat and Microsoft Word to make tagged PDFs.
  • Save and use original digital documents rather than using scans of documents whenever possible, as they are not intelligible to screen reader software. If necessary, contact the McBurney Center’s Document Conversion Service.
  • Provide alternative means of access to all multimedia content in a course, such as transcripts and captions. If necessary, contact the McBurney Center’s Media Captioning Service.
  • Include accessibility statements (or a statement that none could be found) for all technologies required in a course.
  • Select textbooks early – and ask about accessibility options for purchasers – to allow time for conversion when accessible versions aren’t available.

Resource: Review UW-Madison’s complete guide to creating and selecting accessible course materials.


Due to the variety of instructional materials potentially available for an online course, the copyright must be a foremost concern when deciding which to include. Both text-based and multimedia components of a course are potentially subject to copyright, so instructors must determine the copyright restrictions on any existing content they want to use in a course. Since the goal behind copyright is to balance the rights of authors with the rights of the public to use the work, there are ways to reuse content created by others legally.
copyright use

Tips for using existing content without violating copyright law:

  • Determine if the material is in the public domain, which automatically includes U.S. Government works and works created before 1923 (among others).
  • Use material associated with a license that allows for a particular use that applies to the online course, e.g., library-licensed materials, materials licensed via a department purchase, or Creative Commons-licensed materials.
  • Perform a fair use analysis of the material, which necessarily takes into account: 1) the purpose and character of the use; 2) the nature of the copyrighted work; 3) the amount and substantivity of the portion taken; 4) the effect of the use upon the market or the potential market.
  • Obtain permission from the copyright holder for a particular use of the material. (However, this raises several potential issues, including locating the rights holder, paying for rights, or getting declined.)
  • Link to web resources rather than embedding them.

If this seems a bit overwhelming, the library is a great place to select resources before you’ve found the exact item you want to use. In fact, it is recommended that instructors schedule a consultation with a librarian to discuss the specific questions and options they are considering regarding reusing instructional material.

Librarians can help locate permissions, determine fair use criteria for a resource, and provide a list of resources and databases generally cleared for copyright and/or accessibility. The UW Libraries Course Reserves department can also put items aside for the class in physical or digital form.

Copyright Resources

Keywordsmaterials, content, instructional, course, online, lectures, digital, media, oer, open, resource, educational, syllabus, syllabi, universal, design, accessibility, copyrightDoc ID121279
OwnerKaren S.GroupInstructional Resources
Created2022-09-13 12:22:57Updated2024-05-13 07:48:36
SitesCenter for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring
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