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Components of Good Online Course Design

Part 1: Learner-Centered Outcomes-Based Instruction

1.  Clear Objectives

Clear learner objectives should be described and clarified in the:

  • Syllabus
    • The student should be informed in detail about what is involved in the course
    • You need to decide, on personal philosophy, the pace of the course and if students are to move as a cohort group or individually.
  • Grading Rubrics 
    • Ideally a rubric explains assessment of assignments and the basis for the overall course grade.
  • Models of quality work 
  • Explanations of the relevance of course materials to past and future learning.
What does a clear and thorough syllabus look like to the student?

A clear and thorough syllabus should contain an effective orientation to the course and to the course tools.  CVC2 provides resources to help faculty with these explanations.  Many colleges also provide orientation materials to their students.  Be sure to take advantage of offered resources and add to them descriptions of materials unique to your class.  

For advice on syllabus design and a sample syllabus see the materials available in Building Your First Syllabus.

What are Grading Rubrics?

4faculty also provides advice on grading rubrics, in both the Syllabus Description and in Module 107: Grades and Testing.

 2.  Assessment Tools

Another key to learner-centered outcomes based instruction is the use of assessment tools.  Ideally, assessment tools should be used:
  • At the opening of the course to gain a sense of what students already know and how you may be able to facilitate their learning:
    • Assessment of learning style http://www.metamath.com//lsweb/dvclearn.htm or similar tool
    • Assessment of skill/knowledge level
      • A brief, ungraded, current knowledge quiz related to the subject provides an opportunity to identify and help at risk students.  
      • Syllabus test
        • Consider offering students the option of taking the syllabus test more than once to relieve stress and help ensure learning.
        • You may wish to password protect the first quiz with a password that you include in the syllabus or read me first section.
      • Writing skills assessment:  
        • If students are asked to write a few lines (possibly about themselves and what they hope to learn) their writing skills will become apparent.  
      • Be careful to ensure that all the early assessments are brief, fun and non-threatening.  Do not include them in the final grade.
  • Ongoing
    • Build-in frequent self assessment
      • Be sure to design questions to reward what is understood and offer opportunities to correct errors by explaining answers (keep facts, context and process in mind)
      • Remind students to build upon learning from prior modules.
    • Challenge Preconceptions
    • Clarify Current Learning
      • Demonstrate relationships
  • Be sure to include multiple options for performance of skills, knowledge and understanding.

What do assessment tools look like to the student?

You observed several assessment tools in this course.  You can learn more in Lesson 8 of 4faculty.org.  Be sure to check for publisher resources when you choose your textbook.  Many publishers have test banks designed for online courses. 

check mark 3. Opportunities for Students to Construct and Experience Their Own Knowledge

One lesson we have learned is that we all learn differently.  It is very important to be clear about this.  The process by which we learn something and the outcome of that learning are not the same.  For example, some students need to "read the manual" and reflect upon their reading before they can think about assembling a computer. Other students only need to watch you (or a video) once, and they can replicate assembly.  The different approaches to learning do not necessarily symbolize different abilities to complete tasks once learned.

Many fields require that students be able to perform their tasks utilizing the specific processes.  Common task performance does not necessarily necessitate common pathways to learning.  Students will learn more quickly and more easily if we provide opportunities for students to construct and experience their own knowledge acquisition process.

How can you do this without exhausting yourself in the course development process? You might give students problem solving opportunities.  Think about this in practice.  Let's imagine that you teach math.  You show your students a problem and ask them to solve it.  You provide clues as to how to solve the problem.  If your problem is both familiar and challenging (it looks familiar, but asks students to use processes they have not applied in the past), your students can begin to solve the problem and will try various approaches.  Perhaps several will answer the question correctly.  The key here is that each student will explore the question differently.

Exercises offering students opportunities to construct and experience their own knowledge include:

Another approach to providing an opportunity for individual expressions of learning is to encourage analysis.  You can encourage analysis of readings, of student discussions, or of a real time “chat” experience.  

Learning modules designed to appeal to differing learning styles, and those which require students to explore modules that stretch beyond their preferred learning style, encourage students to grow and gain confidence.  Applicability of this principle may vary depending upon subject area.  

Courses addressing the introductory needs of students should address multiple styles and offer the most options.  Advanced and specialized courses may focus on approaches and skills relevant to a narrower skill set.  Faculty should carefully assess the skills necessary in practical applications of their disciplines.  For example, a law class may justifiably focus on reading skills, as reading comprehension and analysis are key skills in the legal profession.  A public administration course, while specialized, relates to a field in which those with differing learning preferences can succeed.  In short, most courses should address the needs of multiple learning preferences and offer multiple options for processing new learning.  

trash can and no symbolSometimes, in the name of offering students options, faculty “document dump.”  That is, they offer a massive number of pages and links.  This can be disastrous early in an introductory course.  Students usually don't have the skills and knowledge base to sort through the information and focus on key content. Frustrated, students will drop the course assuming that it is just too hard.

It is usually best to offer resources slowly and over time.  Students will probably appreciate a comprehensive list of web links, but wait to offer this until at least the middle of the course.


check mark4.  Opportunities for Students to Become Increasingly Responsible for Their Own Learning

Encourage students to become increasingly responsible for their own learning.  How can you achieve this goal?  

  • Provide early and extensive input on the discussion board to model effective discussion, analysis and other communication skills
  • Include examples of good posts from past classes
  • Encourage student analysis of discussions and reward students for becoming more skilled over time.  How?  Peer pressure works wonders online.  Students know they have a real audience.  If you or other students ask questions about posts with unclear sections, students will quickly learn that poor writing undermines clarity and their ability to influence others. Ask increasingly challenging questions about students' posts. If intrinsic motivation is insufficient, you can inform students that you will raise your grading standards over time.  

Open Entry/Open Exit courses can be designed to give students responsibility for their own learning, but assessment usually requires objectively demonstrable skill based learning.  Class discussion on the discussion board is usually not effective if students do not form a cohort and interact.  If they enter and leave a class at their convenience, the reality that they are in different places in the material during different weeks substantially undermines the opportunities for interaction.  Please do not interpret this as a negative view of open entry/open exit courses.  Some skill acquisition is often best achieved without regard to cohort, timeframe or interactivity.  

Include meaningful assignments and, when possible, allow students to develop their own pathways to learning.  Divide content into small modules so that students may move quickly thorough skill portions and explore new learning and analysis portions in more depth.

What does the provision of choice and responsibility look like to the student?  

Choice can and should be obvious to students.  It might appear as options for assignments, group projects, or service learning experiences.  It may be as simple as provision of a text document, PowerPoint with voice over, or an audio track reviewing the same materials.  Students can chose to gravitate to the format most suitable to their preferred learning style. If they feel they haven't grasped the material by reading, for example, they can turn to the PowerPoint option.  

Students may not recognize that they are taking responsibility for their own learning.  Increasingly challenging webquests that require students to find their own resources may encourage more self direction.  As students take more responsibility for the class and for their own learning, they often play a stronger role in the discussion board.  If you offer frequent posting requirements, students will become comfortable with interaction.  You can participate in the conversation frequently at first and slowly pull out over time.  You might even consider using a "fake" online student.  This can allow you to make observations or ask questions without the god like role of instructor.  Increased student interaction will allow you to pull out of the conversation.  You may find by the end of the course you need only say, "Great work everyone."

check mark5. Options for Demonstrating Learning Outcomes (if appropriate)

Students learn most easily when presented with materials appealing to their learning preferences.  Performance options often inspire students.  During the learning process, encourage higher order learning rather than memorization by questioning preconceptions and asking them to evaluate their new learning.  Ultimately, however, you must consider the real world needs of your students.  Introductory courses often lend themselves to the creation of multiple options.  Advanced courses for students seeking work in a particular profession may require consistent outcomes.  If your students will need to rebuild an engine, analyze a blood sample, or give shots, assignments that encourage differing outcomes may be unwise.

What does the opportunity to provide differing evidence of outcomes look like to the student?

It is probably obvious that differing evidence of outcomes implies the offering of different types of assignments.  How you do this may vary dramatically from discipline to discipline, but it generally appears to the students as one assignment with options for completion and achievement.  For example you could offer students the opportunity to do a research project, engage in service learning and write about the experience, make observations and then draw a cartoon or collage illustrating their view, and so forth.  Charts, drawings and other illustrations can be scanned and submitted online as an attachment or as a link to a website the student has created.

check mark6. Opportunities for Reflection


Higher order learning requires reflection.  Students need time to digest each piece of new learning.  You will do them a good service if you explain the value of reflection and remind them to pause at regular intervals.  You can also "encourage" reflection by limiting forward movement for a set period of time if the course management system in use allows you to set up time sensitive files.  

What do opportunities for reflection look like to the student?

Encouragement for reflection can appear in many forms:

  •  Build in journaling options that are not graded by the instructor but require sharing on the discussion board or require students to keep a journal that is sent to the instructor.  You might require input before the student can move forward, particularly in courses that are open entry/open exit.
    •  Ask how this lesson or module relates to prior learning.
  • Encourage sharing of reflections on what was learned through analysis of materials on the discussion board.
  • Remind students to evaluate both content and process.  They may understand facts or terminology, but have difficultly with context or processing relationships.  If students are required to respond to one or two of the other students' posts and to make those comments serious and thoughtful, students will reflect on the materials and also reflect on the learning process.

image of reflect page

You may wish to set up your Discussion Board with topics for each lesson and threads for each topic.

 image of two discussion boards illustrating their division into topics and threads

check mark7. Effective student support services


Many colleges offer online students a host of support services.  Be sure you know what is available and how students can access those services.  If your college does not use a home page template which includes these services, be sure to set them up as links from your homepage or syllabus.  

Online tutoring and online counseling are increasingly considered a normal institutional responsibility.  

In addition to services provided by your college, it is important to think about an orientation to your course and the online tools you plan to employ.  While it may be difficult to design a frequently asked questions (FAQs) page for your first course, you will quickly find that developing a FAQs for tools and procedures and another for course content can save you from answering the same question numerous times.  

Another aspect of student support services is the inclusion of an established regular response time for questions[3].  Students will appreciate knowing when they can anticipate hearing from you.  In addition, and perhaps more importantly, you will model good time management.  


Part 2: Clear and Captivating Instructional Design

check mark8. Clear and Captivating Instructional Design

Clear and captivating instructional design is difficult to describe, but we know immediately when we see it.  That is because there is no one right formula for clear and captivating design.  Key considerations usually include a sense that the course is tailored to its audience.  In other words, the writing style, the images and plug-ins selected, and the layout are appropriate to the intellectual sophistication, technical savy and needs of the audience.  For example, take a look at the CNN homepage http://www.cnn.com.  Lets imagine that this is the homepage for a course.  Overwhelmed?  Probably, unless you view the CNN homepage regularly and know just where to look for information of interest to you.  Because the CNN homepage attracts regular users, the content filled page serves them well and saves viewers from having to click through multiple pages to find the headlines of interest to them.  The same is true for your course.  Future lawyers may find reading page after page of illustration free text clear and captivating, but most introductory environmental science students would likely drop the course at the end of the first lesson - they demand images.  Think deeply about your students and what they are attracted to and need.  Look at other courses, Merlot, and publisher prepared materials in your discipline for ideas.  

What might clear and captivating instructional design look like to the student?

Please send recommendations for additions to this list to Kristina Kauffman: kristina@rccd.cc.ca.us,  using the subject line:  examples of excellent online courses.

check mark9. A Pathway to Guide Student Learning

You will recall that in Module 109: How People Learn, we discussed the importance of pathways to learning. Provision of a pathway to guide student learning has eased many students through their first online course and provided them with the confidence to pursue other courses.  Just what is a pathway?  You are already familiar with the DREAM pathway through 4faculty. Many other options are working effectively across the nation.  

Systematic pedagogical pathways currently in use include:

  • Riverside Community College's ICARE (Introduction, Connect, Apply, Reflect Evaluate)[1]  


  • The FAST Online Academy which won the California Community College Chancellor's Office Focus Award in 2001.  It has been used in the Contra Costa System to quickly orient faculty to online teaching. That pathway includes Foundation, Application, Sharing, Test[2] 
  • Sinclair Community College's DAPIR MAN Modular Structure used in the Radiology training program employs a far more sophisticated structure than the others:[4]
    • Descriptive Layer:  Overall Description of the Material
    • Assessment Layer: Packet Layer with primary contents
    • Integration Layer: How the material integrates with other modules
    • Reference Layer: Vocabulary and sources for the material in the module
    • Media Layer: Contains all the media for the module
    • Articulation Layer: Contains all the rules of articulation and matriculation
    • Necessities Layer: Contains all of the internal management of material information (such as URL’s and update routine, information search and update utility).
What does a pathway to guide student learning look like to the student?

The pathway should include:

  • A clear orientation to course materials and online tools (FAQs)
  • Time management recommendations (or requirements)
  • A syllabus or calendar that is reinforced in each module or lesson
  • Clearly established objectives which visually stand out
  • Navigation tools that guide you through the lesson and from lesson to lesson 
  • Integrated discussions 
  • Assessment tools.

Be sure to "chunk" materials into digestible bites.  Small increments alleviate stress and apprehension and help students learn to break down learning into manageable increments.

It is wise to give more time for the first lesson.  Students need time to get comfortable with the course tools before they can focus on the content.

check mark10. Appealing Presentation

To insure an appealing presentation, think carefully about the selection of color and layout design.  Use effective imagery to enhance your presentation.  While you may occasionally wish to select an image style different from the rest of your course, use differences for emphasis, not as a regular choice.  

If you don't have a good eye for design, consult your colleagues in the graphics or art departments, your campus webmaster, or online course support staff.  Keep in mind that not everyone likes the same colors or layouts.  While you want to let your personality and discipline's image shine through, you don't want to chose a style that is distracting to your learners.

Keep in mind that consistency of presentation will have a calming effect on your learners, giving them the opportunity to focus without distraction on course content .

What does an appealing presentation look like to the student?

In addition to the color and layout considerations mentioned above, think about:

  • Using multi-media accessible to both those with 28K modems and the visually impaired
  • The importance of addressing multiple learning preferences, particularly in introductory courses
  • Opportunities for interaction with the content, exploring various scenarios and making choices.

Does this seem repetitive?  If it does, this means that you have mastered the material and integrated it into your understanding of a good online course.  It is not rocket science.  If you have been teaching for a long time, you probably knew most of this on an intuitive level.


Part 3: Varied Forms of Interactivity with Material, Other Students and the Instructor

check mark11.  Regular Communication with peers and instructor

It is important to design a communication process that supports learning, not only in terms of content and analysis, but also in human terms.  Seed discussion, encourage and reward students for “teaching” each other, and plan for regular and predictable response times.  Communicate concern for students' learning and their development of self-motivated learning.

What is regular communication?  This will vary depending upon the discipline and the length of the course.  For a standard three unit course offered in a regular semester format, questions should be answered at least twice per week.  Three times per week is the best approach.  Comments on work submitted for a grade should be made within a week.  At least one peer to peer communication per week should be encouraged or required.  An informal study done at Riverside Community College early in the development of their online courses revealed that courses with the largest and fewest posts to the discussion board also had the highest drop rates.  It is possible to overdo interaction.  Typically, successful online faculty interact extensively early in the session and withdraw to just a few posts per week (or lesson) at the end of the course. 

What does communication with peers and the instructor look like to the student?

Students will appreciate these features:

  • A personalized introduction to the instructor offering a sense of the instructor's expertise, interests and world view as they relate to the course.  A video introduction is an excellent enhancement. 
  • Early, extensive instructor input on discussion board modeling discussion, analysis and other communication skills
  • A process of turning analysis of student discussion to the class over time
  • Structures that encourage peer support (i.e., an early requirement to ask questions and offer recommendations for improvement to one or two other student's posts on each lesson)
  • The construction of learning communities or cohorts
  • Rapid responses to personal e-mails
  • Guidelines on ethics, clarity, grammar, netiquette, conversational style
  • A unrecorded discussion room, just for students, allowing the building of relationships in the "hallway" of the online course.

If the first discussion item is a self-introduction, you can ease students into the online writing process. Think of this as an ice breaker.  You might wish to pose a question or two that is easy for everyone to answer.  You can use their self introduction as an assessment tool to identify writing difficulties.

check mark12. Varied Interaction with Content

Adding opportunities to interact with content can be a challenge.  Often, real interaction with content will not be a feature of your first online course.  In the past, few plug-in options existed and publishers rarely had information worth adding to a course.  Today that is not the case.  You can offer opportunities for interaction with the content without designing them yourself.  Use materials from Merlot or publishers. If you are quite sophisticated, you can also design your own.  

What does interaction with content look like to the student?

Opportunities to interact with content can include exploration of the consequences of various scenarios and choices.  You can design these using web links or more sophisticated authoring tools.  If you did not view them earlier in this lesson, the two examples below offer interaction with the content:

Another opportunity to interact can come in the form of a WebQuest (be sure to check the link for ideas).  A webquest might ask a student to go on a sort of cyber scavenger hunt to find data or expand their understanding of an issue.  A basic webquest might look like the one below:

image of one approach to writing webquests


[1] Copyright:  Riverside Community College
[2] Copyright:  Suzanne Miller, Kristina Kauffman
[3] Copyright: 4faculty.org
[4] Sinclair Community College


Note: These recommendations are the result of:

  • A series of California Virtual College Region 2 sponsored workshops
  • Preparatory work for 4faculty.org
  • Discussions about good online pedagogy held by the author at several conferences.

This section proposes a set of guidelines for Community College faculty preparing online courses. Your comments are welcomed.  Please forward recommendations to Kristina Kauffman via e-mail: kristina@rccd.cc.ca.us. Copyright to this section is held by Kristina Kauffman.


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