Best Practices for Online Course Design

Teaching online clearly isn’t the same as teaching face-to-face, and where people are often quick to see the limitations of online learning, we find that when people become more aware of its benefits, they are more likely to enjoy experimenting with online as a teaching practice. With lectures being saved from semester to semester, content pulled out from lecture into more appropriate formats such as flash cards or interactive maps, and students no longer hiding along the back row to avoid having to answer questions on the textbook they did not read, instructors are finding that the upfront work involved in developing an online course can make for a more engaging experience where every student contributes to the progress of the class.

Help Getting Started

Understanding this to be one more step in the busy lives of our faculty partners, CETLOE has done a fair amount of heavy lifting to make sure you can go through the entire development process with full support, even when you are working alone. In terms of workflow, here’s a few items to help you get started:

  • Most importantly, we have collected what we consider to be the foundational practices for great online teaching in our Best Practices for Online Courses webpage. These practices will help you understand what structures need to be in place in your course to help your students succeed.
  • Second, we have created a sample course which we have annotated to show the best practices in the context of a fully fleshed-out course. From this same content, a Course Welcome module and module shell can be imported into your course, if you contact CETLOE.
  • Third, we have created syllabus recommendations for crafting language that should be included for online and blended courses.

Online Learning vs. Face-to-Face

Before all of these supports though, it’s important to realize how online learning is different than face-to-face learning. Because we lack the lecture time of a face-to-face setting where we can actually confirm that even if students did not read, we know they heard what was covered in the text, we have to first shift to an assessment-based approach to confirming that our students have covered the content that we require of them. Nothing too big at first, just some quick check-in quizzes or discussions to help you determine if your students read the text.

Second, this also means that lectures can move from “covering the content”, to ones that generate more interest and that help to make connections between the content that the textbook does not cover. These new lectures are often short, more topical, more visual or more personal.

Third, as learning new information is often more effective with the use of practice & repetition and through making visual connections between major concepts like on a map, process flow, or timeline, we include new formats for media that would have never made sense in a classroom, such as flash cards, interactive images, maps, or interactive data dashboards.

Lastly, our discussion time is not limited to the amount of time left in the class, and we can have true requirements for participation so that the students who may have been more reluctant to participate will now be heard, and hopefully their contributions will add more richness to class discussions. Beyond this example, our courses must become intentionally more collaborative to mirror the implicit social relationships in face-to-face courses, where students can build study groups and augment their learning through peer learning. This can include work in peer review, group work, discussion boards, and so on.


Creating an Online Class Full of Self-Directed Learners

As you work through designing your online course, keep a few of these tips in mind to help develop an online class that is full of self-directed learners.

  • Create a nurturing environment.
    • Use learner-centered language in your syllabus.
    • Provide clear information about timelines and due dates.  The iCollege Calendar Tool, Content Tool, and notifications can be helpful.  Let students know that they should manage their academic and personal time.
    • Humanize your course.  Use the iCollege Announcement tool to post a welcome announcement that introduces you, includes a welcome video or a picture, and maybe even an anecdote related to your learning experiences.
    • Provide clear direction during the first week of the semester on what specific tasks a student must complete.
    • Use the Content Tool, to create a Welcome module.  The Welcome module is the first module in the course and provides students with an overview of the course, includes the syllabus, a roll verification activity that incorporates growth mindset.
    • Organize content, activities, and assessments by modules.   Each module contains a similar structure that includes an overview/objectives, content (lectures, slides, files, and videos), activities, assessments, metacognition activity, and wrap-up.
  • Set expectations for the course.
    • Use learner-centered language to describe expectations in your syllabus, assignment instructions, and other documents and materials.
    • Set clear expectations for course interactions (netiquette) and assignment and assessment evaluation using tools such as rubrics.
    • Consider using an approach such as TILT for describing course activities and assessments.
    • Create an assessment strategy that assesses students early and often.  Try providing a series of low-stakes quizzes that allows students to gauge their level of understanding.
    • Use feedback on assessments as an opportunity to communicate expectations.
  • Provide guidance for completing modules.
    • Structure module activities including online lectures so that they include opportunities for students to test their understanding and data points to help you identify gaps in understanding.
    • Incorporate practical tips for how to effectively engage throughout the module.  This includes asking students to set a (study) goal at the beginning of the module then following up at the end of the module to ask them if they met their goal.  This can be accomplished with the iCollege Survey Tool.
    • Assign practice “homework” that encourages students to focus on process and problem-solving rather than just getting the correct answer.  Encourage students to engage with homework early and often.
    • Stress the importance of using the resources you provide– even when you do not explicitly direct students to the resource.
  • Encourage preparation and reflection
    • Design opportunities for students to form good study habits.
      • After the first assessment, provide a module that discusses results and encourages students to think through how they prepared for the assessment and whether those strategies yielded the results they wanted.  Ask students to consider if their study habits can be modified to help them prepare for future assessments.
    • Incorporate options and tips for studying for assessments.

Consider reading: Teach students how to learn strategies you can incorporate into any course to improve student metacognition, study skills, and motivation


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