Designing Online Courses

Although the field of online education is relatively new, there is a substantial body of scholarship on what makes a quality online course. One benefit of the online modality is the ability to measure an enormous number of data points that correlate to both the cognitive and affective components of learning. This data has resulted in a number of proven techniques which are now standard in the best online courses.

We’d like to touch on a few key concepts here: backwards design, course blueprint, course shell, chunking, and Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Each of these concepts are covered in greater detail in the Online Teaching Boot Camp.

Backwards Design

Screenshot of Module 1In backwards design, you begin with the end in mind. What do you want students to be able to do or know by the end of your course? From this starting point, you identify learning objectives, assessments, and activities, in that order. Instructional designers specialize in this outcomes-based approach and can bring a fresh perspective to thinking about how you can meet objectives.

Course Blueprint

The course blueprint is a structured Word document with placeholders for the module components (overview, learning objectives, etc.). It serves as a checklist to make sure you’ve incorporated best practices into your course, such as listing the objectives for each week, or telling students a little about yourself in a course bio. It’s helpful to use a blueprint because you can refine all the main pieces of your course and see them all in one document before you begin adding any content into Blackboard. By using a blueprint you can speed up your course development.

Course Shell

“OMG, I LOVE this! Thank you so much!!!!”
-Comment from Boot Camp participant Catalina Viscarra about the course shell

BB screenshot of menuThe course shell is a set of navigation links that you import into your course (or PACE can do this for you). The design of the course shell supports all of the main aspects of the Quality Matters standard. Building your course using the shell brings you a long way toward making your course represent best practices. It helps you build your course more quickly and effectively.

Once students learn the navigation of the course, they can use this knowledge in other courses that use the course shell. This allows students to keep their focus on the course content, instead of where to find that content. A consistent navigation scheme is especially important for courses that are part of a program, or ones that have the potential to be. You still remain in charge of what you teach.

Content Chunking

Research shows that breaking content into smaller pieces is a critical component to increasing student understanding. In contrast to the traditional face-to-face lecture, online courses offer you much more flexibility for how you deliver content. This doesn’t mean that students are learning less—it only means that learning is grouped into meaningful segments. One example of chunking would be to record a lecture in 10-minute logical chunks, each of which could be titled specifically.

Universal Design for Learning

The Universal Design for Learning is a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn (CAST, 2020). The framework provides suggestions that can be applied to any teaching environment to ensure that all learners can access and participate in meaningful, challenging learning opportunities. The UDL encourages all of us to keep in mind that offering different ways for students to access and interact with your course content is essential.