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Whether you are an instructional designer or an instructor, there are multiple facets to consider when designing an online course. We suggest beginning with five themes that can serve as a guide to enhance the online course design experience.  

1. Be Prepared

It is best to have the online course created before the start of the semester, so the course is not being designed while students are simultaneously progressing through the course. Early course design preparations allow the full ADDIE model (instructional design framework) to occur. It offers the opportunity for reflection and redesign prior to student involvement.

When planning early, consider implementing the following to enhance online course design:

  • Instructor/instructional designer collaboration or attending a workshop on online course design.
  • Align assignments with stated learning objectives.
  • Integrate scaffolding throughout.
  • Vary content deliverables, such as through instructional videos, primary and secondary sources, infographics and research.
  • Make the course accessible for all individuals by following ADA-compliance guidelines.
  • Incorporate methods to increase social presence for the instructor and students.

2. Be Concise

  • Clarity fosters increased usability for students as they navigate through a course.
  • Develop a user-friendly template. Course templates offer a base for course design and provide consistency to help streamline course development.
  • Consistent labels for course materials reduce user confusion. For example, if there are required readings in different modules, a specific title for the required readings should be allocated throughout.
  • Streamline resources to minimize clicks. For example, everything needed in a module should be located within the module through hyperlinks or embedding.
  • Assignments should have set expectations and guidelines and, when applicable, assignment examples.
  • Rubrics or assignment checklists provide further clarity on assignment expectations.

3. Be Innovative

Today’s learners maneuver through life at an extremely high-pace. They juggle various social environments and life responsibilities, which are facilitated through technology. Courses should offer students the ability to demonstrate their understanding of content through multiple digital formats.

Embedding a variety of technological resources into assignments is one strategy for reaching the digital learner. Varying course assignments by integrating some of the ideas below will foster inherent motivation.

  • Digital graphic organizers, such as Popplet or Bubbl, create visual diagrams of the content.
  • Digital infographics, such as or Canva, allow data or information to be represented in a chart or diagram.
  • Video recording with a video camera or screen capturing software, such as Jing, allow students to deliver virtual presentations.
  • Digital canvases, such as Padlet or Prezi, provide a pathway for students to highlight information in a centralized location.
  • Video conferencing tools, such as Zoom, offer an opportunity for students to record small group discussions.
  • Animated video creation with Adobe Spark or PowToon allow students to create digital stories.
  • Summative artifacts can be presented through digital portfolios using LessonPaths.

4. Be Unique

Instructional videos are a key content delivery component in online courses because they offer students the opportunity to receive content in a conversational way.  Instructional videos increase their ability to engage with the instructor as if in an one-conversations where the instructor's personality is exhibited during the content delivery. The video recording should be no longer than 15 or 20 minutes. There are two main types of instructional videos that can be used in courses:

Demonstration video. This video format would include the instructor exemplifying a demonstration or talking directly to the camera, and can be created using a video camera or smartphone/tablet camera or a webcam.  We recommend hosting videos through  YouTube.

Screen capture video. This video format offers a picture-in-picture production, where the computer desktop is recorded as well as the instructor. A webcam is needed for this video production along with a software program.  We recommend the purchase of  Camtasia and Snag-It; however, if you are looking for a free solution Screencast-O-Matic is an option.

5. Be Available

In many cases online courses can be viewed negatively because students can feel isolated from their instructors and the content. Social presence in a course can overcome the perception of isolation. Some effective methods to increase social presence are:

  • An instructor-led introductory video that is three to five minutes in length that offers an introduction of themselves, an overview of the course, and sets the tone of the course by establishing open communication.
  • Students have easy access to instructor support through a variety of venues such as email, chat/instant message and video conferencing (Skype, Zoom, etc.).
  • Consistent ‘check-ins’ throughout the course establishes instructor involvement and support. This can be accomplished through announcements, updates, reminders, and other opportunities to support academic or professional growth.
  • All assignments should receive feedback from the instructor. Assignment feedback should provide specific explanations for areas of improvement as well as highlight exceptional qualities. To heighten social presence, video feedback is an option.  


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