What are the essential features of good online course design?


It’s worth looking at some numbers to remind ourselves why good online course design matters.

The table below is from the UK’s Student Academic Experience Survey 2020. Students didn’t get asked specifically about online learning and the impact of Covid-19, but there was a difference in answers to some questions from students who were surveyed before 16th March and those who answered the questions after 16th March. The 16th March date was when most courses started to go online.

Before 16th March 2020 After 16th March 2020
Teaching staff regularly initiated debates and discussions 37% 43%
Teaching staff used lectures / teaching groups to guide and support independent study 58% 62%
Teaching staff helped you explore your own areas of interest 36% 42%

(Table from https://www.hepi.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/The-Student-Academic-Experience-Survey-2020.pdf)

There is more than a hint in the above table that the switch to online learning made some positive impact. That must be encouraging - it shows that online learning can be an opportunity to innovate, promote discussion and encourage students to be more independent. These are good reasons to invest time in online course design.

It takes planning and effort to create good online courses. You have to be good at the basics of course design and you have to navigate your way through a series of technology options to find the simplest and the best tools to deliver your course. The exact approach you take to the design of your course depends a lot on three things:

  1. Your audience - university level, school, work based learner etc.
  2. The amount of online tutoring vs. self propelled study.
  3. The technology you’re using - an established learning management system or a collection of free online services?

Here are 10 things to keep in mind when you begin to create your online course.

  1. A course outline. Create a simple course overview to show where each online learning activity or lesson fits within the overall course structure. You’d do that for a face-to-face course and it's even more important with an online course. Students want to know where they are and what’s coming next.
  2. Clear learning objectives. You want objectives that describe what the learner should be able to do at the end of the lesson or activity. It’s ok be very explicit - tell your students what they expected to know at the end of an activity, lesson or module.
  3. Short online activities. This is particularly important on courses where there is little tutor involvement and more self study. Break up bigger tasks. There is research that says that the optimum length for an online maths video is between 6 and 12 minutes. Anything more than that and students lose interest.

    You could have a lesson that’s made up of three different activities, but it’s better if each one takes no longer than 10 minutes.
  4. Encourage offline, independent study. Your online course should encourage offline, independent study. That’s easy. You can point students to other resources to the web and get them to do real research. Use online learning as an opportunity to introduce more active learning - use scenarios, break things up with short research and writing tasks. Grab the chance to do something different.
  5. Encourage group work and collaboration. Online learning can be lonely. Your online course should encourage group work and collaboration. Get your students to work together on some kind larger activity. What about a group blog or wiki? They can use free tools to create original content that can then be shared with a wider group.

    Why not ask students to work together with Google Draw? They can turn their ideas into a mind map, work on it in Google Draw and then share it with the wider group.
  6. Give regular feedback. Use quizzes and short assessments to give almost instant feedback. Most learner management systems include some kind of quiz functionality. Use a short quiz at the end of each lesson to check learner progress against the learning objectives. It doesn’t have to be formal and you don’t have to record the marks - it’s just a simple way to get learners to reflect on the lesson and identify any gaps.

    You can embed Google Forms in online content. Build a simple quiz in Google Forms (it will auto mark) and you can collect the results in a Google Sheet.
  7. Judicious use of video. Use it to break up longer tasks. YouTube is the biggest online learning platform in the world. You can learn pretty much anything on YouTube. You could:
    • Link to videos that already exist - that’s easy.
    • Create your own videos - requires more effort, but easier than you think.

    Video doesn’t have to be sophisticated. It can be just a talking head, but with a bit of extra effort you can create something that looks quite professional.

    Top tip: Ask questions in the video. Try to get the students to be more than just passive viewers.
  8. Innovate occasionally. Be innovative and take advantage of free tools. Somewhere in Google’s wider suite of free web apps there are opportunities to do something different with your students. You could:
    • Get students to work together on a mind map in Google Draw
    • Do something with data in Google Data Studio
    • Create an assignment that uses blogging software - students work together on a blog or wiki.

    Can you even gamify the parts of the course? The language learning app Duolingo is very good at this. Learners get fun badges when they make progress.
  9. Show progress. Progress against learning objectives and progress through the course. This requires a bit more sophistication because you’re going to need to track what learners are doing. Some learning management systems will do that automatically.

    It also depends on the type of course. A fully online course with little tutor involvement needs some kind of automatic solution.
  10. Collect and use feedback. Is this the most important thing in the list? Why wouldn’t you actively seek learner feedback and then use it when you create the next version of your course? And the web makes it very easy to collect online feedback. Get the data collection habit and begin to develop a mini-culture of continuous improvement.

    Collect feedback at the end of a module and at the end of the course. Managing response data doesn’t have to be onerous - there are plenty of online survey tools that make the management side of things easy.

Good online course design is hard work. It is always about more than just the technology. Students don’t want gimmicks (they grew up with the web), instead they want an uncomplicated and reliable online experience that includes clear learning objectives, good quality content and regular feedback. Aim to find the blend of regular online activities and occasional more innovative tasks that works for you and your students.