Online Course Design

by MU Instructional Designers
April 6, 2022
5-7 min read

Instructional Design for Online Learning

Designing an online course uses the same patterns and procedures as instructional design for any other modality:

  1. Start with your learning objectives, potentially breaking them down into stepping stone learning goals (scaffolding).
  2. Design varied and authentic formative and summative assessments to measure mastery of those learning goals/objectives.
  3. Create and curate the instructional content that students need in order to complete those assessments.

For a much more detailed look at the instructional design process, check out Instructional Design Frameworks.

The difference between designing an online course, as opposed to a face-to-face (F2F) or hybrid course, is in the specifics of each of those steps. Let’s look at each one a bit more closely with the online learning environment in mind.

Start with Learning Objectives

Start with Learning Objectives

This is the instructional design stage that is least altered by a change in modality. The list of objectives from the course syllabus can often be a bit broad, so it is important to break those down a bit into smaller learning goals. When breaking down those goals, avoid being overly specific as to how the student will be demonstrating their learning — particularly since that “how” in an online course might be different than what you’re used to in a F2F one. CAST expresses this as “separating the means from the ends” (citation). Here are a couple of examples:

  • Learning Objective: Demonstrate the ability to use multimedia in course materials that are accessible. (EDME 552)
    • Learning Goal: Identify factors in the accessibility of digital content.
    • Learning Goal: Apply WCAG 2.0 guidelines in the creation of online content.
    • Learning Goal: Create documents that meet accessibility guidelines.
    • Learning Goal: Create a video that meets accessibility guidelines.
  • Learning Objective: Use web design best practices and graphic design principles to design and publish a responsible, effective, and accessible blog. (DIGL 101)
    • Learning Goal: Identify the purpose and audience of your blog
    • Learning Goal: Reflect on what you learned throughout the semester about the privacy, accessibility, copyright, and graphic design principles of web design.
    • Learning Goal: Publish a blog with at least three posts on a topic of your choice

Design Varied and Authentic Formative and Summative Assessments

Design Varied and Authentic Formative and Summative Assessments

Here’s where the shift in modality really impacts our planning. Firstly, consider what types of assessments work well online (see the best practices on Create Activities). Secondly, online learning requires more intentional and frequent formative assessments than more traditional F2F environments. Since you don’t have the nonverbal cues or classroom experiences with students that you would have in a F2F course, you need to be able to informally assess their understanding throughout the course in other ways. Because students are incredibly diverse in skills, strengths, experiences, and interests, these assessments should be as varied as possible. Here are a few examples:

Objective/Goal Options for Variability
Plan strategies to promote/maintain academic integrity in the online classroom (EDME 552) Case Study Discussion Forum: Students choose which of the two case studies to respond to; Posts can be text, audio, or video

Reflection/Game Plan: Reflections can be written/essay, recorded video, or visual/infographic

Use best practices for data visualization and research skills to create and publish an infographic that is responsible, effective, and accessible. (DIGL 101) Published Infographic: Medium/format is set (infographic), but students have choice on topic/argument.

For help on creating assessments in Canvas, please see the “Create Activities” section of our Canvas: Faculty Introduction page of the ITS blog.

Create and Curate Instructional Content

Create and Curate Instructional Content

This final course design stage involves creating and curating the instructional materials that give students the information they need to complete the assessments successfully. Firstly, consider what types of content work well online (see the best practices on Create Content). Secondly, balance the amount of instructor-created and external materials to maintain teacher presence without reinventing the wheel and/or burning out. A good first step is to explore what content already covers your material well (textbook, YouTube, etc.), then focus your energy on creating original content for the parts of your material that good content isn’t already available for. Here’s how that mix of content might look in an online course:

  • Content for lesson on Netiquette & eProfessionalism (EDME 552)
    • Introductory video with discussion of Twitter debate | Instructor-created | Video
    • “Let’s Talk: Effectively Communicating with Your Online Students” | External | Chapter from free ebook
    • Three articles that discuss how to teach netiquette | External | Web articles
    • Four sample “Tip Sheets” for students about netiquette | External | Web pages
    • Four sample YouTube videos for students about netiquette | External | Videos
    • ~~All sources (except for the samples) are accompanied by instructor-created guiding questions
  • Content for 3D printing (DIGL 101)
    • Introductory video from Mashable | External | Video
    • “How 3D Printing Can Help Tell the Story” | External | Web article
    • “TEDxBreda: 3D Printed Storytelling” | External | Video
    • Description/discussion of considerations for 3D printing | Instructor-created | Text & images (Canvas content page)
    • “3 Most Common 3D Printer Errors and Their Fixes” | External | Web article
    • Illustrated list of 3D design techniques | Instructor-created | Text & images (Canvas content page)
    • TinkerCAD tips and Tutorial Video | Instructor-created | Text & video
    • Export to .STL Video | Instructor-created | Video
    • MakerBot Print Slicing Software | Instructor-created | Video
    • Operate MakerBot Printer | External | Video

For help on adding content items to your Canvas modules, please see the “Create Content” section of our Canvas: Faculty Introduction page of the ITS blog.

NOTE: Class Time

When planning your online content and activities, it’s important to keep in mind how credit hours translate to the online classroom. Check out Class Time in Online/Hybrid Courses for information on instructional and non-instructional time, which¬†must be documented on online course syllabi.

Online Course Design Plan Document

All these steps are laid out in our online Course Design Plan (CDP). This document includes breaking down your learning objectives, mapping out your topics for the course, and detailing week-to-week your instructional materials and activities/assessments. A CDP can provide necessary structure for your course as you develop it. If you don’t already have a model/template for course design, consider using Here’s an example of a completed online CDP. If this is an entirely new course for you, you may want to first start with a mind map to collect and organize all the great ideas you are considering.

If you want to learn more about online course design, check out our annotated bibliography.