Online Course Design

Learning objective: Reflect on different approaches to online course planning and choose a template that best fits your curriculum and teaching style. 

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

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

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

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.

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.

Class Time in Online Courses

Why?

In order to follow Middle States policy and the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) guidelines regarding instructional and non-instructional time, Messiah requires that online instructors outline for students which activities in their course are instructional and which are non-instructional.

What?

Instructional Time (IT) refers to time that the student spends in instructor-student interaction (a form of online engagement). This is sometimes called “class time” to refer to activities that take place during the face-to-face class, but for clarity, we’ll use instructional time.

Examples of IT

  • Recorded videos, podcasts, or PowerPoint presentations, which serve as lecture equivalents
  • Asynchronous Canvas discussions (in which faculty participate)
  • Faculty interaction with small groups, similar to how an instructor would check in with groups in a physical classroom
  • Videos if they are a) created by the instructor, or b) educationally contextualized by the instructor (e.g. with introduction and discussion afterward), as would be equivalent to showing a video in class
  • Student completion of an online quiz/exam
  • Faculty’s written/audio/video feedback on assignments
  • Recorded student presentations, which serve as in-class peer presentation equivalents.

Non-Instructional Time (NIT) refers to time that students spend independently interacting with content such as in readings, homework assignments, groupwork that the instructor is not involved with, etc.

How much IT and NIT should I have?

PDE has a policy stating the number of “Classroom Instruction” (IT) hours that are necessary for all degree-granting institutions. This information should be on your syllabus. Although some disciplines differ, generally there should be two non-instructional hours for each instructional hour of the course.

Comparison of number of credits to number of hours of IT and NIT
# of Credits IT Hours NIT Hours
1 14 28
3 42 84

Those hours are totals for the entire course, so you’ll need to determine what that looks like week to week depending on how long your course is.

Comparison of IT and NIT hours per week for 6-, 8-, and 14-week courses
Number of weeks IT hours per week NIT hours per week
6 7 14
8 5.25 10.5
14 3 6

How do I calculate my IT and NIT?

Messiah’s Equivalency Policy can be a useful resource for calculating instructional hours for common course activities. Remember: The key principle to consider is that instructional time is for student-to-faculty interaction and student-to-student interaction. Student-to-content interaction is non-instructional time.

Tip for Calculating Reading Time

When calculating reading time, we recommend considering that the average reading speed for adults is 200-300 words per minute (WPM). When you have a reading in your course (textbook, article, etc.), we recommend using that rate and then including a bit of extra time for students to annotate, highlight, or think further about the content, since reading 500 words of a textbook takes longer than reading 500 words in a novel. We often use the handy online Read-o-Meter, into which you can paste the text of an electronic reading (website, article, etc.) and get the estimated reading time.

Examples
Here is an example of what that looks like for a 3 credit Graduate Nursing course that run 8 weeks

screenshot from nursing course illustrating how IT and NIT hours are outlined in course schedule
Beside each activity in the course schedule (reading, assignment, etc.), the estimated IT and/or NIT hours are listed in columns to the right.

Here is an example from the 2 credit DIGL 101 course that ran in a online UG summer term.

screenshot of instructional and non-instructional time related to course activities

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