Simplifying Online Course Design

Written by: Rob Kelly
Published On: September 7, 2012

Good course design is essential to effective online learning. In an interview with Online Classroom, Richard Smith, associate professor and coordinator of the instructional technology program, and Caroline Crawford, associate professor of instructional technology, both at the University of Houston - Clear Lake, talked about online course design principles that can improve learning and minimize extraneous work on the part of the students and instructor.

Don't try to do too much.Improve Participation to Enhance Learning in Online Courses

A common mistake of new online educators is to include more content than is necessary, which takes more work to design and facilitate. "They tend to put too much content into the course. They include too many assignments, and they soon find that they are overwhelmed. So the first challenge is to be able to control your impulse to include too much content and too many activities. It's very difficult to gauge how much is appropriate if you've never taught an online course before," Smith says.

Smith recommends taking an online course to get a feel for what's appropriate.

Keep the course organized and well labeled.

"The more work that goes into the preparation means less work when the course is in progress. The last thing you want is to have to go in and make corrections when the course is in progress, especially if you are not all that experienced with the course management system," Smith says.

Everything needs to be clearly labeled, Smith says. "The students shouldn't have to figure anything out. The course itself should not be an IQ test. Students should not have to think through how to navigate the course."

In addition to helping the students, a well-organized, clearly labeled course reduces the number of emails from students asking for help finding things in the course.

"When I started, I taught a poorly designed course and I would get 20 to 30 questions a day from students who could not find things in the course and didn't know what to do. When you have a course where everything is logically located, students don't get anxious. They know where everything is," Smith says.

Expedite grading.Online Courses: Step-by-Step

Grading takes on more significance in an online course than in a face-to-face course. Simply put, "In an online course, every time a student contributes something, it has to be graded. Otherwise, students will cease to respond to the assignments," Smith says. "So the instructor needs to figure out how long it's going to take to grade assignments for x number of students. If you have only five students in the class, it's not a big deal. But once you hit 10 or 15 students, then it starts to become a big deal."

To make grading manageable, Crawford recommends using automatically graded quizzes.

Smith recommends (in certain circumstances) grading students based on their effort, not the quality of the work. For example, in an instructional technology course, he has three major projects each semester that he grades with a rubric and provides plenty of feedback. However, the course also has minor projects that build toward those major projects. Smith grades those minor projects for the effort put into them. "If I see that the student has made a good attempt at completing an assignment, obviously that student is good at completing these individual pieces and I can give them full credit. If it looks like they slapped it together at the last minute, I can just eyeball it and figure this out and give them partial credit. ... This doesn't take me a lot of time to grade all the subprojects. It takes a lot of pressure off me. And since my class usually gets between 20 and 27 students, it makes life easier for me. At the same time it forces the students to learn what I want them to learn. It also gives me time to provide help to [students who need extra help.]"

Empower students.

Moderating discussions can occupy much of the instructor's time in an online course. To make her courses more manageable, Crawford is now having students moderate the discussions. "Of course, I'm reading everything, and I evaluate as I go. But I don't have to be in there thinking I have to come up with something brilliant. Someone else is taking care of that for me," Crawford says.

Students need to be prepared to moderate effectively, and Crawford takes the time to explain what the role entails. Since she teaches instructional design courses, students benefit from having the opportunity to moderate, which is something they will likely do in their careers.Online Classroom Newsletter

Provide perceived or actual interaction.

Student engagement is an important aspect of online course design. Students need to feel like they are part of a learning community. This can be accomplished in many ways. Online discussions are one way to provide actual interaction, but Crawford also sees value in perceived interaction - audio or video of the instructor giving a brief overview of a topic or explaining a specific topic. "It's important to the learner to feel as if they have some type of communication with the instructor, and instead of the instructor actually being there the whole time, you can have that perception of their interest," Crawford says.

Engage learners in a variety of ways.

Although recent studies have questioned the validity of learning styles as a theory, Crawford says that online learners should be engaged with the content in a variety of ways by using multimedia.


This article originally appeared in the newsletter Online Classroom (August 2011): 1, 8. The Online Classroom newsletter helps you stay current with the latest trends in online learning by offering ideas and advice for the new trailblazers in higher education.