While online courses could potentially cover any topic, your institution or company may have a specific niche within the online learning world that they focus on. Or you may have the freedom to cover any topic you like. Either way, there are several areas related to online course design that you should be familiar with before you propose and create a new course.
Both regular online courses and MOOCs should be expected to be held to the same high quality standards as traditional in-person courses. This means that time and resources should be allocated to create the best possible course experience for learners. This includes, but is not limited to:
- Well-planned and organized course designs
- Completing all pre-planned course content and activities before the first day of class. You may want to design in some flexibility for certain parts of your course – just make sure this flexibility is intentional and not due to lack of planning. See the section on “Planning for Flexibility” for more details.
- Content that is well-written, fully edited, and professional in tone.
- Focused content that is not excessively time-consuming (if you have a lot of content, maybe consider creating an open textbook?).
- If creating a MOOC, all resources, material, tools, and textbooks offered for free along with the course.
- Use of Open Educational Resources (OER) where possible (see the chapter on “Open Educational Resources”).
- Professionally created graphics that enhance and add to the content; no distracting extraneous graphics.
- Use of well-written and edited scripts for all video production.
- Professionally recorded and edited videos.
- Captioning and transcripts for all video content.
- Professionally created video graphics, slides, and animations.
- Well-attended social media outlets.
- Consistent and frequent communication from course instructors.
- Timely response to participant concerns.
A note on MOOCs: even though MOOCs are offered for free, you cannot skimp on quality. These courses are broadcast to anyone in the world, and therefore serve as the visible face of your institution or organization for many that have never heard of it. Please ensure that all parts of the course are of the highest quality possible.
An important step in any creation process is the evaluation of the final product, or quality assurance; and this is true for course design as well. All online courses are generally expected to be held to the same high quality standard of traditional in person courses, especially at institutions that are accredited by any external accreditation group or board. This means that time and resources should be allocated to create the best possible course experience for learners.
What, or who, determines elements of a quality course? Rather than reinvent the wheel, a popular option is to utilize quality standards that have been developed by nationally recognized organizations, such as the Quality Matters Rubric or the Online Learning Consortium (OLC) Quality Course Teaching and Instructional Practice Scorecard. Once you have decided which standards you would like to follow, it is important to implement them during course design, rather than checking for them at the end of course design.
Implementing quality standards into a course can yield benefits for both the instructor and student. For example, in regards to course design (layout, organization, and navigation), participants rated courses with high findability as a better overall experience. Students reported lower levels of self-efficacy and motivation after interacting with courses rated low in findability (Simunich, Robins, & Kelly, 2015). When it is clear to learners how to navigate the course, where to find materials, and how to submit assignments, learners have to ask fewer procedural questions and the course is easier to manage for the instructor. The instructor could even have more time to provide quality feedback to learners (of which learners crave) versus spending time answering procedural questions.
Some questions you will see addressed in popular quality standards are listed below. This list is a very high-level summary – there are many more details to consider within these topics. For example, the Quality Matters rubric has 43 standards and the OLC Scorecard has 97 standards.
- Is navigation clear and logical?
- Are course materials organized well, with no clutter or distracting elements?
- Is the design of the course consistent from week-to-week?
- Is it easy for learners to find what they need?
- Are all course objectives measurable?
- Is the course content and assignments aligned to the course objectives?
As a note, clarity is an important component of online course design which will be covered more in Chapter 5. In contrast with in-person courses, online learners cannot seek immediate clarification for instructions that are not understood. A delay in clarity can cost online learners valuable time. Therefore, you will see many standards that reference being “clear” or “clearly stated”.
- Are course and institution policies clearly stated?
- Are learners given all course information at the beginning of the course?
- Is how to use the content clearly explained?
- Are assignment instructions and expectations clear?
- Is the overall course grading policy and grading for individual assignments clear?
- Are opportunities for engagement with other learners, the teacher, and the content built in to the course?
- Is information provided about the technology required in the course, as well as how learners can get help should technical problems arise?
- Has course content been formatted for accessibility?
Policies and Requirements
All online courses offered through any institution or company will be required to adhere to all applicable institutional or corporate course policies and requirements. There may also be a specific group in charge of regulating online course quality at your institution or corporation. But even if there is not one specific group in charge of regulating course quality for you, you are highly encourage to follow all suggestions in this manual and to seek out feedback from trained instructional designers. Additionally, you will be expected to know and adhere to all policies and requirements of any service that you utilize in your course (Blackboard, edX, Google, Facebook, WordPress, etc.). Please be sure to familiarize yourself with any service you wish to use before using them.
Your Course Design Team
Creating an online course can be a major undertaking that will require a large team of people. Unless your institution currently has anyone working on course design full time, your team will consist of people who are working on your course in addition to other duties. If your institution or company does not provide team members for you, you should consider recruiting from people whose normal job duties cover various aspects of online course creation (as their workloads allow). This team will include, but is not limited to:
- Core Design Team:
- All Course Instructor(s) and Subject Matter Expert(s) (if not the same people).
- Instructional Designer(s) trained in learning theory to assist in designing content.
- Graphic Designer(s) to create necessary graphics (most courses require at least a few).
- Faculty and Administrative Personnel that may have a role in supporting, reviewing, and approving courses.
- Library Support Personnel to help locate pre-existing resources for your course.
- Media Creation Team (please see the video chapter section on the time requirements for video creation to ensure that you have recruited enough people with enough available time to create the amount of video desired):
- Video Script Copy Editor(s) to assist in preparing scripts and transcripts.
- Videographer(s) to professionally record videos.
- Video Editor(s) to create final videos from raw recordings.
- Video Graphic Creator(s) for any animations, graphics, slides, etc, you wish to have added.
- UX Specialists and other Technical Positions for creation of any media elements that are not just text based (games, websites, etc).
- Content and Design Assessment Team (see the “Design Assessment & Review” chapter for more details):
- Content Reviewer(s) to provide feedback on content.
- Design Reviewer(s) to provide feedback on the overall course design.
- Quality Analysts such as course quality analysts, copyright reviewers, editors, and content specialists from the library.
- Optional Team Members:
- At least one Social Media Manager to run social media outlets behind the scenes (see the “Utilizing Social Learning in Online Courses” chapter for more details).
- As least one Accessibility Specialist should review your course tools and materials for accessibility standards.
- Guest Experts for videos or online sessions, if desired.
- If you are running a MOOC or other course that needs advertising: Marketing Experts to spread the word about your MOOC.
Possible Hosting Platforms
Your institution or company may already have a platform (sometimes called “LMS” for “learning management system” or “CMS” for “course/content management system”) for hosting courses that you are required to use. For a traditional online course, these could be something like Canvas, Blackboard, or Moodle. For a MOOC, that could be something like EdX or Coursera. Additionally, there are other options out there, including using open source platforms such as WordPress to host content. If you do not have one of these services as an option, there are a few possibilities to host content:
- WordPress: WordPress offers free services to anyone that wishes to set up a website at wordpress.com. Click here for more information on how to use WordPress as a classroom.
- Moodle: MoodleCloud is an affordable option for hosting a course in Moodle.
- Reclaim Hosting: If you want a flexible option to use WordPress, Moodle, Drupal, or any number of other open source programs, Reclaim Hosting is a good service made by educators for educators.
- Blackboard: Blackboard offers a free online course hosting service.
- Google Classroom: Google also offers a place to put classes online at google classrooms.
Please note that you will need to choose a platform that matches the openness of your course. If you want to run a MOOC or have open material in any online course, the closed nature of many LMS tools like Blackboard may not make them a good tool for offering open content or courses. On the other hand, if there are reasons you are choosing to limit access to your course to only those that register for it (like sensitive course content or institutional requirements), the open nature of services like EdX may not make them a good choice for your course.
One growing trend in education is the exploration of data that online learning tools generate in an analytical way. Whether you or your users realize it or not, everything that you do online is usually recorded in a database somewhere. This data has typically been locked away from everyone (except for the company that collected it), but that is starting to change.
Most of the tools that you can use in online learning – from WordPress to EdX to Canvas to Blackboard – will offer you the ability to see some kind of analysis of the data activity in your course/website account/etc. If you use that analysis to improve your course or influence your learners, those actions move into the realm of Learning Analytics. Your institution or company may require that you use analytics, and even provide deeper results from companies like Civitas. On the other hand, your institution or company may not even know this data exists.
The study of learning analytics is still a newer field with many unknowns. However, there is interesting work occurring in the field as it grows. For a good overview of the field, we recommend The Handbook of Learning Analytics edited by Charles Lang, George Siemens, Alyssa Wise, and Dragan Gašević. This handbook “is designed to meet the needs of a new and growing field. It aims to balance rigor, quality, open access and breadth of appeal and was devised to be an introduction to the current state of research.”
The most important concept to keep in mind about learning analytics is that the data being analyzed contains sensitive personal information covered by many legal guidelines. Ideally, you and your learners will be fully informed about what is collected, how it is collected, what is done with it after it is collected, and so on. Additionally, the ideal legal scenario is that you and your learners would choose to “opt in” to allowing this collection if you agree with having your data utilized in this manner.
However, the more likely typical scenario is that little clear information is given to end users about data collection, with users being put in the position of having to opt out of data collection (or even worse, have no way of opting out if they want to get into a course). If this is the case with the tools you use, we would suggest that you take the initiative to clearly communicate with learners everything you can discover about data collection in every tool you use, including how to opt out if they so choose. Data collection in education is a controversial topic, so it is best to be open and clear as much as it is possible within your context.
Many reasons exist for considering the ethical dilemmas within learning analytics. For example, looking at the data the wrong way could lead to profiling learners unfairly. Additionally, the algorithms used to create the analytics will carry with them the bias of those that created them. Learners are always unique individuals that can defy the classification systems that analytics utilize. For more information on these issues, as well as ways to ethically use learning analytics, see this article:
- “7 Ethical Concerns With Learning Analytics” By Jim Yupangco
Ethical Issues Related to Technology
Many tend to think of technology, algorithms, and analytics as neutral entities that do not have programmed assumptions, contexts, and biases in them. However, this is not the case. All software has been found to reflect, in small and large ways, the biases and assumptions of those that created it (VanderLeest, 2004). This does not necessarily mean that you should never use these tools, but you should think through what these programmed biases are and what they mean for how you use them in a course (as well as how and what you communicate about those tools to learners).
For example, “personalized learning” is a current buzzword in online learning circles, with many organizations putting large amounts of money into the concept. Those organizations have goals behind the money they put into their products, and biases for and against certain philosophical schools of thought. For instance, see this brief examination of some the ideas shaping personalized learning in some of the largest donors to the concept:
- “’Personalized Learning’ and the Power of the Gates Foundation to Shape Education Policy” by Audrey Watters
The way that personalized learning is being shaped may or may not disagree with your vision of learning, however, you should know how it is being shaped before using any tools connected to these organizations. You should also take those influences into account when utilizing tools and communicating about those tools to learners.
An even deeper ethical consideration to explore is how inequalities are part of the very fabric of the Internet itself. Some think of this in terms of a digital divide. A better concept to examine would be digital redlining: “the creation and maintenance of technological policies, practices, pedagogy, and investment decisions that enforce class boundaries and discriminate against specific groups.” This definition comes from this article that looks deeper into problems inherent in the Internet itself:
- “Pedagogy and the Logic of Platforms” by Chris Gilliard
Since this is an ever-evolving issue in education across hundreds of technologies, resources, websites, concepts, hardware, etc, you will need to do some searching for the specific tools and ideas you want to use in your course, or that pertain to your context. For instance, if you work in “for profit education,” you probably should familiarize yourself with the work of Tressie McMillan Cottom in LowerEd (although she also covers many other topics you should be aware of). The work of Audrey Watters at Hack Education covers multiple ideas and technologies in education from a historical critical lens. Chris Gilliard’s work in Digital Redlining and Student Framing is also a good place to start. For international views on technology issues, Maha Bali covers a wide range of issues that many in the West often fail to consider. Many others are out there, start following these four on Twitter and see who they quote there as well. Additionally, for a deeper dive into how biases are built into algorithms, see Algorithms of Oppression by Safiya Umoja Noble.
Lang, C., Siemens, G., Wise, A., & Gašević, D. (Eds.). (2017). The Handbook of Learning Analytics. Society for Learning Analytics Research (SoLAR).
Simunich, B., Robins, D. B., & Kelly, V. (2015) The impact of findability on student motivation, self-efficacy, and perceptions of online course quality, American Journal of Distance Education, 29(3). 174-185, DOI: 10.1080/08923647.2015.1058604
VanderLeest, S. H. (2004, June). The Built-in Bias of Technology. In Proceedings of the 2004 American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) Conference (pp. 1417-1427).