Designing an online course can be an exciting journey, and there are many resources to help you on your way. From considering what tools to use, to taking an in-depth look at how and why you teach a course a particular way, this guide will help you get started in your process. In general, we’d recommend starting to think about preparing an online course a full semester before teaching it, and perhaps even longer if you have the availability.

Getting Started

Pause and reflect

It’s easy to want to get started right away with building a course. However, the best course is one that works for you, your content, and your students. Teaching an online course can be very different than teaching in a face-to-face setting. A modality change can open up a lot of opportunities, for example, online discussions can encourage all students to share ideas, or it can feel constraining if you are accustomed to being able to “see” your students every week.

Before jumping into development, take some time to reflect. These reflections will help shape how you design a course.

  • What is important to you as a teacher? What do you think are your strengths in the classroom?
  • What are the characteristics of the students who typically take this class? What is their background knowledge? What classes do they typically take after this one? What patterns have you noticed about students who take this class?
  • What kind of interactions do you like to have with students?
  • What do you feel is important for learning the material of this course? Discussions? One-on-one interactions? Small group projects? Case studies?
  • What kind of materials and content do you already have in digital format?
  • How comfortable are you with technology? Do you have support? Do you need additional technology skills?
  • How comfortable are you with experimentation or new methods of teaching?

These are all important aspects to bring into your online course as well. It’s also a good time to think about what tools you might need to learn more about to be successful.

Prepare to plan, plan, plan

Designing and preparing for an online course should take time and thoughtful planning. Without the structure of a regular face-to-face meeting, students can feel adrift or isolated in a course. Creating a structure (even if it is flexible!) can remove barriers and help communicate to students that there is an active instructor on the other side of the computer. This can feel daunting and perhaps even constricting if having a lot of structure isn’t your teaching style. However, there are benefits. Providing a consistent structure and well-outlined courses helps students manage their engagement in class and focus on learning. In addition, as the instructor, you can focus your energy on being active and engaged with students rather than building a course.

One way to get started is to use a planning guide to help organize all of your thoughts and goals for the semester. There are many different ways to plan for a course We have a planning guide that can help you build the foundation for your online course by walking you through writing learning objectives, making decisions about content, and aligning activities and assessments with your learning objectives.


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Online course planning tools

This article gives some options for planning templates for online courses

Backward design: Starting with the end in mind

There are many different ways to design a course. Often, teachers will use a “forward design” model. In this method, instructors think about what to teach and how to teach it, while simultaneously thinking about activities or assessments. Forward design works better when you have the flexibility of time, resources, and space, all of which are less likely in an online course. In addition, in a forward design model, it’s also easy to develop assessments that may not align with the content.

In contrast, backward design focuses on what you want students to be able to do or know by the end of the class or semester, and then working from the endpoint to align content and assessments to those goals. From a high level, this includes four steps: defining goals and objectives, determining how to assess those goals and objectives, building learning activities, and then finally, sourcing content that will help learners succeed. 

While there isn’t a single right way or wrong way to plan, online instruction tends to benefit from a more structured approach. Backward design provides an efficient and effective framework for design that can help both you and your students.

1. Define your goals and objectives

The next step is to think about your goals for the class. Creating clear learning objectives is the foundation of a well-planned course. Much like a thesis statement, they can help your course development stay focused.

2 & 3. Aligning assessments & activities to objectives

Generally, our next step is to examine how we are assessing learning objectives. When designing the activities and assessments make sure that those activities map directly to your learning objectives. The verbs you used in your learning objectives are clues as to what kinds of assessments will tell you, and your learners, whether students have met those objectives. The goal is to make sure that you are assessing what you want to assess. For example, a multiple-choice exam usually doesn’t do a great job of assessing higher-order critical thinking skills, and an essay may not be the best tool to make sure students are “remembering” facts.


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Alignment of your assessments and learning objectives

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A black and white image of a person using a laptop

Creating authentic assessments

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A student watches an online lecture and takes notes

Encouraging student participation in synchronous videoconference sessions

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4. Creating & curating content

Once you have articulated what your learning objectives are, and how you will know they have achieved those objectives, now you can fill in the rest of the story. From a planning perspective, much like a syllabus, it’s useful to find and align readings, potential lectures or other media, or other activities that might be useful in each week’s session. This will also help you identify where you have an abundance of materials or where you have gaps. You can make decisions about what you may want to create videos or where you can leverage other types of content to create a well-rounded course.

Next Steps

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