The Guide to Online Teaching

General Course Design Principles

Introduction to Course Design

One of the goals of this publication is to provide a general framework and launching point for those interested in creating and improving online learning experiences. At the the most foundational level, there are three major components that influence online learning experiences. These components include the design of the course, the facilitation/teaching of the course, and the interactions with technology.

A central consideration of these elements should be the course design. The strategies used to plan and organize the course elements influence many of the interactions students and educators have through the teaching and learning experience. For example, if course material is not organized in a logical way, learners may find it difficult to follow a learning sequence or identify learning expectations.

When we design a course, we make assumptions about how people will learn in that environment. This is no trivial task. One misplaced or disorganized element can have major influences on the efficiency and effectiveness of learning experiences.

There are many excellent books and resources available that describe general design principles of online and blended courses.

The following list contains potential resources to consult when determining general course design principles.

  • Quality Matters
  • Pearson Learning Design Principles
  • Online Learning Consortium Quality Scorecards

While these resources approach course design principles from slightly unique perspectives, each have a common emphasis on orienting and motivating leaders, organizing content, aligning and assessing learning, and meeting compliance requirements.

The role and interaction of the educator and learner cannot be separated from the course design process. Successful course design approaches include making design decisions by considering the wide array of influences that inform the learning experience.

How People Learn

The essential question that should drive an online course design process is: how does the course help people learn? In order to inform the design situations, we must explore the ingredients of successful learning experiences.

Educators must first recognize that every person learns in slightly different ways. Adult learners have diverse experiences, preferences, and capacity to learn. When designing courses, we also have to be aware of our biases about how we learn, because it may be different than others. For example, educators are experts in their fields of study. This may not always be the best thing from a learning standpoint. This is because an expert learns and communicates differently than someone who is learning about a topic for the first time.

Before beginning a course design project, consider spending some time thinking (and discussing if you’re working with another person) about the different ways people learn, what they need to help them learn, and how the course should support the learning process.

Aligning Learning Experiences

When designing online and blended courses, one term that often gets discussed is alignment. When this term is used, it often refers to the degree to which the course accomplished what you say it will accomplish. For example, if you are designing a lesson on how to grill a hamburger, but then provide learners an activity or test about making a salad, the course is not aligned. In contrast, if the lesson concludes with a learner being asked to demonstrate their ability to grill a hamburger, the alignment between the learning goal (often called a learning objective) and how they demonstrate the goal is strong.

Many course design experts recommend working “backwards” when planning a course. This means identifying what you want the learner to be able to do, and then creating activities and content that support those goals. Using this approach, no matter how interesting an article or video might be, if it doesn’t support a learning goal, it should be left out of the course. There are other approaches and philosophies for designing online courses; however, this “working backwards” approach is by far the most common recommendation.

Assessing Learning

Closely related to the topic of course alignment is assessing learning. The assessment of learning essentially seeks to produce evidence showing that a learner has mastered (or not) the  learning goals/objectives. There are many different approaches and techniques for assessing learning. A survey of different assessment methods is outside the scope of this publication; however, the most common assessment method categories include tests, learning products, and reflection activities.

More advanced assessment methods seek to provide the learner and those analyzing a course with detailed information about what the learner has accomplished or has still yet to learn. Rubrics are often used as assessment tools for measuring learning products using a predetermined set of criteria. This provides learners will effective feedback while also encouraging consistently across learners.

Course Design Principles Summary

Course design can be an extensive and complex topic. This publication is intended to provide an entry point for educators seeking to create or improve online or blended courses. Gaining familiarity with course design principles that are most relevant to your learner and subject matter provides an effective starting point for course and learner success.