The Guide to Online Teaching

Effective Online Learning Facilitation Practices


This following information provides an overview of effective online course facilitation practices. It may be helpful whether teaching online or hybrid classes is a new and exciting challenge for you or you’re looking for tips to innovate or enhance specific areas of your online teaching. These suggestions aren’t comprehensive, but include online teaching practices universally accepted as effective for fostering positive, engaging, and successful online or blended learning experiences. This information will consider how to:

  • Practice effective communication methods
  • Establish a presence in the online learning environment
  • Define the  facilitator’s role
  • Develop the basic technology skills needed for teaching and developing online courses
  • Manage course content
  • Encourage learner engagement and interaction with peers, the facilitator, and content and foster a sense of community
  • Develop methods for motivating online learners
  • Implement effective assessment and feedback practices
  • Personalize facilitation practices based on learner progress data
  • Innovate the learning experience
  • Customize your course
  • Differentiate between elements that can/should not be modified in an approved course

Portions of this information have been adapted from the University of Central Oklahoma’s Online Course Facilitation Workshop and Dr. Stacy Southerland’s UCO Online Spanish Facilitators Guide.

Open Educational Resources

What is OER

OER stands for open educational resources. These materials may be freely used or modified depending on the creative license.


When it comes to licensing there are four license terms that must be understood.

  1. Attribution (By)-The user must give credit to the creator and include a link to the license. The user must also indicate any changes that are made.
  2. Noncommercial (NC)-The user may not use the work for commercial purposes.
  3. Share Alike (SA)-the user can modify the work, but the user must distribute the contributions under the same license.
  4. No Derivative Works (ND)-The user may not modify the original work but cannot distribute it.

More information of licenses may be found at

Based on these license terms there are six possible license combinations that arise from combinations of these terms. These license combinations will go from least open to most open.

  1. By-NC-ND
  2. By-ND
  3. By-NC-SA
  4. By-NC
  5. By-SA
  6. By

A step beyond attribution which would be the most open would be public domain where there are no restrictions. This material would be truly open.

More information on these license combinations may be found at


One obvious advantage for using open education resources for a student is cost. A student might choose to not buy a high cost textbook or may share the textbook with another student. This means the student does not have access to the textbook to study the material. This results in poor performance in the course and may result in retention issues for a program. Having free or low-cost textbooks eliminates that barrier to learning. (Student Textbook and Course Materials Survey by the Florida Virtual Campus’s (FLVC) Office of Distance Learning and Student Services, 2016)

Knowing all students have access to the same course materials makes course design easier for an instructor. If the students do not read the material it is because they chose too not read the material not because they did not have access. Course design is further aided due to the increased accessibility. Often these resources are on the internet. This means that if the students have a smartphone, computer, or tablet then they always have their textbook with them. The textbook is also typically in a variety of formats. This will help students who may prefer to read the book using a specific format such as a Kindle or iBooks. The textbook is often offered as a pdf which allows the professor to place the document in a free social annotating program such as Perusall and use the textbook as a message board. This enhances the idea of a message board because students can highlight specific parts of the text to ask questions about what they do not understand. The use of social annotating programs such as Perusall increases the likelihood that the students will read the material and increase exam performance. (

One disadvantage for the students is the book is often a web based book. Some students may prefer the paper books over the digital books which are not always as easy to navigate as paper books. This is a probably a larger disadvantage for the instructor who may not have grown up in the digital age. Students also may not comprehend the material as well using digital books. (,


One of the largest misconceptions is educational quality is reduced if open educational resources are used. There are quality, peer reviewed resources that are freely available to be used in the classroom.

Another misconception with open educational resources is that the material is now your material. The resources still belong to the creator. Often they will indicate how they want cited if the material is used or what limitations there are on the use. Refer to the section of licensing for more detail.

A third misconception is that a course that uses open education resources has to have no cost associated with the materials. The goal of open educational resources is to reduce the cost for students in the classroom, not necessarily eliminate it entirely. Often there are low cost partners that provide similar tools such as online homework that normally comes with a high-cost publisher textbook.

A final misconception is that you are on your own in regards to class activities, test banks, presentations, etc. There are discipline specific online communities that often provide these resources and allow you to add your own resources. Through a collective effort is possible to transition to an open educational resource class with a smaller effort than what might be expected.


The following links are locations where open educational resource textbooks may be found.


The first link is to OpenStax which is probably the most well know of the open educational resource repositories. It is a nonprofit effort out of Rice University. The textbooks on this website are peer-reviewed and go through a similar publishing process that more traditional textbooks go through. Openstax operates under an attribution (BY) license.

OpenStax is accessible. Students may view their textbooks on the web, download a pdf of the book, or get a low cost digital copy through Kindle or iBooks. Additionally, low cost print versions are available if the students prefer a print version of the textbook.

Another advantage to OpenStax is it provides many of the same resources (test banks, images, presentations) that publishers typically provide. This does vary somewhat by textbook but it can ease the transition to open educational resources. Additionally OpenStax has many low-cost partners that provide similar services publishers provide such as online homework.

The primary disadvantage of OpenStax is they are limited in the textbooks that they offer. The books they offer tend to be in the courses with large enrollments. This means they are often limited to lower level undergraduate textbooks. The additional coverage is where some of the other repositories may be useful.

The next three repositories are similar to OpenStax in that they are maintained by universities. The majority of the books operate under an attribution license (By) unless otherwise noted. They do not provide the same level of accessibility or resources that the OpenStax textbooks do, but they do provide a lot more disciplines and some upper level/graduate textbooks. The last link has several textbooks created by the Boundless team and maintained by Lumen. The textbooks may read online or downloaded to your computer and read using an EPUB reader. These textbooks operate under a By-SA license.

The following links provide open educational resources (not necessarily textbooks) that can aid in your transition to an open educational resource textbook. You need to check the license for any material that you find.



Communication may well be the single most important facet of online teaching and learning as it forms the foundation for all other components and effective practices.

Virtual learning environments don’t provide the opportunity to see learners in-person, which carries the disadvantage of gauging learners’ attentiveness to information the instructor delivers, personalizing communication with intonation and humor, responding in the moment to request for clarification, and general knowledge of which learners were at least present to hear the information you’ve communicated.  

On the plus side, online courses allow content information and messages to be accessed at any time from any location and referenced for review as needed without the need for individual instruction. Instructors can anticipate questions that are frequently asked, topics that need supplemental instruction and make them available to students in advance so they don’t have to wait for an email to be read and answered or wait until the next class meeting or office hour to ask questions.

The grading and feedback process can also be greatly enhanced by online assessments. Some feedback can be built into assessments and rubrics so the system can provide feedback virtually immediately upon submission of the completed assignment. Students don’t have to wait for the instructor to work through a stack of tests or to go over work in class.

Technology-enhanced courses benefit greatly from this feature. Time that would have been spent going over an assignment, the correct responses, and individual inquiries about why a specific response wasn’t correct can be spent on additional instruction and hands-on practice.

However, this also means that communication must be clear and thorough, yet concise. Also, not all students will use all forms of communication. Some won’t read email, others won’t read announcements, and still others won’t read feedback provided on their individual assignment. As such, a multifaceted approach is beneficial to reaching the largest number of students:

  • Email
  • Announcements
  • FAQ
  • Intelligent Agents
  • Discussion Posts
  • Rubrics
  • Feedback

Tips for Effective Communication

Indicate Your Preferred Form of Communication

There’s no right or wrong here, just be specific. Some people are comfortable sharing their personal phone number with students, others aren’t. Some prefer email and/or like a record of the communication, while others prefer to speak with students directly. The key is to define your expectations and express the availability of other arrangements as needed and how to set those up. For example, if you prefer email communication, state that, but also note that you’re available for phone calls and meetings and details for how to arrange them for matters that can’t be thoroughly addressed through email.

For example: “Replying to your inquiries is important to me, but it’s essential that you assist my efforts to provide timely and accurate replies to your inquiries by following course communication instructions. Please contact me at I check email at least once a day, usually more often, M-F and will make every effort to respond within 48 hours of receipt, excluding weekends, university holidays, and leave for professional travel.”

Provide email instructions for students who are new to technology and online learning. Consider the following example from Desire2Learn:

  1. Go to the email tool in the D2L course site
  2. Select only your instructor’s name from the recipient list
  3. Type _____ in the subject line (this could be the course name or CRN if you teach multiple sections of the same course)
  4. Type your message
  5. Select “Send”
Define Response Times

Indicate when students might expect a reply to messages. In today’s technology-rich world, many students have developed an expectation for immediate access to information that carries over into the online learning environment.

Clearly state your expectations for communicating with the class by establishing a response time policy that provides a timeline for when students can expect a reply to their messages. For example, “I will respond to email and phone calls within 24 hours excluding weekends and university holidays.”

This will help prevent repeated messages from students on the same topic and the expectation that you’re on call 24/7 to respond to last minute emails when students wait until the last minute to complete work.

Be realistic when defining your response times and follow the guidelines you set. In reality, most online faculty check email more than once most days and even check it on the weekend, during holidays, and when traveling. They also tend to respond to email quickly. However, you want to allow yourself time to compose thoughts, research details, and allow for your own busy schedule that sometimes doesn’t permit immediate replies. A 24 hour turnaround can be tricky depending on when an email was sent and when you last logged in. 36 hours allows more of a cushion and is common. 48 hours is quite common and acceptable.

If you ever anticipate not being able to respond within the expected time frame, let students know through an announcement or email to show that you’re attentive to and considerate of their concerns and needs.

Write clearly and concisely.
Be Professional, but Be Yourself

Avoid language that could be construed as inappropriate. Use humor sparingly to ensure that it’s not overdone. The same goes for emoticons and chatspeak. It’s possible to be somewhat casual, yet professional. Model the communication etiquette you expect from students.

Be Encouraging and Helpful

Not everyone has a soft and fluffy persona, but it’s possible to be fairly direct, yet mindful of tone and language. Be aware that not everyone has the same skill level with technology and online learning and that some students will be sensitive to even constructive criticism intended to help them succeed.

The written word can easily be misconstrued given the lack of facial expression and intonation, so try adding an additional comment or phrase to soften delivery of feedback. If you know you tend to be direct, consider if your comments or feedback could be misconstrued as insulting, disrespectful, or rude especially when delivering news, feedback, or suggestions that are sensitive or potentially not to the students’ liking.

Every online learning environment is different and unfamiliar in some way to even the most experienced online learners, so offer encouragement.

Integrate Audio and Video

Use a video message–audio will do if you’re not a fan of being in front of the camera–to personalize communication for students. This adds variety to the written word and offers the benefit of intonation and facial expressions. Your LMS probably has an option for audio feedback and your elearning support team can show you other options for recording a brief audio message to insert into announcements, feedback, email, and content.

Set Expectations

Students generally want to live up to your expectations  and can when they know where the bar is set, but many haven’t been taught how to communicate online or in a professional, academic setting. Remove the guesswork by providing a list of guidelines for appropriate online communication. Many examples can be found online, but some suggestions follow:

Include a note indicating that the guidelines are specific to the learning environment you’re facilitating, especially if you’re more informal with students so they don’t apply your guidelines to addressing another instructor in ways that might be perceived as lacking respect or unprofessional.

Guidelines might include indicating:

  • How to address the instructor: Some instructors are fine with students referring to them by first name or with being greeted by “Yo, prof”. That won’t fly with others.
  • The need to begin and end correspondence appropriately: In essence, note that a greeting—a simple “hello” or “good afternoon”—and a closing—for example, “thank you” or “regards”—is expected.
  • Expectations for writing style: In general, it’s recommended that students understand that all academic writing, including email and discussion posts, should reflect standards of formal writing. You might not mind email messages that read like texts with no greeting, no punctuation, and the use of “ur” for “your”, but that won’t sit well with many faculty and can mislead students who often aren’t mature enough to distinguish when informal language is appropriate and when it isn’t.
  • Expectations for respectful dialogue
  • Expectations for a positive tone
  • General tips: This might include not using all caps, not disclosing private information, and any other preferences you have as an instructor.
  • The appropriate communication tool for various purposes. Some students may not understand what topics and types of comments are appropriate for public posting in discussions forums and chat or online rooms. Some may also need to learn what constitutes appropriate language in any forum whether public or private.
  • Set expectations for timely communication. Just as you should indicate when students can anticipate that you’ll reply to their inquiries, note what constitutes a timely reply to email you send them. This timeline may vary depending on the circumstances, just let students know your expectations.

It’s worth repeating: model the standards you expect from students. Students learn by example, and there’s a record for your communication that you want to be comfortable owning up to.

Use Bullet Points and Lists

When possible, divide lengthier entries to make them more manageable and to highlight each step in a series of instructions or information.

Provide multiple, varied opportunities for faculty-learner and learner-learner communication.

Make it evident that you encourage email and facilitate communication opportunities through Q & A discussion boards on a variety of topics including the course welcome and orientation, course content, and social topics.

Personalize Communication

This entails a variety of concepts:

  • Using your personal, yet ever professional, writing style
  • Leveraging replace strings to integrate learners’ names into messages, announcements, content, instructions, email, intelligent agents
  • Integrating multimedia (video and audio) for announcements, email, and instructional content
  • Including a biography and photo of yourself. Have learners do the same in an introductory discussion post that uses video, or at the very least audio. For courses that require video assignments, an introductory video from students helps students learn course technology that may be needed for assignments and helps you verify the authenticity of multimedia coursework..
  • Maintaining a presence in the course by posting announcements, providing assessment feedback, participating in discussion boards, and communicating through email as needed
  • Using learner analytics
Make Communication Learner-Centered

Embed opportunities to get to know and connect with students into the course. Not all communication has to apply directly to course content. An informal or social opportunity or two will build community, promote interaction and engagement on topics related to course content, and personalize engagement.

When a student hasn’t been active in the course for several days, send a personal email or even call to follow up. Students will appreciate the gesture and will feel noticed and valued.

Be Organized

Ensure that communication—news, email, assessment instructions, instructional material–is clearly organized, detailed, and focused on helping learners succeed.

  • Anticipate questions that might arise and address them in your communication.
  • Review information from the perspective of the learner to determine if it makes potentially inaccurate assumptions about existing knowledge (about the LMS, technology, or discipline) or that entails information that’s obvious to the instructor, but not necessarily to learners.
Consider Context

Select communication tools that reflect sensitivity to the content and context of the message. Each online communication tool serves a unique purpose. Make sure students know which one is appropriate for different needs. For example, a question about a student’s individual grade shouldn’t be placed in a general course Q & A discussion or a forum about general grammar topics.

Types of Communication Tools and Their Uses

Selecting the most appropriate form of communication is important to maximizing your time and ensuring that learners understand course expectations and have a positive and successful learning experience. Different communication tools provide different levels of personalization and what works for many students or groups may not work for some, so above all, assess the effectiveness of the communication methods used each term on an ongoing basis and be willing to adjust as needed to meet the needs of the group or individuals.


Email is an appropriate option for communication both with groups, small and large, and with individuals. It’s the best online option for relaying sensitive, private information to an individual.

It’s also more personal. Students want to be heard and online students sometimes need more confirmation and reassurance than those in traditional learning environments. Replying to a discussion posting or submitting grade information isn’t as personal a form of communication as some may need. Identify opportunities to use email to connect with learners on a personal level, whether to address issues specific to the individual to compliment a job well done.  

Email may also catch learners’ attention more than news/announcements and can be used to send reminders, study suggestions, and deliver instructional materials and encouragement.

  • Sometimes called news, announcements are visible to the entire class and help the course facilitator create a public presence. With planning, announcements be an invaluable tool for managing your time effectively. They usually copy over each term in your LMS site and can be created in advance and used again in future terms or later in the term by simply updating the release and end dates. Posts that are seasonal—Happy holidays, Enjoy Fall/Spring Break–can be hidden by setting an end date and then used again in the relevant term by setting a new release and end date. To leverage news in this way, avoid references to specific times of day or dates in the body of the message. Use more flexible greetings like “Hello” or “Greetings!” and sign off with “Regards”, “See you soon” or “Until next time”. This removes the need to carefully review and edit the text of posts that you want to use in future terms.Some uses for announcements include:
    • Reminders about assignments
    • Sharing information about community events relevant to course content
    • Notification that work has been graded
    • Sharing feedback about an assignment that many in the class will find beneficial. It shouldn’t be  a regular substitute for individual feedback, but can certainly be used to vary feedback delivery and save time in some instances. This can save you the time of entering the feedback on multiple individual submissions

    It may sometimes be useful to send information through announcements and email to ensure that it’s noticed by students.


Discussions are for asynchronous, public discussions. They allow learners to research and reflect on ideas before posting or replying to a message. They shouldn’t be used to communicate sensitive, personal information to students and aren’t the best option as the only choice for communicating information that is critical for students to receive.  

Discussions are effective for building community and assessing attainment of learning outcomes and suitable for a variety of topics including:

  • Course welcome Q&A
  • Assignment-specific discussions
  • Social topics including current events

More on discussions will be covered under engagement and interaction.

Intelligent Agents

These function in a way similar to email and allow for timely and targeted communication. The difference is that they’re sent automatically by the system and triggered by learner actions and assessment outcomes preset by the facilitator to release when certain conditions have or have not been met.

A variety of triggers–release criteria–include attaining a certain grade, visiting or not visiting course content, login activity, completing or not completing content, and more. They are useful for sending reminders, delivering encouragement, and study suggestions and can be personalized to an extent by the use of replace strings and the content of the message.


These may prove useful for some learning experiences, but some LMS blogs don’t afford the privacy that you and learners may want. Some allow blog entries to be visible to anyone in the organization-wide community, so consult your online faculty and technology support divisions for assistance in determining if blogs are an appropriate option for your learning environment.


Your LMS probably has a method for indicating which learners are online at any given time and allow you to contact the student for real-time communication much in the way texting operates. Pagers offer a way to personalize facilitator interaction with individual students. They allows you to send messages to individuals while they’re online to ask how the class is going, see if they have any questions, offer encouragement, and simply show interest in and concern for learner needs.

Timing and Content of Communication

Before the Course Begins

It’s important to help learners feel informed about what will occur in the course even before classes begin.

Outside the course site
Welcome letter

Send a 1-2 page welcome letter at least a week before the course begins. Some facilitators begin sending it 2-3 weeks before the term begins due to turnover in enrollment. When the course site is opened a few days before the first day of classes–recommended–the letter will encourage learners to begin working through welcome materials and tasks such as orientation modules and introduce yourself to the class discussions and guide them in that effort.

This letter may include:

  • Prerequisites
  • Instructor contact and communication information
  • Technology requirements
  • Text information
  • Steps for logging into and starting the course
  • Expectations for work
  • The course pace

Students probably have an email address for the university—for example,—and one that corresponds to the LMS—for example, Use both for sending the welcome letter because many students won’t be familiar with the LMS or won’t have logged into it yet.


Consider sending the syllabus with the welcome letter.  Many students will email you to request it anyway, and in addition to helping them plan their work schedule by seeing how much flexibility there is with the course pace and assignment due dates, the syllabus can provide a reality check for students who might be hoping that an online course will be less intensive than a face-to-face option.

It also provides more detailed information than the welcome letter about assignments, grading, academic integrity, and more that can help students determine if the course is a good fit.

During the First Week of Class

A “social activity” at the beginning of the course helps students begin building relationships and feel comfortable in the online environment. Ask students to post a welcome discussion to share hobbies, scholarly interests, and hopes for takeaways from the course. Also have them post a photo, or better yet, have students post a video for their post.

In addition to fostering a sense of community, this sets a friendly and welcoming tone from the outset.

Monitor for inactivity and reach out to students who haven’t logged into the course or completed introductory tasks. Many students don’t understand that an online course begins when campus-based courses end and may have set due dates for assignments. Reaching out to them may prevent them from missing assignments and falling so far behind that they have to drop the course before they ever get started in it.

During Course Delivery
Office Hours

Inform students about your availability during online and/or campus office hours and regularly initiate communication with them. Online office hours can be conducted using LMS tools for synchronous communication like Chat and Online Rooms. Tools like Adobe Connect, Zoom, or Google Hangouts can also be leveraged for online office hours.


This is an effective way to provide frequent course updates, feedback, and study tips to the entire class. Release dates for news items can be set in advance and they copy over each term so they can be reused. With a little planning, this feature is an excellent way to create an ongoing presence even when you can’t log in to the course for a day or two. See previous information for a more detailed discussion about news.


This is the most direct form of communication with individuals and small or large groups in your online course and the more private of LMS communication tools; you can even use bcc to make notes to groups private. See previous information for a more detailed discussion about email.


During the Last Week of Class

Answer all outstanding questions and provide any feedback on final assignments. Also invite feedback from students about the course and provide a final closing message.

Engagement and Interaction

Types of Interaction and Engagement

Facilitator to Learner

As the online facilitator, it’s important to establish and maintain a presence in your online course, both through direct communication with individuals and public communication with the class as a whole. This not only entails considering the frequency of interaction, but also strategies for adding your own style and personality to the course and interaction with learners so they develop a sense that there is a real person facilitating their learning experience and behind what they see in the LMS course site. We often refer to this as adding “humanness” to online learning experiences. Cultivating this human factor in a course can go a long way toward encouraging a sense of community, respectful dialogue, and meaningful engagement and learning experiences.

Creating the Facilitator’s Presence

  • Create a “welcome to class” video.
  • Use audio and video for messages, feedback, and instructional materials.
  • Create podcasts to preview or summarize material.
  • Access the course regularly: The frequency with which you access a course site may vary depending on the nature of the course, assignments, and the communication tools and external notifications you have set up. Many instructors access a course daily while some find that a few times a week is adequate if they rely heavily on email and check it frequently.
  • Interact in discussions: Keep this balanced. While you might want to respond to some extent to each student’s introduction video, you don’t want to monopolize or create an overbearing presence in forums on course topics where you want to facilitate, not dominate the conversation: prompt deeper thought or consideration of different perspective, suggest additional resources, encourage students and giving props for excellent insights. Be seen, but don’t take over so that discussions remain learner-driven and -focused.
  • Post creative news items: Be creative with the selection of media, ideas, and presentation format.
  • Share current events related to the course content.
  • Grade in a timely manner and provide thorough, meaningful feedback as well as constructive criticism as needed.
  • Model the type of behaviors you expect of learners.
  • Let your personality show through. You can be professional while still showing your personality, whether it’s humorous or quirky. Share personal interests in your introduction—like hobbies, such as biking, running–nothing too personal!
Learner to Learner

Effective facilitation also requires fostering a sense of community among learners. This can be challenging as it depends somewhat on the personality of individuals and the collective group. Still, you can encourage learner engagement and interaction by creating opportunities for students to engage frequently in conversations with classmates and feel a sense of community through informal and formal (graded) activities.

Some ideas for informal interaction include a:

  • Welcome discussion: This allows learners to get to know each other and can help you learn about students’ skills and background in online learning and the course if you provide guidelines for information to provide in additional to general information they’d like others to know about them regarding hobbies and special interests.
  • General course Q & A discussion available throughout the term: This lets you know about topics that students need assistance with and allow students to help one another.
  • Unit-specific Q&A discussions: In addition to encouraging learner-learner interaction and support, these can save you valuable time because you might not have to answer the same questions over and over in emails to individuals. Students might also be able to offer a reply to classmates’ posts before you have a chance to check in. Remember to review student replies to monitor for incorrect information and netiquette.
  • Social forums: These may or may not tie into course content. Choose topics that all students are likely to be able to relate to and have some interest in discussing with peers.

Formal interaction can also create a sense of community by creating opportunities for students to exchange ideas and learn from and about one another.

Student Interaction

Fully online or hybrid courses require the facilitator to encourage learner interaction in ways that differ from methods that work for in-person learning experiences and usually require more effort on the facilitator’s part to encourage interaction. Many students enroll in online classes specifically to avoid interaction—surprise! It’s important to:

  • Determine how often students should interact with content, peers, and the facilitator. Set expectations for course engagement and interaction from the beginning of the course.
  • Consider the contexts best suited to student interaction
  • Identify methods to encourage student interaction and learning that are best suited to the discipline

Two frequently used tools to encourage interaction and engagement are discussions and groups.


Practices and guidelines for planning, creating, and managing online discussions include the following:

  • Set clear expectations for your students from the beginning.
  • Plan ahead for the number of discussions.
  • Set expectations for the timing of original posts and the timing of peer responses.
  • Set expectations for the expected quality of posts, and when possible, provide an example of what constitutes quality in your course. Providing a simple rubric for grading posts can help set these expectations.
  • It is not necessary to respond to each student, but it is important to monitor posts and provide summary messages at the end of the discussion. Balance the facilitator’s presence in discussions. Too little or too much facilitator presence can discourage student interaction. If you’re not present at all, students may feel that discussions aren’t that important and threads can also go off on unproductive tangents. On the other hand, too much instructor participation can be stifling. Do:
    • Avoid providing too much direction, which can amount to lecturing.
    • Draw attention to interesting and thought-provoking posts.
    • Ask further questions without leading students on.
    • Allow occasional diversions without going too far off on unrelated digressions.
    • Distinguish personal replies containing feedback for specific individuals from public comments intended for the entire class.
    • Model the behaviors that you expect from your students
  • Consider:
    • How many forums are necessary? Remember that you need to maintain an active presence in each one.
    • Is participation required?
    • Will posts be graded? Consider how much other grading and communication you have.
    • Can students view others’ posts before writing their own?
    • Are students required to respond to others’ posts?
    • How long will the forum be available?
    • Structure: Your LMS tool will offer options for structuring forums and topics. You can place restrictions on date and times forums are available and present guidelines for responses. For example, you can require that students post a comment before they can see posts of other students. You can also determine if a discussion will be graded and set grading criteria.


Many faculty don’t know that online learning can support group learning experiences and that your LMS has tools for creating groups. Group work in online courses carries similar advantages and challenges as in face-to-face settings, but many faculty find it to be somewhat more challenging in online settings. This is due in part to the misconception of some learners that online learning requires less engagement and interaction. Also, the lack of in-person communication to keep students on track and increase the sense of commitment to peers that are real humans and not just a name on a list may be a challenge to overcome. Effective community building may help address some of those issues. Another challenge is that the retention rate for online courses is sometimes lower than it is for campus-based courses. A higher drop rate can result in more students being left without a collaboration partner than you might find in a traditional setting.

Nevertheless, group work for online courses can still be meaningful and effective. The positive side is that many digital tools and platforms (e.g., Google Docs) exist to facilitate collaboration for in-person and online course projects and afford individual contributors to a group greater flexibility in the working environment. You may have to be a bit more proactive to keep groups moving forward in an online environment and have backup plans when a group loses one or more participants, but it can be done with awareness and planning.


Whether you design our own course or teach one designed by someone else, you’ll need to add some of your own materials, edit template materials, and update and refresh them each term. Whether building a course from scratch or altering an existing template, ensure that your course design is professional, which is determined in part by following effective visual design and organization principles.

Some of these things do come down to a matter of personal taste, but there are some universal principles to guide practices in this area. Following guidelines for accessibility and universal design will also help you avoid common design errors.


There are many methods for organizing online course content.

  • Logical
  • Consistent: There are many methods for organizing online course content. Facilitators may choose to organize content by chapters, units, weeks, modules, or a combination thereof. They can also choose what constitutes the start and end of a week, unit or module. For example, some use a Monday-Sunday week where new content is available on Monday morning and the activities for the week are due by Sunday evening. Some prefer something like a Wednesday-Tuesday week. The amount of time spent on a module or unit may also vary from a few days to a few weeks. Spend time mapping out options as an early step in the course design process. Remember to be consistent, regardless of what you decide works best for a particular learning environment.
  • Chunked: Chunking refers to the practice of dividing content into smaller pieces for presentation. Avoid lengthy text entries or videos to keep students engaged and attentive. This will also make material easier to retain. Divide content by using multiple HTML pages or several short, 5-7 minute videos. Also, use multimedia to present material and vary activities.
  • Clear: Provide clear, detailed instructions for course startup, site navigation, and assignment completion.
  • Sequential and Paced: When teaching in person, you can pace the delivery of information and don’t present all materials for the course on the first day of class. You also have a set sequence for presenting information. Pace and sequencing in online courses also require planning and consideration of strategies to prevent students from skipping around content and inadvertently, or intentionally, skipping information that is essential to meeting course objectives. Guiding students in this way also promotes a positive, successful learning experience. Release criteria will allow you to set criteria for reviewing one content item before progressing to the next.

Visual Principles

  • Graphics: The format should be consistent throughout the course. Clip art scattered among nice photos throws off the visual appeal and consistency of course design.
  • Font: Avoid random changes in font style and size. Don’t use different fonts because you think they’re cool or fun. This too often results in hard to read fonts, accessibility violations, and an unprofessional design.
  • Theme: The course should have a theme that runs throughout the design and unites all facets of the course. This can be accomplished in large part by the use of a template and its HTML pages


When in doubt, err on the conservative side.

For more on visual design, see The Rapid eLearning Blog.

Design and Engagement

One of the best ways to ensure opportunities for engagement and interaction exist in your course is to design for it. The use of Learning Environment ModelingTM (LEMTM) promotes effective design practices. Comprised of five building blocks representing learning environment components (information, dialogue, practice, feedback, and evidence), four contexts, and three  action indicators and an option to add notations, this visual design technique helps designers “see” if all facets are present in a learning experience and in what balance and sequence.

LEMTM also facilitates learning innovation by making it easier to identify existing components in the learning environment and opportunities for how they can be enhanced, refreshed, or reimagined. It also highlights opportunities for new directions in the learning experience and design. Learn more at iLED Solutions.


Faculty who are new to online instruction or technology-enhanced instruction can benefit from completing their organization’s elearning support or IT faculty development offerings to learn basic LMS navigation and how to use the most frequently used LMS tools for:

  • Editing HTML templates
  • Organizing files
  • Building modules and sub-modules
  • Posting news items
  • Creating assessments—Quizzes, Dropbox, Surveys, Self-assessments
  • Creating discussions
  • Sending email
  • Adding FAQ
  • Creating and using rubrics
  • Grading
  • Using chat and online rooms
  • Customizing widgets and homepages

Become familiar with the training and support your IT and elearning support divisions offer faculty for online design, facilitation, and ongoing online facilitation skill development. One or both will be happy to help you learn to create video and audio materials and will also offer video and technology development services for instructional purposes.

In addition, self-study materials are abundantly available online. Organizations often post instruction sheets for using the tools of the most widely used learning management systems.


Courses need clearly articulated learning objectives as well as content and assessments aligned with those objectives. This helps learners identify what they need to learn and what should they be able to do as a result of what they learn in the course and helps facilitators plan instruction.

Types of Assessments

There are three primary types of assessment that for diagnosing learning, providing feedback, or measuring achievement:


Diagnostic assessments gauge prior knowledge before a learning activity begins. They may also be used after a learning activity has been completed to indicate how much learning has taken place as a result of the activity. Data from diagnostic assessments allows you to adjust the curriculum and instruction to meet each learner’s unique needs. Examples include:

  • Practice Quizzes
  • Writing Samples


Formative assessments take place throughout a learning experience and indicate levels of achievement of learning objectives. They are often not graded or low-stakes intended to help learners identify strengths and weaknesses while identifying opportunities for improvement. Examples include:

  • Practice Quizzes with Feedback
  • Draft Artifacts Contributing to a Major Project
  • Practice/Rehearsal Performances
  • Drafts of Writing Assignments


Summative assessments count significantly toward the final grades for an activity, chapter, unit, or course. They may also be used to evaluate the instructional practices at the end of a course. Examples include:

  • Chapter/Unit Tests
  • Completed Projects
  • Final Performances
  • Final Writing Assignments


Guidelines for Creating Assessments

  • Align assessments with clearly defined objectives/outcomes.
  • Incorporate authentic assessments that reflect real-world application of skills.
  • Create assessments that emphasize progress over success or failure.
  • Define and provide examples of exemplary work.
  • Provide clear and identifiable criteria for exemplary work.
  • Offer opportunities for peer review and for learners to compare work with that of their peers.
  • Provide self-assessment opportunities.


The effectiveness of feedback may make the difference between a positive or negative learning experience; that is, between increasing knowledge or experiencing little or no change in knowledge. The method, frequency and the timing of feedback plays an essential role in learner achievement and motivation to learn.  Identifying the ways or methods to provide effective feedback in an online requires careful thought and planning.

Many considerations for providing feedback are common to all learning modalities whether traditional, virtual or blended. However, some aspects of providing feedback in online settings can be more time consuming than in traditional learning settings. Once you get the hang of the best approaches for your courses and assessment methods, you’ll find that online assessments and feedback have many advantages over traditional methods including:

  • Immediacy of some or all feedback.
  • 24/7 access to correct responses to incorrect items to guide preparation of future assignments. Students don’t always record correct information when going over assignment results in class.
  • Class time saved by not having to review tests in class and, therefore, having more time to dedicate to supplemental instruction or new topics.
  • Time saved in grading some types of assessments. Although it can take more time up front to construct a thorough, detailed response key, a well-planned and well-constructed one can save you time in the long run and benefit learners.

Types of Feedback

When planning feedback, consider which type is best suited to a given activity or assessment:

  • System: Examples include correct responses built into answer keys and intelligent agents, which can be designed to offer a certain level of personalized feedback.
  • Peer: Feedback from peers provides opportunities for learner interaction and engagement, authentic evaluation, and critical thinking, practical development of skills. Support peer review activities with a rubric.
  • Facilitator
  • Individual
  • Group: Used when assessment outcomes are similar overall for the class as a collective. An email or news post for the group could be effective for delivering this feedback.
  • Written
  • Audio or Video: Using audio or video to record feedback lends a personal touch to delivery and also allows you to impart more nuances of tone and expression in delivery.

Time Commitment

Of utmost importance with feedback is ensuring that it supports learners. However, grading anything that isn’t done by the system such as long response questions, presentations, and essays can take more time than it does when grading paper and pencil assignments. Therefore, it’s also essential to consider options for grading efficiency and maximizing your time as well as options that support your efforts to meet the grading turnaround time for assignments that you establish in your syllabus.

Set realistic expectations for yourself in the syllabus so you can meet them and identify feedback options and strategies that further support your endeavors to provide timely, detailed, and meaningful feedback.

Also ensure that feedback is:

  • Aligned with course objectives
  • Actionable: Learners should be able to act upon it to improve learning.
  • Timely: Learners shouldn’t have to wait too long for feedback and, where relevant, should receive it in time to apply it to the preparation of subsequent assessments.
  • Thorough
  • Meaningful


A rubric is a set of criteria that includes a scale of performance and detailed description of criteria for each level. This can be an effective evaluation tool for both formative and summative assessments. A well-constructed rubric coordinates instruction and evaluation, clarifies expectations for learners, and allows facilitators to focus on instruction and engagement with learners. An LMS has a rubric tool to facilitate implementing them and associating them with specific assessments.

Rubrics help students:

  • Identify expectations for performance
  • Feel more confident about meeting performance expectations
  • Provide peer feedback
  • Self-evaluate performance
  • Improve critical thinking and analytical skills

Rubrics help facilitators:

  • Define expectations
  • Enhance communication
  • Grade efficiently
  • Promote learner progress  by speaking to the learner, not the error

Suggestions for Providing Effective Feedback for Online Assessments

Adapted from “How to Provide Effective Feedback” (2016) by S. Southerland

Provide Feedback. 

Don’t assume learners know how they’re doing. Even if they do, they need to hear it—both what they’re doing well and what needs improvement.

Provide thorough feedback.
  • System feedback: Make this as detailed as possible so that it’s useful to students. Anticipate potential questions—why students received partial or no credit on responses—and include brief explanations in automatically generated system extended feedback areas about why something was incorrect. For example, “missing an essential accent: esta = this, está = third person singular verb form (he/she/it is). Think about the types of explanations you routinely find students needing when going over tests in the traditional classroom. Short-answer or brief essay type questions can include examples of correct responses in system feedback to assist students with determining the reason for deductions and how to improve responses.
  • Instructor feedback: Even system-graded assessments often require instructor review to assign partial credit or, when warranted, full credit. System grading requires an exact match to the key and learner responses can be marked incorrect due to spacing and punctuation that is slightly off. Use that review opportunity to supplement system feedback that you built into the assessment answer key with a personal comment.
    • Don’t spend time retyping feedback that the system generated. Use your time to provide comments specific to the individual’s work
    • along with encouragement and study suggestions.
    • If you teach from a template, review system feedback that will be generated automatically before you begin reviewing student responses and providing feedback so you don’t spend time simply repeating what was already provided by the system (this happens).
    • When grading essays, provide substantive, detailed, and meaningful comments. Try various options for grading writing and other assignments that require detailed grammar corrections and contextual comments and edits that allow you to replicate the type of feedback you would provide if grading printed copies of papers with pen or pencil.
Make it timely.

Your syllabus presents a grading time frame. Consider that carefully and be realistic when deciding what that will be for each type of assignment and then stick to it. If you don’t, email inquiries from students will start pouring in and they’ll remember it when faced with their next assignment deadline and are thinking about how well their instructor models the behaviors expected of learners.

Avoid generalizations.
  • Give specific, clear comments about what makes a response or assignment submission good or what requires improvement. A generic “Well done” or “That could use some work” has its place, but doesn’t indicate what aspects of performance should continue or what isn’t working and can begin to sound insincere if over used in certain contexts; it’s appropriate for a quiz where all goes well, but inadequate on an essay. Specificity lets people know you’re truly listening and paying attention, thereby lending credibility to your comments and leading to a greater chance of action.
  • Support feedback with specific examples and numbers.
Provide positive feedback.

Don’t assume people know what they’re doing well, or even that they’re doing well, and don’t need to hear that they’re doing a great job or what, specifically, makes their work outstanding and perhaps distinct from that of other individuals. Also, balance the negative with the positive.  Acknowledgement of a job well done can be as, sometimes more, rewarding and motivating than awards and grades; criticism with no balance can lead to lack of effort due to the belief that there’s no hope for improving or doing well in the course.

Avoid giving only positive feedback.

Honest communication sometimes requires giving negative feedback, which is necessary for growth and development.  Even top performers need feedback and challenges for further development so as not to become stagnant.

Many facilitators want to avoid the potentially difficult conversation or negative student evaluations they anticipate negative feedback will bring. However, doing so can lead to even more difficult conversations down the road, prevent learners from improving, and potentially leave them ill-prepared for subsequent course topics and for subsequent courses in their degree program. The absence of constructive suggestions can give underperformers an unrealistic sense of doing well, which does them a disservice in the long run.

Allow a response to the feedback.

Feedback should be a conversation, a dialogue, to meet the needs and goals of both parties.

Identify specific goals.

Help learners identify specific, tangible, attainable strategies and goals for improvement. If there are significant areas for improvement, document them and plans for progressing.

Offer support.

When providing feedback for improvement, offer specific suggestions for resources and strategies.

Give frequent feedback.

Whether someone is performing well or not, frequent feedback is essential to staying on the right path toward continued success and growth.

Ask for feedback.

Ask learners about their needs or concerns that they don’t perceive as being or having been addressed in instructional materials. What did they need to continue effective practices or develop new ones? What other areas of interest would they like to pursue? What can you do to support their progress? Knowing learners’ needs, interests, and values helps you provide better motivation and feedback for the current course and future offerings.

References and Resources

Consult your organization’s elearning support center and/or its center for teaching and learning for additional training or resources.

Getting Organized


Just as checklists for students should be standard in any online course, they’re indispensable when preparing your courses each term.

Online courses require a lot of time before they begin for design and development. However, if you teach the course on a recurring basis, each term you’ll be able to copy the previous term’s course site and update it with current assignment dates and materials and refresh and expand other items as needed. Once the initial design is complete, future attention to the course’s design and updates will allow more time to focus on refreshing and innovating the course.

When you can benefit from working with an existing course, create a checklist of updates that are required each term and complete those items before you open the course to students. This will save you a lot of time during course delivery and prevent last minute emergencies and extra emails, and potential embarrassment, when students find what you overlooked before you do.

Before the Term Begins

The following items may be useful as a beginning for creating your own term startup checklist. Not all items pertain to all situations or every LMS, but these suggestions provide an idea of the type of considerations to include.

Outside the LMS:

If using a Textbook/Smartbook Digital Companion Site: Create a section or sections for the upcoming term:

If using a publisher’s or other digital companion site with information that learners need or that require student registration, create the site/new section and set the due dates for all activities and chapters. This URL and related information will be included in the welcome letter and syllabus. If you have smaller sections, consider using one section for all individual sections you teach in order to have the same URL and to facilitate your work in the site.

Syllabus Update:

Prepare your syllabus for the term. If you teach a multi-section course that uses a template, add personal contact information, any necessary URLS (text companion site, etc.), convert to .pdf for mailing to students and to any format, if not .pdf, used for other LMS content.

Send the Welcome Letter and Syllabus to Students:

Send these at least 1 week before the course site opens. Two 2 weeks before hand is recommended. Send the documents more than once up to the first day of classes and consider sending it after classes begin and at the end of the add/drop period for late enrollees. It’s recommended that you use both university and the LMS email tool for this until the enrollment period ends, and then consider using only the LMS email tool only for course communication for the remainder of the term. If requiring the LMS email tool for your class doesn’t fit your style, that’s ok, too, but whatever you use, be consistent so you have one central location to check for messages and to file and find them if you need them on down the road.

Sending the syllabus with the welcome letter may reduce the number of individual emails you have to respond to inquiring about the course and specifics that are usually in the syllabus. Some students are still making enrollment decisions and some are working ahead and planning their schedules. All will benefit from seeing the details of the requirements of an online course in advance.

Within the LMS Course Site:

Syllabus Upload: 

Upload the current syllabus to your course site. A thorough syllabus is essential for establishing expectations for learners at the outset of the course. Include your contact information, required texts and technology, required assignments and schedule, grading criteria, academic integrity, and other expectations you have for learners.

Set Course Access Dates:

  • Begin Date: Try to have your course ready for student viewing before the first day of classes to allow students new to online learning and/or the course to begin reviewing welcome and orientation materials and become familiar with site navigation. Many instructors find that the Friday before classes begin is sufficient, but some open their site as early as a week before the term begins.
  • End Date: To be determined as meets your needs and the needs of the course. Allow a few days after the last graded assignment so students can review relevant feedback.

Make Course “Active”:

Your LMS might not make courses active by default.

Change the homepage:

If you have a custom homepage, the LMS might not copy it as the active one although it will be present among homepage options for you to select and set as active. Also, Make sure hyperlinks or URLs that appear on the homepage and that change each term are current—e.g., links to digital companion textbook sites.

Update/Check Assessment Settings: (Quiz, Dropbox, Survey):

  • These include properties, permissions, and actions such as:
  • When graded: immediately upon submission or other
  • Automatic export to grades
  • Time: duration, enforced or not, allow late submission
  • Grace periods and time allowance actions: allow additional time or automatically submit
  • Security—disable right click, pager access
  • Calendar display: Review your LMS. Some, like D2L, have more than one area for selecting “display in calendar” for an assessment and will display items in duplicate on the calendar if you check “display in calendar” in more than one setting area.
  • Release Criteria

Set Dates:

  • News/Announcements: Many news items can be prepared before the term begins. These also copy over each term so all you have to do is set a new release date. If there are seasonal items (e.g., Have a great spring break!, just set an end date prior to the start of the new term to hide them, but retain them for use in a future term. Some items relevant to the time of year and used only in fall, spring, or summer, can simply be hidden by setting an expiration date until needed again, at which point a new release and end date can be applied to reactive the item.
  • Assessments: Dropbox/Quizzes/Surveys release and due dates
  • Checklists (see details below)
  • Discussions: For those that aren’t available throughout the entire term
  • Intelligent Agents: Your LMS may require that you make them active and set run dates each term.

Non-text Digital Platforms: If you use YouSeeU and similar platforms, those sites may have to be set up by someone else such as a system administrator each terms and will require that new dates be set for the term and each assignment in the platform. Contact your elearning division or IT support for any sites that require assistance with setup.

Create Chat/Online Rooms: These do not roll over with course copies in every LMS (e.g., D2L) so you may have to create these each term. Consider opening your LMS in two windows, one for the previous term and one for the one you’re updating so you can copy and paste the names and descriptions for rooms.

Check for Details: Preview your course before the term begins. Course copies typically go smoothly, but sometimes items don’t copy correctly and links to external resources can inexplicably break or change. It’s a good idea to check the course in the instructor view as well as the student view and work your way through content to check for:

  • Broken content links
  • Broken selectable image links (i.e., getting started infographics linked to the welcome letter).
  • Link updates and navigating to the right place (learning center, syllabus, etc.)
  • Grade formula and gradebook settings

Refresh select visuals and content and create additional instructional supplements. If time allows, doing a little of this each term facilitates ongoing learning innovation and makes future course revisions easier.


Accessible design is the practice of designing and developing websites, applications, and documents with presentation, content, and functionalities that can be used—accessed and understood–by individuals who experience challenges with vision, hearing, motor, and cognitive skills. United States laws including The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Sections 504 and Section 508) and many international laws require accessibility compliance and establish guidelines for meeting it. Adaptations entail captions, illustrations and supplemental text, and organization and navigation guidelines that benefit all users regardless of ability or circumstance. Accessibility is not the same as Universal Design (UD), although the two concepts share some common principles. Visit WebAIM to learn more about accessibility guidelines and implementation.

Why Does Accessibility Matter?

Educators can reach a greater number of learners if they design with accessibility in mind. These include Section 504/508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The videos Keeping Web Accessibility in Mind and Experiences of Individuals with Disabilities provide a glimpse into what web users with disabilities experience.

Guidelines and Standards

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) are the most authoritative source of web accessibility guidelines and standards. WCAG 2.0 is applicable across all current and future web technologies including HTML, PDF, Java, video players, Word, and PowerPoint.

WCAG 4 Main Principles of Accessibility and 12 Guidelines establish that content must be:

  1. Perceivable: Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive. (e.g., accessible to blind and/or deaf individuals).
    • 1.1 – Provide text alternatives for non-text content so it can be converted to large print, braille, speech, symbols, or simpler language.
    • 1.2 – Provide alternatives for time-based media.
    • 1.3 – Create content that can be presented in different ways (e.g., a simpler layout) without losing information or structure.
    • 1.4 – Make it easier for users to see and hear content, including colors that clearly distinguish between the foreground and background.
  2. Operable: User interface components and navigation must be operable.
    • 2.1 – Make all functionality available from a keyboard, not just by the use of a mouse.
    • 2.2 – Provide users enough time to read and use content.
    • 2.3 – Do not design content in a way known to cause seizures.
    • 2.4 – Provide ways to help users navigate, find content, and determine where it is in relation to other content on the web page.
  3. Understandable: Information and the operation of user interface must be understandable.
    • 3.1 – Make text content readable and understandable.
    • 3.2 – Make web pages appear and operate in predictable ways.
    • 3.3 – Help users avoid and correct mistakes.
  4. Robust: Content must be robust enough to be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents that include assistive technologies.
    • 4.1 – Maximize compatibility with current and future user agents, including assistive technologies.

Free Web-based Web Site Accessibility Checkers

WAVE: Web Accessibility Versatile Evaluator

This tool was developed by WebAIM. It provides a report that indicates non-compliant web page items and recommendations for how to repair violations. The report shows the original web page with embedded icons and accessibility information indicators.

Chrome users have the WAVE symbol–a W inside a circle with gray shading–on their toolbar and Wave is available as a Firefox add-on.

Web Accessibility Checker

This tool was developed by the University of Stanford’s Online Accessibility Program (SOAP) to evaluate the accessibility of individual web pages against multiple guidelines that include WCAG 1.0 and 2.0, Section 508, BITV and the Stanca Act.

FAE: Functional Accessibility Evaluator

The FAE evaluates web pages for accessibility by referencing the ITAA Web Accessibility Standards, which are based on the WCAG 1.0 and Section 508 guidelines. The report includes five categories– Navigation and Orientation, Text Equivalents, Scripting, Styling, HTML Standards—and rates overall performance in each category on a percentage that is reported as Pass, Warn, or Fail.

Accessibility Resources

Video: Accessibility: The importance of properly structured content

Video: Creating Accessibility Documents – Episode 1 – 10 Overview 

Universal Design

What is Universal Design?

UD helps everyone, not just individuals with perceived limitations. An individual may be able to see text and read well, but some might prefer to listen to the information rather than read it because it’s a preferred learning format, or they might prefer the ease of reading larger text. Individuals who can hear an audio message or watch and hear a video might prefer to read the information to get through it faster, because reading is a preferred learning format, or because they want to review materials in a setting that doesn’t accommodate playing video or audio.  For more information visit,

Concepts to keep in mind for incorporating UD standards in online course designs and materials:

  • Not everyone can see images. Provide short, meaningful alternative text (Alt text) that serves as an effective replacement for the image for people who can’t see it. Alt text should be descriptive and specific. Imagine speaking with someone to describe the image in detail.
  • Not everyone can see colors. Don’t rely on color alone to convey meaning. Always supplement color-coded information with text explanations. Avoid the use of red and green as the sole highlighting feature for text.
  • Not everyone has perfect vision. Ensure the contrast of the text against the background is sufficient to allow the text to be read easily. You can use a Color Contrast Checker to determine if you have sufficient contrast between your foreground and background.
  • Not everyone can see video or hear audio. Provide synchronized closed captions for the hearing-impaired, synchronized audio descriptions for the seeing-impaired, and a text transcript for those who are both.
  • Hyperlinks need to have meaningful text. Ensure the link text clearly explains the destination or purpose of the link and the necessary action to follow it. For example, “Select the following text to navigate to the UCO Homepage” versus “Click Here“.
  • Headings facilitate navigation and add semantic structure. Use headings to create a properly structured page outline that organizes content and improves navigation for screen reader users.
  • Not everybody uses a mouse. Ensure that all functionality is keyboard-accessible, tab order is logical, and the focus indicator is always visible to sighted keyboard users.
  • Table data cells need headers. Associate data cells with header cells to help screen readers navigate effectively within tables.
  • Form controls need labels.Every form element should have a label that’s associated explicitly with the form element in the markup.
  • .pdf documents need to be accessible. To make a .pdf document accessible it must be in “tagged PDF” format and edited for reading order, tab order, and other semantic and structural markup. An accessible alternative to the .pdf document should also be provided. Adobe Acrobat has an accessibility checker that will note errors that need correcting.

Online Course Facilitation Resources


Accessibility: The practice of designing and developing websites, applications, and documents with presentation, content, and functionalities that can be used—accessed and understood–by individuals who experience challenges with vision, hearing, motor, and cognitive skills. United States laws including The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Sections 504 and Section 508) and many international laws require accessibility compliance and present guidelines for meeting it. Adaptations entail captions, illustrations and supplemental text, and organization and navigation guidelines that benefit all users regardless of ability or circumstance. Accessibility is not the same as Universal Design (UD), although the two concepts share some common principles. Visit WebAIM to learn more about accessibility guidelines and implementation:

ACL: Access control list. A list of permissions attached to an object to specify which users or system processes may access the object and the operations allowed on the object.

Adaptive Learning: Technology supported learning that adapts content delivery based on an individual learner’s responses and scores on assessments.

Adaptive Release: Conditions attached to learning content that allow instructors and course designers to release course content to learners based on having met the required criteria. Adaptive release can guide students through logical sequencing of material and assess mastery of one topic before learners move on to the next.

Affective Learning: Learning that occurs through influencing learners’ emotional reactions and how they feel regarding an object or experience.

Alt-Text: Alternative text. A textual alternative to media, non-text content, in web pages. Accessible documents use alt-text for images and other non-text web media and content. WebAIM calls alt-text the “first principle of accessibility”, but also notes that it is one of the most challenging to implement correctly and well. Visit the WebAIM alt text page for information on how to correctly utilize this attribute.

AR: Augmented reality. Software that alters users’ perception of and experience interacting with an environment augmented by AR.

Assessment: A method for measuring learners’ mastery of a topic or attainment of a learning objective.

Asynchronous Learning: A learning modality in which content is stored in a central online platform and available on-demand for learners to access at their convenience anywhere, anytime and learn at their own pace. Materials may or may not be available for offline reference and use.  Interaction and communication between learners and the facilitator may take place through discussion forum postings and emails.

Authoring Tool: Software used to create, package, and deliver elearning content to learners, usually through the Internet or a learning management system.

Backward Design: A method of curriculum, instructional, or learning environment design that begins with determining goals and outcomes of the learning experience and then selecting instructional methods, forms of practice with content, and methods for assessing achievement of learning outcomes. This type of design usually follows the three stages of identifying: 1) learning outcomes; 2) evidence the will demonstrate learning; and, 3) knowledge and skills learners need to be able to demonstrate achievement of learning outcomes and the instructional methods, sequencing, resources, and activities needed to promote learner success in doing so.

Behavioral Learning: Learning that occurs through changing observable and measurable behaviors. Learners are places in learning and training environments in which their choices and behaviors earn scores required to advance in the learning process and acquire new skills. Feedback elicited is applied to subsequent learning experiences. This type of learning may enhance interactivity, allows learners to apply knowledge in authentic contexts, allows educators to assess soft skills experience with the environment, and may lead to a relatively permanent change in behavior.

Blended Learning: A learning modality that combines in-person, online asynchronous or synchronous, self-paced, and experiential (e.g., on the job) learning experiences. Although sometimes referred to as hybrid learning, many distinguish between the two, often according to the amount of instruction that takes place in a traditional, brick and mortar classroom and that occurring  online.  


  1. Computer-based training: Training delivered an completed with the assistance of a computer. Learning experiences hosted in a learning management system is a type of CBT.
  2. Competency-based training: Training that focuses on the development and acquisition of specific skills–i.e., competencies–or learning outcomes that serve as measures of mastery of skills required in a particular discipline or field of study. Learner progress is measured by the ability to demonstrate mastery of competencies rather than by review of content and attainment of passing scores on a series of assignments.

Channel Learning: Learning that occurs when organizations share their learning management system content with others so that content does not have to be recreated. This is possible due to standards governing LMS content objects.

Chunking: Dividing information into smaller portions to avoid cognitive overload that may result from the delivery of too much new information to learners’ at once time.

CLCIMS: Computer learning content information management system. This refers to any SCORM-compliant learning content system and can refer to an LMS and LCMS .

Cloud-Based Hosting: Hosting by a virtual, online, server that obtain their computing resource from a vast underlying network of physical web servers. This hosting is separate from your office’s servers. Users need nothing more than an Internet connection to access cloud software and the cloud host manages storage space and security. Cloud hosting can result in cost savings as users pay only for what they use and can access the cloud at any time.

Both public and private clouds exist. Public clouds that pull resources from a pool of other publicly available virtual servers clouds include some security measures to ensure that data is kept private. However, private clouds that use ring-fenced resources such as servers and networks, on site or with the cloud provider, are better options when security and privacy is a concern.

Cognitive Learning: Learning that occurs through memorizing and processing information to acquire knowledge and that focuses on how the mind encodes, stores, and transfers learning. It operates on the premise that learners’ thoughts, reflection, and inquiry play an important role in learning. Cognitive learning experiences consider memory as the encoding of information in the mind and forgetting as the inability to retrieve a memory due to interference, lack of triggers, or memory loss. Cognitive learning experiences are designed to help students to organize what they learn and connect it to prior learning experiences and knowledge that they already have.

Cognitive Overload: A stressful, anxious state of mind resulting from having to process too much information at one time. Exceeding the mind’s capacity to process new information leads to an unproductive, negative learning experience. Dividing information into smaller portions, often referred to as “chunking”, helps reduce the potential for cognitive overload.

Collaborative Authoring: A method for facilitating efforts of multiple individuals to work on different parts of a same project simultaneously.

Collaborative Learning: A general name covering group learning. In LMS learning, collaborative learning is facilitated by social learning tools—such as a virtual classrooms or an application-sharing tool—that allow either simultaneous or staggered work.

Color Contrast Checker: A tool for determining if there is sufficient contrast between text and background colors in a document.  Colorzilla and WAVE are useful tools for analyzing the color value and contrast ratios. These and other resources are discussed at the WebAIM contrast checker page. An additional useful tool is Level Access’ Color Contrast Checker.

Competency: An individual or learning outcome or skill to be attained through instruction a specific topic. Multiple competencies may be combined to comprise a larger learning goal.

CompetencyBased Learning: Learner-focused instruction requiring learners to demonstrate mastery of every individual learning competency, or outcome, related to a topic of study rather than abstract knowledge. In contrast to summative assessment of attainment of learning outcomes, competency-based learning requires learners to demonstrate mastery of each individual learning outcome. However, they may progress their own pace, taking more time on more challenging concepts or those they wish to explore more in-depth refine and moving quickly through those they have already mastered.

Content Library: An online database of content in a learning management system.

Course Authoring: The act of producing course content for learners using a learning management system. This may entail developing new content specifically for online delivery or adapting existing content from a face-to-face course for online delivery.

CSS: Cascading style sheet. A style language used to describe the formatting and aesthetics of web pages such as font, color schemes, and layout. CSS is used with HTML, XTML, and XML.

Distance Learning: Learning that takes place without learners having to attend class sessions in a physical classroom. Options are most often delivered through elearning, but may also include traditional, print-based correspondence courses.

eBook: An electronic, digital, book that can be read on a computer, tablet, smartphone, or specialized device.

eLearning: Learning that takes place online.

ePub: A standard format for electronic publications.

Evidence: A method for demonstrating and assessing achievement of learning outcomes.

Evidence-Based: Derived from or informed by objective evidence in the form of research, data, and metrics of performance.

Experiential Learning: Learning through experience and reflection on doing. Kolb and Fry developed the Experiential Learning Model, which entails concrete experience, observation of and reflection on that experience, formation of abstract concepts based upon the reflection, and testing the new concepts.

Face-to-Face Learning: In-person learning that takes place with learners and instructors meeting in a traditional setting such as a physical, brick-and-mortar classroom or training space for the learning experience.

Facilitation: The process of guiding and leading learners through the learning process and encouraging them to assume more responsibility for the learning experience and outcomes. Facilitation is often considered a more learner-centered experience than “teaching.”

Filter: Search and delivery parameters for including or excluding content for specific purposes and audiences.

Flipped Classroom: An educational method in which content is delivered outside of the classroom, usually through readings or video, and class time is used for clarification and practical application of the concepts studied outside of class, in-depth exploration of the topic, and discussion. In essence, the traditional educational method of an in-class lecture followed by practical application at home is reversed, or “flipped.”

Formal Learning: Learning that is structured and guided by a facilitator or designer in a traditional or online context.

Formative Assessment: An outcomes-based evaluation that occurs at various points throughout an instructional unit, course, or program to identify learners’ strengths and needs for improvement and inform instructors’ efforts to meet students’ learning needs and create effective and efficient learning experiences.

Game-Based learning: The use of games in a learning environment to enhance a learning experience. Learning that is encased within a game to make the material more engaging and memorable.

Gamification: Applying a game structure to an overall course design and learning experience. The classroom—virtual or physical–becomes a game in and of itself with learners assuming the identities of players, often avatars, and earning rewards, points, levels, badges, etc. for class-related behaviors and losing them or dealing with consequences for behaviors inconsistent with content-related learning outcomes.

Gradebook: An online tool, often within a learning management system, for entering, calculating, and displaying learners’ grades.

Grey Labeling: A form of branding where a product developer permits both its own brand logo and design and those of an individual company or organization to be displayed on a product specific to the organization. This option allows organizations to customize the user experience and the product developer to promote their business while maintaining some control over the customization. This can be more cost-effective for organizations than white labeling and can bring additional recognition to the developers’ brand. However, it entails less control for the organization wishing to customize the product and carries more risk for the product developer whose name and reputation may be impacted by those who adapt and grey label the product for their individual use.

Heutagogy: Self-directed and –managed learning aimed at developing a learner’s capacity for how to learn, be creative and apply skills in a creative, innovative manner, and collaborate. Often unstructured and not linear in nature, it is grounded more in the desire to and possibility of learning in and from any situation.

HTML: The standard language for creating web pages and applications.

Hyperlink: A link that can be followed either by clicking, tapping, or hovering over it. Hyperlinks can navigate to a new document or webpage or to an element within a document or webpage.

ILT: Instructor led training. Training led by an individual in a physical or virtual classroom.

Informal Learning: Learning that occurs outside of environments structured and organized by a designer or instructor. This may take place through in-person conversation, on-the job training, information shared over social media or learned online, and skills learned in experiential contexts.

Innovation: A new method, solution, process, or product or the application of existing ones to meet a new or different need. Innovation can also refer simply to improving existing concepts or their implementation.

Instructional Design: The process of creating learning experiences that promote efficient, effective, and engaging learning experiences.

Just-in-time Learning: Learning focused on acquiring specific knowledge needed in the moment instead of learning everything about a topic that might be needed over time.

Learning Analytics: The process of collecting, measuring, and analyzing data about learner activities, behaviors, performance, and achievement and the contexts within which they occur. Analytic processes identify and interpret patterns and trends in how learners interact with content. The goal is to maximize learner success and promote efficient, effective, and engaging learning experiences.

Learning Content: Information and instructional methods available through a learning management system.

Learning Environment: Any place where learning takes place. In essence, every context is a learning environment, whether it’s your computer desktop, an informal situation where you interact with the environment and/or other individuals, or a formal classroom or training context.

Learning Environment ModelingTM: A visual, interactive technique for designing and communicating plans—blueprints—for learning experiences in any context—in-person or online, academic or corporate. Created by Dr. Bucky Dodd at the University of Central Oklahoma’s Center for eLearning and Connected Environments and further developed and expanded by the Center’s team, this technique, referred to as LEMTM, encompasses both the modeling process for a learning environment and the language (LEML) used to communicate about and create the model. This method promotes effective and efficient communication in collaborative design processes and minimizes delays in developing and implementing designs, thereby increasing return on investments. It also allows for developing models that can be shared with others who will be able to understand, adapt, and implement the model in their organizations or learning contexts.

Learning Environment Modeling Language: The common language used for Learning Environment Modeling, LEML is comprised of five building blocks, four contexts, three actions, and two notations.

Learning Object: An element of learning content that relates to and focuses on a specific learning objective. Learning objects are shareable between LMSs and can be organized within an LCMS to facilitate reuse.

Learning Objective: A statement that identifies an expected learning outcome that results from interaction with a curriculum, course, lesson or activity. It must be stated in terms of demonstrable skills or knowledge that will be acquired by learners a result of instruction. At the very least it contains a description of what the student will be able to do and often states the conditions under which learners demonstrate attainment of the objective and criteria for evaluating student performance.

For example, “Students will conjugate –ar verbs in the present tense” is a measurable objective, whereas “Students will understand how to conjugate –ar verbs in the present tense” is not.

Learning Outcome: The result of successful learning experiences, a learning outcome is measured by the demonstration of mastery of a learning objective.

Learning Pathway: The sequence a learner follows to complete content. This can be established by a learning facilitator, the learner, or intentional release criteria built into learning content.

LEDi: Learning Environment Design Innovation. A process for planning and implementing learning innovation initiatives. The five phases of the LEDi cycle are:

  • Discover: Collection and analysis of data about learners and course goals and obtaining the perspectives of multiple stakeholders
  • Understand: Development of a diagnostic profile of existing courses or activities to identify trends and opportunities for innovation
  • Envision: The identification new ideas and approaches for designing learning activities and environments
  • Prototype: The creation of small scale examples of the innovated experience or environment
  • Launch: Implementation and delivery of a learning experience or environment

LEM: Learning Environment ModelingTM, a visual, interactive technique for designing and communicating plans—blueprints—for learning experiences in any context—in-person or online, academic or corporate.

LEML: Learning Environment Modeling Language. The common language used for Learning Environment Modeling, LEML is comprised of five building blocks, four contexts, three actions, and two notations.

LEML Actions: Learning Environment ModelingTM actions indicate the relationships and flow between elements in a learning environment. These actions are communicated in a learning environment model via arrows that indicate movement between building blocks. Three distinct directional arrows indicate who or what initiates an action for each building block component within the learning environment, the facilitator, learner, or system.

LEML Building Blocks: Learning Environment ModelingTM building blocks are comprised of the five elements in a learning environment: Information, Dialogue, Feedback, Practice, and Evidence. Each building block is comprised of three main components: the building block type, which is indicated by graphical symbol represented in the middle of the building block that identifies the purpose or function of an element in a learning environment. The description is found at the top of the block and conveys “what” the component is, such as a video, lecture, or reading assignment. The description at the bottom of the block tells “how” the component is delivered (e.g., LMS module, Live Instructor Presentation, textbook.)

  • Information: elements in a learning environment that presents information
  • Dialogue: communication, reflection, or collaboration within a learning environment that can involve communication with oneself (reflection), other individuals, or in groups.
  • Feedback: opportunities where feedback is built into a learning environment
  • Practice: learning environment to rehearse, apply and practice skills. This is sometimes used to represent formative assessment opportunities, especially when Evidence entails summative assessment opportunities.
  • Evidence: opportunities where evidence of learning is presented in a learning environment. Evidence is frequently associated with a stated learning outcome and is often used to represent summative assessment opportunities.

LEML Contexts: Learning Environment ModelingTM contexts indicate the type of learning environment in which a learning experience occurs. The four LEM contexts are:

  • Classroom: interaction that occurs in real time in a physical learning space
  • Online Synchronous: learning elements that are delivered online in real-time
  • Online Asynchronous: situations where interactions in the learning environment are conducted online and without the requirement of live, real-time interaction.
  • Experiential: Informal Learning spaces

LEML Notations: Learning Environment ModelingTM notations communicate details about a learning environment. They most often communicate learning objectives and the beginning and end points of a learning environment, but may also be used to communicate other information such as materials needed, timelines, and more.

Lifelong Learning: Formal and informal learning ongoing throughout an individual’s life.

LCMS: Learning content management system. A system for content creators to create, publish, store, share, and manage educational content. It is usually integrated with an LMS that is used to deliver content to learners.

LMS: Learning management system. A software application or platform for hosting, delivery, administration, and tracking of educational content.

Metacognition: Often described as thinking about one’s thinking, this concept refers to self-awareness of learning strengths and performance. For successful learning experiences to occur, learners need to understand their personal processes for successfully planning, monitoring, and assessing learning and the metacognitive components of knowledge, experience, and strategy.

Metadata: descriptive information about content in a learning environment.

Microlearning: Dividing and organizing instructional content into brief modules to avoid cognitive overload in learners by rendering content easier to process. The parallel design practice is often referred to as “chunking.”

mLearning: Learning on portable devices like tablets and smartphones, which brings learners the increased access and flexibility of anywhere, anytime learning.

MOOC: Massive Open Online Courses. These are often free and offered by high-ranking colleges and universities to create greater access to education independent of income and location. Learners may pay a fee if they want a certificate confirming completion of all course objectives.

Multimedia: Content comprised of more than one method (medium) for communicating information such as text, video, audio, and animation.

OER: Open Education Resource. These are open-licensed education materials and resources. These are more often low-cost than no-cost resources and usually have specific acknowledgement, updating, and other usage requirements. They can sometimes result in cost-savings for learners and efficiency in course development for designers.

Online Learning: Learning experiences program delivered using the Internet and those that leverage technology to support and enhance the learning experiences in physical classrooms or experiential learning contexts.

On-Premise Hosting: Hosting software on a server in a physical office on-site at your organization, which may provide more control over and security of data than cloud hosting.

Open Source Software: Software with an open, editable source code and for which the copyright holder provides the public the rights to study, modify, and distribute the software for any purpose.

OTJ Training: On-the-job training. Any training that allows an employee to learn skills after being hired and beginning the job.

Permissions: Setting that determine what a user’s can see and do in a learning environment such as an LMS.


1: Aligning a learner’s needs with learning resources, pathways, and experiences. This contrasts with “one-size-fits-all” learning experiences.

2: Designing the learning environment to incorporate personal references to the individual by name throughout course content through the use of replace strings. For example, a learner could be greeted by “Welcome to the course, John!” Rather than simply by “Welcome to the course!”

Portal: A web site’s homepage or landing page that presents links to the site’s diverse components. Learners and instructors usually see a different version of the homepage due to distinct permissions granted to each role.

Prescriptive Learning: A methodology that describes what learners need to do to complete learning objectives.

Progress Reports: A tool for generating analyses and updates about learner performance and behaviors in a learning environment. Reports provide insights into learners’ progress, completion of learning objectives, and needs for supplemental instruction.

Rapid Authoring: Desktop authoring tools that facilitate the creation of online content.

Release Criteria: Conditions and rules to indicate what actions a learners must complete before proceeding to subsequent content.

Replace Strings: Variable names or other information usually placed in  curly brackets-{}-that are automatically replaced by the corresponding variable values. For example, the replace string {FirstName} in Brightspace (Desire2Learn) will incorporate the user’s first name into content materials and communications.

Repurpose: Adapt and innovate existing materials and resources for use in new contexts.

Responsive Design: A layout that adjusts automatically to the screen of a specific computing device.

Rubric: A document that communicates performance expectations. These are often used to articulate grading and other performance criteria in learning environments.  

SCORM: Shareable content object reference model. A collection of standards for authoring LMS content objects that allows easy sharing between systems and facilitates delivering a uniform experience to a learner across SCORM compliant learning management systems.

Screen Reader: A device that converts digital text—web pages and documents into synthesized speech for individuals who cannot read the text or prefer an audio version of it. They afford a level of independence and privacy of reviewing digital text for those needing assistance viewing it and allow navigation with a keyboard rather than a mouse. Information about how to make text compatible with a screen reader is located at

Self-Directed Learning: Also known as self-paced Learning. Learning directed and paced by the student rather than an instructor.

Self-Paced Learning: Also known as self-directed learning. Learning directed and paced by the student rather than an instructor.

SME: Subject matter expert. An individual who is an expert regarding a specific field or topic.

Social Learning: Learning that occurs through communication and interaction in social contexts. This can entail collaborative learning in which a group works on a project together and informal learning that occurs outside of formal learning environments such as the classroom. Observation, modeling, and imitation are common vehicles for learning in these contexts.

Source Editor: A text editor program for editing HTML source code.

Storytelling: Presenting information in the context of memorable, sometimes entertaining, stories.

Style: The visual components of a document comprised of text font and size, color schemes, layout, and more.

Summative Assessment: An evaluation of learners’ mastery of a topic that occurs at the end of an instructional unit, course, or program.

Synchronous Learning: Learning that requires both the instructor and learner be in the physical or online classroom at the same time. In virtual classrooms, communication takes place through chat or online rooms and video conferencing.

Technology Supported Learning Environment: An environment in which technology is integrated to enhance teaching and learning experiences.

tLearning: Tablet learning, a specific form of mobile learning, in which content is accessed through tablets such as an iPads.

Universal Design: Design that is inherently accessible to everyone by inherently accommodating the needs of diverse users regardless of ability or circumstances. While UD integrates accessibility throughout the overall design, it is not synonymous with accessibility and can result in a superior product by avoiding having to retrofit design to bring it into compliance with accessibility requirements. UD principles are:

  • Equitable Use
  • Flexibility in Use
  • Simple and Intuitive Use
  • Perceptible Information
  • Tolerance for Error
  • Low Physical Effort
  • Size and Space for Approach and Use

Learn more at

User ID: The name that users enter to log into a system that enables the system to retrieve and grant access to files specific to that user.

User Profile: Personal data associated with a specific user. This may include the person’s name, a photo, and other identifying information that the system administrator want sot display or that the user wants to share.

User Role: A role defined by the system administrator or instructor that determines what users can see and do in a learning environment such as an LMS.

Username: Another term for User ID, the name that users enter to log into a system that enables the system to retrieve and grant access to files specific to that user.

Virtual Classroom: An online classroom, often hosted in a learning management system or other digital platform for hosting learning materials. The various instruction and learning tools in virtual classrooms typically include those for content organization, grading, chat, whiteboard, video, and audio, email, and learning analytics.

VLE: Virtual learning environment. This can include textbook and online content and video lectures. Learners interact with one another and the instructor through chat sessions or other social platforms as part of the learning process.

VR: Virtual reality. VR provides a virtual 360-degree experience by way of a headset and sometimes motion-tracking accessories such as gloves and boots. Like AR, VR promises great advances in learning experiences as an asset for virtual training and learning simulations.

WAVE: Web Accessibility Versatile Evaluator. WAVE Chrome and Firefox extensions evaluate web content for accessibility directly within Chrome and Firefox browsers. The ability to run in the browser ensures secure accessibility reporting of any document including intranet, password-protected, and sensitive web pages. WAVE Chrome Extension

WBT: Web-based training. This refers to training and learning that takes place online.

White Labeling: A branding option in which the name of the product developer can be removed from a product and customized with the name of the company using it. Typically costing more than grey labeling, it provides a theme for learning materials specific to an organization.

Whiteboard: An application for writing or drawing online on a computer, tablet, or smartphone that allows for storing and sharing the information in a digital format.

Wiki: An online platform that allows individuals add, modify, or delete a document’s content in collaboration with others.

Workflow: The sequence of tasks needed to move content through a development and implementation cycle.