Creating a Foundation for a Solid Online Course: Strategy, Structure, Engagement & Evaluation
Author: Brandy Ramsey, Faculty Support and Analytics Specialist, College of Online and Adult Studies and Center for Innovation and Teaching Excellence & Adjunct Faculty, College of Business and Economics, Ashland University
Contributor: Shawn Orr, Director Center for Innovation and Teaching Excellence & Faculty, Communication Studies, Ashland University
Designing an online course so it’s easy for your students to navigate, delivers content in a manner that places your students at the center of learning, follows good learning practices, and is aesthetically pleasing is no easy task, especially for those of us who are just getting started with online learning. Thankfully, having a plan for course design and specific evaluation tools and well-designed rubrics makes the process less stressful and the end-result stronger.
So, what does a solid plan, thoughtful design and development, and informative rubrics and evaluations look like in the creation of an online course? I’m glad you asked! In this article we share our combined 30+ years of experience designing and developing online courses to help make your experience a great one!
Choosing Your Plan Strategy
When we start designing an online (or any) course, we want to begin with a strategy. Strategy helps us decide what to focus on in the curriculum and how to organize and present the material. Strategy also helps us determine what academic technology we might use, what instructional tools and elements of our Learning Management Systems will be most effective in delivering the content, how to assess student learning, and how to evaluate the strengths and areas for improvement within our online course. There are many instructional design theories to consider when developing online courses. We use elements of each in our course design. Some well-known design theories include the A.D.D.I.E. Model, Understanding by Design (UbD) and Backwards Design, and Universal Design for Learning (UDL).
The A.D.D.I.E. (Analyze, Design, Develop, Implement, Evaluate) Model provides a framework and chronological order for development. It also has the teaching (Implementation Phase) and assessment (Evaluation Phase) of the course built right into the model. These are both critical parts of design as the continuous improvement of an online course is what keeps courses current, focused, and strong. Understanding by Design (UbD) and Backwards Design has us first identify the desired learning goals of the module or weekly coursework. Next you determine what evidence you need to collect to demonstrate student learning (good rubrics come in handy here). Finally, we use this information to design and plan the learning experiences and instruction. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) ensures that the perspectives, environments, and needs of all learners are considered.
Leveraging All Three Methodologies
When developing online courses, we like to utilize and incorporate elements of all three theories and methodologies. This helps build a solid foundation and framework, with evaluation and continuous improvement built into the structure of course development. A good online course, like all our courses, is constantly evolving as current events change, our students’ needs change, and as new teaching strategies and learning tools emerge. As you create a strategy for developing your online course, it can be helpful to utilize a template as you work through the foundational framework elements of good design principles. We consider these design areas to be the most important in developing an online course:
- Identify the course learning outcomes.
- Map course learning outcomes to program objectives.
- Consider if those program learning outcomes map to the college learning outcomes, and how this course impacts students achieving these institution-wide outcomes. (Some colleges call these institutional learning outcomes, or CORE outcomes of the college.)
- Consider the characteristics of the learners in your course (such as academic year and prerequisites they would have taken before coming into this course) as well as proficiencies they will need to be successful in your course. For example, does your course require the application of an advanced software or technology skill? If so, is there a prerequisite course that covered the basic levels of the software or technology? If not, how will you add that training/development into your course before they must demonstrate more advanced uses of the software or technology skill?
- Next, think about the technology you and your students have available. For example, what is your LMS and what capabilities might it offer the course design? What digital resources are available to aid in course design? Can students digitally deliver speeches and presentations? Can they comment on other students’ speeches at the point of context? Is there augmented reality technology available to enhance the class? What about digital homework that provides immediate feedback? What technologies do you have to help students connect with each other as a community of learners?
- Now, let’s think about the weekly modular learning objectives and topics. In what week do you hope to accomplish which elements of the course? As you create this “plan” for working through the content of the course, we find Backwards Design (see above) to be a great help.
- Once we have this general overview of the modules/weekly content mapped out, let’s consider the Learning Materials you plan on using in the course. This includes everything from textbooks to articles to videos to projects. The question we want to answer is how these materials support student learning. Consider how instructor to student, student to student, student to course content, and student to self are enhanced by selecting these materials.
- Now it’s time to create content for each week or module in the course. When you are working in this area, you are actually creating the learning activities (such as pre-recorded videos, interactive discussion board posts, or experiential learning projects) that will support students in mastering the course content. The section below on “creating activities that keep your students engaged” will provide a few suggestions for what you might include in your course.
- So, how do you measure what students actually learned against what you hoped they would (summative). Additionally, how do you identify gaps in understanding throughout the course so you can positively impact instruction during the term (formative)? That’s assessment. In online learning it’s important to consider alternative methods to measure students’ success. We can certainly assess student learning using tests and add test proctoring tools to ensure academic integrity; however, there are many alternative ways to assess learning in online courses. For example, final papers and projects, presentations, allowing students to “lead” small groups on the discussion board, experiential learning, project based learning, verbal tests, gamification, peer feedback, debates, virtual homework, learning labs, simulations and more. Online learning gives us a world of digital possibilities to assess student learning.
- & 11. The last two things we look at as part of best practices in designing online courses make us stop and consider how we are building regular and substantive interaction into the course (which is a key element of learning and retention) and if we built in adequate time and rigor to justify the credit given for this course.
Design of an online course is not easy, and that’s why we want to use a strong design model to help us create a plan for the creation of a successful online course before we ever start working in our LMS. As we mentioned, there are a lot of great design models to consider using as you create your online course, but this printable/fillable Learning Design Plan Template can help you get started.
Setting Up Your Online Course Structure
Now, let’s get into our Learning Management System (Blackboard, Canvas, Google Classroom, Moodle, and D2L are some popular ones) and get started. As we consider the structure and how we organize an online course, easy navigation for our students is a must. When students worry less about “getting lost” in their online class, they can spend more time working through the course materials and content and interacting with their instructor and peers. This, along with self-reflection, make up the core learning components for students. Key areas in the structure of an online course might include an introductory area, a course review, an instructor information area, a place just for the course syllabus, and then the area where students access weekly—or modular—course content.
Starting your online course with a clearly marked introductory (or “start here”) section sets your students up for success. This area provides key information to acclimate the student to the course and highlights easy navigation resources for them.
We like to create short videos that showcase the major elements of the course and walk them through the course content and folders. Giving students a little tour of the course layout, where to find particular items, and describing how they will navigate various areas keeps them from getting lost within the course and lessens navigation frustrations.
Another item we recommend adding to this area is a “Collaboration Cafe” or FAQ discussion board. This can be set up to be just student-centered—a place where students can go to talk with one another free from instructor input, or it can be a place for the entire course community to gather and ask questions and share insights. Questions about the course materials can be asked here, concerns or normal semester feelings of stress can be voiced, and weekly “helpful hints” can be posted. Consider assigning a weekly “Collaboration Cafe” student leader who will check those posts, ensure students get the feedback/support they need, and reach out to you with questions that are voiced in the Cafe.
The next area we include is a Course Overview section. In this section you would place a copy of the course catalogue description, highlight any technology requirements, and list the materials students will need to be successful in the class.
Posting the ISBN to your textbook, the course link/code or even a direct link to the publisher materials is a great addition to this area. Also, consider adding helpful hints about required technology or other materials needed for the course right in this section.
It’s likely that all these items are listed on your syllabus, but this Overview section is the ideal place to reiterate them. In your navigation video (as previously mentioned), consider showing students where they can find the Course Overview section and then walk through the technology/textbook requirements for the class. If you are using publisher’s content and it’s not deep-linked in your course, it’s especially helpful to have “how-to” videos to minimize confusion. It’s also wise to have a link to your college’s IT help desk number, ticket system, and publisher’s help desk in this section.
Creating an Instructor section specifically for information about you helps students get to know you as both their faculty and a person that wants to see them succeed.
Just as you do on your syllabus and in your face-to-face courses, you’ll want to include the basics such as your name, email, office location, Zoom (or other) link to your virtual office hours, and an overview of your education/scholarship. Next, consider adding a little personal information about yourself and a candid picture, such as a picture of you and a favorite pet or one with you on vacation. This helps students make personal connections with you and begins to create a sense of community within your online course.
Most of our students can access their online courses with whatever technology they are carrying around with them, including a laptop or smartphone. If they are working on something and need to reach out to you, need to join your virtual office hours but can’t find the Zoom link, or if they happen to be on campus and want to meet you in person but don’t know where your office is, they can log in to your course and access all of this information easily in the Instructor area.
We suggest utilizing a separate section in your online course just for the course syllabus.
One thing to consider adding to your syllabus for an online course is a weekly course schedule. A course schedule provides valuable information about what is happening in the online class each week, what students need to be doing/watching/reading/participating in/turning in, and also provides documentation of the planned regular interactions and engagement in the class. It helps to keep students on schedule as assignments are completed and know they are not missing critical aspects of their learning or assignments.
It’s also helpful to keep a Master Course Syllabus for just your reference and build the semester syllabus off that master. If there’s a question or if you want to double check to ensure student learning objectives are correct or ensure something hasn’t gotten incorrectly “copied and pasted” along the way, you have easy access to the master and can look up any needed information. Keeping the history of any changes made over the course of the semester (usually in relation to an adjustment made in a weekly module or assignment, and often based on something learned from a formative assessment) can also be helpful. This provides an accurate account of changes that were made right within the course throughout the semester.
The final major component of our course structure is the content area. There are several great ways to create an easy-to-navigate content structure for your course.
Some courses may be better set up in weeks, some in modules, some within content folders and some may utilize content learning modules that walk students through a learning series. None of these structures are better than the next.
How you structure your course (for example, weekly modules where each element of the learning is included in that week’s modular folder, or content folders that include specific elements of the course such as all recorded lectures or all assignments in separate folders) should be based on the course material, characteristics of your learner, and your personal preferences. One thing to consider is consistency. Whichever way you choose to organize the content in your course, be consistent throughout the entire semester. For example, if you are going to use weekly modules, don’t switch half-way through the semester to putting all your PowerPoints in a separate folder.
Are you ready for even more detail about how to organize your course and create these five areas within your LMS? Select the link below to access a PDF with screenshots, tips, tricks, ideas, and additional best practices for creating the Online Course Design Structure we’ve discussed. You’ll also find information about how to create a great announcement, how to use activity verbs, and how to write a strong introduction to a content area.
Creating Activities that Keep Your Students Engaged
Now that you’ve created a plan and set up your course structure, it’s time to fill the course with content and activities in a way that keeps students engaged and learning and is considered regular and substantive.
Utilizing a design plan template like the one provided above, keeping a course schedule, leveraging introduction and overview pages as discussed in the Online Course Design Structure PDF, and creating interactive and engaging learning activities helps ensure we meet all our course and learning requirements.
We also want to create a system for evaluating the assignments students will work on so we can provide robust feedback on their learning and adjust the course to improve the design. Utilizing technology can assist with creating engaging platforms for students but it’s also important to keep in mind that technology needs to be purposeful. Just adding in “bells and whistles” can be distracting for students and take away from the learning. But using technology that enhances student understanding can greatly impact student success. For example, incorporating digital homework solutions into a module allows students to apply what they are learning while also receiving immediate feedback on their work.
There are hundreds of activities and resources we can take advantage of as online instructors as we build the content areas of our course, so we will share a few of our favorites.
Consider how you engage your students with the course readings, rather than just say “read chapter one.” For example, if you are using an ebook you might have the ability to leave students short video notes throughout the chapter or “post-it notes” pointing out key chapter content. Can you build in short quiz questions throughout the chapter? Could you annotate one chapter for them to show them how to identify key concepts in the reading? Is it possible to deep-link the chapter in your LMS? Is there a specific element of the reading that could be linked to the weekly discussion board? Could you have students complete weekly worksheets on the reading or have them send you an email with two concepts from the reading they found especially interesting?
The idea is that if there is something engaging tied to the reading, students are much more likely to read. One of our favorite tools to engage students in reading is Perusall. This tool can be tied directly to your textbook and to PDFs and creates a shared forum for students to discuss parts of the reading right within the chapter or PDF. They can also send notes or questions to you as the instructor to get clarification on areas where there’s confusion. We like to pose questions within the reading for students to comment on, which creates a dialogue about the material at the point of context. This helps instructors know if students are really understanding the readings. The Perusall analytics are also helpful as they show who is participating and who isn’t and create parameters for grading that can tie directly to a gradebook.
If you use student presentations in your classes, you know the value they provide in helping students apply what they are learning. They allow students to take the “leadership” role as they teach their peers key course concepts, engage in the peer review process, and help assess student learning.
Presentations can be more difficult in the online classroom as you don’t have face-to-face time where students can deliver content live. The same can be true in the Hybrid classroom where that seat-time is reduced. This is where the review of academic technology we completed in the “Strategy” portion of our course design comes into play. For example, does your course come with Bongo where students can record short presentations using their computer or phone and upload them into the system? If so, classroom peers can watch those presentations/demonstrations and leave feedback, at the point of context, all asynchronously. Plus, you can watch those presentations, leave feedback, use rubrics, and have those grades connected to the gradebook in your LMS.
Does your school use a program like Kaltura that’s integrated into the LMS where students can create presentations and then upload them into your course? If not, what about a free program like Screencast-O-Matic? If you are going to utilize recorded presentations, we suggest providing “how-to” instructions, offering a grading rubric ahead of time, and considering the value of peer feedback on presentations.
Remember that students are already likely nervous doing a presentation, and when you add the technology/recording element it can be even more intimidating. We also suggest creating a short video that walks students through the process of creating and uploading a presentation. Providing a sample can help.
Finally, remember this is a good time to go back to the “characteristics of learners” you considered in the course design process. If you discovered most of your students have never received any instruction on how to create and deliver a good presentation, you’ll want to make sure to include that in your course materials as well.
We suggest using presentation rubrics created by trusted experts, such as the National Communication Association (Competent Speech Evaluation Rubric), the Values Rubrics from the American Association of Colleges and Universities, or the oral presentation rubrics from the National Council of Teachers of English. Another option is to use a tool like RubiStar to create your own rubrics. The benefit of sites like this is you can use templates created by other faculty or use a blank template with suggested content areas. Here is an example of an Oral Presentation Rubric we created for use in an online class.
Speaking of presentations, you will likely record several short lectures yourself (or link to content such as TedTalks, YouTube videos, podcasts, or publishers’ videos) to deliver direct instruction on course concepts. If you want to learn more about how to create a good lecture video, review this informative how-to article on preparing prerecorded presentations.
Setting up engaging discussion board questions that cannot be answered by searching online, and having a schedule for expected student participation ensures the discussion board does what you want it to do—engage students in discourse about the course material.
Typically, students are required to have an initial post to a discussion board question by mid-week, and then respond to peers (and manage their initial thread) as the week goes on. One engaging strategy is to add to the discussion board question mid-week so as students come back to the board to respond to their peers, they have something to think about.
For example, in the initial post you could have students watch a short video on leadership and then say “Identify three elements of leadership that are critical to a manager’s ability to perform their job, and provide an example of how you’ve seen one of these elements utilized effectively in a job you’ve worked at.” Then, mid-week you add to the question “Now that you’ve identified how one of those three elements of leadership has been used well, provide an example of how one of those three elements was not used well. What would you have done differently if you were the manager?” This type of continuous discussion forum mirrors how you might use questions in the classroom and encourages continuous student participation throughout the week.
This does take time but technology tools such as Flipgrid can assist and even enhance multilevel (or more traditional) discussion boards. Flipgrid enables you to add video and audio submissions to the discussion and can help make the discourse more personal.
Establishing a strategy for initiating the conversations on a discussion board, keeping the discourse going, and then assessing those posts for learning help to create effective discussion boards. Speaking of assessing discussion board posts, consider using this Discussion Board Rubric we created, which helps students know what you expect, and minimizes the time it takes to grade these posts.
Papers sometimes get a bad rap in the virtual environment as being the only type of assessment students complete in an online class. We know there are a lot of ways online instructors assess learning, and papers are just one of these great tools.
Why do we gravitate toward papers in higher education? Because papers allow us to really assess what a student understands about a concept, provides a forum for creative and original thinking, and allows us to provide robust formative feedback that improves learning. When we assign papers in online classes, we have the advantage of using collaborative spaces, tools, and groups to provide multiple sources of feedback, so paper-writing becomes more than student-to-content interaction. It becomes student to instructor, student to student, and student to content.
This can be done by creating shared documents using a tool like Google Docs where students can collaborate asynchronously on papers, leaving comments and feedback. Another option is to have students meet on Zoom to utilize live virtual spaces where they can discuss papers and provide feedback to each other. This not only benefits the learning process but creates a sense of community within the classroom. Another option is have students post a portion of their paper (perhaps the introduction or one paragraph they find powerful or troublesome) as a Discussion Board post allowing peers to provide suggestions, critiques, and pose questions to each other.
Finally, remember that papers don’t have to be just summative. Consider adding a weekly reflection short paper where students use the Journaling function of your LMS to reflect on their learning for the week. In the online environment, papers can connect students to the content, but also to you as the faculty and to each other as peers.
One suggestion to provide strong feedback for online papers is to use a rubric (and using rubrics can provide incredible time savings for faculty when grading). Again, consider using a trusted source as a template for the creation of a rubric to evaluate an online paper, such as the American Association of Colleges and Universities Written Communication Values Rubric, the essay rubric or the writing rubric from the National Council of Teachers of English. You can also use samples you find in iRubric such as this evaluation essay, or others within RubiStar.
Believe it or not, these are a favorite learning activity of experienced online educators. There is no doubt that learning obstacles to using group work are amplified in online courses—and let’s be honest, many students see “group projects” listed on the syllabus and are not all that thrilled. That said, group projects add depth and engagement to an online course. In addition, the ability to work in groups and teams—especially remotely—is an important marketable skill. This often ties directly into the program and college learning outcomes (think back to the “strategy” for your online course).
If you are going to add group projects to your online courses, consider beginning early in the semester and having a project that builds throughout the term. Add significant time to work on the group project throughout the semester and consider breaking the project down into smaller parts with multiple submission dates.
Another best practice is to have multiple checkpoints throughout the semester where you meet with teams to see how the team dynamic is going, encourage critical and creative thinking, and provide insight and direction. You can do this live via a tool like Zoom, during one of their team meetings, or simply by being added to their Google Drive where they are working together.
It’s also important to foster an environment where students on the team hold each other accountable, create a shared work ethic/environment, and have an outlet for resolutions of disagreements or problems. This is where your weekly check-ins become crucial.
Utilizing tools like RubiStar, combining various rubrics together, and sharing rubric components with colleagues may be just what you need to create one that works for your group project. Check out this Semester-Long Team Project Rubric we created by combining rubrics from various types of group projects.
Evaluating Your Online Course
Evaluation and continuous improvement are what keeps a great online course great. New editions of textbooks, the release of updated versions of software, the development of new tools and technologies, and the changing current events all result in content changes.
Delivery/modules/assessments need updating based on Formative feedback. These and many other factors contribute to the need (and hopefully desire!) to continually evaluate and update our courses.
There are three primary places effective evaluation and feedback are gathered—self-evaluation, peer evaluation, and student evaluation.
If your university subscribes to a particular means for course evaluation, such as the Online Learning Consortium (OLC), or has their own course evaluation rubric, use that rubric before, during, and after teaching your course. Having a rubric to systematically work through before teaching an online course can be helpful to ensure all the components you intended to build within your course are there.
Keeping these rubrics nearby while teaching allows you to make notes after each week, module, or assignment. If there are projects, assignments, or assessments that just did not go as well as you thought they would, you can make note of that directly within the course evaluation rubric. This is helpful as you gather additional information and then make changes to the course before you teach it again. If you are looking for a general self-evaluation rubric, check out this Self-Evaluation Guide for Online Courses we put together.
Developing an online course takes time and we are often very excited when it’s complete. All this investment can make it hard to be objective when it comes to making that initial or even mid-point evaluation of how the course is really going for our students.
It’s hard to be objective when asking questions such as: Is there something that could be better? Could something be said in a different way to help students better understand? Is there a tool that may create some diversity and enhance engagement yet also complement the learning?
Finding an outside source that you trust can give you that objectivity you need. Peer evaluation fosters objectivity by providing constructive feedback that can be taken in the manner it is given—to make our courses better. We created this Peer Evaluation Rubric you can share with colleagues so they can evaluate your online courses.
Even with self-evaluation and peer evaluation, we do not always know if our students feel as if they are part of an engaged learning community. Do they know you are available to assist when they are struggling? Do they feel like the class flows in a manner that makes their learning come naturally? Our students’ learning may not be easy, but we want it to be logical and allow them to see the progression in their learning.
One of our favorite means of student evaluation comes in the form of weekly student reflections on their learning. This helps students see their learning—reflecting on what they have learned, why they have learned something, and how they can apply it to what they’ve previously learned. This process can even help them tie the weekly student learning objectives with the course student learning outcomes. This in turn provides a lot of feedback on your course design. What are students saying about their learning? Are they able to identify the weekly learning objectives and tie them to the course student learning outcomes? Has the course been set up in a manner that allows students to make this connection easily? Are students frustrated about not being able to find or understand specific readings or the structure of a discussion board?
Another effective way to collect valuable student feedback on the course design is to create a mini mid-semester student course evaluation. Setting this up for anonymous submission allows students to feel comfortable being open and honest with their feedback. Let your students know you’re using this information to make changes for the rest of the semester. It often speaks volumes to students when they feel their feedback has not only been heard but that changes have then been made to enhance their learning based on the feedback they have given. This Student Evaluation and Reflection Guide we created provides questions you can use both in student reflections and in your mini mid-semester student course evaluation.
Wrapping It Up
Every great online course starts with a plan—but it doesn’t stop there. Things may change multiple times during your course design, and even after you teach your course, and that’s okay.
Stay committed to building a great online course, ensuring you have accounted for all the components that provide easy navigation, keep your student in the center of their learning, and address best practices in online learning design. And don’t forget, if you want to keep your online course great, the investment doesn’t stop after you teach it for the first time. Continuous improvement is the name of the game. Self-evaluation, peer evaluation, and student evaluation should be done each semester to ensure your course remains significant and your students’ learning is successful.