Designing Effective Online Courses

According to Dawley (2007) effective online courses contain well planned interactions, feedback, relevant content and promote self-directed learning for the students.   In my mind, the key to designing well is planning well.

In a fundamental way, the process starts out looking similar to what I would do for a traditional face-to-face course. Starting with the end in mind and using backwards design, the development of solid course outcomes and learning objectives should come first. Then comes planning for the interactions, assessments and activities that are aligned with these outcomes.  The final trick then becomes knowing what tools, strategies and technologies are best used to support the learning objectives while fostering students’ engagement with the content, with each other and with the instructor.

Some success at this comes from experience and becoming aware of best practices. But I don’t believe there is any one right answer – it depends on the course, the instructor and the content being delivered. In addition, the audience, the student, is also a variable in online course design. It’s likely there will be a need to provide an online experience that accommodates different learning preferences, tech skills and levels of motivation.

Additional considerations include institutional  and content resources. Is the school providing an LMS or are you responsible for setting up and managing the course online presence? What content is readily available or already developed and what content needs to be created or adapted to the online environment? Can you find Open Education Resources?

image courtesy of MIT Library. Used under CC license.

Our community college is in the process of converting to a new LMS (Canvas by Instructure) from Angel/Blackboard. These two systems are significantly different in design and content delivery. As an instructional designer, I’m encouraging faculty to view this as a chance to “move into a new house.” To accomplish a move like this means going through all the old furniture and stuff that you had in the old place and making  strategic decisions. Do you have a need for it anymore? If so, how you will use it in the new place? Or do you want to start fresh with new ideas, fresh content and updated strategies? In addition, the “new house” has many modern features that your “old house” didn’t have. How you are going to use these new features to your advantage takes thinking ahead and planning out the design and implementation.

Finally, I think effective online courses take time. Time to plan, time to develop and time to evolve. I’ve taught the same business class over the past 3 years and each year I’ve done some major overhaul or tweak to something – the activities, the strategies, the content. All with the intent to make the assessments stronger and more aligned with outcomes and to make the class more fun, interesting and current. I don’t think I could stand it if I taught the same thing over and over and over again or just put the course on auto-pilot and let it go stale.

While the tools used for delivering online instruction or content may look different – instead of a chalkboard, we use a wiki page for example – the basic assumption should be that the technology used facilitates and supports student learning success and isn’t used just because it’s “cool” or the newest trend.  As Ko and Rossen (2010) suggest

“…new technologies and techniques are emerging all the time. What’s commonplace one year becomes old hat the next. The only thing that seems to remain constant is people’s desire to transmit and receive information efficiently and to communicate with others, no matter what the means.” (p. 5)

Well planned experiences – using solid instructional and communication strategies- in partnership with the right online learning tools is a powerful and enduring combination. I think these things are key to an effective online learning experience.

Dawley, L. (2007). The tools for successful online teaching. Hershey, PA: Idea Group Inc.

Ko, S.; Rossen, S.(2010). Teaching online: A practical guide. Taylor and Francis: Kindle Edition.