Conquering Online Course Design

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In Spring Quarter of 2017, over 6,200 students were enrolled in at least one online class at DePaul. Following national trends, over a quarter of DePaul students are taking some form of an online course in the 2017-18 school year, and this percentage continues to increase. 

Using the mail system, the first distance learning degree was offered by the University of London in 1858 with the goal to provide access to higher education to students from less affluent backgrounds. Although taking courses via postal correspondence may have faded, according to an OLC report in 2016, more than a quarter of all higher education students were enrolled in at least one online course.  

Today, DePaul offers over fifty online degrees and certificates, continuing a rich Vincentian mission and commitment to first generation college students, even if they don’t step into a campus classroom. Of the 1038 courses offered over the last year in DePaul’s College of Education, 17% were hybrid or online.

Offering educational opportunities online isn’t a passing fad, nor is it going to erase face-to-face courses. It also isn’t “one size fits all.” In fact, just like any other course design, it takes planning, practice, and support! 

Online Format

Just because you might have a great idea for an online course, doesn’t mean “if you build it they will come” because it’s digital. It isn’t surprising that a professor would assume that a course she’s taught for years face-to-face could be directly transformed into an online format without any additional work, only to find that it was a suboptimal experience for herself and his students.

Students sometimes also have misconceptions about online learning. A student will often register for an online course thinking it will an be “an easy A,” only to find that it is one of the most challenging and rigorous courses he’s ever taken. 

While there is no one best format for delivering courses, using online tools can help offer a wide range of learner experiences to students and, in turn, give them more chances to be engaged and succeed. Whether you’re teaching fully-online, hybrid, or face-to-face, good course design is the key, and it doesn’t just “happen.” Trying to build an airplane while flying it is a recipe for disaster, and so is creating your course as you go, especially when teaching online. Instructors need to be deliberate in their design and choices of tools based on the format of the course. 

Online courses can offer tremendous benefits to faculty and students. Of course, most people will immediately think, “I can finally go to class in my pajamas!” (Though this is a debatable perk if you’ve been on a campus recently.) Attire aside, courses can be synchronous or asynchronous, local or global. The can be personalized, democratized, and have resources available 24/7.  

Getting Started

So what are some ways to effectively design an online learning experience to maximize value for all involved? Here are some tips to get you started:

State the details: Remember what it was like to be a new student on the first day of class? Start basic   and be sure to specify the requirements for the course, including if/when it meets online and what will be required of students. Don’t forget to put the syllabus in a clear location and think about incorporating a calendar of assignments and due dates, too. Overall, make it obvious where students begin the course, and provide findable, usable, and useful content.

Have clear objectives: In addition to stating the course requirements, break them down into tasks and create clear objectives of what is expected of students. How do you plan on measuring achievement and how will students know if they are succeeding? This is also a great opportunity to reinforce that online classes, even in a hybrid-course, take just as much attention and work as when meeting face-to-face!  

Remember your audience: Are you teaching first-time online students? Are they in multiple time-zones? Keep your students’ abilities and limits in mind when building course content and communicating with students, especially when you may not be able to see them. If they are digital novices, you may have to dedicate more time and resources to making students comfortable with the technology required for the course. 

Keep access in mind: Online students will most likely be accessing materials from a variety of devices, platforms, and locations. Although DePaul’s learning management system (D2L) is responsive and optimized for mobile, other resources instructors may want students to use might not work well on mobile devices and tablets. Check technical requirements of sites like if the site require Flash. Make sure you have transcripts or captions for when students are unable to listen to your video lectures. If you’re often relying on colored texts and indicators, those won’t be much assistance to color-blind students.

Take advantage of tools: Don’t stay boxed in the learning management system (LMS)! Many systems allow embedding and plugins to other great educational tools that can help your course grow beyond discussion boards and readings. Take advantage of using quizzes to monitor student progress, having students create ePortfolios, or conducting virtual office hours to chat with students remotely. 

Set a routine: Chaos distracts, so as you begin your course, generate a routine of checking in with students, contextualizing what they have learned in the week, and prepping them for the next week. This consistency will allow you to increase and improve your presence in the class, identify and respond to gaps in learning, and highlight insightful points and discussions. 

Communicate and encourage: Students want and need interaction with the instructor. However, communication is more than ensuring that you notify students when things will be posted or when you will be answering emails. Actively encourage them to log in, subscribe to notifications, and prod those who aren’t completing assignments. Continue building your relationships through emails, video chats, and/or discussion boards. Remember: be active in the course and give feedback frequently.

Keep videos clear and short: Wonder why students aren’t watching a 40-minute video of your PowerPoint narration? Research has shown that the optimal length for videos are about 4-9 minutes before students lose interest and wander away (or don’t’ click at all!). Additionally, HD-video doesn’t matter as much as having clear audio. Students need to be able to understand what you’re saying in digestible portions. Breaking up your lecture into multiple sections also allows students increased points to view and revisit content.

Have fewer, better discussions: Frequently instructors rely on the “write a post and respond to X other students” formula for discussion forums. Not only does this lead to a massive number of unreadable posts, but it dilutes quality, organic interactions between students. Relax your number-of-posts requirements and focus on grading with a rubric that emphasizes quality, not quantity, letting genuine conversations be the priority. 

Foster progress: in the same line of reasoning with having clear objectives, students should be able to recognize what’s required for any given module or assignment.  This includes incorporating a way for them to know what is complete and what is incomplete.  Include a calendar of assignment due dates, post dates on LMS assignments, and enable the LMS’s checklist feature so that students can keep track of their progress and whether or not they are on track. 

Use your resources: DePaul has additional resources for faculty to ensure that courses are deliberately designed to meet the requirements of format, facilitator, and student. Our Faculty Instructional Technology Services (FITS) works with faculty across the university to design award-winning (QM) courses and materials. 84% of College of Education faculty have taken DOTS (DePaul Online Teaching Series), helping faculty master new technology and skills to help transform online and hybrid course delivery.  

“Not only has the DOTS training equipped me with a lot of tools that will help my online teaching, but it’s also given me grist for the mill to think about in my face-to-face classes” (Joby Gardner, DePaul College of Education)

Think beyond your bubble: Many universities have opportunities for online experiences that reach outside the local academic population. DePaul’s Global Learning Experience (GLE) is an “initiative that offers grants to faculty who integrate meaningful global conversations into their courses,” often utilizing online tools. Through GLE, Faculty are able to collaborate and teach with other institutions around the world. Additionally, the College of Education at DePaul recently launched a fully-online program in Value Creating Education (MEd) that takes an extensive look at the Soka heritage and represents four countries (Argentina, India, Japan, and the U.S.). 

young woman at laptop
Overall, by engaging with students online, you create powerful and enriching educational opportunities that can change students’ lives at home and around the world. 

For more information and resources, visit the DePaul University College of Education, DePaul University Teaching Commons, and IDDblog.



John Gieger leads the Center for Educational Technology in DePaul’s College of Education. After several years in digital archiving, John came to DePaul in 2013 to work in Teaching with Primary Sources, a program sponsored by the Library of Congress. Since 2016, he has been working to effectively integrate tech into classrooms and curricula. His professional interests include Interdisciplinary education, pedagogica/andragogical strategies, and drinking gratuitous amounts of coffee.

Interested in pursuing an online degree in education? The DePaul College of Education offers four fully online graduate degrees while many of our other graduate degrees offer the option to take some courses online.

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