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Instructional Design in Online Programs

Professors transitioning from classroom to online instruction must adapt to the digital learning environment, and so must their courses. While the methods used to organize and plan online classes are often similar to those used in traditional courses, online instructors need to balance effective teaching strategies and content delivery methods with learner-friendly processes and technologies. This section outlines common instructional design methods, considerations, and sources of important information.

Designing Online Courses

Professors and instructional designers must consider many factors when creating an online course. Class schedules, structures and instructional methods often depend on what technology is available and how programs are organized. The following sections outline the general process of creating an online course, as laid out by the Illinois Online Network, Carnegie Mellon, the Australian Learning Teaching Council, and California State University, Northridge.

Factors that Impact Online Instructional Design

Online professors and instructional designers planning online courses should first assess course goals, logistics, technical requirements, and class size—factors that impact course design and delivery. Professors teaching live, synchronous classes are likely to plan streamed lectures or collaborative projects in virtual meeting rooms. Those teaching asynchronous courses online will need to decide how and how often students will access content; what types assignments and projects work best independently; and how class discussion will be handled. Other important considerations include intended course content, preferred instructional strategies, and methods of assessment.

Preparing an Online Course Syllabus

An online course syllabus outlines class policies, objectives, expectations, methods of assessment, and gives professors a chance to introduce themselves. They tend to be far more detailed than traditional course syllabi, but professors can link to additional pages for brevity or thoroughness. The following is a list of items experts recommend instructors include when writing an online course syllabus:

  • Clearly defined goals and expectations.
  • A review of course procedures, including how to submit assignments, ask questions, and complete assessments.
  • Tips for identifying credible sources online plus a list of recommended resources.
  • Research and academic honesty policies geared toward online coursework.
  • Contact information for technical support, academic support services, and other sources of off-hour help.

Carnegie Mellon advises professors to use a friendly and optimistic tone when writing online course syllabi to encourage a sense of community. It recommends informal language. Some LMSes may offer templates or wizards for designing a syllabus, but most platforms also let instructors upload important documents and organize them for easy student access.

Determining Course Structure

Because online degree programs tend to offer students the same coursework, skills, and degrees that they would receive on campus, course structures may be similar. Carnegie Mellon recommends writing down all the topics to be covered over the term, then organizing and sequencing them. Learning management systems may offer tools that simplify the process. Professors and designers can also download free online course templates to use as a guide.

Online course designers must consider several factors that impact course structure. Those planning asynchronous and/or self-directed courses should think about how these unique circumstances could affect workflow and course progress. How much material will be introduced, and when? Can students work through classes at their own pace, or must they have regular check-ins so professors can monitor participation? Sometimes these decisions are made at the programmatic level, in which case faculty can contact instructional design specialists on campus.

Selecting Online Teaching Strategies

The transition from classroom to online instruction requires some adjustment, especially when it comes to delivery. Online instructors may be able to adapt their favorite instructional methods to the online learning environment. Lectures might be live streamed or pre-recorded while discussions occur through live chats, discussion boards, or social media tools. One of the benefits of teaching in an online learning environment is instructors’ ability to incorporate materials and resources from elsewhere on the Web, like research studies and video demonstrations. Online professors who use various media to combine instructional strategies can speak to a wider range of student learning styles. Readers can refer to the online instructional methods portion of this guide for more information.

Scheduling Online Classes

An online course’s structure largely determines its schedule. Instructors designing asynchronous courses divide coursework into broad segments based on how much material one can realistically cover between assignment deadlines. Assessments and major projects are also generally scheduled. Synchronous courses adhere to a stricter approach. While professors might deliver some instruction and materials asynchronously to extend lessons or accommodate occasional absences, class times, assessments, and other important deadlines are clearly defined.

Carnegie Mellon offers strategies online instructors and designers can use to divide and schedule online course activities. Methods are very similar to what one would use in traditional courses, such as grids and flipcharts. Some textbook publishers also recommend various online course schedules that can be adapted as needed. Online instructors can learn more about the process—and review how other classes are scheduled—by consulting an instructional designer, colleagues, or support services from LMS companies.

Instructional Design as an Ongoing Process

Instructors who complete the online course design process detailed above may need help implementing it. Most colleges and universities offer training and technical support on campus. Some LMS developers also provide these services on a limited or ongoing basis. One should note that course design does not end with seemingly successful delivery. Instructors should assess course plans over time to ensure they are effective and comply with best online teaching practices. They may need to adjust instructional designs periodically, or add new materials to accommodate a wider range of learning styles. The following sections provide some direction.

Evaluating Success in Online Instructional Design

Professors and instructional designers that complete the steps above may want to evaluate course plans to ensure they comply with current best online teaching practices. Peer and administrative reviews can help, as can many online resources.

Establishing Best Practices

Several institutions publish best practices in online instruction and course design. California State University, Northridge (CSUN) created the Quality Online Learning and Teaching (QOLT) rubric for evaluating online course design across several critical areas and published it online. Online instructors can download short- and long-form QOLT evaluation sheets from CSUN’s official website. Several organizations have also established best practices in online instructional design, which may shift over time. The Hanover Research Council conducted a literary review of many of these publications and compiled a list of the most widely recommended practices. This review is also accessible online.

Assessing Student Outcomes

Major LMS platforms offer tools that track student progress and, in some cases, automatically adjust instructional methods and content to improve learning. Learner analytics—data that measures student log-ins, time-on-task, and other success factors—are compiled so that online instructors can quickly gauge individual student progress. This information not only helps professors measure the effectiveness of online courses and materials, but also improves learning outcomes. Instructure’s Jared Stein discussed the importance of this process with

“Faculty should use tools like media feedback to make students feel more [supported academically],” said Mr. Stein, “providing them with personalized communication that recognizes their progress and gives them direction on what to focus on next.”

When combined with the appropriate instructional methods, this personalized attention improves students’ chances of success.

Considering Online Learning Technology

The importance of well-chosen online learning technologies cannot be overstated: students cannot advance without them. Instructors and designers must choose tools that align with their preferred instructional methods and technical requirements. The Australian Learning and Teaching Council (ALTC) created guidelines to help professors select the best technologies for their courses, which include:

  • Intended learning outcomes
  • Time and geographical factors
  • Course’s technical requirements such as large file sharing or collaborative work
  • Ease of use
  • Class size and demographic make-up

The ALTC advises online course designers to look for learning tools that complement their course materials and instructional methods, not the other way around. Professors can establish pedagogical principles and learning objectives, and then identify tools that fit them. Mr. Jared Stein, who also encourages designers to prioritize learning over technical features, suggests simple, easy-to-use technology serves students just as well as more sophisticated tools.

“One of the cardinal lessons I’ve personally learned teaching with technology is that often, less is more; students can have an engaging and successful learning experience without elaborate multimedia or complicated technology,” Mr. Stein told “You will want to choose the tools that provide the best opportunities to learn, practice, and socialize with the least amount of technical overhead.”

There may be times, however, when more sophisticated technologies enrich rather than hinder online learning. Tools might, for instance, improve student engagement and interactivity, or promote practical learning in ways that were once impossible in a virtual learning environment. Dr. Susan Aldridge, president of Drexel University Online, shared some of the technologies Drexel has implemented in online courses, and the benefits associated with them.

“The program director has incorporated sophisticated simulations to ensure that students have the digital tools they need to translate classroom skills into real-world practice. For instance, a three-dimensional virtual crime scene, complete with multiple ‘clues’ and continuous feedback, enables students to practice and perfect a vulnerability risk assessment.” said Dr. Aldridge. “In a similar vein, the College of Nursing and Health Professions is using an avatar named Tina Jones to help online nursing students sharpen their clinical practice skills from a distance. This 29-year-old virtual patient responds like any real-life patient with a complicated medical history and a distinct personality. Thus, she offers a unique chance for students to test-drive their diagnostic and interpersonal skills by performing high-stakes clinical assessments, over and over, if necessary.”

Once instructors and designers are acquainted with online course technology, its benefits, and its limitations, they can plan courses and instruction accordingly.

Finding Online Course Materials

Professors and instructional designers unable to adapt existing course content and materials to Web-based delivery, or who would like to incorporate new concepts or media, need not start from scratch. Many publishers now release digital versions of textbooks along with additional online materials and activities. The open source movement, which promotes the free sharing of information, is also very much a part of the online learning culture. Online instructors, institutions, and other organizations create and share open source materials, often called online education resources (OER). There are several OER websites professors can consult, including Merlot, World Lecture Hall, and OER Commons.

Copyright Guidelines for Materials Found Online

Online instructors and designers are free to use any clearly defined open source content in their courses, but not all publically shared materials are labeled as such. EDUCAUSE encourages professors to acquaint themselves with copyright rules to ensure they use materials legally. The organization compiled a list of some of the most important guidelines to consider. The following are among them.

  1. Online professors who own the copyright to online learning materials can use them however they want.
  2. Copyright law does not protect media and materials considered Public Domain, which means their copyrights have expired or do not apply to the situation at hand. Open source instructional content also falls into this category.
  3. Instructors may use any online content in their courses that meets the requirements of the Technology, Education, and Copyright Harmonization (TEACH) Act, which are published freely online.
  4. Instructors may not use any instructional content obtained illegally.
  5. Online instructors can use media and materials if given copyright owners’ explicit consent. In some cases, one will need to pay royalties.

Online colleges and universities often publish their own copyright guidelines. In addition to the rules above, university guidelines may clarify whether the institution or the instructor maintains ownership of materials obtained or created for an online course if the professor no longer teaches it. Readers can learn more about copyright law and the TEACH Act online.

Resources for Further Research on Online Course Design

This guide highlights important information about the online course design process, but it is by no means comprehensive. Practices and technologies tend to evolve over time. Universities and professional organizations may keep instructors abreast of changes impacting online instruction and publish their guidelines online. Academic and industry journals also cover these topics. Dr. Karen Pedersen, Chief Knowledge Officer of the Online Learning Consortium and its Online Learning Journal, discussed how important it is to conduct research during an interview with

“As a former faculty member, I know the power of research, especially as we explore something new,” said Dr. Pedersen. “We’re in a time of a plentiful body of research in online and blended learning to draw from for guidance and best practices, whether it is about a pedagogical practice, a technology, or a case study focusing on a particular subject matter.”