Course Design

Course Design

The design of a successful course does not arrive by accident.  Careful planning and blueprinting (storyboarding) of your course design will save you time and money.


A critical factor in the design of a course is understanding how important a blueprint is in developing the "future vision" of the course.  Even if you do not have time to add all the "fixtures and decorations" - the essential structures and utilities need to be worked into the course design.  Otherwise, you will need to suffer the pains of remodeling (rather than simply adding) to your course design.


Which Mode?

Another aspect of online course design is determining how students will interact with the course.  Will students need to interact as specific times and in specific activities (synchronously)?  Will students be be given specific deadlines but be allowed to complete the learning activities at any times they wish (asynchronously)?  Or will students be given access to the course content and activities and then complete them at any time with no specific deadlines (independent study).  


Independent Study for Workforce and Customized Training

The independent study format has been used very successfully in computer technology training; students are sold a "subscription" to the content site, and then they can chose to schedule an examination for certification.  If they fail the examination, they simply schedule another (for additional testing fees), and may take the certification test as many times as they would like.

The independent study model might be quite effective for customized and workforce training, since students would not be force to start the course on a specific "semester start" date,  and students who already had considerable experience and knowledge could rapidly complete the course and put their new skills to work quickly.

Accessibility in Online Design


Federal and state laws often require that any electronic documents be accessible to all audiences and be compatible with assistive technologies for persons who are blind, deaf, or paralyzed.

Making materials accessible requires a few special techniques and tactics, but modern authoring and office suite software applications have built-in tools to aid accessibility.

Some sites which you can visit include

Document Accessibility

Document Accessibility


When you are creating documents to post online, you have some special obligations to make sure that your documents are accessible to the widest audiences possible.

Essentially, there are 7 basic principles of making your documents accessible:

  1. Create documents which are well structured and which include headings which are machine readable.
  2. Provide text alternatives for all images, graphics, audio, and video.
  3. Ensure that all text has a strong contrast to the background color (test by printing out on a black & white printer).
  4. Avoid using colored text, and do not use colored text (alone) to indicate a category or type of information.
  5. Use headings for columns and rows in tables; use introductory paragraph to describe designs of complex table layouts.
  6. Provide unique hyperlink labels which are descriptive of the content which is linked.
  7. Convert documents to a universally accessible file format (recommendation is Adobe Acrobat Reader / PDF format).  

Making your documents accessible is fairly easy to do, but it requires some planning and a few special skills.  The specific skills you need will be shown in the next topic of this course.

Making Your Documents Accessible

St. Cloud Technical College's webpage for Document Accessibility has videos and handouts which show you how to utilize accessibility features in Microsoft Office 2007 to create PDF files for your course sites.


Associated Law and Policy 

Unlike Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act which require a reasonable accommodation be made after a qualified individual with a disability makes a request, the laws relating to online document accessibility are in effect at all time for all users.

Under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, institutions accepting Federal dollars must make their web and electronic documents accessible to screen readers and other assistive technologies. In addition to the Federal law, agencies of the state of Minnesota are subject to state of Minnesota laws and accessibility guidelines (Nonvisual Technology Access 16C.145, Minnesota Human Rights Act, Minnesota Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Guidelines, and MnSCU Web Accessibility Guidelines).

Review the guidelines and sites above for specific details of the laws and standards.

The Student Perspective

WebAIM has an excellent video titled Keeping Web Accessibility in Mind (Flash).  This provides interviews of three users with different accesibilty needs.  They also have a video titled Experiences of Students with Disabilities (Quicktime / transcript) - which shares the frustrations of students who want to be independent and need online content be accessible.

If you have deeper interest in learning about online accessibility, here are some sites you should consider.

Advising Students


It is important for students to be well-informed about their responsibilities in online courses prior to registration.  Students should also complete a self-assessment of their skills and knowledge to determine if online courses are a good choice for them.


The following pages are suggested advice pages you might share with students as they contemplate their decisions to take online classes.


Class Activities

What are the Activities in an Online Class?


In online courses there are a series of activities you might participate in each week.

Assignments: each week your instructor will provide you with a list of reading assignments, writing assignments, research, and other activities. You can complete his assignments editing time you choose, however you must turn in your assignments before their deadline. Make sure to check the course schedule to determine which assignments are due each week.

Lectures: online lecture materials are designed to extend your learning beyond your textbook. You will be required to study the online lecturers in addition to your textbook, and the online lecturers might consist of readings, PowerPoint presentations, podcasts, or videos.

Submitting Homework: you will need to complete your homework before you upload it to your instructor. It is important that you check your work for accuracy and spelling prior to submitting it. In most cases, writing assignments must be created using Microsoft Word, and you will upload the assignment to your instructor using the Dropbox tool.

Discussions: your instructor might have discussion activities in your course. Most instructors will grate your participation in each discussion activity, and you will be responsible for posting new messages as well as replies to other students. Therefore, in weeks which contain discussion activities, you will need to log into the discussions early, and then log into the same discussion several other times that week to read additional messages and poster replies to your classmates. Discussions are meant to help you learn the material through problem-solving, comparisons and contrasts, and applications of the material. The more that you participate, the better you will learn the materials.

Questions: in an online class, you don't raise your hand to ask a question. Instead, you should post your question into the discussions forum titled "questions and answers" so that your instructor can read your question and reply to it, and the rest of the class gets the benefit of that answer. If you have a question of a personal and private nature (such as a question a bout a grade on your assignment), then you should send a private e-mail to your instructor with the subject line which starts with the name of your class.

Quizzes and Tests: along with other assignments, your instructor may test your understanding of content and skills through quizzes and exams. In most situations, the tests will only be available for you to take for a few dates; it is very important to be aware of these deadlines and to complete your tests during those periods. Also, most tests have time limits, and once you begin the test, the clock starts counting down. For this reason, it is extremely important to take notes and study them prior to the test so that you are well prepared. Some instructors will provide sample tests or practice tests to help you gauge how prepared you are to take the graded examination. When these practice tests are available, it is to your benefit to use them and learn from them.

Group Work: some instructors will have you participate in group projects, and your grade will reflect how successful your group was at completing the learning objectives for the assignment. The keys to success in a group project are communication and cooperation. When you are a signed into a group project, it is very important for you to personally contact your other group members right away. Coordinate your efforts and keep in contact to make sure that everyone completes his or her tasks on time. In many group assignments, your instructor will be able to determine who has completed which work, and therefore it is very important for you to take an active role in a group project.

Presentations and Projects: some instructors might have you create a presentation to share with the rest of the class. This might be an online blog site or journal, a PowerPoint presentation, a podcast, a paper, or a YouTube video. Your presentation is meant to help other students learn the content from the course, and in presentations and projects you have a special responsibility to check your facts, organize your thoughts, and make the information that you are presenting clear and concise.

Getting Feedback

How do I get feedback in an online class?

  • Most instructors will respond to your questions posted in the discussions forum’s “questions and answers” area within one business day (Monday through Friday). This is faster than a traditional class in which you have to wait for the next class session to have your question addressed. Individual structures might have different response time policies, so be sure to check the syllabus for your class.  
  • Your instructor might answer questions on the weekends as well, but just like you, your instructor might choose to spend time away from work with family and friends. Also, you should not expect your instructor to respond to your questions during holidays.
  • When you're asking a question, it is really important to be specific and clear. Your instructor might find it helpful if you ask your question, and then the state "I think that the answer is" and then provide your best guess. This will help your instructor better understand your question, and it will save them time if you already have the correct answer (they can answer, "yes! You're right"). 
  • Make sure to read the news page. Most instructors will give students reminders, clarifications on assignments, and hints about completing assignments in that area.
  • Most instructors will grade all assignments at once, to ensure that they are using the same criteria and are the same state of mind in order to be fair to all students. For this reason, you likely will not receive a grade on an assignment until after the deadline has passed.
  • Realize that it will take longer for your instructor to grade papers, exams, and other major projects, and that you may not receive your grade and feedback for up to a week after the deadline. Smaller assignments might be created within a day or two after their deadline.
  • If you fall behind in your course, do not feel that you need to drop the course. First make an effort to contact your instructor and see if you can come up with a realistic plan to get caught up in the course.

Is Online Right for Me?


Students in online courses must be organized and disciplined; students will not have an instructor looking over their shoulders and prodding them to complete their work.
Ideally, an online learner should be:

  • self motivated
  • a self-directed learner.
  • a strong reader.
  • confident about researching topics and exploring information.
  • able to figure out directions and concepts on their own.
  • good manager of time and tasks (completes work ahead of deadlines).
  • comfortable with technology.
  • comfortable asking questions.
  • patient (not easily frustrated).

Reality Check: Can you dedicate at least 12 hours per week to your course? Online courses are rigorous and deadlines are firm; you should schedule time on your calendar each week to make sure that you have time to study the topics and complete the assignment on time.


Netiquette is a series of rules of online etiquette and behavior we practice to ensure good and positive communications.  These rules help us minimize mistakes and misunderstandings.

Golden Rule

The first netiquette rule is the "Golden Rule" of "do unto others as you would have them do unto you."  In other words, think about how you would feel if you were the recipient of a message and then carefully craft your writing so that your message will not be insulting or disrespecting of another.  If you would not be willing to speak your thoughts into a microphone in a crowded auditorium, or post your thoughts on a 20-foot tall billboard outside your home, then find another way to compose your message.  Don't be afraid to be honest, but be honest in a constructive and positive manner. 

Never get into a "flame war" in which you start trading insults back and forth.  If someone posts a message you feel is insulting to you personally, then privately email that person to let them know that you disagree and that you would prefer to have them be more respectful of your feelings in the future.  Do this privately -- no one else needs to get into that conversation.

Also, realize that some people are very offended by vulgar language, and in a professional setting, vulgar language is not acceptable.  Don't use it even if you think it is appropriate.

Be Clear

Language is important, so be specific.  Make sure that anyone reading your message knows exactly what you are writing about and will not have to guess.  If you are making several points in one posting, make sure to signpost your thoughts by using headings.  These short phrases introducing the change in point will be much appreciated as others are reading your messages.
Also, if you expect someone to follow-up, you should specifically ask them, such as "Ann, could you please post the statistics about netiquette from the article you mentioned?"  This way a specific person is asked a specific action, and your request will be clearer to all.

Be Humble

Are you an internationally known expert on a particular topic?  If so, you can speak with credibility.  If not, then realize that your idea might be right, or it might not be.
Back up what you are writing with evidence, either from the course materials, from other research you have done, or through documenting your personal experiences.
If someone disagrees with you, realize that they have a different set of experiences and knowledge, and avoid the temptation to get into an argument over opinions (isn't everyone entitled to their own opinion?).

Be Concise

Respect your classmates' time by learning to get your points across in as few words as practical.  We are all proud of our thoughts, and we may be tempted to write several pages in one session.  However, others looking at your post might think "look at how much I have to read!"  You will be more effective as a communicator if you can carefully think out the most important points and synthesize them into the fewest amount of words.

Resist the Urge to CC:

CC: stands for carbon copy (or nowadays, courtesy copy), and it refers to giving copies of a message or email to more people than just the intended recipient who is being asked for an action.
Too often students will "CC:" classmates on messages as a "heads-up" -- which results in clogged email accounts which everyone needs to spend extra time managing.
"What is the big deal -- they can delete my message if they don't need it!"  Well, it is a big deal, because if you and a hundred others like you are copying extra recipients on email messages, that might be an extra hour or two a day reading through extraneous email.

Be a Good Online Citizen

If someone asks a question to which you know the answer, be willing to jump in and provide assistance.   Share your knowledge and insights, and help others feel encouraged to participate in sharing their knowledge and insights as well. 
Respect other people's privacy.  Anything posted inside the course site is meant ONLY for members of the class. Don't copy and paste comments and use them anyplace else.  If something is sent to you privately through email, don't forward it to another person unless you have permission.  The quickest way to lose another's trust is to break a confidence someone has shared with you.
Be forgiving other mistakes that others make.  If you care to point out a mistake, do it politely and privately (through email) so as not to embarrass the recipient.

Respect Copyrights

If you didn't create it yourself, then you don't have the rights to use it without permission. 
If you wish to direct classmates to a video, image, or article online - please provide your classmates with a hyperlink to the item (instead of making and posting a copy of the item).  Linking to the location where something exists is not a violation of copyright (you are not actually copying the materials), however, copying and reposting the material is a violation.
This protection also extends to articles, texts, course and instructor materials, and even email.  If you didn't create it -- you should not share it without permission from the author.

Avoid Sarcasm and Signpost Humor

When you are online, your classmates cannot read your expression or your body language.  You are encouraged to use humor, but try very hard to avoid using sarcasm.  (When written - many people will think your comments are sincere rather than funny.)
When using humor, it is often helpful to others if you signpost your points. For example:
(joke) Mathematics si 50% formulas, 50% proofs, and 50% interpretation.
"I figured that my raise this year will be about a nickel. (sarcasm)"
Using these types of singposts will help people know when you are trying to be funny and then assume at other times you are being serious and sincere.

Online Course Design

How are online courses structured?  

Courses are structured to help students succeed. 

The content from the course is broken down into weekly modules. Each module presents new ideas and topics, and also sets your learning objectives.  The learning objectives are the goals you should reach, and your grades each week are based on how well you meet these goals. 

Laptop ComputerIn most situations, your assignments will include a detailed list of requirements (sometimes called a grading rubric). A grading rubric explains how your instructor will determine your grade on the assignment. The rubric contains a list of categories relating to the learning objectives, and for each category, your instructor indicates how well (or poorly) you completed the work. 

Your instructor will determine whether your work is above expectations, meeting expectations, or below expectations for the learning goals, and the assign you a grade accordingly.

Most modules are designed to give you a variety of resources and activities, so that you are exposed to the new information and skills several different ways within the module.

You're also encouraged to make use of the library databases, course textbooks, and other online sites in your exploration of the ideas and skills from each module.

It is important to understand that your instructor wants you to succeed, and you should not worry about any instructor trying to trick you (or spring work on you at the last moment). Any work you are required to do will be posted to the course at well in advance of the deadline.  It is your responsibility to carefully read through all the course materials to make sure you are aware of the deadlines.  This will give you ample time to read the assignment, ask any questions, and complete your work ahead of the due date.

Online Course Tools

What are the Online Tools?


Inside your online course you will find a series of tools (hyperlinks) which take you to different activities in the course. The list of tools might be different in each class, since different instructors will use different tools.

Here's the list of available tools and what function each tool serves.

Access readings for the course, which may include journal and magazine articles, links to online articles, and writings from your instructor.
An instant message system which allows you to send text messages to other students in your class. This tool is helpful in brainstorming, asking and answering questions, and in collaborative work with group members.
The list of students in your course. Also you can sent email and pager messages to classmates and also read their student profiles.
Contains the main resource and including the syllabus, schedule of assignments, readings, reading rubrics, video and audio files, and hyperlinks for course materials.
Course Home
This is the NEWS page for the course and shows the updates to the course.
Online text-based conversations. You can post messages to your instructor and to other members of the class. When you post a message, you can also attach a file – so that you can share a Word, PowerPoint, or PDF file with other members of the class.
Homework and assignment is sent to your instructor through the dropbox. Create your file and then upload it (similar to an email attachment). Once an assignment is graded, you view the feedback comments from your instructor.
You can send emails to your instructor or other students in the course accessing this link.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) about the course and about using online technologies.
See your grades and any comments your instructor left about your work on the assignment.
Provides basic information about using the tools in D2L and also provides links to other tutorials and video instruction for D2L.
File storage for work you are still completing. Saving a file to the locker allows you to download and continue editing it. 
My Home
List of your courses and important announcements from the College.
Take quizzes, exams, and self assessments in the course. Some instructors allow you to take quizzes more than once (to improve your understanding).
Provide your opinions and preferences to your instructor.


Online Tips

Tips for Online

Following these tips should help you have a successful and smooth online course experience.
  • Schedule your study time! You should make a schedule of times when you plan to login and work on your course, and make sure that the schedule had to login in several days per week. The best way for you to succeed in an online course is to reduce the risk of procrastination. When you set regular times to "attend" your online class, there is less of a chance that you will fall behind in your work.
  • Take advantage of the "24/7" aspect of online learning! You don't have to respond immediately to questions and assignments in your online classes. Read through the material and the assignment descriptions, as well as the online lecture materials and discussion questions, and then let the information "sink in" before completing your work.
  • Cut and Paste!  When you need to post your thoughts to one of the discussion boards, compose your message in a word processor. The word processor will allow you to check the spelling and grammar of your work, and it will also be easier to edit your thoughts. When you're done editing, you can copy and paste your writing into the discussion forum.
  • Sign post your humor! In an online class, no one will be able to tell whether you are smiling or winking if you make a sarcastic comment. Unfortunately, others might think that you are being serious and might misunderstand your point unless you clearly indicate that your statement was meant to be taken humorously. If you are adding humorous points, it will be helpful to others in the class if you sign post those remarks, such as “I figured that my raise this year will be about a nickel. (sarcasm)” or, “(joke) Mathematics is made up of 50% formulas, 50% proofs, and 50% interpretation.” 
  • Remember to be kind and courteous! Don't "say" anything in an online course that you would not speak into a microphone in a crowded auditorium. When you post something online, everyone will "hear" it, and they may copy and paste your message to share with others. Remember that the online environment joins together people of all different ages, races, disabilities, religions, and values. Be extra sensitive when making your remarks. 
  • Ask questions; ask lots of questions!  If you feel confused, you need to take care of it right away. Your instructor wants you to succeed in the class, and your instructor is eager to answer your questions. When you have questions, it is best to post them to the “questions and answers” discussion board. It is very likely that others in the class have the same question, and they will appreciate getting an answer as well. If you feel that you're really struggling in the course, don't allow yourself to get overwhelmed and then be forced to drop the course. Instead, contact your instructor right away to see if there are other resources or explanations which will help get you back on track.
  • Consume everything! Some materials that your instructor provides are required, and other ones are optional or supplementary. If you really want to do well in the course, take advantage of all the extra materials your instructor has provided and gathered for you. The extra materials provide more in-depth information and often present the concepts and topics in new and interesting ways. 
  • Practice, practice, practice! In an online class you might feel as though you can quickly scan and glance through materials, but avoid the temptation. Just like any other skill, from driving a car to playing a musical instrument, the more time you spend studying and practicing the skills from your course, the quicker they will become an automatic and intuitive operation. 
  • Keep connected! Stay in touch with your classmates in your instructor, and use opportunities to build personal and social relationships in the same manner you would in a face-to-face class.

Rights / Responsibilities

Online Student Rights and Responsibilties


Online Student Rights

  • You have the right to a clear and complete syllabus to explain the course, the learning objectives, the grading criteria, and the course policies.
  • You have the right to a clear and accurate course schedule which details the topics to be covered, the assigned readings and preparation activities, and the deadlines for assignments.
  • You have the right to clear instructions for assignments and learning activities.
  • You have the right to timely feedback from your instructor on questions (within 1 business day) and on graded assignment (within a week of the assignment's deadline). 
  • You have the right to course materials which are accessible and open correctly in the course site.
  • You have the right to access tutorials and guides which document the use of the software and tools you will be required to use in the course.


Online Student Responsibilities

  • You have the responsibility to read all assigned materials and to complete all assigned learning activities.
  • You have the responsibility to complete all graded assignments well in advance of the deadline (to avoid any technical glitches which might occur by waiting until the deadline).
  • You have the responsibility to schedule adequate and regular study and work time for your online course (recommended minimum of 12 hours per week for an 8-week class).
  • You have the responsibility to ask questions when you are confused.
  • You have the responsibility to treat all members of the class with respect and kindness (including appropriate netiquette).
  • You have the responsibility to maintain academic honesty and integrity in completing your work.

Skills Needed

What technical knowledge is expected of students in online learning courses?
You don't need to be computer guru in order to take an online class, however you do need to be comfortable with using your computer and dealing with any problems which may occur.
Online students are expected to complete the following activities:
  • access the Internet using a web browser.
  • write and edit documents using Microsoft Word.
  • read and send e-mail (including attachments) using the campus e-mail account.
  • describe and explain rules of netiquette.
  • manage files and folders on a computer, including moving and renaming files.
  • download and install software.
  • complete online forms and questionnaires.
  • follow a step-by-step instruction sheet for changing software or Internet browser settings. 
If you are not confident demonstrating the above skills, consider taking a short computer class prior to enrolling in an online course.

Typical Session


What is a Typical Online Session?


Online students need to login to each course of several days each week, and especially at the start of each workweek to review the schedule and additional reading assignments.

Here's a typical day for a student in an online course.

  1. Log into the course
  2. Read through the News postings to check for updates.
  3. Go to Content and review the weekly assignment schedule.
    1. Locate the online lecturers and articles.
    2. Read the assignment instructions in grading rubric
    3. Check the due dates for upcoming assignments, quizzes, and tests.
  4. Complete your readings
  5. Find and read additional articles from the online library relating to the topics.
  6. Check your Grades on previous assignments and tests, paying special attention to the feedback comments your instructor is left.
  7. Complete your current homework and assignments.
  8. Go to the Discussion forums
    1. Contribute to the assigned class discussions
    2. Respond to questions posted by classmates
    3. Ask the instructor question.
  9. Schedule time to complete other assignments, to study and review notes, and to take Quizzes and exams.
  10. Submit your homework assignments via the Dropbox.
  11. Check your campus e-mail, and reply to any urgent messages.
  12. Log out of the course site.

Please realize that each instructor may have different expectations, so the activities you will need to complete me very from course to course. Always check the course schedule each time you log into the course to make sure you are aware of all assignments and deadlines.

What is Online Learning?


Online learning is a system of delivering classes and educational programs via the Internet. The main difference between online courses and traditional courses is in the delivery of the course content; the course content and outcomes are the same. Online courses are taught by the same high quality instructors to the same rigorous guidelines as their face-to-face counterparts. 
A few differences in an online course include:

  • the ability to access your course at any time from any computer. Online learning offers you the ability to study when you want and where you want. You can access your online course from any computer with an Internet connection, 24 hours a day and seven days a week.
  • the ability to review lessons. Online learning allows you to learn at your own pace, and you can review the materials, videos, and online lectures as many times as you wish.
  • the ability to complete work when you are at your best. Each course will have weekly deadlines and assignments, however the online lectures, course assignments, quizzes, and other activities can be completed early. This schedule flexibility allows you to complete your graded activities when you are physically and mentally at your best.
  • better accessibility and accommodations.  If you have accessibility challenges (you are blind or have low vision, or you are deaf or have poor hearing, or you have paralysis), the online content in your courses can work with your computer is assistive technologies to give you independence in reading course materials and completing course assignments.
  • better opportunities for self-reflection. If you are the type of person who needs time to think about new ideas before you feel comfortable discussing them, online courses allow you to read, think, and reflect upon those ideas before you give your answers.
  • Online courses can be completed in less time (8 weeks instead of 16 weeks), and therefore can fit into your schedule with more flexibility.

Avoiding Remodeling Your Course

Planning Your Course Design


Q: If you were planning to build a 5 bedroom, 3 bathroom house, would you start off building a one-room cabin?

Whether you are building a house or a course site, remodeling will become a major pain, especially if the original design is inflexible and requires a large amount of maintenance. In the same manner that the pain and expense of remodeling a house causes many homeowners to abandon their plans, a course site that needs major remodeling might be left as "good enough" far longer than it should.


Starting with a Blueprint


Q: On any journey, isn't knowing where you are going important in getting there efficiently?


The design of a new course is easiest if you start with a clear plan. The foundation of this plan needs to be the learning objectives that you have for your students. These learning objectives, created at various scopes from course level through module level to specific activity level, will create the scaffolding to which all other course activities and content will attach. On any journey, knowing where you are going and the waypoints inbetween are vital in getting to your destination. Whether by car or through learning process, having a clear map makes the process less stressful.
The "course plan" is not just for the benefit of the designer of the course, but it also serves any other instructors teaching from the course materials (with permission of the creator, of course), as well as students within the course. Clear objectives will focus student efforts in their studies and clarify expectations in assignments and assessments.


Making It Modular and Granular


Q: Do you pick out the floor tile before determining what style of house you want to build?


One of the greatest benefits of the web is that documents can link to other documents. This allows you to break up your content into small, granular pieces, and it supports the learning process of "drilling down" from the "big picture" theory, through understanding of applications, to analysis and use within a specific context (case study, for instance). If you think about your design as letting students "zoom into" the details, your content will naturally become more modular and granular. When any specific document goes out of date, then just that document needs to be edited. If a new textbook presents content in a different order or introduces a few new theories to replace existing ones, your course content will be easy to "shuffle" into the position to parallel the text.


Start with an outline of the course materials. At Level 1 (top level), determine what are the major theories, concepts, and processes that students need to learn? Level 2 will list the components, sub-processes, and applications of the Level 1 ideas. Level 3 will add very specific terminology, examples, visuals, and questions that provide the details. Using an analogy of constructing a house, Level 1 is the foundation and framing (base structure and boundaries), Level 2 is the interior layouts and infrastructures (plumbing, electrical, wall boundaries, room functions), and Level 3 is the furniture and fixtures (creating real-world usability).


Just as with furniture in a home, you wouldn't nail and glue chairs and tables into the flooring, so therefore, keep the lower-level details separate and flexible within your content design. This allows you greater freedoms to change your design and layout as well as make quick substitutions.


It Takes Practice!


Learning can be fun, but it also takes effort. In the same manner that you cannot learn to play concert piano or to ride a bike by watching someone else (or reading their instructions), designing a course in a flexible, modular, and well-planned manner may cause some mental "bruises and scraped knees." However, the more practice you get, the more instinctive the process will become.

Best wishes in your designs. Coming soon... my Content Freshness model.


Discussion Ideas

Online discussions are often just too text-based. As one means of encouraging some creativity, I have posted a few images inside the descriptions of my discussion threads.
At the least, I hope that this will make topics easier to locate for my grading purposes (and for students wanting to post comments) - especially when I re-shuffle the order of the discussion topics throughout the term.

Discussion area showing pciture icons for each forum

Moreso, I hope to encourage students to make use of images, sounds, and possibly even video links in their major projects and shared research resources.

Here is a screenshot of the entrance to my discussion area.

In D2L, you can add images into your discussion topics by using the HTML Editing Tool for composing the forum descriptions and then using the image tool to UPLOAD A NEW IMAGE (that will appear in the page).

WARNING!!! If you are using D2L, make sure that the files saved into D2L have no space characters or other punctuation symbols in their file names. Use of the ampersand (&) gets especially rough. "Just say no!"

Similar use of images can also be placed into descriptions for the Dropboxes, Grade Items, and Quiz descriptions and questions.

Please make sure that any image you are using is well captioned and/or contains appropriate ALT text in the IMG tag.



Engaging Course Activities

Appearance, engagement, and media are factors students use in judging the quality of an online course and the credibility of the instructor.  While you don't need to be a computer programmer or artist, you should take efforts to find and use interesting, attractive, and engaging materials in your course designs.  There are many great tools available for free or very little cost which will allow you to quickly and easily develop your own materials as well.


List of Assignment Ideas


  • Creating a website
  • Creating a blog
  • Creating a podcast
  • Develop a database to track information from course
  • Develop learning game
  • Create list of puzzles and self-assessment activities
  • Develop a concept map / mind map


  • Case Studies
  • Research Papers
  • Article Reviews
  • Study Notes
  • Learning Journal
  • Article reviews / summaries
  • Discussion forums / problem solving

Group Work

  • Case study discussions
  • Peer reviews of research papers and projects
  • Interviews and surveys



Reinflate the Wheel

You've heard it hundreds of times... "Don't reinvent the wheel."
Agreed! Reinflate it!

A great strategy for incorporating media into your course sites is to locate and link to existing media and learning objects already available.

I would suggest starting at Merlot. - Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching (MERLOT) is a "search engine" for finding learning objects (which can be used at little or no cost). The site offers peer reviews and opportunities to network with colleagues.

Other very useful sites to "reinflate" are: - MIT Open Courseware - PBS Teacher Source - Annenberg Foundation (K-12 programming through Satellite and Video On Demand)

More sites for learning objects to check out: - includes library of videos

Index of Learning Object Collections

Reviewing what others are using and creating not only provides you with a ready source of content, but it also helps you design better materials from scratch.

There are some really great resources, some "okay" resources, and some that are not very well produced. Investigate and thoroughly "test" before offering anyone else's work to your students.

Learning Objects

Learning Objects


You've heard it hundreds of times... "Don't reinvent the wheel."
Agreed! Reinflate it!

A great strategy for incorporating media into your course sites is to locate and link to existing media and learning objects already available.

I would suggest starting at Merlot. - Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching (MERLOT) is a "search engine" for finding learning objects (which can be used at little or no cost). The site offers peer reviews and opportunities to network with colleagues.

Other very useful sites to "reinflate" are: - MIT Open Courseware - PBS Teacher Source - Annenberg Foundation (K-12 programming through Satellite and Video On Demand)

More sites for learning objects to check out: - includes library of videos

Reviewing what others are using and creating not only provides you with a ready source of content, but it also helps you design better materials from scratch.

There are some really great resources, some "okay" resources, and some that are not very well produced. Investigate and thoroughly "test" before offering anyone else's work to your students.

Online Learning Activities

Online courses allow greater variety of learning activities than face-to-face classes since students can take time to explore and research materials and utilize multi-media tools in completing their work.


This section lists some considerations and techniques which can be used in designing online learning activities.

Role Playing in Online Courses

Role Playing in Online Courses

Back in high school, I enjoyed being active in theatre and choir. (I'm on the left of the image; show is Diary of Anne Frank.)

A powerful method of evaluating that students can apply what they have learned is through role play.

In an online course, role-play can take place in many forms.

The most direct and simple form is to have the student interact with you, the instructor, directly.

As an example, in my business management class, I might write off an email pretending to be an angry subordinate who is challenging the authority of the manager (the student), or I might pretend to be an important client who is facing "option anxiety." Having the student play a role in the interaction would help me to better classify their understanding of and application of the materials from the course.

Another instructor I have recently talked with is interested in putting students into an online "negotiation" with 3 to 5 players per round. Each player will have a list of negotiation points that he/she is trying to win, and the higher the number of points won, the higher the score for the assignment (everyone fails if there is no agreement at the end of the round - to avoid stall tactics). Using online discussion boards is a way to track the points agreed upon (won) and those left unsettled.


With the use of SKYPE ( - role playing via the Internet becomes much easier. Skype allows online conference calls of up to 5 users, and this allows for multiple role-players in a single activity online.


I even saw a "game" in which the online course home page looked like a manager's desk in a corporate office. The "phone" connected the user to "voicemails" (text-based) requiring urgent actions, the computer connected the user to "emails" and documents, and the calendar had a "to do" list that needed to be accomplished in that sitting. The instructor played multiple roles to provoke the student's action - as well as provide feedback on progress. I would believe that this would be time consuming, but also (likely) a very powerful learning activity.

Online vs. On-Ground

Comparing Online and Face-to-Face Learning Environments

Online course delivery offers great advantages to students by providing flexible scheduling of class activities.  However, there is even greater potential to design courses around problem-solving models, to help students become much more research-aware of the resources that are available, to facilitate collaboration with peers, and to assess students based on their abilities to correctly and uniquely solve problems (thereby reducing potential for academic misconduct in "copying answers" from peers).   Rather than memorizing a specific skill, students can "learn how to learn" and problem solve through practice in course activities.

Because the online environment does not provide the "body language" feedback to the instructor, course designs should concentrate  on "over-explaining" (versus under-explaining) the policies, expectations, learning goals, and methods by which a student will be assessed.  Students who are confident can skim materials, while students who might be confused will have detailed explanations to which he/she can refer.  This can include specific grading rubrics, samples of past assignments, and practice quizzes - to ensure that students understand their obligations in the course.

One difficulty in the online environment is determining if students are staying on-task, and another difficulty is trying to avoid academic misconduct (primarily plagiarism and "hired guns" to take tests for students).  These issues are best addressed by providing students with multiple homework and quiz activities, each carrying relatively low amounts of course points.  Having materials to submit each week helps the instructor determine that the student is tracking properly and provides the instructor with a way to give individualized corrective feedback and advice to students who might not be performing as expected.  This also lowers the anxiety of students, because they are getting regular feedback (boosting confidence) and the failure of any one assignment will have relatively little effect on the overall course grade.

The online environment also provides a much greater opportunity for students to do collaborative work through discussion tools, including peer evaluations of projects and writing and group project activities.  Because each student will be available online according to their preference (scheduling around work and home responsibilities), I recommend that instructors set up group projects based upon the times that students can commit to being available to work on projects (rather than by topic of interest).  This allows members of a team to phone each other or use an Internet chat tool for periods of brainstorming, project planning, and evaluation of work product.

All of these benefits of the online environment come with the expectation that students and instructor have a high degree of comfort with technology and have ready access software and hardware required for course activities.

Finally, the online environment provides much greater success potential for students with accessibility issues.  When course materials are well designed, students who have vision,  hearing, or mobility impairments will find it much easier to be independent (not requiring translators or coordination with disability services to arrange for special testing and conversion of course documents).   Information in online courses is electronic and can be made to work seamlessly with assistive technologies for the blind (screen readers, movable Braille devices, etc.), and students with hearing impairments can simply read the lecture notes of the instructor (rather than having a need for a sign-language interpreter for translating classroom lectures).

Policy Issues in Online


Policy Issues Facing Online Education

Web Accessibility

The most important policy issue is web accessibility.  Under Federal law (section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973) and Minnesota State guidelines (State of Minnesota Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility guidelines), electronic information must be formatted in a manner in which it is accessible to all users, or an alternative representation of that information must be readily available.  The concept of universal design, that the web content can be used on any browser by any user at any time, is an important principle to follow when developing online content.

It is suprising how many web pages and content pages are poorly designed or simply inaccessible to students with vision or hearing impairments.  Establishing clear campus/institutional policies and having a review process will likely be needed if we desire to have content accessible. 

There are tools which can help with web accessibility.  One such tool is my HTML_Cleaner program, which is available for free in the Tools section of this site. The program helps convert files into accessible HTML formats which work on all web-standards browsers, including mobile devices.  At some stage in the content development process, someone with expertise in accessibility needs to review and correct content - and this is likely to raise concerns about academic freedom by faculty.  Designing an institutional policy that is tied to Federal and state laws which explains the need for accessibility and the institution's right of review will likely be an important step in ensuring that pages meet accessibility standards.

Copyright / Intellectual Property

Federal Copyright laws govern what materials can be legally posted into online course sites, and unfortunately too many faculty members are claiming "Fair Use" when their uses are not protected under those provisions.  Fair use is easily and commonly misunderstood, and faculty must become better informed and given training to help them stay within the legal confines of Copyright.  This becomes a larger issue as materials are prepped for web delivery - because the person making the copy is liable for the infringement (and if a faculty member directs a staff member to scan and post a journal article without first securing permission to use - the staff person is placed in an uncomfortable and compromised position).  The answer is training, and the easiest answer is trying to locate existing content (available on the internet or through library databases) that can be "linked to" from within a course; if there is not "copy" being made, there is no infringement.

For those faculty working within the Minnesota State Colleges & Universities System, the board policies of 3.26 (Intellectual Property) and 3.27 (Reproduction and Use of Copyrighted Materials) provide a rough framework for addressing these issues, however, additional clarification, documentation, and training will be needed.  Under 3.26, problems will likely develop in works that are created through collaboration (one person might be designing the text and writing, another developing visual interface, another creating images and graphics).  Who owns and controls which parts, and how might these materials be marketed and used outside the institution will likely be raised, especially in regards to faculty that do outside consulting and for faculty that are adjunct. 

Institutional Quality Expectations

In order to have quality and consistent learning experiences for students taking online courses, developing a set of institutional expectations for quality and format is another area for policy consideration.  This becomes especially important in the distance education model, as departments and administrators are much less likely to hear student complaints if instructors are not delivering content in a clear and compatible format.  These might address several issues, including:

One issue that will be of enormous concern, but which cannot be strongly influenced by the institution, is Net Neutrality.

If Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will be allowed to throttle-down certain content for which a publisher (academic institution) has not paid a premium access fee, and because the future of online education will likely be the inclusion of more media (meaning much more bandwidth use), the potential impacts to our students are especially harmful (our media content being slowed or blocked, making it less accessible or inaccessible).

Resources by Subject and Discipline

This area has materials which are organized by subject and discipline.


Purdue's Online Writing Lab serves as an excellent model of what an online writing lab could be.
Check it out at:

Included in the site are the topics:

  • Teaching Writing
  • The Writing Process
  • Research and Citation
  • Quoting, Paraphrasing, and Summarizing
  • Profession, Technical, and Scientific Writing
  • Job Search Writing
  • Literary Analysis and Criticism
  • Writing in the Social Sciences
  • Creative Writing
  • General Academic Writing
  • Grammar and Mechanics
  • English as a Second Language

There are restrictions on the use of their materials, so please read the site's "Fair Use Policy."
Very cool site! Check it out!

Resources for Online Development

Resources for Online Development


Free Tools

  • Google Accounts
    • Blogger
    • Docs
    • Gmail and Calendar (public calendar allowing appointment requests)
    • Sites (secure wikis and group sites)
    • Groups (discussions / mailing lists)
    • Talk (instant messaging / video chat)
    • Translate (between languages)
    • YouTube (upload and share videos)
  • SourceForge.Net (open source software site)
    • Audacity - audio recording and editing suite
      25 minute Audacity Video
    • VirtualDub - convert video from one format to another
    • 7Zip - compression / archive tool for zipping / unzipping files
    • PortableApps - programs which install to and run from a USB Flash Drive
    • Filezilla - file transfer program (FTP)
    • GIMP - Image Manipulation / Photo Editing software (similar to Photoshop)
    • MediaCoder - very advanced video conversion suite (expert)

Educational Blogs

Creative Commons / Open Source Content / Sharable Content

Resources: Materials and Shareable Content

There are many resources which can be freely used by educators in online courses.

When using materials shared by others, there is an expectation that you share your materials as well.

Consider the banking analogy... if you take money out, you need to put money back in to keep everything working well and to avoid "overdrawing" from others' resources.

Background Music

These are background music tracks I've developed to add behind presentations.  You are welcome to download and use these (please use a right-mouse-click to Save Target As instead of hot-linking to these files).

You can easily create your own background music tracks by purchasing a keyboard with "auto-chord" features and then recording your own compositions.

Video Tutorials


Here are resources of videos relating to online education which I have found very useful.

Technologies and Innovations

Important Technologies and Innovations Supporting Online Education

Web technologies are evolving, and will likely continue to do so at more rapid pace. As educators, we have a duty to continually learn the newest and best methods of creating course content, interacting with our students, and assessing student performance. 

Here are some important technologies and innovations that all online educators should know about and embrace in developing their courses.

CSS Stylesheets for Mobile Browsers

Many cell phones, Blackberry and other PDAs, and netbooks have web browser capability.  The problem is most webpage content does not display well on these mobile devices.  Pages are often designed assuming that the user has a 17-inch monitor and "lock in" the page design; the result is that users have to continually scroll around the screen in order to access the links and read the content.

A better strategy is to design web page content that uses liquid layouts to have content "flow and fill" to the width of the browsing device.  That means that content will be resized to the width of the cell phone or browser - eliminating the need for horizontal scrolling.  As more students have web-capable mobile devices, this provides greater access to course content (especially for those using public transportation and wanting to make better use of their time on the bus, or those students who are trying to catch up on readings during work breaks and lunches at their places of employment).

Remember that the information is the most important thing; you can still have attractive designs, but the design should not dominate the information (rather it should support it).

CSS separates the content from its layout.  This allows the same content to look different on different devices (based on the features and capabilities of each device).  It also makes the content much more accessible, since a low-vision or color-blind user can substitute his/her own stylesheet in place of the one the instructor is using, thereby converting the content instantly into formats which work better for their specific needs.

Collaborative Writing Tools

Wikis and Google Docs are tools that allow multiple authors to collaborate, write, and edit a document.  Google Docs has the ability to revert to prior versions, so that information that is deleted or changed by another author can be recovered.  Additionally, blog tools can also allow multiple authors to individually contribute articles (such as Blogger owned by Google), in which multiple authors can contribute works, but only the original author or the blogsite owner can edit materials.


Audio podcasting has great appeal.  It provides content in a mobile format that students can play back on their MP3 players (most modern cell phones also have MP3 player capability), and the costs of creating the materials are extremely low ($20 for the headset with microphone, and then the free use of the open source software Audacity to record and edit the audio content).  For accessbility purposes, it is best to record from a script - so that you can post the script for those who are deaf or who prefer to read the materials.

Streaming Video

When a particular activity needs to be demonstrated, or when a case study scenario needs to be acted out, the use of streaming video is a great solution.  If a campus does not have its own streaming media service, faculty can explore the use of free streaming services such as, Google video, and to upload content (at no cost) to be streamed out to users.  In order to have quality streamed video, it would be best to have a dedicated video studio with appropriate lighting, backgrounds, camera, and digital editing equipment. Again, scripts should be utilized and then open captions be added to the final video to ensure accessibility for all audiences.

Web Conferencing

Use of web-conferencing applications such as Adobe Acrobat Connect (formerly Macromedia Breeze), WebEx, Microsoft Live Meeting, or DimDim have much potential for deliverying content and creating interactive learning activities.  These include:

Instructor to Class
Instructor to Individual Student


Services such as SKYPE allow bridging of multiple IP and land-line phones to create phone conferences (Skype allows up to 9 land-line phone calls to be bridged or up to 100 IP Skype accounts in a "Skypecast").  This has great applications for working with student groups remotely (arranging phone conferences and designing work product).


Increasingly there are web services that are creating "mash-ups" by using features of other existing web services.  For example, the site combines the interface of Google Maps with terrestrial elevation information to show relief maps for most locations on the planet.  Additional "mashups" can be viewed at ProgrammableWeb (  As new services evolve, faculty will likely find applications that support and extend the course learning activities.

Using Audio: Get Your Students Listening

One issue that faculty commonly face is connecting the materials from the textbook to examples that students can "touch and feel." Often it is important to students that faculty make the content relevant in an up-to-date and "locally connected" manner. Management and marketing are two curriculum areas that can benefit from connections to local business information and content available via the web.

In every major metropolitan area, savvy businesses are setting up podcasts (web-based radio shows) that inform and educate prospective clients about the news, theories and applications, technologies, and opportunities in their industries.

The benefit to podcasts is their portability. Many students have MP3 players or iPods to which they can download podcast content and then listen to the materials during exercise routines, in traffic congestion, and during breaks at work. The audio format can be especially helpful to students whose learning style preferences are spoken language.

Not every student will have access to portable audio players, and students with hearing impairments might not be able to benefit from the content (unless it has been fully transcribed, which is seldom done), so the use of podcasts should be as supplemental material to the course (not required in activities or assessments).

Faculty teaching business topics might want to investigate:

When possible, it is best to feature locally produced podcasts. Finding local businesses and organizations that offer these online audio segments is a bit of a hunt.

For Minnesota, one site that offers links to local content is:
Many of these are music, humour, and adult podcasts, but there are also some with academic appeal.

In the Minneapolis metropolitan area, here are some podcasts examples.
(Note: I have not financial or other ties to any of these sites, and these are offered as examples without endorsement.)

GENERAL ECONOMY and POLITICS - Minneapolis.Org: Features about the quality of life, activities, and events in the Minneapolis area (and main site) Chamber of Commerce

INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS - Technomic Asia: the China Business podcast

MARKETING - Marketing Edge: Marketing and Public Relations - Public Relations Week

SMALL BUSINESS - Small Business Administration