Cooking Up From-Scratch Online Course Design

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The FIU Online monthly Instructor Webinar series explores online instructional strategies and effective uses of technology for the online environment. From Scratch Course Design webinar outlined a five-step recipe for effective online course design in Canvas. 

Instant Replay: From-Scratch Course Design

Cooking Up a Fresh Online Course with Best Practice Ingredients

Designing a new-to-online course can be a daunting task. The course prep can quickly turn into a myriad of to-do’s. These can range from writing LMS pages, recording lectures, and posting assignments. Also, it may include fussing with formatting, updating course dates ad nauseam, and wondering if your students will really get anything out of the endeavor.  

Even before the COVID-19 emergency transition of thousands of college courses into remote modalities, online instructors have struggled with managing a wide variety of student expectations for online courses. In their 2017 literature review, Kebritchi, Lipschuetz, and Santiague concluded several learner and instructor issues contribute to a morass of challenges online course design must address. 

Approaching online course design with a structured process allows instructors to simultaneously address the multifaceted concerns of engagement, presence, organization, assessment, and learning outcomes into one, smooth work process. The following five steps provide a simple guide for designing and enriching a well-composed online learning experience.

1. Begin With the End in Mind 

Before delving into the world of online course design, consider the outcomes you hope to achieve in your course. What should learners know after the course is over? Also, what skills should they gain? Additionally, what new competencies should they be able to demonstrate at the end of the term? Answering these questions provides you with a clear course goal. You can translate that goal into focused objectives that serve as touchstones for alignment throughout the development.

2. Map the Course Outline

Using the outcomes and objectives, begin framing the outline of the course. Use your outline to structure the flow of information students will navigate through the term. Break the course down into definable chunks or milestones that pace and focus students’ learning across the term. 

These chunks are easily presented as Modules in Canvas. Although, you may name them Units, Weeks, or the like as best suits your course strategy. Grouping all of the course content and learning activities into Modules can create routine and focus. This helps students plan their study and monitor their own progress through the course. 

3. Place the Assessments

Next, add your assignments and assessments into the course outline or Canvas Modules. Start with the major projects or summative assessments to assure they are properly prioritized within the scope of the course. Then work backward to fill in the course outline and Canvas with formative assignments, interactive learning, discussions, and so on. A strong mix of formative and summative assessments in the online learning environment gives learners opportunities to practice and engage with the course content. Also, the combination provides meaningful moments to check understanding, improves adherence to academic integrity, and facilitates progress toward your goal learning outcomes. 

4. Curate Your Content 

Building on the schedule of assignments, begin enriching each segment of your course with the content and instructional materials that supports and guides learners’ progress. Look to layer a variety of content into your course. Use this strategy for drawing your learner into each topic, presenting a variety of perspectives, and introducing the richness of your discipline to your students. Content could include textbook readings, scholarly sources, pop or media articles and content, your video-based lectures, online videos (e.g. YouTube clips or TED Talks), virtual tours, and a wide variety of other multimedia offerings. 

As you post content to the course within each Module or Unit, consider adding a brief explanation or statement for each that explicitly connects the content to one or more of the course learning objectives or a particular assignment. Such explicit alignment helps learners prioritize the content effectively, find stronger meaning in the materials, and make stronger knowledge connections among the sources presented. 

5. Add the Finishing Touches 

Once the bulk of the course is populated, you can focus on the elements that help students navigate the course, organize and prioritize their work, and succeed in the assessments. You might start by revisiting your syllabus to assure it stands as a clear and accurate roadmap to the course schedule. Add a personalized course home page that orients learners to the course and tells them how to get started. Consider adding overview pages to each module. Use the overview pages to introduce the material, list the required & optional activities, and highlight key ideas. Build and apply rubrics to all graded activities to help make your expectations clear. Also, this will streamline the grading process later in the term. Finally, click through your course in Student View to spot and address any points of potential confusion or other minor issues. 

Gearing Up for Delivery 

Online course design can seem like a daunting project. However, breaking the process down into a few simple steps can help you present a robust and meaningful distance learning experience. The steps presented here are also foundational to the framework and characteristics of a High Quality or Quality Matters online course.  No course design is ever really “done,” as we all tweak and improve with each term. However, a clear course structure that is focused on your goal outcomes with aligned assessments, curated content, and solid organization is an essential leap into the world of outstanding online teaching. 

Future Instructor Webinars

Be on the lookout for future FIU Online webinars on re-imagining video lectures and other strategies for effective online teaching. If you have any ideas for future webinar topics, we’d love to hear them. Contact Christina Schettini ( to share your ideas on webinar topics.

Read our other instructor webinar instant replay articles:

Amber Webber, Ph.D. is an Instructional Design Manager at Florida International University (FIU) Online. Dr. Webber is an Air Force veteran, with experience as an adjunct professor, leadership development coach, corporate trainer, instructional designer, and organizational development consultant in civilian and government organizations. She is a “serial academic” and lifelong learner, coupling her practical experience with a Ph.D. in Business Management specializing in Strategy and Innovation, a Master’s in Adult Education, a Bachelor’s in Management and Human Resources, and a couple of Associates degrees from the Community College of the Air Force. She believes in building outstanding online learning experiences, leveraging students’ individual experiences and prior knowledge to create a nexus between learning opportunities and future application for each student.

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