This resource guide is intended for instructors who are planning to develop a new online course or migrate an existing course from the face-to-face to an online or blended format. We have organized the resources below based on the ADDIE Model of development, which is a common approach to instructional design. We will progress through five phases of the design process, offering advice and resources for each:
Regardless of whether you are a new or experienced online instructor, or whether you are teaching a new or existing course, we hope that you will find resources within each of these categories that are useful in developing your course and refining your teaching practices.
The goal of the analysis phase is to identify the goals for the course as well as gather information about the learning environment. In addition, this can be a good time for instructors to reflect on their existing materials and teaching practices as they prepare to design or redesign their course for a potentially new format.
Some questions to consider during the analysis phase:
- What are the goals for this course? What knowledge will students come in with and what do you want them to know/be able to do by the time they finish the course?
- What is the intended format? What are the delivery options or constraints?
- What is your preferred teaching style? What is your usual approach to teaching this content? (e.g. lecture style, discussion format, case study, problem-based learning, collaborative learning, etc.)
- Do you have a sense of the “flow” of the course? How will it proceed - beginning, middle, and end?
- What expectations do you have (either positive or negative) about teaching online?
- To what extent are you currently using technology in your course? Have you taught online before? Are there any specific tools or activities that you like? don't like?
- What is the timeline for project completion?
- What resources are available to you to aid in developing your online course? Are there people at the university that can partner with you in this process? Consider:
- Northwestern IT Learning Engineers - Schedule a consultation with a learning engineer from the Teaching & Learning Technologies team at Northwestern IT. One-on-one consultation sessions are provided for course design and redesign, blended and online learning, active learning techniques, accessibility and inclusivity, and using learning apps within Canvas.
- Searle Center for Teaching & Learning - The Searle Center at Northwestern provides a variety of workshops and programming for faculty who are looking to improve their teaching.
General Resources for Teaching Online:
During the design phase, you will create a “Course Map” or blueprint for your course. This will involve identifying learning objectives, determining assessment strategies, and selecting the appropriate learning activities and materials to support these outcomes.
Aligning the learning experiences and assessments with your objectives will help determine the scope and structure of the course. A few questions to keep in mind as you work through the course map:
- Which topics and learning outcomes are the most important? What's critical? What must the students know by the time the class is complete? What is important to the class, but not crucial?
- How can the content be organized into manageable chunks? In addition to pacing your course by breaking up your content week-by-week, you may want to divide the content even further into smaller sections to reduce cognitive load on students. For example, you may want to break your lecture content for a given topic into several short videos (under 10 minutes), rather than one long video.
I. Develop a Course Map
These sample course maps give you a sense of how others have organized their course materials, but this is a personal process that may look different for each person. We encourage you to choose a template or model that best suits your needs.
A note on workload: As you build out your course map throughout the design and development phases, it will be important to keep track of the workload to make sure that it is manageable, evenly distributed, and aligns with the University Policy on Awarding Credit.
II. Identify Learning Objectives
The first step to blueprinting your course is to identify the learning objectives for your course. This is likely to include general course goals or outcomes, as well as more specific objectives for each unit/week. Consider what your students should know, understand, and be able to do by the end of your course. Keep in mind that learning objectives should be observable and measurable.
Bloom’s Taxonomy is a great place to start in identifying action verbs for your learning objectives:
III. Determine an Assessment Strategy
Identify the type of assessment you will use to evaluate student progress on each learning objective. How will you know if students have achieved the desired outcomes? What will you accept as evidence of student understanding and their ability to use their learning in new situations? Keep in mind that you will need to build in formative assessments throughout the course, as you may not have the same informal opportunities to gauge student comprehension as you might in a face-to-face environment.
Low-risk; designed to provide feedback to the instructor and students about progress towards a learning outcome
IV. Plan Learning Experiences and Instruction
Learning experiences in an online course can include lecture videos, discussions, readings, case studies, assignments, interactives, and more. As you fill out your course map, include the key content items and learning activities for each outcome. Identify the activities, resources, and sequencing that are best suited to accomplish your learning goals. Use this opportunity to consider which materials or activities work well (or not so well) in your traditional, face-to-face implementation of the course and use those to drive your decision-making.
In designing an online course, it is important to be purposeful in designing learning activities that keep students engaged and promote interaction. Try to include a range of activities, so that students are interacting with the content, their peers, and the instructor in various capacities.
Sample Learning Activities
Now that you've identified and aligned your learning objectives and assessments, it's time to build out your course content. This includes selecting the readings and resources, filming lecture content, developing assessments and rubrics, and building the course in the learning management system (Canvas).
I. Selecting Reading Assignments
Identify the reading assignments for each unit and make note of where students can access them (Is the reading available online? Is the item available through course reserves? Will students need to purchase a book? Which edition? At what cost?). Also make note of any other materials students will need to engage with, such as videos, websites, etc.
Consider whether some context should be given for each reading assignment. What is the purpose of the reading? Are there guiding questions? Particular areas that students should focus on?
II. Recording Lecture Videos
In the design phase, you identified which content should be covered via lecture videos. The next step is to plan out what these videos will look like and write scripts. Remember, we want to keep lecture videos short, so you will need to segment or "chunk" your content. Consider designing these chunks around learning objectives to make sure you are covering the appropriate information. It is strongly recommended that you record short lecture videos designed specifically for your online class, rather than filming your full-length traditional classroom lecture - shorter videos are better for maintaining student attention and allow greater flexibility in how you organize (and potentially re-organize) your content. In addition, these “talking head” videos can add a more personal, authentic touch to the online experience which may increase student satisfaction, motivation, and engagement.
Video can be set up in a number of different ways and include a range of visuals. Traditional lecture videos include the instructor speaking with accompanying slides, animations, or whiteboard content. However, lecture videos might also take the form of interviews, role-playing, or panel discussions.
Here at Northwestern, we have a number of resources available for filming your lecture videos. Which format you choose will likely depend on the nature of the content and budget for the project:
- Self-Service Video Production Studio, Northwestern Mudd Library
- Northwestern IT Media & Design Innovation Team - Media Production
- Some individual schools/departments also have their own video support services, so it may be worth talking to your departmental IT team to see if additional resources are available to you.
A note on scripting: It is important to script your videos to make sure that the appropriate information is covered, to streamline the filming process, and to help the course meet accessibility guidelines (see “Accessibility” below). You may want to start with a detailed outline of the content and then try writing a script - or record yourself talking through the content and use the recording as a starting point for your script. Make notes throughout the script of where you may want to include particular visuals or questions.
III. Writing Discussion Questions
Discussions in an online course can serve a variety of pedagogical purposes, including encouraging critical or creative thinking; providing a space for open Q&A; promoting student interaction and community building; and supporting students in their own reflections and inquiries.
- Tips and strategies for using the discussion boards effectively:
- Develop prompts that help to guide the students towards specific learning objectives. Use open-ended questions that allow learners to analyze and apply the concepts they are learning.
- Provide clear guidelines for how, where, and when to respond. Many instructors require students to provide an initial post, as well as a specific number of responses to other students.
- Model good Socratic-type probing and follow-up questions. Why do you think that? What is your reasoning? Is there an alternative strategy? Ask clarifying questions that encourage students to think about what they know and don't know.
- Provide choices and options for students to allow them to engage with the material in a way that is most interesting and relevant to them. When possible, consider writing discussion questions that allow students (especially adult learners or working professionals) to link the content to their experiences and needs.
IV. Assessments & Rubrics
In an online environment, it is extremely important that assignment directions and expectations are clearly communicated. For each of your assessments, write out detailed instructions and make note of any resources students may need to complete the task.
Rubrics can be very useful for identifying and clearly displaying your expectations to students. They can also streamline the grading process and provide students with useful feedback on their performance. For each assignment, develop a rubric that includes the criteria you will use to judge student performance. Make note of how criteria should be weighed against each other (how much each item is worth), as well as how much the assignment should be worth in relation to the overall course.
Canvas is the Learning Management System in use at Northwestern, so most online courses are built using this platform. The Northwestern Canvas Learning Center has a number of useful resources for you to reference as you set up your course:
- Recommendations for Designing Your Course (Note: your program or department may have specific guidelines or templates for structuring your online course in Canvas.)
- Sample Courses
- Intro to Content Options
As an instructor or course designer, it is essential that you make sure your content is accessible to all learners and meets federal accessibility guidelines. Prioritizing accessibility in your course design benefits not only students with disabilities but for all learners at the institution, and contributes to the Northwestern values of promoting diversity and inclusion. You can learn more about making your course content accessible using these General Accessibility Design Guidelines.
UDOIT Accessibility Checker: UDOIT is a tool that identifies accessibility issues in Canvas course sites. The tool scans a course, generates a report, and provides resources on how to address common accessibility issues. Learn more and install the tool in your Canvas course.
Now that you’ve finished building your course content, it will also be your role to guide the students through the course. Although you will not be physically in the same space with your students each week, it is important that you monitor their progress and provide consistent engagement and support. The instructor plays many roles in an online course, including teacher, facilitator, community builder, motivator, and evaluator.
I. Role of the Instructor: Best Practices
You should provide ample opportunities for students to ask questions of you and facilitate opportunities for them to engage with each other. While the learning activities have hopefully been designed to promote these types of behaviors, there are additional strategies for the instructor to consider during course delivery:
Be present; engage with your students early and often.
Check on the course regularly and make an effort to promptly respond to student questions. Send class-wide announcements in Canvas, highlighting expectations for the week, interesting insights you noticed in an assignment or discussion forum, or current events that are relevant to the topic.
Your tone is critical to creating an open and personal environment that can promote student engagement with you, the material, and each other. Much like a face-to-face classroom, the goal is to create a safe space where students are motivated to be prepared for discussion, but also comfortable enough to share their thoughts and ask questions.
- Introduce yourself and give some details about your professional and personal background.
- Add a photo to Canvas so that students see your face each time you post.
- Leverage in-person or synchronous sessions to inject a bit of your personality and teaching style.
- Use students' names in responding to posts and providing feedback.
- Show emotion through emoticons, words or punctuation.
- Encourage informal conversations in the discussion assignments and promote the use of a "general" or "q&a" discussion board where students can ask their questions or share their thoughts. In addition to providing a central place for students to consult with one another throughout the term, a Q&A discussion board can help you streamline communications with students by answering questions in one place, rather than answering multiple emails regarding the same issue.
- Invite a discussion early in the course about the way students expect one another to behave in the discussion forums, and summarize key features such as respect, clarity, critiquing ideas rather than people, collegial engagement, etc.
Make your availability and expectations clear.
In an on-campus setting, students know exactly when they'll see you in class and/or where to find you in the building. Online students may feel less connected and unsure of how to ask questions. In addition, they may be participating in the course at all hours of the day or week. Set clear expectations with students regarding how to best contact you and your response time. Indicate when you will be grading assignments, responding to email, and posting to discussion boards.
Because the online course is "live" 24/7, managing students can be somewhat time-consuming. Here are some tips to manage your time effectively:
- Use the Q&A discussion forum to respond to student questions as often as possible. This encourages students to turn to the course for answers and helps prevent you from responding to multiple emails about the same issue.
- Be as explicit as possible about course and assignment expectations in Canvas. The clearer your instructions are in writing, the fewer questions you will have to field from students. Providing rubrics or evaluation criteria for students can be very helpful in clarifying your assignment expectations.
- Guide students to respond to others' questions, and to collaborate, compare, contrast, analyze and explain to one another.
Monitor student progress and keep an eye out for stragglers.
Require participation early on in the term and reach out individually to students who are not active in the course (see: tracking student activity in Canvas). Provide many opportunities for students to check their knowledge before they get to a high-stakes assignment (and also so that you can check their progress and participation throughout the course) - these may include class discussions or formative assessments. Reach out individually to students who are struggling or non-participatory and when possible, provide extra opportunities for students to get clarification (for instance, hold virtual "office hours" for students to bring their questions, or record informal videos to recap difficult topics).
Work to build a "Community of Inquiry."
Research has supported a model of three key elements that create an engaged, powerful online course where deep learning and critical thinking are supported. This model is called the Community of Inquiry, and it consists of three elements:
- Teaching presence, which refers to the development of a well-structured set of learning experiences, the active facilitation of the course through guiding discussion and providing formative feedback, and administering the class effectively.
- Social presence, which involves the development of trust and connection with other people in an online course; and
- Cognitive presence, which refers to students’ making meaning out of information, through interaction and reflection; it reflects higher-order thinking and critical analysis.
You can promote a Community of Inquiry in your own course by following the teaching guidelines above and designing your course purposefully to promote student interaction and engagement.
II. Synchronous Sessions
Depending on the format of your program/course, it’s possible that your course will also include synchronous sessions (live, virtual class sessions). In these virtual sessions, students log in at the same time using web-conferencing software to participate in class. Synchronous sessions are a great way to engage with your students, provide clarification, and encourage community-building. Since you may have limited opportunities to connect with your students in real-time, it’s important to take advantage of synchronous sessions for meaningful discussion and interactions (whereas one-way lecture content is better delivered asynchronously, for the students to watch on their own time). Potential activities for synchronous sessions might include: small group discussions (“breakouts”), student presentations, guest speakers, or clarifying discussion around particularly challenging topics or questions that emerged during the asynchronous parts of the course.
The evaluation phase provides an opportunity to reflect on your course and identify areas for improvement for future iterations. The goal of the evaluation is to determine whether the course met the goals set out in the analysis phase and if the learning activities adequately prepared students to reach the desired outcomes.
The evaluation phase is comprised of both formative and summative assessments. Formative assessments allow you to improve your course and instruction while the course is in progress, whereas summative assessments typically occur after the course is over.
I. Formative Assessments
There are several ways to assess the performance of your course while it is still in progress:
Examine student performance and engagement: Are students performing well on formative assessments? If not, look for gaps in the content and learning activities - where can you add supplemental explanations or materials? Is it possible to provide more opportunities for students to get clarity on course concepts (additional synchronous sessions, office hours, etc.)? Are students actively engaged with the course materials and each other? Are they completing assignments on time? If not, consider providing more guidance on what is expected of students each week or reach out to students individually who are non-participatory.
Student feedback: Consider asking the students for their feedback partway through the course. These surveys can be targeted to focus on specific areas of the course or more general - sometimes questions as simple as “What’s working well for you so far? What could be improved” can yield insightful comments from students.
The “One Minute Paper” is a good example of an assessment technique that can provide opportunities to gauge student understanding and get student feedback.
II. Summative Assessments
After the course is over, it is good practice to reflect on the experience and evaluate the effectiveness of your course design. This process should identify areas for improvement so that you can refine the course for future iterations.
Examine student performance and engagement: Once again, take a look at how your students performed in your course. Did they perform well on the assessments and meet your desired learning outcomes? Identify gaps in performance and consider whether the content or assessments could be improved or supplemented to better serve students’ learning needs.
Course and Teacher Evaluations (CTEs): Northwestern’s official student feedback system (CTEC) is a great mechanism for getting anonymous feedback from your students. Consider customizing the questionnaire to get the most useful, relevant information.
Debrief the experience: Take some time to reflect on your experience teaching the course. From your perspective, what worked well and what didn’t? Combine your reflections with data from the evaluation tools above to make a plan for course improvements. It may be helpful to also debrief with others involved in the course design or implementation - instructional designer, teaching assistant, program administrators, etc. - to get their thoughts on the experience.