To Teach Synchronously or Asynchronously is Not the Only Question
Design your next online or blended course
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:
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:
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.
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:
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
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).
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?
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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).
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.