Designing a good online course is hard. Teaching a good online course is hard. Especially the first time you do it. I’ve read the guidelines from state agencies and from iNACOL, and all they provide is an intimidating checklist of DO’s and DON’Ts. Nobody ever designed or taught anything well with the checklist approach; at best, the checklist guarantees mediocrity. To me, a mediocre online course is a failure for the students, teacher, and school. Poorly designed, an online course can be a miserable experience for teacher and students. But we can do MUCH better to craft a learning experience. Here's one student's reaction to a well-designed course (2002-2003):

The most powerful feeling I’m left with after the course is how close the instructor and students "felt". The media and technology allowed us to collaborate in a way that I’ve never experienced before in an online or distance learning class. To be honest, I always thought that on-line classes were contrived and not authentic; distance simply did not allow for the same level of collaboration as that in a classroom setting. This experience has proven to me that authentic and powerful learning experiences can indeed occur on-line.
— Brian from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia

This workshop will guide participants through the important phases and techniques of online course (or online activity) design. Each step emphasizes clarity, building on student interests, deep engagement, team and group collaboration, and practical assessment.

  • We’ll start by reframing the problem as online LEARNING.
  • The concept of transactional distance will introduce participants to how they need to think of online learning.
  • Steps will suggest ways of minimizing transactional distance of student-to-content through choice of a variety of resource media rather than just readings.
  • Minimizing student-to-instructor transactional distance will be addressed by ways of increasing instructor presence and practical ways of being responsive.
  • Minimizing student-to-student distance will be addressed by techniques of online collaboration and interaction among students, including group projects, debates, and many others.
  • The blend of assessment strategies includes auto-graded assessments, creative-application assessments (rubric), project-based assessments (rubric), and peer-assessment (rubric).

What Kind of Course are you planning?

see worksheet #1

What are the Values you and your institution hold for the course?

transactional_distance.jpgsee worksheet #1

Moore's Transactional Distance Model: the "perceived" distance between instructor, student, and content.



The Community of Inquriy Model (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2000) looks at Transactional Distance from the perspective of the student's educational experience.

Structure of Course Content
fixed, flexible, emergent?

class-, content-, project-, student-based?

The 4 C's of Online Courses (another model)

  1. content
  2. communication
  3. collaboration
  4. community

Learning Management System: Your core course technology. Will it be commercial or free? On your own or institutional? Advanced or traditional? Your institution's LMS (not under your control) or your own website (you're the boss).

Interactions within your Course

Here are two core components of effective learning to consider in all phases of course design and delivery:

  1. make it RELEVANT to the learner (Why should I learn this? How will it help me? When do I use it?)
  2. give learner a chance to PRACTICE making decisions by using the learning (How do I use it? Can I make good decisions, choices, answers?)

Interactions are the tools course designers use deepen student engagement and learning.


STUDENT-to-CONTENT Interaction


Consider the "traditional" online course that is heavily based on readings or math problems. Traditional expectation is that students primarily INTERACT WITH CONTENT by completing reading and problem assignments. They have minimal INTERACTION WITH INSTRUCTOR by submitting assignments for grading and receiving a grade and brief guiding information. Is there an expectation that students and instructor will get to know each other as they would in a normal classroom?

Simple student content interaction is appropriate for straightforward information. For example, a module that explains how an online course will work or that explains simple procedures (here's how to apply for student aid) may not even have an instructor or other students, especially if it is an asynchronous module. Three tips for one-way content:

  1. IMAGES - Supplement text with relevant photos or diagrams. Encoding the meaning of text and images use two different brain pathways and two different memory "systems" so there are multiple pathways for recall.
  2. CHUNKING - group the content into short, concise chunks. Mind-sized bites.
  3. RELEVANCE - Work to make the content relevant to the student. Why would the she want to learn it? How can she put it use? Immediate personal use? How can it connect to common student interests?
  4. RECALL/PRACTICE - Provide a way for the student to immediately retrieve or recall what was just presented using an auto-corrent quiz, flashcards, or other simple method. The important thing is immediate opportunity for practice and feedback (right? wrong? did I "get it?").

Most students need greater interaction with instructor and with other students both to learn better and to better emulate a supportive physical classroom environment.

student-to-instructor.pngSTUDENT-to-INSTRUCTOR Interaction

Another traditional model of instruction is the one-way lecture from INSTRUCTOR TO STUDENT. Though common in higher education and less common in elementary and middle school, many researchers have found students learn very little in lecture and forget that quite quickly. In contrast, active learning with interaction between instructor and student is common in K-12 classrooms. Online courses try to emulate this back-and-forth question-and-answer model through the online FORUMS that every LMS provides.

Online forums are often used like the questions at the end of a textbook chapter. Unless the forum posts are meaningful to the student, they tent to regard them as busywork or irrelevant "assignments for a grade." Active, thoughtful forum posting early in the course tends to drop off as the course progresses UNLESS the instructor captures student interest and imagination.

Some researchers suggest that the the relationship between the student and the teacher is the most powerful variable in the success of an online course. Four tips to strengthen student-to-instructor interaction:

  1. The instructor is the easiest person to overwhelm with communication, grading, and feedback demands. This trap can make the instructor the largest bottleneck in course communication, potentially harming learning. Find ways to give very clear directions so you don't have to answer dozens of questions and requests for clarification.
  2. Provide meaningful feedback and communication with each message having a purpose whose relevance is clear. Fluff responses like "nice job," "good work," "satisfactory," etc, quickly become meaningless.
  3. Address students by name, get to know the students (if possible), refer to the course as "our course," help students feel they are doing important work
  4. Hold synchronous web conference sessions where instructor and class can hear each others' voices and see each other (if possible). Synchronous sessions are especially valuable when major assignments or projects are introduced. The discussion and questioning together eliminates massive amounts of e-mail requests for clarification. There are valuable even if they are optional or voluntary.
  5. Instructor can adopt one or more of Grasha's 5 teaching styles:

     a. expert (top MOOC course instructors)
     b. formal authority (most common)
     c. personal model ("here's the approach I use to ...")
     d. facilitator (the "guide on the side")
     e. delegator (for project-based learning)

student-to-student.pngSTUDENT-to-STUDENT Interaction (weakest link)


Nearly all of us are social learners, and we learn best through interaction with other students. This the weakest area of most online courses, especially historically. Over the past decade, student-centered instructors have tried and researched many ways to better engage students with each other that go beyond the standard forum post and reply.

A closely related issue is that of self-paced learning. A self-paced courses implies that students are not expected to be studying the same topic at the same time. In contrast, a course in which student progress as a group allows students to collaboratively work on the same topic at the same time. Most serious academic courses follow the group-cohesion model to both maximize student-to-student interaction as well as to support student-to-instructor interaction in which an instructor can interact with the class as a group rather than as individuals each working on a different topic.

How Are Students Assessed?
How is Their Work Evaluated?

  • simple factual responses can be auto-graded by LMS quiz module
  • how do you assess skills (as opposed to knowledge)?
  • how do you assess understanding? ... can students creatively apply knowledge?
  • how do you assess behavior changes?
  • how about papers? (lengthy & complex)
  • how about projects? (highly variable)

Should You Assign (or permit) PROJECTS?

-- discussion on kinds and evaluation

How Can You OPTIMIZE Learning?

  • engagement
  • relevance
  • feedback
  • retrieval & practice
  • reflection

sanity imageSanity, Survival & Balance

Managing Student Concerns

  • be CLEAR up front for the newbies
  • provides HELP links and procedures
  • offer a "training" or "readiness" minicourse

Teacher Concerns (aka "Life-or-Death Issues")

YOU are the biggest obstacle to a successful course, and here's why. A dedicated instructor wants to be in the middle of the course, hands-on ensuring that everyone is learning. That perspective will kill you because you'll want ALL course information and decisions to come through you--you will be the course bottleneck! You will be the obstacle to your students' learning. Specifically, here are the good things you need to avoid:

  1. responding to and/or grading every post
  2. answering every question
  3. grading major assignments with meaningful feedback

 -- Discussion

Media Balance (in students' multimedia world)

  • textbooks: the Good, the Bad, the Ugly
  • importance of relevant images
  • audio & video recordings
  • live presentation/discussion vs recorded videos
  • where do videos come from:  Internet?  Instructor?  Students?

Common Technologies

  • LMS features
  • Image and video sources
  • Headphones / earbuds
  • Scribing

Recording & Posting Short Videos

  • How, When, Where?

Uncomfortable Questions ...

  • Should student time producing/creating equal time consuming knowledge?
    T(pk) = T(ck)   (constructivistism?)
  • Should student collaboration time be about 25%?
    Should they teach one another more often (social constructivism)?
  • Should students build projects more often? (constructionism)
  • How does an array of linked online tools compare to an integrated CMS or portal approach?
A Thoughtful Closing (from international online class, 2002-2003):

Thank you for providing such an innovative learning opportunity in this course. Using audio and video conferencing was not only contextual and appropriate, but delightful! I also appreciated your timely feedback on papers and your flexibility with scheduling.

And, thank you to my partners in peer reviews and collaborative Thoughful Questions¡ I appreciated your thoughtful feedback and support throughout the semester.

Finally, to everyone in the class: I've enjoyed reading your Thoughtful Questions and hearing your voices! What a wonderful international community of learners!

— Lynn from Nagoya, Japan (just turned 50)