Designing an online course is a bit like planning a holiday. It’s about the destination, the fellow travellers, itinerary and luggage.

1.     Destination

When planning a course the first thing to pin down is the goal. What skills and knowledge does the student need or want to achieve? How will you measure the skills and knowledge gained?

From the beginning the course will need to explain what the outcomes will be, how they will be assessed and how results will be reported.

2.     Fellow travellers

Will the student be able to access a teacher during the course? Will other students be enrolled at the same time? Will there be live online sessions? Will there be opportunities to work collaboratively with other students, or to participate in discussion forums? How will these fellow travellers be encountered? The answer to these questions will help you decide what tools and activities to include.

Populate your course with images, recordings, quotes and case studies. Record teacher advice and explanations, guest experts. Link to relevant online communities. Give students opportunities to post information about their experience and interests. And most importantly provide communication options for participants.

3.     Itinerary

From the learning outcomes, determine what tasks and activities will help the student build the required skills and knowledge. Make the activities as practical as possible. They should be aligned with the learning outcomes. Include off-computer activities and ask students to record themselves or report back on their activity. Use Google Docs or hangouts for collaboration and peer learning. Don’t rely on quizzes to build skills and knowledge – ask students to apply skills and knowledge to real world tasks.

Put yourself in the student’s shoes every step of the way. Is this getting boring? Is this necessary? Does it follow? Should it be optional? What’s the motivation to collaborate here?

4.     Are we there yet?

Clear and friendly teacher talk is the backbone of the course. Use an active voice and avoid unnecessary words and phrases. Supplement written teacher talk with regular updates and announcements to the group or selected students. Providing feedback along the way reminds students what they have learnt and what they can do next. Feedback on student’s work can include short video or audio messages.

5.     The personal touch

Allow students to make choices during the course to meet their needs and interests. This can include finding and sharing examples from their own experience, adapting activity topics, locations or the media used.

Many learning management systems allow you to design the course so that it will respond to how the student performs. For example, if a student gets more or less than a set mark in an assessment, they are directed to some additional content, in the course or on the internet.

6.     Packing for the trip

Don’t weigh down your online course with too much content. Too many readings, articles and weblinks can overwhelm the most organised student and obscure the basics that need to be covered.

It’s like packing for a trip – once you’ve assembled everything you need to take, halve it. Then halve it again. The goal is everything you need, but only what you need.

The content, the activities and the learning outcomes should be in tidy alignment.

7.     Checklists and guides

A quality course will comply with standards and requirements. Develop guides and checklists to cover:

  • Learning design principles
  • Development milestones
  • Technical requirements (including platforms, mobile devices and apps, online tools, multimedia, adaptive technologies)
  • Accessibility standards (such as captions for videos, alt text for images, structure for the documents, colour contrast, keyboard-only access)
  • Editorial standards

You may also find it useful to have a course template.

8.     Write a review

Test your course with potential students before you launch it, and ask for feedback from students in the course – don’t forget to chase up those that leave the course. Use this feedback and learner analytics to improve the student journey for the next trip!