Course Design for Online Instruction

This week many of us are finishing our term and planning for the summer. Universities are discussing how they might offer fall classes and some have decided to prepare - at least to start - for online instruction. I would like to share a bit more research for those considering designing an online course (instead of rapid online migration).

There is ample research that indicates effective teaching in any mode has common elements (Angelo & Cross, 1993; Chickering & Gamson, 1987; Davis, 2009; Uttl, White, & Gonzalez, 2016). The research finds that learning-centered teaching “can be” similar for an online format as for traditional face-to-face (F2F) settings. The methods on how we attend, connect, process and apply conceptual frameworks are similar. Authors recommend effective instruction typically occurs when we focus on foundational learning theories, whether the context for teaching is F2F, experiential, service, internships, informal settings (museums, aquaria, zoological parks, etc.) on online. Often course design will need modifications to capitalize on a different learning ecosystem. Ideally, we might aim to integrate as many of the essential, research-based learning-centered teaching approaches into our online course design:

  • using backwards design to create active, measurable student learning outcomes (LOs);

  • implementing LOs to guide student assessment, measurement and evaluation that aligns with active learning experiences;

  • intentional course planning involving far more than deciding on the content that “instructors” cover (instead of the learner “uncovering” or “discovering”);

  • being explicit about how and why you organize the content;

  • realizing that the primary role of the instructor is to facilitate learning, not to be the knowledge disseminator;

  • engaging students actively in their learning through interactions with each other and with the instructor;

  • the instructor needs to create a supportive environment for success including building rapport (which is even more essential in online learning); and

  • provide timely, helpful formative feedback on student performance.

Johnson's (2014) “Applying the Seven Principles of Good Practice: Technology as a Lever” for an online course is an update of Chickering and Ehrmann's (1996) research from the American Association for Higher Education. Aligning these Seven Principles when designing online courses can be an effective.

  • Encourages Contacts Between Students and Instructor

  • Develops Reciprocity and Cooperation Among Students

  • Uses Active Learning Techniques

  • Gives Prompt Feedback

  • Emphasizes Time on Task

  • Communicates High Expectations

  • Respects Diverse Talents and Ways of Learning

I will be offering several Course Design Studios for ONLINE (CDS-O) Instruction this summer 2020. For those of you who have already completed a CDS, you will recognize the three step backward design approach (Wiggins & McTighe, 2011). The main difference is that we will be identifying individual ways that each faculty can create a similar engaging learning experience online.


Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers. (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Boettcher, J. & Conrad, R. (2010). The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips. Jossey-Bass , A Wiley Imprint.

Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE Bulletin, 39(7), 3-7.

Chickering, A.W., & Ehrmann, S.C. (1996). Implementing the seven principles: Technology as a lever, AAHE Bulletin, 49(2), 3-6.

Davis, B. (2009). Tools for teaching. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Darby, F. (2019). How to be a Better Online Teacher: Advice Guide. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved at

Johnson, S. (2014). Applying the Seven Principles of Good Practice: Technology as a Lever - in an Online Research Course. Journal of Interactive Online Learning,13(2) ISSN: 1541-4914 41.

Uttl, B., White, C., & Gonzalez, D. (2016). Meta-analysis of faculty’s teaching effectiveness: Student evaluation of teaching ratings and student learning are not related, Studies in Educational Evaluation.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2011). The Understanding by Design guide. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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