Building an Online Course - Basic Steps

This worksheet lays out some basic steps you can perform to prepare an online or partly-online course.  These are general guidelines that require time and attention.  Moreover, this represents the beginning stages in teaching hybrid or online courses; a professor should expect to iterate, improve, and further develop their course over semesters.  For example, asynchronous discussions and short quizzes are great for your first several semesters teaching a course.  But you should consider how to modify these, and try other activities altogether each time you teach the course, to better serve your discipline and course-specific goals.

COLI also has available a more comprehensive rubric that can help faculty develop an excellent online or hybrid course.

Talk to Your Department or Program

The academic unit within which you are teaching may have guidelines, requirements, common materials or templates you must or at least may use in your course.  Plus, your colleagues can be an excellent source of ideas and materials, and your program may save you time by supplying learning goals and objectives, or even a syllabus template.  Before beginning to design, build, and teach a course, discuss it with your department chairperson or program director. 

Identify Learning Goals and Supporting Objectives

This will help you plan the lesson structure. What are the high-level, basic concepts you wish students to learn in your course?  What is it you hope students can do, after they successfully complete your course?  The best learning outcomes include action verbs such as construct, design, evaluate, assess, classify, or describe instead of behavior that is less observable such as understand, learn, or appreciate.

Under each of these basic goals, what specific objectives support each goal?  These may be specific concepts or procedures that make are the basis for each lesson or week of the course.  Developing these might be interative, as you work through the process below.

Develop a Lesson Structure

You may wish to start by focusing focus on assessments - assignments, quizzes, graded activities, etc. - since they represent the end state, within the course, of course objectives.  Or, you may start by sketching in your learning objectives alongside the semester calendar.

How will you divide up learning objectives chronologically throughout the course?  This is often dictated by a textbook structure or generally common practices in your discipline.  But this can be an iterative process, as you consider the other steps below.

Develop a Documentation Plan and Guidelines

Since you cannot make (as many) verbal announcements in class, asynchronous online and hybrid courses require more careful documentation.  The syllabus and supplemental documents - course instructions, assignment directions, schedules or itineraries - must be easy to find and read.  

  • Have a simple, consistent framework for course procedural instructions, assignments, and schedules.  Students should quickly be able to figure out where to find these.  
  • Format documents consistently so students can efficiently read them, and revisit them to answer particular questions or refresh their memory.
  • Use a few - and only a few - reliable means of communication.  D2L is usually the best way to "pass out" course directions, and collect student work.  Email is never as reliable as you hope it will be, and scales poorly when exchanging things with students.

Learn to use the online gradebook.  That takes effort early on, but is worth it once your gradebook is built and operating.  This avoids student confusion and a lot of resulting emails.  

If you are using Panopto to video-capture lecture or demonstrations, why not use it for weekly reminder videos and other procedural communication?

While this is a priority for online education, good documentation is part of any quality face-to-face course as well.  

Course Content

Capturing Lecture

Panopto, built into D2L, allows faculty to capture both their screen (slides) and themselves via webcam.  Panopto has an online recorder, although you may elect to use the downloadable recorder if you use Panopto frequently.  

Students can easily find Panopto hosted video in D2L, and you can see detailed statistics for student viewing.

See our Panopto tutorials here.

Interactive Web Resources

Google Sites is a simple website builder that's great for building multi-page interactive lessons incorporating text, video, audio, or even clickable diagrams.

Use quiz tools or course surveys to create "lean-forward" activities that help keep students engaged while watching or listening.

  • Pre- and post-quizzes so students can gauge their own learning.
  • Surveys so students can get a sense of where they lean on a controversial topic. (This might be followed by discussion.)

Short writing assignments that are easily gradable, but foster student engagement.

Activities and Assessments

Asynchronous Discussions

Student-to-student interaction is a vital element in any course, and asynchronous discussions are the most common means in online courses.  

D2L's Discussions toolset provides message board or "discussion forum" functions specifically for classes. Professors often use this for weekly discussions, with basic deadlines for students' initial posts, and a round of replies. But there are many more ways to use discussion topics. See COLI Guide, Module 4 or this article for just some variations.

You needn't write instructions from scratch! COLI has sample text. is also available in D2L, and allows students to have a conversation through marginalia on a text or website.  It's easy to use, and fosters discussion at the text itself!

Online Quizzes

D2L's quizzes engine is useful for quiz- and exam-style assessment at any scale.

Short quizzes, even acting as worksheets, can encourage reading.  D2L can grade multiple-choice or true/false questions, so you don't need to.

Lots of low-stakes assessments are a good thing, and these quizzes can give students low-pressure incentive to invest in reading and watching what you assign.

Student-Generated Video

Your students need not simply submit text to you, or post text in asynchronous discussions.  In either case, they can respond to assignment or discussion prompts with video.  Even if they do not own recording hardware, they can borrow it from the Canisius University Media Center.

3-5 minute "explainer" videos are great for having students demonstrate their comprehension of procedure or concepts.  If they can explain it, they have learned it.

Panopto allows students to upload video, either to dropboxes for you (exclusively) to watch, or for the entire class to see in a discussion post.

Student Projects

Some, such as traditional research projects can probably be imported directly from face-to-face academics.

Can you create student collaborative projects - group work?

Can you create projects where students present to each other?  (Videos, websites.)  Then, as a follow-on assignment, students can use, comment on, evaluate, other students' projects?

Feedback is Teaching and Learning

Providing students with individualized, effective, and actionable feedback can be one of the strongest forms of Instructor presence and interaction with students.  

Synchronous Learning?

It may be that students in your course or program may be able to meet at a certain time, but not on campus.  Zoom can be an effective virtual classroom.   Time in Zoom should not be just for lecturing; take advantage of the virtual space for real-time discussion or other interactions, either as a whole class or in small groups via Breakout Rooms.  

Beyond a Single Class

Journal Your Efforts

Have some way of recording your experiences as you teach, to help you improve you classes over time.

Speak With Colleagues

No faculty development officer or instructional designer can help you as much as colleagues in your field, who have successfully taught online.  Take every opportunity to learn what they do, and from their experiences.  

Gradual Iteration

Developing a new online or hybrid course necessarily is a lot of work.  But after you've run it the first time, make improvements in measured, targeted ways, instead of attempting radical changes between semesters.  That way you keep your preparatory workload under control, and have a better sense of how any change influences the class.

Never Stop Iterating

As with face-to-face teaching, new developments in your field, new methods for teaching, and new technology means that you should spend at least some time exploring possibilities for change in your classes.  Here, that "speak with colleagues" advice is particularly important, and don't hesitate to pass on something you've discovered that can help them, too.

Interaction is Gold

Always be looking for ways to increase interaction within your courses.  The more students hear or read your 'voice' speaking directly to them, and students learn from each other, the more effective the course will be.  There are excellent books, articles, and web resources available offering ways to promote interaction in your course.