Intro to Online Course Design


"Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works."

— Steve Jobs

As an online instructor, you may find yourself involved in numerous roles related to online course design. Whether you are responsible for the conversion or adaptation of a traditional course for online delivery, assigned to teach courses that were previously designed and developed by others, or relied on for content expertise as a member of a design and development team, your understanding of the online course design process is crucial to the development of an effective learning environment for future students.

Online course design requires a wide range of skills and tools. It is important to manage both the design, with a focus on learning objectives, and the technical aspects. The goal is to create an effective course that prepares students for success in more advanced topics to come and to give them the tools they need to achieve their education and career goals.

This article provides an overview of the field of instructional design and technology, a look at the typical process of an online course design project, guidelines for faculty subject matter experts (SME), as well as resources for further reading and research.

Instructional Design & Technology

Instructional Design and Technology is an area of study and practice that is constantly evolving. Robert Reiser, in Trends and Issues in Instructional Design and Technology, tracks the changing definitions from the 1920s and the first use of visual media in education, to present day descriptions of a field that "encompasses the analysis of learning and performance problems, and the design, development, implementation, evaluation and management of instructional and non-instructional processes and resources intended to improve learning and performance in a variety of settings, particularly educational institutions and the workplace." This definition covers a lot of ground and there are many different ways to approach the work.

Models, Theories, and Frameworks

Martin Ryder, an instructor with the Graduate School of Education at the University of Colorado at Denver, maintains a popular list of instructional design models that includes frequently used models as well as resources related to learning theories and taxonomies. These models are applicable to both traditional and online design projects. Don Clark, and experienced instructional designer and e-learning consultant, also maintains a thorough Web resource and focuses on four models: ADDIE/ISD, Extended ADDIE, Learning Design Framework, and Agile Design.


Instructional designers are expected to have a wide range of skills — otherwise known as competencies — and they often work with a team of design and development professionals to create online courses. The International Board of Standards for Training, Performance and Instruction (IBSTPE) provides a list of 23 competency areas in the field of instructional design as well as a Code of Ethical Standards. The competencies range from communication and research skills to material development and project management. Entry-level instructional design courses use a number of textbooks that both address these competencies and outline the course development process.

Online Learning Quality Initiatives

Quality initiatives, particularly in online education, have been influential in developing methods for course and program review to ensure that courses have value and are effective in student learning. Additional factors, such as usability, and student support, which are also part of design and development, are also included. Take a look at a few of these checklists and rubrics to get a better idea of the scope of online course design.

  • Quality Matters Rubric. This evaluates course components according to eight general standards, including course overview and introduction, learning objectives, assessment and measurement, instructional materials, learner interaction and engagement, course technology, learner support, and accessibility.
  • Rubric for Online Instruction. Established by California State University-Chico, this responds to the question "What does a high quality online course look like?" This tool addresses the six main areas of learner support and resources, online organization and design, instructional design and delivery, assessment and evaluation of student learning, innovative teaching with technology, and faculty use of student feedback.
  • Quality Scorecard. Offered by the Sloan Consortium, this is another rubric format assessment tool for evaluating online learning programs. The scorecard contains 70 "quality indicators" in the nine categories of institutional support, technology support, course development and instructional design, course structure, teaching and learning, social and student engagement, faculty support, student support, and evaluation and assessment.

The Process of Online Course Design

While there are a variety of systems, processes, and models to choose from, most have some basis in the following ADDIE process that is often adapted and modified to meet the needs of the individual course project, curriculum, and learning context. ADDIE is an acronym for Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation. The ADDIE process has received criticism for being too linear, systematic, and prescriptive. It does, however, provide a basic framework for organizing a project that can be either simplified or extended based on the context of the course.


This phase usually involves preparatory tasks related to understanding the need for the course, where it fits into a larger curriculum, as well as evaluating any existing materials. Curriculum mapping may be required to formally establish where the course goals and objectives should link to program level goals and objectives. Early decisions are made about critical information or tasks that should be addressed in the course. This phase also involves collecting data about potential learners, including their characteristics, skills, and prior knowledge.


Design includes writing specific learning objectives for the course and developing assessments (i.e. tests, discussion questions, projects, and other assignments) to measure student achievement of those objectives. The design phase also includes outlining the scope and sequence of the subject matter to be addressed in the course.


What materials and experiences will students need to have in order to be prepared to achieve the learning objectives? Learning activities and instructional strategies ranging from reading assignments to games and simulations are determined. Specific technologies are also selected in the development phase.

It is in this phase that the online course is actually developed — all content and course materials are created in a format that can be viewed and interacted with via the Internet. This development may involve the use of learning management systems (LMS) such as Blackboard and Moodle, rapid e-learning development tools such as Lectora and Articulate, as well as additional Web development and programming expertise. The development phase also includes testing the various components. Design and development phases are sometimes combined.

Implementation and Evaluation

The newly designed online course is then conducted, delivered online with an instructor and students. Afterwards, the formative evaluation can be iterative, taking place repeatedly and at different stages in the development process. For example, once a unit or module has been developed, it may be reviewed or tested by a small group, then revised based on the group’s feedback and sent back for another review.

Summative evaluation at the completion of the project and through implementation of the total course also dictates the need for further revisions based on instructor and student feedback. These revisions may be both pedagogical and technological in nature. External evaluations and reviews can also be helpful in refining the course.

Special Considerations

The nature of online delivery dictates several considerations that differ from the preparation of a traditional, face-to-face course.

  • Presentation of content. The fact that students to a large extent direct their own use of online materials means that courses need to be complete and accessible from the start of the term. Decisions related to how content will be presented should also be considered early in the design process. Recorded lectures, for example, may not be as effective as other options available in an online environment. And the development of complex multimedia interactions can be time consuming.
  • Communication channels. Both asynchronous and synchronous technologies may be available, but many online courses rely on asynchronous communication tools (i.e. email and discussion boards) for primary interaction among students and instructors. The design process should take into consideration both the advantages and limitations of selected technologies and encourage collaboration as well as give instructors ample resources with which to guide students through the learning experience.
  • Standardization of experience. Online courses are often designed for use across terms and instructors. Design considerations should include maintaining consistency of interactions and content. Online courses are also designed with "shelf-life" in mind. The content, strategies, and technologies should be reviewed to avoid requirements for frequent revision or replacement.
  • Copyright and fair use. Providing digital versions of copyrighted materials can be complicated. Careful attention must be given to assessing copyright and licensing requirements, as well as documenting permissions acquired from copyright holders to distribute digital materials through an online course. Colleges typically have established policies regarding the use of copyrighted materials. Check for guidance with your school before making decisions.
  • Plagiarism. Cheating is of particular concern when creating assessments. While plagiarism is a problem in all forms of course delivery, the online environment adds significant challenges. Course design teams need to explore the options available, such as randomizing test items and consider alternate forms of assessment that may help reduce cheating.

Working with Course Design Teams

As an instructor and content expert in your field, you may be called upon to serve as a subject matter expert, or SME, working with a collaborative course design and development team at your school or university. These teams typically consist of individuals who represent a variety of skills and perform multiple roles related to:

  • project management
  • instructional design
  • web development and programming
  • multimedia development
  • graphic design
  • content writing and expertise
  • technical writing and editing

Course design teams can, and often do, work virtually, using collaborative online workspaces such as Basecamp, SharePoint, and Google Docs, and communication tools such as Skype and Adobe Connect for meetings.

As a content expert, you will be relied upon to share your expertise, knowledge and skills to inform the subject matter covered in the course under construction. You will be the team member who knows where the relevant resources are, understands the day-to-day tasks that may be related to the topic, and has a perspective on current trends and requirements in your field. Your knowledge of this subject area and input in the process are invaluable. As an SME, your tasks may include writing content, editing, developing assessment items, consulting on content accuracy and relevance, and ensuring alignment of learning objectives with activities and assessments.

While the team members realize that you are probably taking on the role of SME in addition to your other teaching and administrative duties, it is necessary for you to be realistic about the timeframe and amount of work involved. Communicate any challenges you face to the project manager and/or instructional designer.

In the event that you are assigned to create an online course without the benefit of a design team, look for faculty support resources at your school or university. Reach out to faculty development offices, academic technologies administrators, librarians, and other learning specialists for support and assistance.

Online course design can be challenging, and the field of instructional design and technology is a dynamic one, constantly faced with new technologies and concerns. Fortunately a wide range of resources is available and colleges, course designers and instructors are openly sharing their experiences and lessons learned. Consider available opportunities to serve as a SME and to expand your own experience with the instructional design process.

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