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5 Strategies for Designing an Effective Online Course

Learn about the five strategies to design an effective online course.


Online education may not always be a substitute for traditional in-person learning. Often, it acts as a supplement—helping to bring education to more parts of the world and allowing students to learn something new, change their careers, or even upskill. While virtual environments can create new possibilities for students, they can also present unique challenges for educators. For example, how do you connect and engage with students through a screen? The answer is strategic course design.

Read this blog to find out the five strategies you can implement to help effectively design your online course.

Learn about the five strategies to design an effective online course

1. Create a Detailed Course Outline

A course syllabus outlines the main elements of a class including, what topics will be covered, the materials that will be required, and a list of assessments with their associated weightings. However, unless your class has an in-person or synchronous component, you may not have easy opportunities to clarify instructions or talk through points students may find confusing.

Make sure these pieces are part of your course syllabus to help reduce ambiguity:

  • Communication expectations: Since students won’t be seeing you on a scheduled face-to-face basis, it’s important you outline how you’ll be communicating with them—through announcements shared using your learning management system (LMS), for example—and how they’ll be able to reach you. Do you prefer students post on the discussion board or email you directly?
  • Technology requirements: Be transparent with students about what technology they need to be successful. Does your course only require access to the internet? Do they need webcams to participate as well? Are there any additional applications you’ll be using such as Zoom or Teams?
  • Learning supports: The online learning environment may be new for many learners. Be sure to provide students with links and relevant resources so they can locate essential information to support their academic success and personal well-being.

2. Share Compelling Learning Outcomes

It’s important to look beyond what you want students to accomplish in a given course and ask, “What will they be able to do after with the knowledge and skills they gain?” That’s a question you can help answer with learning outcomes.

When forming learning outcomes, it can be helpful to start with a consistent stem phrase—a starter statement at the beginning of each one. For example:

  • Students will be able to engage in informed dialogue about ethical issues in health communication.
  • Students will be able to describe organizational issues in health communication.
  • Students will be able to research and analyze health communication interventions.
  • Students will be able to think critically about health reporting in the mass media.

These statements can be written at a lesson or course level and establish a connection for students between the learning requirements and intended outcomes.

3. Organize Course Content in Your Online Class

In an online environment, you need to carefully plan material to keep students engaged and on task to hit learning outcomes. Use your LMS to share and organize your content in a way that’s easy for your students to access.

  • Modules can help you organize your course broadly by weeks or units. Each module should contain relevant learning materials for that specific unit such as files, discussions, and assignments.
  • Subtopics can let you further divide content. For example, have a sub-section dedicated to assigned readings for the week.
  • Tables of contents can help keep your modules and topics organized.

When putting content online, it’s vital to keep the learning modules organized in a logical and sensible way to make navigation intuitive for students. Organized content helps students focus on their learning and track their progress through course requirements.

4. Produce Lessons That Encourage Active Learning

It’s not always enough to simply share content with students in an online course. Instead, you must produce lessons that inspire students to actively learn, share, and reflect on their understanding.

In Creating Significant Learning Experiences, Dee Fink describes a holistic view of active learning that includes the following components:

  • Getting information and ideas: Students learn information through a variety of materials such as watching videos, reading textbooks, or listening to lectures.
  • Engaging in “doing experiences”: Students actively engage with their studies in an authentic setting. For example, in a marketing class, students can use their knowledge to create a social media marketing strategy for a client. Case studies, gaming, simulations, and role-playing also provide students with indirect doing experiences.
  • Participating in reflection: Once students have encountered new information and have had an opportunity to engage in “doing” experiences, they need time to reflect and decide what meaning to give these other learning activities.

Whereas traditional views of education tend to be focused on knowledge transmission, active learning is centered on the idea of knowledge construction. Lessons geared toward this help to cultivate deep and meaningful learning for all students.

5. Measure Outcomes with a Variety of Learning Assessments

You can align your class competencies with outcomes through using different assessment strategies. Formative assessments, for example, do not involve assigning grades to students. Rather, they use surveys, discussion boards, and reflective journals to gauge students’ comprehension of course material. This not only helps students identify their own knowledge gaps, but also allow you to reflect on your own teaching styles.

You can also use summative assessments to directly assign student grades and make conclusions about whether students are hitting course learning objectives. Examples of this type of assessment include projects, portfolios, and presentations.

Traditional classroom experiences don’t always translate exactly to online learning environments. That’s why it’s important to focus on implementing online learning practices to help engage and connect with your students no matter the location.

Watch Our On-Demand Webinar: Student Engagement in Online Learning: What Works and Why

Keeping students involved, motivated, and actively learning is challenging educators around the globe, yet good advice on how to accomplish this is not always readily available.

Check out our webinar to learn:

  • Communication strategies for your online course
  • Active learning techniques
  • Tactics for keeping your students motivated

Watch the webinar now

Written by:

Zeina Abouchacra
Zeina Abouchacra

Zeina Abouchacra is the EDU Content Marketing Specialist at D2L. She has worked in the higher education sector in various communications positions as well as a researcher and a teaching assistant. Specifically, teaching undergraduate-level communication university courses. Zeina is currently working towards completing her Master of Arts Communication degree at the University of Ottawa.

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Table of Contents
  1. 1. Create a Detailed Course Outline
  2. 2. Share Compelling Learning Outcomes
  3. 3. Organize Course Content in Your Online Class
  4. 4. Produce Lessons That Encourage Active Learning
  5. 5. Measure Outcomes with a Variety of Learning Assessments
  6. Watch Our On-Demand Webinar: Student Engagement in Online Learning: What Works and Why