How [not] to Design an Online Course

Moving a face-to-face credit course to an online environment is far more challenging than one might expect – as numerous experienced and esteemed professors have discovered. In this post learn vicariously through one professor’s experience of ‘what not to do’.

I’d like to introduce you to Professor Harding a history professor who is transitioning his face-to-face undergraduate history course to a twelve-week, 3-credit online course.  Professor Harding, though fictitious embodies the typical errors made by most course instructors with little or no experience in online learning when moving their face-to-face course to the online environment.

The purpose of this post is to highlight common errors that I’ve observed and experienced as an instructional designer when assisting professors with their course transition to the online format. I also aim to provide guidance for educators involved in a similar course transition process along with resources for further support. My goal is to assist ‘Professor Harding’ [who represents all educators in this circumstance] with moving his course online, to ensure it is of high academic quality, rigorous and applicable to the realm of online learning. Below are five actions planned by Harding phrased as ‘what not to do’ followed with constructive recommendations.

[Please note that the recommendations should be considered a starting point for the transition process. A comprehensive strategy is needed for the design of any online course – what I’m covering here scratches the surface. I plan to follow this post with more in-depth design strategies in the following weeks].

  1. What not to do: Use the same face-to-face course syllabus: Professor Harding has a detailed syllabus he has perfected over years of teaching his face-to-face class and with a few minor modifications, he plans to use this syllabus for the online course.

Recommendations: This is a common error when transitioning a class to the online format, which is understandable considering the time, energy and effort invested in the face-to-face class. However, though the objectives and content for the course is already determined for the most part, creating a revised instructional strategy for the class in the online format is necessary. An instructional strategy for online learning involves unique pedagogical principles applicable to the delivery method, revised teaching methods, learning activities and assessments. For further resources on instructional strategy and course design consult the resources section at the end of this post.

  • Create a new syllabus with the online student and the virtual environment in mind.
  • Include course instructor contact information that will be accessible to online students: email, text number, Skype address, Google + contact info, etc.
  • Consider recording and posting a brief video clip with course instructor reviewing the syllabus, just as he or she would in a face-to-face class.
  • Post the syllabus in a PDF format for easy download, or use web pages within the course Learning Management System.
  • Provide a list of Web resources that relate to and supplement the course content for deeper learning opportunities.

2. What not to do: Implement Course grading that relies heavily on exam assessments. Harding’s face-to-face course is heavily test based with 70% of course grade allocated to exams and tests, 25% to assignments and 5% to participation. Given the significant test and exam weight, Harding plans to mandate that students complete all exams and tests in a proctored setting to ensure academic integrity.

Recommendations: I recommend Prof Harding revise his grading structure. A heavily test based course [as this one] in the online environment is less than ideal for several reasons: 1) opportunity for cheating is increased,  2) student engagement is significantly lower, 3) ‘testing’ assesses recall of facts and lower level knowledge, providing less opportunity for development of critical thinking skills. Harding may want to consider test/exam weight of 40%, participation and contribution 10% and the remaining 50% consisting of a variety of assignments spread throughout the course. Furthermore, I suggest that Harding have only one proctored exam requirement (perhaps worth 20%), and one or two open-note tests with a time limit [all adding up to the 40% recommended grading weight].

Cheating, a concern in online courses can be minimized if not avoided by using a variety of assessment methods. Methods that might include participation and contribution activities (graded), through discussion boards or chat sessions which will establish a student’s individual ‘voice’, demonstrating his or her involvement in the course. Student participation also gives opportunity for the instructor to get to know the student that may help the instructor identify non-authentic work submitted for grading, work that may not be consistent with the student ‘voice’.  Another assessment method might be a group assignment which if well designed, encourages collaboration and prompts students to engage with course content and construct new knowledge collectively. Including a peer review or peer-grading component is another strategy to authenticate student work.

3. What not to do: Assignments that lack detailed instructions: There are two assignments for this History course with descriptions of each in the course syllabus. Assignment details are outlined in two paragraphs within the syllabus, though professor Harding usually gives his face-to-face students enhanced instructions during his classroom lectures.

Keeping students on task, motivated and engaged in an online course requires a careful balance between graded student activities that require interaction [i.e. discussion forums] and individual assignments. It is more effective to have smaller assignments due throughout the course, with one cumulative assignment due at the end of the course than just one significant assignment required.

However, students are sensitive to ‘busy work’, assessment activities need to be clearly linked to the stated learning outcomes for the course. In our courses I suggest including a purpose statement, which highlights how the particular assignment benefits the student, furthers critical thinking and deep learning, and brings him or her closer to the course objectives.

  • Provide clear, detailed instructions. Quality work from students is guided by clear, well-defined instructions.
  • Consider using rubrics, which are excellent tools for outlining expectations and standards.
  • Outline the purpose of the assignment – the why. Adult learners even more so than younger students want to know how the assignments and learning activities contribute to the big picture, the learning objectives of the course.

4. What not to do: Utilize the same course materials as used in F2F class. The course materials for the history class consist of a textbook, several handouts, and power point slides, all of which (except for textbook) the professor plans to post to the course home page.

Recommendations: Utilizing existing course resources is acceptable and encouraged though I suggest some modifications to the materials as listed below. Harding would also do well to take advantage of the rich resources available on the Web to supplement his existing course content.

  • Ensure all course documents are in accessible formats. Adobe’s PDF format is universal, meaning students can download PDF course file regardless of which version of Microsoft Word they use, or Apple software.
  • Limit file formats which use color for contrast (i.e. maps).
  • Use Power Point files sparingly, if at all – usually such files are costly for students to print (as many students like to print all course materials) and usually convey minimal value in terms of course content given the medium.

Consider the following questions:

  • What course content sources exist on the Web? What is already available in the form of e-books, association resources, scholarly resources, e-libraries, government sources etc.?
  • What Web resources are available through your institution?
  • What are your colleagues doing online with respect to using digital resources?

5. What not to do: Underestimate the amount of time needed for course transition. This is one of the most common mistakes of all, underestimating how much time is needed to bring a course to the online format.

Recommendations: Professor Harding is an experienced and esteemed professor at his institution with the ‘bones’ for a dynamic online history course. Harding would do well to approach the design process by enlisting support of available resources, either colleagues with experience in online teaching, instructional design support, books on online course design, and/or online resources available on the Web.  Transitioning an existing course from a face-to-face format to the online learning environment requires an investment of time that is akin to developing a course from the ground-up.

Closing Comments
I am confident Professor Harding’s course will be an engaging, rigorous, and interactive online course if he follows the recommendations. Though before the course can become a  quality learning experience, there is much work to be done; time needed to develop an instructional strategy. I’ve selected a variety of resources  for educators planning a course transition from F2F to the online format, or for those interested in learning more. One article, Teaching College Courses Online, is a gem, though it dates back to 2001, it is still applicable and relevant today, though this in itself is the topic for another post. In the following weeks I’ll be writing more posts on instructional design.

Note: If are are interested in upgrading a current online course, you may be interested in another post,  How-to Retrofit an Online Course,

Resources (click on title to activate link):

19 thoughts on “How [not] to Design an Online Course

  1. Pingback: Links: Resources for Online Course Creation in K-12 | She Clicks "Enter"

  2. Carie

    Hello, I love this post and the scenarios you present. I would like to use portions of it to create a “quiz” for professional development. Would you be ok with this idea? Many thanks! Carie S


  3. Pingback: Effective Course Design | TechBytes

  4. Pingback: Office of Instructional & Research Technology — How [not] to Design an Online Course

  5. Justin

    Great article. I would add that you need to identify the pedagogical principles that define your f2f design and decide which of these are sacred and which need to be modified to create the online experience you are looking for. There are always core principles that designers shouldn’t compromise on like having students learn from each other through extensive peer interaction and group projects. This seems to encourage student motivation, and raises self esteem of those who have lots to share. It is challenging to make this happen in a virtual environment, but the challenge is healthy and necessary in this type of transition.


    1. onlinelearninginsights Post author

      Excellent point – which I’m glad you highlighted; students benefit from learning from one another, they become part of the learning and as you said it is a factor in student motivation. I find this even more necessary for adult learners (either in f2f or online). They often have extensive experience and have much to contribute to the class adding to a rich and robust learning experience. Though designing and facilitating [effective] online group work is time consuming, it reaps tremendous rewards for students and instructor. Thanks for your comment Justin. Debbie


  6. Ava

    I enjoyed reading moving information about what not to do during a transition to online learning. To ensure your work and learning environment is of high academic quality, rigorous and applicable to the realm of online learning a person should be aware of the differences of face to face learning verses online. I have trainied face to face and i have trained online. There is a tremendous difference. Today technology has a hold of the workforce and organizations and in many cases we can save money by training online. All five steps you stated is very true. do not Use the same face-to-face course syllabus, do not Implement Course grading that relies heavily on exam assessments, do not Assignments that lack detailed instructions, do not Utilize the same course materials as used in F2F class, and do not Underestimate the amount of time needed for course transition. All of these mistakes i see made often and they will effect the success of the class.


    1. onlinelearninginsights Post author

      HI Ava. Your observation about the difference between face-to-face training environments and online training is an excellent one. So many companies would benefit from online training, yet many are still struggling with the right format, and design that is engaging and motivating for adult learners. Though there are many same principles as you mention between Higher Ed online learning and company training environments, there are unique challenges to each. I am sure you have seen many mistakes in your experience as I have. This is where you come in with your expertise to help and make a difference. Thank Ava for your comment and for reading my blog! 🙂


  7. Pingback: Weekly Bookmarks (8/26/12) « Experiencing E-Learning

  8. Christy Tucker

    I would also add to this list that simply recording a bunch of lectures isn’t sufficient either. It can be valuable, especially if the lectures are revised from their original format, but I’ve seen faculty want to simply record all their existing lectures without change as well.

    Point 5 is a really critical one. I’m curious–do you have any stats on the time commitment to transform a course for online, and to do it correctly? I have some estimates of what it has taken me personally as an instructional designer when helping faculty, but I haven’t seen anything estimating how long it should take faculty.


    1. onlinelearninginsights Post author

      Hi Christy. You are so right – simply recording lectures without a thoughtful integration strategy does not work – no matter how dynamic the lecturer is!

      Good question about the time required for transforming a F2F course to the online format. I don’t have any concrete numbers on this either. If I come across any, I’ll email you.

      Thanks for commenting Christy. I am a faithful follower of your blog! Debbie 🙂


  9. Pingback: Nine steps to quality online learning [Bates]

  10. Pingback: How [not] to Design an Online Course « Blog de Norman Trujillo

  11. Peg Wherry

    Interesting and helpful observations. However, the author needs to learn (or review) how to punctuate sentences.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s