How to Design an Excellent Online Course

Effective course design needs a course design framework to follow, AND educators with knowledge in instructional design principles and the learning theory associated with it.

I presented a session How to Design on Excellent Online Course at the e-Learning Strategies Symposium conference this past weekend, and share in this post  highlights and the presentation slides. I was fortunate to have excellent participants [mostly K-12 educators] that contributed to an interactive a session; a portion of the session was devoted to application, where participants after examining two case study scenarios discussed how course design principles could be applied. I used Poll Everywhere and include here one of the links with participant responses to one the case study questions [highlights of responses are also included in the slides]. Also in the slides are active links that tie to resources specific to course design, and a model for online course design that I’ve developed, and continue to work on based upon feedback—the ‘Course Design Framework‘. In another post I’ll review the rationale and underpinnings of the framework I’ve created.  The framework is still under development, and I’m looking for input from educators and other designers on its practicality, feasibility and usability for course design.

Session Overview

“Design brings forth what would not come naturally.” Klaus Krippendorf

My presentation hinged on the above quote from University of Pennsylvania Professor Krippendorf, author of several books on design including his most recent, The Semantic Turn: A New Foundation for Design. Krippendorf emphasizes the need for designers of all disciplines to focus on the user. This, Krippendorf suggests, is pressing more so now for designers due to our current culture with the technological advancements and its influence on human behaviour. Following Krippendorf’s reasoning, I suggest that course design as applied to creating educational experiences, requires careful and thoughtful design with a focus on how to bring about student learning rather than thinking about how to teach content. Though apparently subtle, this shift in thinking about course design can bring about different, and perhaps better learning outcomes.  If interested in learning more about Krippendorf’s book, there is an interesting talk by Krippendorf on Vimeo where he discusses the concepts in his book.

What is Course Design?
I included in the presentation the fundamentals of instructional design [ID], and began by defining course design and how it relates to instructional systems design. I defined course design as a development process that includes: creating an instructional plan—the details of how content will be presented to students whether that be via an online platform [LMS] or via the teacher in face-to-face setting, learning materials for the student that are chosen and/or developed, activities created that encourage students to apply the content [this is where the pedagogical methods that facilitate learning come into play] and assessment methods that are selected to evaluate student learning in context of  learning objectives.

Course design draws upon the principles of instructional design which provides a structure and process that is grounded in learning theory and research on instructional methods, though the terms are often used interchangeably. The core elements of instructional design include, analysis, design, development, implementation,and evaluation. Several instructional design models exist that incorporate the elements of ID, and many are used frequently in higher education and K-12 environments. The benefit of using a course design model, is not only to follow a process that provides guidance, but to follow a process that is based on learning theory and principles. It also provides a common language and communication tool for educators and design teams to follow when collaborating on course design projects.

When preparing for the session I wasn’t sure whether I should include the basics of course design, what it is and the fundamental elements of instructional design, however it turns out this information was helpful for several participants. Based upon feedback from participants, some were not familiar the process of course design, nor its core elements. This is likely common for many educators that are experts in their discipline and in teaching, but don’t have the training or expertise in course design.

Slideshare Presentation


‘Design’ is a universal concept; a concept that is applied to a great many products and interfaces that we interact with on a daily basis.  Applying design principles when creating education environments and experiences, is not only necessary, but essential as learning moves from the classroom to anytime and anywhere.


9 thoughts on “How to Design an Excellent Online Course

  1. Hello Debbie Morrison,
    my name is Yahya
    I’m a student, and I am trying to write a paper proving that the Online course design is a great career path.
    and I really need your help.
    can you email me.
    thanks and best regards.


  2. This is excellent information and advice. I would really like to make use of this when training faculty at our business school.


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