Education, eLearning, Instructional Design

Online Course Development and Design Strategies

15 min read | Mar 31, 2014
Online Course Development and Design Strategies cover image


Hello Rosemary and thank you for chatting with us today. First of all, I really loved your book. You talk about many different things in your book but one of the main focuses is on proper instructional design and establishing good communication habits with your students, which as you mention, can have a huge impact on how students engage with your online course.

This topic of keeping students happy and engaged is so important because online courses are becoming more and more popular each year. In fact, as you point out in your book, 31% of students in public, private or for profit schools are now taking at least 1 online course.

Many people teaching online are not teachers. Many are simply subject matter experts who don’t necessarily understand the importance of good course design. For many of these people, their primary focus is often on creating high quality content. But as you know, good content is only part of the equation. You mention that some studies show that as many as 50% – 70% of students drop out of their online courses. Do you think this rate is so high because you have a lot of “non teachers’ in the online world (i.e. Subject matter experts rather than trained teachers), or do you think it’s the fault of teachers who are transferring their courses online and using “bricks and mortar” teaching strategies in the online world? Or is it something else entirely?
I appreciate being here with you today, John. I want to note that the book is co-authored with Professor Simone Conceição, UW-Milwaukee. This is the third book we’ve co-authored for Jossey-Bass for their series Online Learning and Teaching series.

To answer your question, I think it’s both of these reasons. It’s certainly important to have taught if you’re going to share your content with others and engage them in the process of learning. So having a background in teaching is important. But even seasoned instructors have a problem with the virtual world of online teaching and learning. The reason is that teaching within four walls is an entirely different experience than teaching online. One of the first things I do when training online instructors is to have them look at those differences and then actually take an online course so that they can experience what it will be like for their students. Following this, there’s a design process they work through that will help them create presence and a sense of community in their courses. Creating presence and a sense of community can go a long way in helping to lower the online course dropout rate.

That’s a really great idea! Moving on now, you mention the following 9 reasons that students who have taken online courses have dropped out:

  1. Feelings of isolation
  2. Frustration and disconnection
  3. Technology disruption
  4. Student failure to make contact with faculty
  5. Inadequate contact with students by faculty
  6. Lack of student and technology support
  7. Lack of instructor participation during class discussion
  8. Lack of clarity in instruction direction or expectation
  9. Lack of social interaction.

    Is this list in order of importance based on your research?
    According to Palloff and Pratt (1999, 2005), the feeling of isolation is the top reason for student dropout. I recently talked to a nurse who had taken an online course and was very disenchanted. She felt “alone out there” and didn’t think she would ever take another course. This is a common comment anecdotally as well as in the research.

The other reasons are in no particular order but result from inadequate instructor training, poor course design, and lack of institutional support. I am adamant when I say that an online course is an “educational experience” and needs to be designed as such, with well-trained faculty who understand the importance of creating presence and community with students and full institutional support for the instructor and for the selected technology.

If a teacher or subject matter expert was just starting an online course where do you think they should focus their energies from an instructional design standpoint?
The very first thing they need to do is “walk in their students’ shoes” and take an online course. They need to see the course from their students’ perspectives. Then, I would say, they need to really look at and compare the differences between the face-to-face and the virtual online course experience. We, eInterface, have developed a Chart that looks at the distinguishing factors of: space, time, boundaries, use of the senses, interaction activities, course planning, and teaching focus and explores how to accommodate these differences. We’ve also developed a learner-centered Model and Framework to help instructors move through the design process. Instructor energy needs to be focused and directed in this way.

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In one of your studies students explained that in order to keep them motivated and on track they wanted to have a purpose and a set of goals to work towards. No matter how small those goals are, they help the student feel like they were staying on track. You mention that “having a purpose or a goal of completion was an intrinsic incentive for students”. What are some practical ways of using technology that allows teachers to incorporate goals into their online courses? What are some great examples that you know about?
I think of the online course experience in phases: before the course begins, during the course, at the end of the course, and following the course. Goals can be integrated throughout these phases. One example is an Orientation before the course begins. The goals here are for the student to: become comfortable with navigating the Learning Management System (LMS), find out about all aspects of the course, and get to know the instructor and other course participants through orientation activities. I open the LMS early so that students can get a head start on the activity and be ready by the first day of the course.

During the course, there are modules that students move through. Each module has its’ goals. It’s very important to also survey students to learn about their personal goals and incorporate these personal goals throughout the course. Doing this leads to intrinsic motivation, which is far more effective than extrinsic motivation (although both have their place.) So, two examples of the many practical possibilities of using the technology are: an LMS Orientation with activities and, through a survey, the incorporation of students’ personal goals throughout the course.

In your study you identified that students looked for three different types of rewards.

  • Academic: Grades or extra credits
  • Personal: Take a break, drink coffee, relax or do something fun.
  • Professional: Getting a new job upon graduation etc

    Where do gamification elements like “points” and “achievements” fall into this mix?
    It’s interesting that you ask about gamification. I’ve just started taking a MOOC through iversity on gamification. Although I’m new to gamification, I would place “points” and “achievements” in the Academic category. I see them as similar to grades and extra credit. You might extend this, however, to say that points and achievements in gamification could also be a way of relaxing as well as working toward a professional goal. But the Academic category would be the main category.

Gamification is gaining popularity in online courses because it offers students rewards for completing tasks and participating in the community. Do you know of any great examples of successful uses of gamification in the online course world?
As I mentioned, I’m only beginning to “get my feet wet” with gamification, so I’m very much a novice here. However, I’ve been playing around with Foldit, which is a very interesting problem-solving game. The challenge in this game is to use prescribed tools to manipulate a protein and make it as compact as possible so that there will be little water leakage. The fascinating thing about this game is that it has been used with crowdsourcing, making it possible to collect massive amounts of data from players that it would be impossible to generate only with computers. Some discoveries have actually been made through this game to benefit research in HIV. This is very motivating for students and is both intrinsically and extrinsically rewarding. This has opened up a whole new way of thinking about gamification for me.

You make an important point in your book when you mention that students want the course to be relevant with knowledge that they can apply to their professional work and solve real life problems. Students are more motivated to learn when they have that direct link. Can you give me an example (either hypothetical or real) of how this student “want” can be incorporated into the design of an online course?
A good example is a course I taught that included both asynchronous (online) and synchronous (videoconferencing) technologies. My students were teachers who were going to be teaching Advanced Placement courses via videoconferencing. After experiencing videoconferencing and learning about it through their online work they developed a mini-module that they could use as a model for their Advanced Placement course. Some chose to work individually and some as partners of two. We then connected all of the sites and each individual or team presented their mini-module for critique by their peers.

Their “want” was to learn to teach via videoconferencing. Their mini-module provided that opportunity.


Now on a design level you point out that teachers can overcome many of the reasons for student dropout by focusing in on their students’ needs (as we discussed above). You also mentioned the following “instructional support strategies”.

  1. Creating activities that orient students to the course and help them meet each other and develop trust and community .
  2. Provide that Syllabus that shows the big picture of the course
  3. Include forms for formal and informal conversations
  4. Provide individual and group feedback
  5. Be flexible to accommodate students’ needs.

    I want to talk more about the first point. This idea about orienting students to your course is something that we’ve found to be very helpful when working with clients on our end. I want to use an example here so it’s not abstract to our readers. Let’s say you’re running a course to teach online teachers about instructional design. Let’s say the course starts this Friday. I just want to focus on the beginning stages at this point. Just the week prior to the course starting and just the week after the course starts. How would you design this from your standpoint as the course architect? Walk us through in as much detail as you can.
    One activity that I’ve found most useful for the week before the course and the first week of the course is a Scavenger Hunt (SH). The SH is available to the students on the LMS the week before the course begins and welcomes them to the course. It begins by introducing the students to the online environment and discussing both the benefits and difficulties of taking an online course, as well as the course Netiquette.

The Orientation SH is developed to help students in four areas: 1) learning to navigate and become familiar with the LMS, 2) getting to know the instructor and each other by posting pictures and bios on the LMS and filling out and posting individual data sheets, 3) exploring the locations for all aspects of the course content, and 4) checking out all of the links and files, as well as the electronic reserve.

During the first week, students find the team they’ve been assigned to and start communicating with their team members. They’re asked to work together to create a team name and post the name in the team area. They then decide on and schedule member roles for online team discussions. During the first week they also begin their readings and are involved with preliminary discussions. More details of the SH and the forms that students use are in the book eInterface published with Jossey-Bass (2010), Creating a Sense of Presence in Online Learning: How to “Be There” for Online Learners.

You also stress in your book the idea of being consistent and having a clear “big picture” in mind. As you mention this helps because it gives your students a sort of mental image of what they can expect as they go through the course. You mention that one teacher told you that they use “ a regular routine of introduction, reading, discussion, assignments, feedback, and repeat”. This is one option. But can you provide another option that you’ve also seen work well in the online environment?
Good question, John. There are many options, dependent on course content, format, interaction activities, instructor roles, technology selected, and support needed. First I suggest that instructors look at the scope of their course (the big picture), then look at how they plan to sequence their content and create their course modules. This makes it easy to decide on how you want to move forward through each module.

Being consistent means making certain that students know what to expect as they move through the modules and that this communication is consistent and clear. It doesn’t necessarily mean that each module has to be the same and go through the same process. There can and should be engaging variety. While some instructors like to use a “regular routine” as did the instructor we noted, this is only one option.

You talk a lot about student goals in your book. And on the flip side of that you have teacher expectations. On the smallest level we can look at one course unit and say that the teachers’ exceptions should be the student’s goals. But what comes first? The student’s goals that the teacher designs their expectations around or the teacher’s expectations that the student tries to meet?

The learner is at the center of the course and what we as instructors want to do is discover the experiences we can create to help learners reach their goals. Within these experiences we have expectations. For example: we expect the students to do the readings, participate in the discussion, provide feedback and request feedback, learn to work in team situations, and complete their work and projects. These expectations should be closely related to the students’ goals and clearly communicated to the students at the beginning of the course.

You mention that the online environment is elusive and therefore it can easily go unobserved. However, in your study you wanted teachers to see their online course with a clearer vision. Something that they become a part of with their students. Essentially, you wanted them to make their online environment “real”. In your experience where you do see teachers lacking or dragging their feet in terms of this vision? Maybe something they see as too difficult? Or not scalable?
I think what they lack is a real understanding of “how” to make the course “seem” real to the students. This takes a shift in thinking because you’re not really making the course real for the students but your making them “think” it’s real. You’re creating an “illusion.” You do this by designing a course that: 1) provides them with a sense of your presence and requires that they create a sense of presence for you and the other course participants; 2) engages them in meaningful activities, using the appropriate technologies; 3) provides them with educational and technical support and encourages self-support (taking care of themselves); 4) and is as free of glitches and technology distractions as possible.

This is not difficult but requires a different mindset than instructors have been using in face-to-face teaching. It’s a new way of thinking about teaching. I know of instructors who have taught several hundred students and with this new mindset have been able to create the vision and feeling of presence and community. Right now, in the MOOC I’m taking, there are 11,500 students. But the course is so well-designed and engaging in the manner I described, that I feel the presence of the instructors and the other participants. And I’m working toward the goal of creating a self-modeled game for my needs, as well as a Certificate at the end. This is a good example of it being scalable.

Instructional design plays a big role in your book. However, you recommend that teachers start at the beginning with a strong syllabus. Is the role of the syllabus more important in the world of online education?
Instructional design is key. I look at the Syllabus as the document that incorporates everything that you will include in your design of the course: where each will take place, and the order of assignments and activities. It should also include all of the course instructions, all contact information and resource links, Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs), and the criteria for course evaluation. In other words, it presents the “big picture.” It can also be a contract between the instructor and learners. You might want to think of it as the script for a play. A detailed Syllabus is available in our 2010 Jossey-Bass publication, Creating a Sense of Presence in Online Teaching: How to “Be There” for Distance Learners.

Some of our clients use deadlines for their online courses, others do not. You mentioned that setting deadlines can help set “boundaries”. What did you mean by this? And do you see deadlines as a good design tool for most teachers in most cases?
I think that deadlines are essential, particularly in the online environment. The online environment lacks structure unless someone provides that structure. The instructor does this through course design, clear communication, and specific tasks and deadlines. Without deadlines, it is so easy for students to lose track and fall behind. This is true both in self-paced courses and in group-based courses.


You mentioned something interesting in your book about students wanting contact with teachers. A report you referenced showed that students valued contact with faculty as more important than contact with other students. Why do you think this is?
While peer support is very important, I think the reason for faculty support being more important is that the faculty are, after all, the course experts, the ones who have designed the course and the ones who will be evaluating the student.

Do you find that teachers often rely on students initiating the engagement process with other students without the help of teachers? In a recent case study we conducted we found at least one online course vendor had the assumption that their community would build itself without their intervention. However, your research leads us to believe this isn’t the case. Do you find many online courses have this “hands off” approach to community building?
I would never assume that course engagement would build itself and haven’t heard of instances where instructors have felt this way. In my experience, the instructor designs the foundation for engagement and becomes a catalyst or facilitator to carry it forward. What’s important is to build a strong engagement process and then as the engagement grows, step back and become more of an observer, stepping in only when necessary.

What I really like in your book is that you mentioned that communication between teacher and student can be “proactive” or “reactive”. Proactive contact means the instructor took the initiative to contact the students and reactive means that teachers are responding to students’ communication. Is proactive student communication something that’s not totally taken advantage of by online schools? Do you find that most teachers and schools rely too heavily on reactive communication?
From my experience, I think that proactive communication is often neglected. Many instructors wait for students to request help rather than trying to anticipate and answer the questions before they’re asked. One way this is increasingly being done is to include Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) in the Syllabus. Well thought out FAQs can answer many questions before the course starts. Instructors can also anticipate questions throughout the course and add to the FAQs, alerting the students to the additions. They can also anticipate questions of individual students and answer them individually.

You mention that a teacher’s role in an online course can be a lecturer, facilitator or evaluator. However, do you feel that for optimal learning experiences for students that the teacher’s role should include all of these things?
All three of these roles are important in an online course. In an effective course the instructor will most likely create mini-lectures (or some form of conveying content), then proceed to an assignment or project. (There may also be guest lecturers.) During discussion and projects the instructor may become either a facilitator or catalyst to move the discussion along or suggest new directions for the discussion. The role of evaluator should be played throughout the course as students work through both formative and summative assessments. At times, the instructor may also become an observer, mentor, or tutor. The roles played depend on the design of the course, but most definitely the three mentioned are part of an effective online course.

Thank you for taking the time to chat with us today, Rosemary! It was a pleasure having the opportunity to read your book and speak with you about it.

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