Beginning Online Course Design

A photo of a person typing on their laptop at a table with an open textbook and cup of tea.

A quality online course begins with the design, and that design involves time and planning. There are multiple design approaches and techniques to choose from, as well as a variety of different organization schemes to consider. In this article, we identify beginning considerations and recommendations for designing an online course, whether this is your first time or twentieth time designing an online course.

Depending on the situation, you may be either designing an online course from scratch or converting a course previously taught face-to-face to an online format. There are different considerations for both techniques. When converting a face-to-face course, you will likely have some materials, assessments, and activities that will convert to the online environment. In this situation, spend some time determining what materials, activities, and assessments will work well online and what will need to change. If, however, you are designing a course from scratch, you will mainly need to focus on planning and gathering the necessary materials. In either case, remember that designing an online course typically takes a lot more up-front time than a face-to-face course, since everything needs to be in place before the course opens. Time to create an online course can easily be upwards of 60 hours, so planning and giving yourself time to work is vital (Chapman, 2010).

A common course design technique is backward course design. Backward course design is beginning with the “desired results” in mind (Wiggins & McTighe, 2006). Backward course design asks: what knowledge and abilities do you want your students to walk away with once the course is over? With backward design, you start by identifying desired learning outcomes (or objectives), then focus on the evidence and assessment methods you will use to determine if students have achieved the outcomes. From there, you turn your attention to selecting instruction and learning activities that will enable students to achieve these desired results.

By contrast, other course design methods may begin with stated learning outcomes and/or objectives (whether selected by the instructor, your department, an external accrediting board, etc.) for the course, then build the course with materials, activities, and technologies that support the objectives and appropriate assessments for measurement. Oftentimes, a little of both approaches is used. For example, you may have a course where students will be required to sit for an external accrediting exam at the end of the course. In these cases, there is a given assessment for which to prepare students (the exam) and typically objectives that go along with it. Often in these situations, the course is built starting with this assessment and the accompanying objectives, and then additional objectives, materials, activities, technologies, and assessments are added as needed to finish out the curriculum.

In addition to determining how to best approach the design of the course, you will want to consider how the course will be organized. Increased ease of access and navigation means that students spend more time on the actual content of the course and less time on trying to navigate the course. This is likely to result in fewer questions over the logistics of the course.

You may be tempted to design your online course around the weeks in the semester or chapters in a textbook, but there are some significant benefits to designing around topics instead. For example, a course designed around topics is more easily updated if a textbook changes or if you decide to use multiple material resources instead of relying on a single text. One organization scheme is called Big Ideas. In this type of organization, your course focuses on three or four important questions or takeaways for the course.

Further, we recommend organizing content into modules. Modules contain all the information students need as they incrementally progress through the course. Modular organization creates more flexibility when dealing with topics and provides an easily accessible and clear path for students to follow as they move through the course. Modules can vary in length; they do not need to be constrained to only one week. Instead, they can run two or three weeks. This allows you to spend more time focusing on complex subjects and provides flexibility and variety while still maintaining a clear structure. This type of organization can also make it easier to adapt an online course for summer semesters and/or other formats of shortened duration.

This brief overview demonstrates that there are a variety of considerations to be worked through when beginning to design an online course. CLEAR has instructional consultants available for each academic department that can meet with you, discuss your course goals and teaching style, and help you come up with a course design that will provide the best experience for you and your students.


Center for Learning Experimentation, Application, and Research. (2016). Teaching Resources for Engaged Educators [online training modules]. Denton, TX: University of North Texas.

Chapman, B. (2010, September 14). How long does it take to create learning? Retrieved from

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2006). Understanding by design (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.