Organizing Your Online Course

A photograph of a desk with two monitors, a keyboard, a coffee mug, and papers.

Clear and consistent organization will allow you and your students to focus more on learning the actual content of your course, not only from the beginning of the semester but throughout the remainder of the course. The beginning information in a course along with the course syllabus are both areas where you can answer initial questions up front, prevent some questions from needing to be asked, and/or prevent other problems from coming up. There is no fool-proof perfect way to put a course together – but there are a lot of things that you can do that will make it easier for everyone involved and make it more enjoyable.

In general, effective course organization focuses on:

  • clear and consistent navigation;
  • communication of policies and requirements;
  • information on where to get assistance; and
  • information on the accessibility of course technology.

In this article, we walk you through designing the course menu as an initial stage in organizing an online course.

Start with the Course Menu

Students will interact with the course menu frequently, and having clear, concise navigation is key in creating a user-friendly course. Additionally, creating a navigation scheme that “facilitates ease of use” addresses Standard 8.1 in the Quality Matters (QM) Rubric.

The main concern here is to try to keep the number of items listed in the menu manageable. You want to include everything that is needed, but not overload this area. Here is a suggested menu structure and order with what each area would contain:

  • Announcements – This is the area where you can post important information for students throughout the course. Keeping this at the top of the course menu encourages students to visit this area regularly when they enter the classroom.
  • Start Here – This area contains important information that students need to know from the beginning of the course, including instructions on how to begin working in the course. You will guide students to access this area first in the course. To see more about designing a Start Here section for your online course, click here.
  • Syllabus – Many instructors prefer to place a link to the syllabus on the menu so that it can be easily located throughout the course. You can also add the calendar or schedule information here, if it isn’t already included in your syllabus.
  • Learning Modules – This area is where the heart of the course content will live. The modules here can contain the readings, materials, activities, and assignments/assessments for the course. To learn more about using modules in an online course, click here.
  • Discussions – In a fully online course, it is important to have an area where students can interact with one another and ask questions.
  • My Grades – This area shows the student view of their grades in the course. Some of the most common questions instructors receive deals with student grades, so having this information quickly accessible from the menu will help cut down on emails and allow students to monitor their progress in the course.
  • Where to Get Help – Creating an area on the course menu for important information on where to obtain technical and disability assistance, as well as student and academic support, makes it easy for students to locate help during the course. This can also help reduce questions and emails.

This is a very basic menu design, but it contains everything that you need for the course. However, some instructors prefer to add other elements. For example, if you have a project that will run the length of the course (and therefore cannot be related to one module of the course), then you may want to put that information on the course menu.

Think carefully about what you will need in your menu and remember that you can always discuss and brainstorm your online course design ideas with your instructional consultant. A little planning for this up front can make the remainder of your design process go much smoother.