Selecting Content for Your Online Course

A photo of a person using an iPad in the foreground with a desktop computer in the background.

The materials you select will make up a large portion of your course. No matter what formats you choose to provide course content, it is important to create a setting where the learning outcomes are supported and there is balance, variety, and opportunity for students to engage with the topic in a manner that will assist them in mastering the stated learning outcomes. In this article, we focus on selecting content for online courses with a modular structure.

Support Your Outcomes

When it comes to adding materials to a course there can either be a tendency to over or under do it. It can be tempting to build your course around textbook chapters and call it done, but you really need more than that for your students to truly get something from your course. Alternatively, you may find a plethora of resources on your topic and want to introduce all of them to students, but this can overcrowd your course and overwhelm students, which can hinder learning.

The best plan is to try to find a happy medium. Best practice begins with your learning outcomes or objectives for the course and module and determine what materials will best support those outcomes. You will want to use the text that you have decided upon for the course (if you have one), but in addition consider whether there are other resources that will help support the ideas you are teaching. For example, you may want to have students read a scholarly journal article that reinforces the most important ideas of your topic, or there may be a video on YouTube that shows them how to do something relevant, or there could be a website they can explore that exemplifies a course concept, or there may be an interactive activity that allows them to practice what they are learning.

Think of yourself as a curator for their learning experience and select the best resources to get the job done. Look for the best resources that are current and closely tied to your outcomes. Try to provide a variety of approaches to the topic, as much as possible, so that students have options on how to approach the topic and can benefit from different viewpoints.

Most importantly, you will want to provide your students the one thing that they cannot get from the other resources – your own experience, research, and ideas on the topic. The temptation here, for those coming from face-to-face courses, is to simply record the lecture that you would give in your face-to-face class and then add the video to the online course. However, online courses are very different from face-to-face courses and require different approaches. Watching a video that is an hour plus in length is much different than sitting in a classroom and listening to a lecture, and research has shown that most students will not engage with the content this way. You will also want to resist the temptation to just add a PowerPoint here – these types of presentations without the added lecture or discussion are typically of low value to students. Best practice is to keep videos very short – between 3 and 15 minutes – and to focus them on the most important aspects of the course content. Keep in mind, too, that video is not necessary for an online course. While it can help clarify ideas and add instructor presence, there are other ways to accomplish this. For example, many instructors include short, text lectures for students to read.

For more ideas and assistance on choosing the best types of materials for your online course, contact your instructional consultant.

Explain and Provide Relevance

Once you have selected great supporting materials for your course, you will want to provide some explanation for students about how to use the materials for the course, as well as how the materials are going to help them in achieving the outcomes for the course. This can be very short – a couple sentences are usually sufficient, but in other cases you may want to add more explanation and/or connecting language. For example, beside a link to a scholarly article, you may want to add text explaining why the article is relevant to the topic and pointing out any specific material that students should focus on for their participation in a later discussion or assignment. Additionally, you could then explain to them that since one of the outcomes for the module is X, the article ties in to that and is a way to help them further understand one of the important aspects of the course.

If you are going to ask students to refer to materials for a future assignment, it is important to cue them to this. For example, let students know that what they see in the video will be important in the assignment coming up at the end of the module. While this may seem like you are being “overly helpful,” the reality is that in a face-to-face setting students can pick up on these cues – you reinforce the importance of something by your tone of voice, repeating something in class, or writing on the white board – but in the online world, these cues are not there. Additional clarification, emphasis, and connection can be very important in helping the online student be successful.

Many instructors also like to provide students with “additional” or “supplementary” materials that are for the students’ interest but not required for the course. This is a wonderful practice, and one that can help students who are interested in a more in-depth exploration of the content. Best practice is to make it very clear to students that the materials are optional. One way to do this is to add the optional materials at the end of the module, along with a short statement explaining that those specific materials are not required to successfully complete the course. Keeping them separate from the required materials and identifying them as “optional” is a good idea, since this makes it less likely that students will be confused about their purpose.

Model Appropriate Use and Ensure Accessibility

Students are often novice learners, so having good models of appropriate copyright and citation of sources is extremely important. Double check that you are using materials in accordance with Fair Use, and if you are unsure, you can always check with your instructional consultant or a librarian – librarians are great resources in general, but often have the most experience in copyright questions. CLEAR also has a copyright guide that can help walk you through many of the decision points necessary to selecting and using resources.

Accessibility is also extremely important, so you will want to ensure that all the materials you provide are in a format that allows everyone to make use of them. This means that:

  • images will need alt tags (alternative text) so that screen readers can describe the image;
  • PDFs will need to be scanned in as text – rather than images – so that screen readers can read them;
  • videos will need to have closed captioning for the hearing impaired; and
  • audio files will need to have transcripts.

While these concerns can sometimes seem daunting at first, these are also areas where your instructional consultant can help you with planning and decisions that will make it easier to create a course that is accessible for all students. It’s important to remember, too, that these types of considerations can make your course better for all learners. For example, many students would rather read text than watch video or listen to audio. Providing accessible formats often also has the benefit of providing additional ways for students to access and benefit from the materials in your course.


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