Center for Advancing Teaching Excellence: Design Your Online Course

Center for Advancing Teaching Excellence

Design Your Online Course

When you start to design your online course, there are many instructional and logistical issues to consider to ensure your students achieve the intended learning goals. Be kind and honest with yourself about what you are comfortable developing and delivering.

These are some questions you should ask -- and answer -- before the semester begins.

Questions & Answers

A. Asynchronous instruction features lectures and activities that normally take place simultaneously in the classroom are converted into instruction that does not share the same place or time. The benefit for asynchronous learning is accessibility and temporal flexibility as students can access materials on demand. The challenge with asynchronous instruction is the lack of immediacy and interaction.

Asynchronous instruction typically includes lectures that are pre-recorded and posted to a learning management system (LMS). Discussions, driven by prompts and responses, can also be included as the discussions play out over a longer period of time.

Synchronous instruction features lectures are delivered simultaneously in real-time using a web conferencing system such as Zoom. Instructors can also hold office hours or host a seminar or group discussion using synchronous instruction.

The benefit of synchronous instruction is the immediacy afforded to students and the structure created with a set schedule for meetings. The challenges associated with synchronous instruction include the potential for technical difficulties and the need for consistent internet access and strength.

What mode should I use for my course?

Keep in mind, a combination of synchronous and asynchronous modes of teaching tactics can be employed. For example, to utilize the asynchronous option, lectures could be recorded and students could use the asynchronous Canvas discussion tools for small group discussion. At the same time, synchronous live web conferencing could can be used for office hours.

For additional ideas on how to use synchronous and asynchronous options, see High-Tech and Low-Tech Examples.

A. Your syllabus is critical for helping students understand how your online course works. The syllabus that you design must be able to stand alone as a guide to your course. Even if you record a video walk-through of their syllabus, encourage students to carefully read the syllabus on their own, and refer back to it throughout the semesters. It is important that all of the information is there in clear detail. Think of it as the roadmap to your online course.

Design the syllabus as a document to be read on a smartphone, keeping it brief and formatting the text to enhance clarity. Students often look at Canvas and course components on their phones, even if they have a computer for completing the assignments.

Indicate whether you consider the syllabus an unchangeable “contract” between you and your students or if you reserve the right to make changes at your own discretion.

Design your Canvas course to closely reflect your syllabus. On the Canvas Syllabus, you write the information at the top of the page and the “Course Summary” is automatically generated from your assignments and deadlines. In the part you write, stick with the basic overview, such as high-level structure and grading, contact details, and university-required information. Indicate your communication preferences. Some instructors like to use Canvas Inbox messages for all course-related communication with students. Some instructors prefer to be contacted by email.

As you recreate the syllabus through Canvas elements, such as modules, assignments, discussion prompts, file names, consider how students will “see” the course. Consistency of language is key to this recreation. The name you call something in the syllabus (the assignment, the reading, the video they should watch, the activity they are doing) should be exactly the same name you use on Canvas, including the name of a file that students need in order to complete a task. Checking across the syllabus and Canvas for consistent language and renaming course components if necessary can eliminate a lot of questions from confused students trying to get their work done.

One thing that can be helpful for students over the course of the semester is to create short videos, screencasts, or announcements where you walk through a key transition moment in the course or a complex assignment. This too can help eliminate questions and confusion for students.

To ensure that students have read and understand key parts of the syllabus, require students to complete a syllabus quiz before they can move on to other class material. Some instructors allow unlimited attempts and require students to pass the quiz with 100 percent accuracy.

Please explore these sample syllabi for Moody College online courses.

A. Design the course to be online rather than trying to fit an in-person course into an online format. The delivery of lectures, assignments, and communication all work more effectively and efficiently when the course is designed for the intended format. Make sure your syllabus clearly reflects your course design.  Use consistent language across your syllabus and Canvas. If you describe something as one thing in the syllabus it should be titled, named, described on Canvas exactly the same way (including files that students need to access to complete their work).

Build as much of the course as possible before the semester begins. Use explicit organization and clearly labeled segments to help students with the learning process and with time management. Include specific titles for Modules and Assignments, and identify the weeks when a particular module, assignment, etc will be relevant. When creating assignments, include due dates so that they show up on your students’ Canvas calendar. Make outlines, concept maps or a graphic of the course structure.

To create a welcoming landing page, you might want to provide a vivid image and a video introducing yourself and the course. Think about giving a “Canvas tour”: Record a screencast to show where students can find relevant information, such as in the Modules, Assignments, or Discussion Board tabs.

Video recordings can also help on the Assignments page. Consider including a video of yourself going through the assignment and calling out common pitfalls. Create step-by-step instructions, and supply additional resources pertaining to the assignment all in the same place. Make extensive use of clear and specific rubrics so that students know what is expected of them.

A key flexibility of online learning, particularly for asynchronous courses, is that you get to decide when your course week begins and ends (e.g. Saturday-Friday; Sunday-Saturday). Use this structure to guide decisions about when assignments are due. Provide proactive students with the opportunity to work ahead if they want to, and let students know when they can expect certain content to become available if the course is not self-paced.

Consider establishing a consistent weekly pattern for releasing course content, course activities, and due dates. Many students will try to complete all of their coursework on Saturday and Sunday, so you might choose to have major assignments due on Mondays or Tuesdays. Describe for your students what an ideal work week looks like (e.g. reading and watching lectures on Saturday/Sunday, posting discussion questions by Monday, answering discussion questions by Wednesday, responding to someone else by Friday). Releasing a weekly checklist of deliverables and deadlines is a best practice, helping reduce confusion at the start of each unit and protecting your email inbox from overload.

Organize modules chronologically and organize files in folders with meaningful names. Use a consistent file naming scheme for all documents, including PowerPoint files or recorded lectures. Make sure the announcements follow a consistent format. It helps to include the date in the announcements title.

For more ideas, download and review Best Practices for Online Courses.

A. As you design your online course, think about how students will engage with the content, with the teaching team and with each other.

You have options to provide course content in the form of reading assignments, live or recorded lectures, PowerPoint files, and other materials that students will listen to, watch, or read.

Below are some suggestions to help students engage with course content.

Make it easy for students to find required content in your Canvas course by linking to content from a weekly module or posting files in well-organized file folders. Use a consistent file naming scheme. 
 Provide reasons why the content is relevant. Explain how it relates to course objectives and assessment.

Send frequent reminders telling students what they should be reading or watching and when it should be completed. Consider posting or sending a “weekly checklist” of assignments, with a space for students to mark assignments or activities as “done.”

Make it fun! Mix in cartoons, surprises, or personal stories.

TA Role and Office Hours: To help students engage with the teaching team, establish communication guidelines. Let students know exactly who to contact about what. If you work with TAs, let students know what issues should be brought to them. Establish the best way to contact you (e-mail, Canvas, other) and the timeframe in which a student can expect a response to a question (M-F? one business day?). Demonstrate that you are available by providing timely responses and inviting students to virtual office hours.

Your Role: Find ways to demonstrate your voice and personality as a teacher. It’s helpful if students hear your voice—either through synchronous lectures or asynchronous video. This provides students with a better understanding of your point of view as the teacher. You may also want to adjust your writing style to be more reflective of how you would speak in a physical classroom.

Communicate with students consistently and frequently. Send out weekly announcements with upcoming deliverables, due dates and other unique information.

Think of attention-getting subject lines like, Week 2: Three things you need to know, or Week 5: Three Ways you Can Improve Your Discussion Posts.
 Let students know your expectations. For example, what are you looking for in a particular assignment?

Provide timely feedback on assignments.

When communicating with students to provide instruction and guidance, choose an appropriate format. Simple information can be communicated using email or Canvas announcements. More complex information may be best delivered using video and audio.

Student/Student Interaction: Provide opportunities for students to interact with each other and form a learning community. It’s important in online courses to give students an opportunity to introduce themselves to each other. This might be in the form of a video in a Canvas discussion or in a live Zoom meeting. In large classes, you can create smaller groups for the Canvas discussion or use breakout rooms in Zoom. Cultivate a learning community by encouraging students to form study groups. Assign group projects and small group discussion. Create discussion prompts that stimulate in depth dialogue.

A. There are a variety of ways that you can design assessment of student learning in online courses. Watching the UT Center for Teaching and Learning Commons video entitled “Assessment: How can I creatively measure student understanding of concepts?” is a good way to start to thinking about how you might assess your student’s learning in an online course. Note that there are resource links under the video frame. A best practice for online learning is the use of multiple methods of assessment that are well-distributed throughout the course. Specifically, a well-designed course offers both high- and low-stakes assessment (e.g., discussion posts worth fewer posts than a unit exam) with due dates throughout the semester rather than all high stakes assignments due at the end of the semester.

Canvas offers a variety of tools to assess student learning and provide detailed and timely feedback. The primary assessment features in Canvas are Quizzes, Assignments, and Discussions. All three allow you to set deadlines and windows of availability. All three are tied directly to the Canvas gradebook.

Quizzes allow you to create graded and ungraded quizzes, tests, and exams, as well as anonymous surveys. Multiple choice and true/false questions are automatically graded. You can also include short-answer, fill-in-the-blanks, matching, and essay questions. Other benefits include adding a proctoring service and setting time limits to exams.

When you create an Assignments, graded Discussion, or Quiz in Canvas, a row is automatically created in the Canvas gradebook. Deadlines that you enter appear in the Canvas calendar, to do list, and syllabus to help keep students on track. Assignments can be set up for assessments submitted on paper or online. For online submissions you can choose to use Turnitin to help ensure academic integrity by checking for plagiarism. You can easily view students’ online submissions and provide detailed feedback, as well a grade, in SpeedGrader.

The use of rubrics can also save time and ease in the grading process. Additionally, rubrics offer students clear guidelines about what they are being graded on and how they are being asked to demonstrate their learning. Canvas, for instance, provides space for a customizable rubric where simple number entry calculates grades and allows for written feedback.

Assessment in an online learning environment offers benefits over face-to-face environments. For example, multiple choice quizzes/exams offer a setting through which students can receive immediate feedback in the form of accuracy of their response, rationale for correct/incorrect answers and grade which aids in the learning process. Additionally, instructors can utilize peer review/feedback to give students the opportunity to review each other's work, learn from each other and practice constructive feedback.

A. You might not think it, but it is entirely possible to foster good, productive discussions in an asynchronous online course. Because writing a discussion comment requires a moment of reflection and effort, online discussions can be even more contemplative than spontaneous in-person or synchronous online discussions.

Before beginning online discussions, set clear expectations for civil behavior and respectful dialogue. Let students know your reasons for wanting them to engage in discussions and how you think it will benefit their learning.

When writing discussion prompts, don’t just give a general topic and expect dialogue to begin. Tell them specifically what you expect in terms of applying course concepts and theories. Give students a reason to talk to each other. There are many approaches to writing stimulating discussion prompts. A few are listed below.

Identify an item from the news or current events (e.g., by providing a link to an online article), then ask students to respond in terms of the concepts, theories, or methods they have been learning in that unit.
 Ask students to provide a link to an online article, story, or video that reflects the topic of the week, then explain the relevance of the example, then apply a theory or concept from the unit to analyze the example.
 Present specific questions that students should answer in response to a reading, case study, or lecture. Provide a list of questions to answer in their comments to other students.

Have students in small groups solve a problem or choose the best solution with justification for their choice. Tell them to summarize their choice and reasoning in the final discussion post.

Present an ethical dilemma and ask students, in small groups, to reach consensus on the best action to take. Tell them to summarize their recommended action and with justification of their reasoning in the final discussion post.

Present a controversial issue and ask students to debate various sides of the situation and suggest a policy or legal recommendation.

Set clear expectations for how much you expect students to write for their initial response and their replies to other students’ posts. Let them know how many replies you expect and what you count as substantive replies, as opposed to simply liking or agreeing. Tell students when during the week they should post (e.g., initial response by noon Tuesday, two replies by 5 p.m. Friday).

If you have a large class, an online threaded discussion can become long and cumbersome. To encourage real dialogue, use the Groups function in Canvas to put students in small groups. Consider providing several prompts for each unit in the course to give students options in what they want to respond to.

Sample Discussion Prompts

CMS 347S Communicating With Stuff (Barry Brummett)

Example 1: Here’s a brief history of sagging. Discuss what sagging communicates. Talk about whether you sag and what it communicates, and talk about how you understand the meaning of when others sag. Discuss any cultural differences or implications of this kind of stuff as communication.

Example 2: Lectures discuss the problem of having stuff with no “currency” in a context you might find yourself. Use this idea to think about how stuff works as currency. Have you ever found that your stuff had no currency with a context in which you found yourself? Why did that happen, and what did you do about it?

CMS 313M Organizational Communication (Joshua Barbour)

Finding your power CASE?

Step 1: Read 6-3d Case Study Talking Turkey from your text and address the following prompt in your SLACK group discussion. REMEMBER to use evidence in your response. Evidence can include course concepts (briefly define them), outside articles that support your position, or examples provided by popular press.

Share your take on the case. As you put together you post, consider these questions:

  • How would you evaluate the argument between Brandon and Gabriella?

  • Are either or both of them being exploited? If so, how?

  • How does this case illustrate the concepts of power, ideology, and hegemony?

  • How would a critical theorist work to achieve emancipation for Brandon and Gabriella?

  • Would either of them want to be emancipated?

  • How could either Brandon or Gabriella exercise resistance in their work?

  • Your post does not have to address all these questions, but it should make clear what you think about who is being exploited here if anyone and why as well as what is to be done about it if anything and why. Be sure to share your reasons.

Step 2: Read over your groupmate's responses. Respond to at least two posts. Think about these questions as you do so (without feeling you must answer them all or in this order):

  • Do you agree/disagree with your groupmate’s post that Brandon and/or Gabriella are being exploited (or not)? Why?

  • Do you agree/disagree with your groupmate’s view on Brandon and/or Gabriella’s desire for emancipation? Why?

  • What lessons can you draw from this discussion for the upcoming organizational assessment assignment? Be sure to share at least two lessons.

RTF 305 Intro to Media Studies (Joe Straubhaar)

Week 6: Music and Genre posting and discussion

The topic of Week 6 is Music and Genre. This week's topic focuses on music genres, but still opens to a variety of possible aspects, such as the development of a particular music genre, the transformation of music and genre in general, the impact of technology on music genre, music evolution and the recorded industry, social impacts of different music genres, among others. First of all, you need to find a newspaper or magazine article, TV or radio story, video, etc. that reflects on the topic, post it/them at the beginning of the post.

  • (1st paragraph) Following the link/s, please summarize the example you give. If you need to quote, do give credits to the author. Do not over-quote the original article/video/radio scripts.

  • (2nd paragraph) Then, tell us why you think the example is relevant to the topic of the week.

  • (3rd paragraph) Lastly, apply a theory/concept that we learned this week to analyze your example. Be specific to give a definition of the theory/concept, and explain why it is applicable to the example you give.

After the posting, please give comments to at least two other posts. Do remember to write substantial and meaningful sentences that are more than "I agree" and "Good": tell your peers what you agree, what is good, how and why. This discussion is worth a total of five points. The initial reply is worth three points and should be posted by midnight Tuesday. The two comments are one point each and should be posted by midnight Friday.

A. Any instructional material you use in a face-to-face course you can also use in an online course. In some ways, online teaching may offer opportunities to choose instructional materials that you might not typically use in a face-to-face course. For example, you might choose to use more videos, podcasts, and movie clips.

Case studies as instructional material are great options for online courses because they ask students to articulate their own ideas and debate the merits of particular choices, all while grounding the conversation in key themes and ideas of the course.

Any instructional material you choose must be available and accessible to all students. Below are some of the most important things you can do to ensure your course materials are accessible.

  • Make sure all audio and video materials are transcribed and captioned. One advantage of using Panopto to record lectures is that it automatically transcribes the audio. You may have to call on UT’s Captioning and Transcription Services if you have a student who requires an ADA accommodation.

  • Give links descriptive names rather than pasting the URL within text. Moody College of Communication is better than

  • Screen readers use the headings structure to navigate through content. When creating documents (e.g., Word, Google Docs, PDF) or Canvas pages and assignments, use built-in style headings to organize the content.

  • Use tables for data, not layout. Be sure column and row headings are meaningfully labeled.

  • For any images that are required for understanding course assignments or content (i.e., not just decorative), include alt text that describes the image so a screen reader user can understand what the image conveys.

If you have students with disabilities follow Accessibility Best Practices for Classes Using Zoom provided by UT’s SSD office.

Additional accessibility resources are listed below:

A. Online courses are unique in that they can make communicating with students both easier and harder.

On the easier side, technology has made it relatively simple to engage in communication from almost anywhere. Office hours, for example, can be easier to schedule and attend, as instructors and students can use Zoom at their convenience, instead of having to travel or block specific periods of time. Online lectures are also convenient for many people, especially with the added ability of recording and sharing lectures with students.

Communicating in an online setting also has some challenges. For instance, in a classroom setting, attention is relatively undivided and focused on the instructor, whereas taking an online class from home or an apartment introduces many new distractions. Online courses challenge students to balance the commitments of coursework with these new distractions.

Online courses also ask instructors and students to rely more heavily on technology to bridge the gaps created by the lack of a classroom setting. For example, in a classroom setting, it is easy to present reminders about upcoming deadlines.

Instructors can also rely on immediate non-verbal feedback to gauge whether one or many students may be struggling with a concept. Here, Canvas announcements, email reminders, and the best practice of communicating any vital information at least twice and preferably via two different mediums are considerations which are more important than ever in ensuring that students do not miss any critical class information. Additionally, the timely use of Canvas messaging or email in communicating or coordinating times for video chats or office hours is essential.

A. Build mini-deadlines leading up to bigger projects when students are online.

For example, students can do a series of smaller reflection activities leading up to their final reflection submission. For a big research paper, have students first submit a research plan, then a first draft for peer review before submitting the final draft for grading. Or you could have a checkpoint requiring a Moody Writing Support consultation. The Writing Support Program will provide documentation of the consultation.

To ensure students are making regular progress, space deadlines for these smaller requirements a week to 10 days apart, depending on complexity. In smaller classes, consider requiring a one-on-one with you or a TA the week of a big deadline. The purpose is to make sure students can articulate their project and their process clearly in a conversational format rather than in a prepared email.

A. Be as proactive as possible about seeking TAs who are experienced or comfortable in online learning environments. Perhaps more importantly, seek self-motivated TAs who excel at written communication and who are exceptionally organized.

Outline your objectives for the semester in a document before classes start so both you and your TAs understand their responsibilities for the semester as a whole and for each week. This should include obvious tasks (e.g., publish the weekly quiz before at 8 a.m. every Tuesday, hold online office hours, etc.) but also student engagement tasks (e.g., every Monday share a current event that relates to the class, every Wednesday send a message to the five students who have the lowest Canvas engagement metrics to see if they need help, etc.)

Ask your TAs to suggest other ways to enhance student engagement. Create a shared communication plan with your TAs so that the entire teaching team understands how and when communication with students will happen.

Let your TAs know that you expect them to be technology savvy. They should devote time to becoming proficient with Canvas and any other tools you will use regularly, such as Zoom or Proctorio. UT provides online tutorials as well as live and recorded workshops.

Be sure they know that Canvas technical support is available 24/7. Give the TAs opportunities to build their CVs by challenging them to brainstorm innovations for the course during the semester. You might encourage your TAs to take advantage of Graduate Student Development programs through the UT Center for Teaching and Learning. Then invite them to share what they learned with you and brainstorm how it could be applied in your class. This process can become a key story the TA can tell about the evolution of their pedagogical philosophy. It’s also a great way to keep your online course fresh.