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Creating an Online Course: A Step-by-Step Guide

By Darcy White, Instructional Designer - Originally published June 21, 2019

You've been asked to put together an online course. You're excited to get started with this new project, then realize that you're not sure where to begin. Don’t worry, you’re not alone! This is a common problem encountered by people who are new to designing online content. The key to making sure that the course creation process goes as smoothly as possible is following best practices from the moment you start thinking about what your goals are to when you're getting ready for course launch. To get you started on the right foot, let's unpack some of the main components of online course design.

Initial Planning 

Before you start thinking about putting together course content, you need to determine what your needs are. This can be achieved by conducting a needs assessment, which involves asking questions about your goals, audience, content, and any tools or technology you have available to you. 
Note: Figuring out what your needs are upfront isn't a best practice that's specific to the online environment. Needs assessments are a valuable part of any project you're undertaking. 

Why Conduct a Needs Assessment? 

Asking questions about your goals, intended audience, and what the ideal learner experience looks like will help you keep your overall vision for the course at the forefront as you're putting together content and making design decisions. It will also ensure that you're designing the course in a way that is best for your teaching context and audience. 

How Do I Conduct a Needs Assessment? 

One approach to a needs assessment would be to just ask a series of questions and list all of your findings in a document in the order they’re addressed. However, this may not be the best approach to take. Instead, consider using Mind Mapping to conduct your assessment. This will make it easier to revisit key points and will help you organize your thoughts in meaningful groupings. 

To learn more, watch this webinar from Dr. Jean Marrapodi that outlines the benefits of using Mind Mapping to conduct your needs assessment and record your findings. 

How Do I Use the Information I Gather? 

Organize all the information from your needs assessment into a plan for moving forward with your course. This plan should outline key considerations for your course as well as how you will address them in the course design. For example, if you know that most of your learners will be English as a Second Language, you can note this in your plan and indicate that you'll be using a key terms glossary and plain language in the course.  
Drafting a plan based on your needs assessment gives you something to refer to as you're creating your course and allows you to check in and make sure that your decisions are in line with your overall goals. Are you achieving what you wanted to? If not, you can make adjustments before finalizing your course.

Getting Ready to Write

Where Should I Start? 

The best place to start is with your learning objectives, which outline what learners should be able to do after going through the course. Hopefully, these were included as part of your needs assessment. If not, now is the time to make sure you have them in place before you start putting together instructional content, activities, and assessments.

What Comes Next?

After solidifying your learning objectives, the next step is to create content. Don’t throw away content you’ve already curated. Instead, consider how you can adapt any content that you already have from a Face-to-Face version of the course to the online environment. Even though there will likely be some editing and trimming involved to fit your content to the online space, you’ll still be reducing your workload by not starting from scratch!

Content Creation

Let's take some time to walk through the starting points of putting together and organizing your content. 

  1. Select readings and resources  

Starting with choosing resources for your course allows you to write your content around them, creating alignment between the various course components and reducing the amount of writing you need to do. If possible, try to provide learners with a variety of formats here (e.g., using a combination of online readings, infographics, and videos). This helps accommodate learner preferences and enhances engagement and motivation.

  1. Write Your Introduction, Conclusion, and Core Content

After you’ve selected your resources, the next step is to write content that summarizes key takeaways and fills in any gaps for learners. Since online learning is self-directed, you want to make sure that you’re providing enough context to tell the full story, without repeating what's included in the external resources. There are a few reasons that you want to avoid doing this, each of which is outlined in more detail below. 

  • Reduced Workload. Why reinvent the wheel? If the resources you've found do a fantastic job of explaining a concept to your learners, you're just adding additional work for yourself by restating it in your content. 
  • Less Redundancy. A benefit of online learning is that learners can take in content in a self-paced manner and revisit content when they need to. For this reason, it's not necessary to include repetition of sections of content. In fact, redundancy can have a negative impact on the learner experience, as learners could become bored or disengaged if content is repeated. 
  • More Learner Engagement. Going beyond trying to keep things concise to reduce disengagement, expanding on the content you've curated instead of repeating it gives you the opportunity to pull in more applied examples and add additional context that can increase learner motivation and the desire to actively engage with the novel content included in your course. 

Some other considerations when writing for online are writing in full sentences, using a narrative tone, and incorporating anecdotes and applied examples. Taking this approach to writing content will provide learners with the context they need to understand the content, increase learner engagement, make content more memorable, and enhance the connection that the learners feel with you as the instructor. 

  1. Create activities and assessments  
A huge advantage of the online environment is the ability to create interactive and engaging activities that allow learners to practice and self-assess as they're moving through content. This gives learners the chance to test their knowledge and see where they’re doing well, and which areas they may need to improve on. 

Ideally, you want to build in frequent activities and assessments in your course. This benefits learners, as it helps them stay on track and reinforces learning. As with the course components discussed earlier, you’ll want to make sure that activities and assessments are aligned with the course learning objectives and core content so that they’re relevant for what learners should get out of the course.

Naming Conventions and Consistency 

Another thing to consider when you're creating an online course, or series of courses, is the benefit of creating a consistent experience for learners. For more information on how you can achieve consistency in design, and why you would want to do this in your courses, read this Brightspace Community article about The Importance of Consistent Course Design

To Sum Up

There are a lot of considerations that go into designing an online course. Following the best practices and steps listed above will help facilitate the course design process and enhance the quality of the online content you present to your learners.

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