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Overview of Online Course Design and Development

Defining Course Design and Development

What is online course design and development and what does it involve? It includes

  • Purposeful planning
  • Organizing, sequencing, and pacing course content
  • Thinking in terms of the student learning experience and desired learning outcomes
  • Realizing that there is more than one way to fulfill learning outcomes
  • A basis in a particular teaching and learning model

While it is probably the case that most experienced instructors possess an inherent sense of design, when teaching and learning online, this pattern of design needs to be made evident, and the enormous amount of detail embedded in an online course means that development is best handled in an organized and deliberate fashion.

Creating or revising an online course ideally consists of a set of actions that build on each other and also dynamically interact with each other. The traditional instructional design process model of ADDIE with its 5-phase or elements of Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation can serve to remind us of that interdependence. ADDIE is often pictured as a linear process but it is best to think of it as interdependent processes as in this illustration:

"ADDIE Model of Design" by Fav203 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ADDIE_Model_of_Design.jpg#/media/File:ADDIE_Model_of_Design.jpg
]”ADDIE Model of Design” by Fav203 – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

For the purposes of this tutorial, we will be looking at these aspects of ADDIE:

  • Analysis–determining the needs of learners.
  • Design–establishing intended outcomes, the sequencing and structuring of instruction, methods of assessment, and technologies to be employed.
  • Development–working out the details, drafting, and building out the course components (for example, within Blackboard), ensuring that it all is in alignment with the results of the analysis and design.
  • Implementation–actually teaching the course, which will not be covered here.
  • Evaluation–reviewing instruction to determine the effectiveness of the course, revising as needed. We will touch on this in the tutorial as part of our discussion of formative student feedback and how to manage redesign.

Learning Theories, Teaching Theories

Theories about learning may be overt or implicit when faculty design a course or lesson. A learning theory is basically a set of principles that describe how people learn, which in turn shapes how one designs instruction and conducts teaching. For example, if you believe that memorization and recall are essential to learning a particular subject, you will want to find ways for students to demonstrate basic comprehension of the facts and information. If you think that it is important for students to be able to apply a lesson to the real world, you might ask them to analyze, research, or create something new. Depending on your view about how students learn, you may arrange for students to spend a lot of time exchanging and sharing knowledge or you might take a more didactic and directive approach. Our point is to develop a sense of greater awareness about the approaches you are using in designing your course and the implications that the structuring has for learning. In an online course, the role of the instructor, and the activities of students all need to be built into the course—they will not necessarily emerge in some spontaneous fashion once the course begins.

A course might be comprised of more than one approach and vary with the desired learning outcomes. This tutorial will not cover the complex subject of learning theories but if you are interested, we can recommend two readings from open textbooks available on the Web (see references below): chapter 1 in “Foundations of Educational Theory for Online Learning” from the Theory and Practice of Online Learning (2nd edition), by Mohamed Ally; or chapter 2, “The Nature of Knowledge and the Implications for Teaching” in Teaching in a Digital Age (1st edition) by Tony Bates.

However, as an introduction to this tutorial, a few principles from the Eberly Center at Carnegie Mellon about student learning (http://www.cmu.edu/teaching/principles/learning.html), drawn from both theory and research, may be worth considering as you embark upon course design:

  • How students organize knowledge influences how they learn and apply what they know.
  • To develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what they have learned.
  • Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback enhances the quality of students’ learning.

(More detailed explanations of these, with additional principles, can be found at the web site provided in the reference list below.)

The Eberly Center has also derived some teaching principles based on the student learning principles, all of which have particular relevance for this tutorial:

  • Effective teaching involves acquiring relevant knowledge about students and using that knowledge to inform our course design and classroom teaching.
  • Effective teaching involves aligning the three major components of instruction: learning objectives, assessments, and instructional activities.
  • Effective teaching involves articulating explicit expectations regarding learning objectives and policies.
  • Effective teaching involves prioritizing the knowledge and skills we choose to focus on.
  • Effective teaching involves recognizing and overcoming our expert blind spots.
  • Effective teaching involves adopting appropriate teaching roles to support our learning goals.
  • Effective teaching involves progressively refining our courses based on reflection and feedback.

In Minds Online, Michelle D. Miller draws on findings from cognitive science in discussing how to design for “cognitive optimization” in an online class. Her book offers many detailed explanations and examples. For the purposes of this tutorial, we would like to summarize some important principles related to course design that are instrumental to a successful online course that exemplifies such optimization:

  • Identify and find ways to reinforce the course learning objectives and skills
  • Ensure that course activities enable students to be able to transfer and apply concepts and knowledge
  • Use repeated practice and quizzes for skills that require some degree of automatic recall or retention of content as underpinning for subsequent lessons
  • Provide lessons that can capture and hold attention, keeping distractions, or extraneous information to a minimum
  • Assist student recall by spacing out and increasing frequency of learning activities
  • Selectively use activities that stimulate emotion to help increase retention of content
  • Use small stakes assignments and feedback to build motivation
  • Provide frequent feedback, clear expectations, and regular updates to help students keep current with the course

Designing with the Teaching and Learning Model in Mind

While there currently exist many different models for teaching and learning online—everything from self-paced independent study to small, instructor-led classes to MOOCs featuring video lectures and thousands of students—the teaching and learning model for online courses at CUNY School of Professional Studies may be characterized as relatively small (average of no more than 25 students) instructor-led classes, interactive (instructor-student, student-student, and student-content), primarily asynchronous, with instructor presence and responsiveness highly valued, and in most cases, oriented toward working adults and incorporating adult learning principles. It’s important to keep these characteristics in mind as you begin designing your online course, ensuring that you build in a framework for the various elements that will support this model. For example, discussion should be designed and graded so as to reinforce student-student dialogue, opportunities for faculty feedback should be scheduled into the assignment sequence, weekly announcements should be planned as one of many ways for faculty to make their presence evident.


Ally, Mohamed. (2008). “Foundations of Educational Theory for Online Learning” in Anderson, Terry. (Ed.) The Theory and Practice of Online Learning (2nd edition), pp.15-44. Athabasca: Athabasca University Press. Open textbook version at http://www.aupress.ca/books/120146/ebook/01_Anderson_2008-Theory_and_Practice_of_Online_Learning.pdf

Bates, A.W. (Tony). (2015). Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age: Guidelines for designing teaching and learning for a digital age. Bates: 2015, open textbook available at http://opentextbc.ca/teachinginadigitalage/

Carnegie Mellon, Eberly Center. Principles of Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from http://www.cmu.edu/teaching/principles/index.html

Miller, M. (2014). Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.