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Instructional Design & Support

Develop Your Online Course

By now, you should have a well-defined framework of your course and a clear idea of how students will be reaching their learning outcomes and what technology tools you will be using. What remains is to build the course site that will become a welcoming and easy to use virtual learning environment for your students and to create online content, activities, assignments, and assessments for your course.


Build Your Course Site

Check with the Best Practices for Online Instruction Guide as you design and develop an online course site.

In addition, you may find these strategies useful.

  • Keep it simple first semester. First, make the course site functional; add bells and whistles later. Think of your first online course as the first draft that will be improved in the future. Don’t waste your time making the course materials perfect. You will inevitably be revising your course based on your teaching experience and student feedback.
  • Limit the number of technology tools in a course site. With so many tools available, it may be tempting to do a little bit of everything. However, just because there are a lot of tools, doesn’t mean you have to use them all. You and your students may quickly become overwhelmed learning and troubleshooting new technologies. The fewer tools, the better!
    NOTE: It might be a good idea to hide/disable the unused course tools in Canvas to avoid student confusion.
  • Think as a student when you design and build your site. If you were a student entering your own site, how would you know what to do? Could a student quickly find the course material, the due dates for the assignments, or a discussion forum? If a student wanted to check her grades, could she find the link easily? If a student wanted to ask the class a question, how would she do that?
  • Structure the course chronologically as a series of learning units. You can organize learning units by weeks, by specific dates, by projects, or by topics. For every learning unit, create a folder that will contain all course materials, activities, assignments, and assessments that students will be doing during that learning unit.
  • Provide meaningful and consistent names for learning units, links, files, folders, assignments, and quizzes.
  • Provide step-by-step instructions on what students should do in each learning unit. Students should be clear about where, when, and how they should do course activities and assessments.
  • Use the availability feature if you want students to access the course materials gradually, as due weeks are approaching. For example, you may decide to make an online lecture available 2 weeks before its due date. Notify students about the limited access to the course site.
  • Provide an orientation to the course site and create an activity that will help students get familiar with the site. For example, create an online course tour, a quiz, or a course scavenger hunt to help students learn their way around the course site.
  • Add to the main course menu the course tools and content areas that will be frequently visited by students, for example, My Grades and Email.
  • Ask someone for feedback. Enroll your colleague or an OIT staff member in your course as a student and ask him/her to navigate your course site and give you feedback.

Create Opportunities for Interactions

It is essential to create a course site with plenty of opportunities for meaningful interactions – with the course content, between students, and with the instructor (Moore, 1989). All three types of interactions must be equally present throughout the course.

  • Student – Content (e.g., a student viewing online course materials, completing a quiz, reflecting on a topic, analyzing a case study, and writing a paper)
  • Student – Instructor (e.g., a student asking the instructor a question, the instructor giving feedback on a group project, instructor reaching out to an individual student who stopped participating)
  • Student – student (e.g., class discussions, study groups, peer review, and group projects)

Sample Course Elements

Enhance student-instructor and student-student interactions.

  • Course announcements where the instructor introduces and summarizes each week, addresses students’ common questions, announces course changes, and sends reminders.
  • Instructor private feedback: An equivalent of one-on-one conversations with students.
  • Student personal introductions
  • Class discussion: A forum where the instructor and students can publicly talk about the course: ask and answer questions and comment on the course.
  • A weekly homework forum: In this forum, students can ask questions, share resources, discuss the assignments and help one another. By the end of the week, the instructor may post her own resources, observations, and words of encouragement.
  • A weekly group discussion in which students are required to discuss a weekly question in groups of 5-7. Occasionally, you can build in reflective questions that invite students’ feedback on the course.

Time for Action

As you begin to design and build your course, review the Best Practices for Online Instruction Guide (PDF) using it as a checklist in your development.


  • Michigan State University (2012). Course structure.
  • Moore, M.G. (1989). Three Types of Interaction. The American Journal of Distance Education, 3.

Develop Online Content, Activities, Assignments, and Assessments

Avoid the temptation to build a course and a half as you develop your course materials and assignments. The abundance of online information, that seems equally important, and time-intensive online interactions can quickly create cognitive and communication overload in an online course. Revisit your course learning objectives frequently and prioritize the content, activities, and assignments based on their proximity to the desired student outcomes.

Request OIT Assistance

OIT provides free support – through assistance in developing online course components, technology training classes, consultations, and troubleshooting — for a wide range of technology tools.

Check Out Open Educational Resources

Before you start developing your own course materials, check out the educational resources listed on the Toolkit’s Diigo social bookmarking page. Many of those materials are available under the Creative Commons (CC) license. The CC license specifies how you can legally use the materials. You can link to these learning resources directly from your course site.

Development checklist

Use this checklist to review developed activities, assignments and assessments from a student perspective. The checklist is adopted from Pickett, 2008.

  • Is it clear when each assignment is due?
  • Is it clear exactly what the student should do or produce?
  • Is it clear how to complete and submit assignments?
  • Is it clear if the completed assignment will be public or private?
  • Is it clear when and how it will be evaluated?
  • If the assignment contains several documents, are there clear instructions in each document?
  • Are there notes of encouragement or milestones written into the learning activity instructions when appropriate?

Time for Action


Below are the resources to consider when developing your online course.

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