Best Practices for Online Course Design

Instructional designers have many tools to make their courses more entertaining and engaging, like video, audio, image editing, interactivity, and more. However, instead of randomly creating courses using any/all of these tools, or packing new tools into a module just because they seem trendy or expected, course developers must follow sound instructional design principles to make their eLearning truly effective.

Here are a few instructional design best practices to keep in mind when building your next course.

Begin with a Clear Course Syllabus / Content Outline

A good first step is to meet with the course sponsor and agree upon a comprehensive course syllabus / outline.

Designing course content without a detailed syllabus, regardless of how well-versed you may be with the subject matter, is not a good practice because this approach can lead to the overemphasis of some points and omission of others. The course’s syllabus should be referred to as you road-map your design. Understanding your learners and their unique needs is very important here because knowing your target audience will help you select the most important, “must-know” content and design your course around learners’ needs and expectations, rather than around your perception of the material.

Design Your Course Content for Your Specific Audience

Now it’s time to build engaging content around your course wireframe. Before using all of the tools and technology available to you, conduct an audience analysis. Understanding who’s learning what will help you select the best presentation mode for each section. For instance:

  • Millennial learners are very comfortable with highly-summarized, succinct content with lots of videos and interactivities. Many Baby Boomers, on the other hand, may prefer straight-to-the-point material in a lecture format.
  • Video content works well in step-by-step how-to courses, like Auto Repair or Plumbing, while bulleted text that explains information in a structured hierarchy may be more applicable to courses like Finance, Journalism or History.

Optimize Your Course’s Duration

A best practice for online course design dictates that a course’s content must be delivered in manageable “chunks” in order to keep distance learners engaged over time. If your content runs for too long, your students may start to tune it out. By breaking your modules up into segments of no more than 20 to 30 minutes, you help create expectations that will seem manageable within your users’ attention spans.

Consistent Yet Customizable Content Design

As many eLearning providers have heard directly from their students, consistent design elements make it much easier to navigate online courses. Even so, it is always advisable to include design features that allow online learners to personalize their learning environment, both for the sake of aesthetic preferences and individual learning needs. This includes:

  • Font size
  • Background colors
  • Personalized icons and images

Also, give thought to:

  • Layout simplicity
  • Use of white space
  • When to use bullets versus long sentences

Content Accessibility

Making your content accessible to learners of all types is critical. While it may not always be possible to make your eLearning fully Section 508-Compliant, consider incorporating the following:

  • Include alternate text for every graphic or image used.
  • Add captioning of video content.
  • Provide transcripts for all audio content.
  • Design courses to integrate with assistive technology — for example, most scanned documents aren’t compatible with assistive technology readers. Convert your documents into PDFs or provide them as Word docs (or another compatible format).
  • Include alternate navigation systems: keyboard instead of mouse; tap instead of mouse clicks.

Assessments, Feedback, and Interaction

Include features in your course that continually assess students’ learning at every stage of the course.

  • Use multiple-choice quizzes instead of essay assessments, which are very hard to evaluate in an asynchronous learning environment.
  • Add assessments following short segments of learning material, rather than just at the end of the course.
  • Provide immediate feedback on assessments, rather than several weeks later or only at the end of the course.
  • Refrain from just offering “Pass / Fail” or “Correct / Incorrect” types of feedback. Your corrective feedback should include details of why the answer was correct or incorrect, with optional additional content / resources that the learner can access if desired.

Depending on the nature of your course, consider also adding other features to your design, such as Student-Peer interaction (group chats) and Instructor-Student interaction (texting/emailing).

No Cookie-Cutters

Oregon State University’s E-Campus has some useful guidelines for best practices that instructional designers can leverage for designing online courses. Additionally, you can adapt other online course development best practices outlined by Colorado State University’s Institute for Learning and Teaching. Use these guidelines as a baseline around which to develop your own best-of-the-best practices.

While the best practices discussed above are worth considering when designing online courses, they are not meant to be followed as a cookie-cutter approach. Instructional designers must evaluate the specific needs for each course — including the type of content being delivered, the general characteristics of the intended audience, and the specific learning outcomes desired — and then apply an appropriate best practice to develop fresh content accordingly.

How CourseArc Can Help

For more about the principles of instructional design, try our free course and see how CourseArc can help you integrate these best practices into your next course right from day one!

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