Many faculty across the country, and perhaps across the world, are having to move their courses online at the last minute. Advice on how to do so proliferates, and most of it is quite good. I’d like to write here about the ten most essential things to keep in mind when designing an online course, especially at the last minute.
But my number one principle is this: It’s all about simplicity. I can’t stress that enough. Make sure your students know what to do, when to do it, and where to find it. So here are my top ten principles for simplicity in course design:
- Be redundant in giving instructions. Provide a full syllabus that provides the plan for the whole semester, week by week. and duplicate the content of your syllabus in your weekly units, broken down by week. Make sure your syllabus is perfect then copy and paste. Along those lines…
- Organize your course into weekly units. Name them Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, etc. List the start and end dates for each week. I recommend an instructional week that runs from Monday-Sunday for the sake of working students, but your institution may already have this organized for you.
- Keep everything for the week in the weekly unit. Don’t make students click out of the weekly unit to go to the week’s discussion forum, quiz, or readings. You want them to find everything for the week in the same place, week after week.
- Make sure you use the same terms for the same items everywhere. If it’s called a Discussion Forum in your syllabus, don’t call it a Threaded Discussion in the online course itself.
- Keep everything organized the same way week to week. If you have links or pages every week for an introduction to the week, readings, quiz, and discussion forum, keep them in the same order every week. Place items in the order in which you want students to do the work.
- Don’t be creative, quirky, original, or cute. Horrible thing to say, but you want to be clear, direct, explicit, and simple first of all.
- Don’t try to say everything. Generally avoid large blocks of text. Yes, use bullet points, like I’m using here, and short, simple sentences. If you have a long, written lecture as a separate component, that’s fine, but I would also supplement that with video and/or a PowerPoint. I can’t emphasize enough the value of students hearing you in terms of their comprehension of instructions and assigned reading.
- Find material online. Find YouTube videos or podcasts. Build the links into your weekly units. Explain what the links are and why they are valuable in short, simple sentences.
- Find electronic versions of the assigned readings whenever possible. Post links to them in your weekly units. Your students may forget or lose their books, and you may be surprised how many students think they can do the whole course on their phone.
- Maintain regular contact and engagement. Make sure your students have to enter the course at least two to three times a week, and try to make sure your students hear from you at least three times a week. Post announcements, send reminders, provide feedback on their work, and ideally, host a live chat once a week. Your students, for the most part, actually want to hear from you. They’d like to see you in person, especially if they’re used to having you in class. You’re their teacher.
If you’re using video of your own for your courses — and I realize many, if not most, people reading this shudder at the thought of recording themselves on video — I have a few additional tips for you:
BAD IDEA: Recording yourself from your bedroom desk with the bathroom door behind you.
BETTER IDEA: Recording yourself with your back to a wall in a quiet room, if such a thing exists for you.
PRO TIP: Recording yourself with a bookcase behind you. Sounds superficial, but it makes an impression, especially if the books are related to the content of the course.
These aren’t recommendations for a course designed from the start to be online, although these top ten tips apply to them as well. These tips are I think the most important things to keep in mind if you’re putting a course online at the last minute.