Designing online courses in higher education

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  • Updated.jpg 30 March 2016


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"...teachers are guides who show their students pathways to various destinations of learning...." – Henderson & Nash, 2008

A well-designed course positions an instructor as the guide through the content to be taught rather than as a teacher lecturing at the front of a classroom (though online lectures are effective in some cases). In higher education, academic instructors are increasingly expected to be subject experts and to employ guiding strategies for students to find their own way through the learning process (Nash, 2008). The goal is to lead students and to help them develop their own knowledge, skills and abilities; typically, students also want to be able to consider and assess new ideas and concepts with their peer groups. One of the primary challenges of designing and teaching an online course is to ensure that durable skills are acquired through careful preparation of individual and group activities. The idea is to take a long view of achieving your learning outcomes. This delicate balance requires a healthy mix and use of behavioural and cognitive strategies to create the most effective online learning environment.

Behavioural and cognitive considerations

In 2008, I developed an online course for the School of Library, Archival and Information Studies called LIBR 559M - Social Media for Information Professionals. My teaching draws on various pedagogies and from behaviourism to connectivism (Aharony, 2008; Bawden, 2010; Siemens, 2005). I spend a lot of time planning for online delivery and selecting activities to support teaching of content. Using social media to teach social media requires some skillful approaches. I start from a place where I am developing my own self-efficacy (and regulating habits), especially in terms of managing my time and meeting deadlines. Some related time management issues are self-motivation, goal-setting and bringing those ideas somehow into courses I teach. It's important for me to establish online practices so that I can impart best practices to learners; they too can be expected to manage their time, and to achieve their own best practices.

There is a vast literature in online learning, and bringing some of the best practices from face-to-face classrooms is a subject some debate. Bernard and Abrami (2002) published a meta-analysis of the literature concluding that there are success stories in both online and offline classrooms. The most effective hybrid or blended strategy seems to reinforce each other in all of kinds of unexpected ways. These insights are helpful for instructors who aim to build the best online learning experience for their learners.

A well-designed online course should teach lifelong learning skills in a context that accounts for the topic at hand. To achieve learning objectives online, multiple strategies and options should be used so that students can get exposed to different learning and participation styles. External factors such as the lack of access to assistance can create high levels of frustration and confusion for some students. This is particularly true when there is little or no online support available to students working at a distance. This lack of help acts as a barrier to true learning and in building self-efficacy skills and "persistence". This is a major reason why I aim to supplement all content in my online courses with either regular office hours offline or online, and use various social media tools to communicate with my students in real time.

Cognitive learning strategies

Many of these learning strategies and instructional design models were drawn from Henderson & Nash's excellent book on this topic, "Excellence in college teaching and learning: classroom and online instruction" and informed by the seminal thinkers in behaviourism, cognitivism and constructivism.


The rehearsal of knowledge is not just an issue of repetition of content (Nash, 2008). One aspect of rehearsing knowledge is taking some time to organize the basic concepts, definitions and ideas for later retrieval by the learner. In traditional settings, students might copy notes or recopy content from lectures but several studies have shown that this is not always an effective way to learn. It may aid in classification and identification of content, but it does not promote deep learning. In online environments, "rehearsal" is often automatic or built into the navigational structures. If done well, the idea of rehearsal is often supplemented or reinforced online through the use of attractive colours, typographies and design features in the learning environment. In addition, by selecting your learning activities carefully, students are able to categorize ideas, and rehearse their knowledge in various conversational spaces. This is an effective approach especially when students are required to make their own connections or to classify and organize social media content for themselves. One effective way to rehearse knowledge about social media is to create practice tests in your learning management system. Another way is to share relevant information or new knowledge with your students in the discussion area of your online course.


Organizing involves placing information in a way that allows your students to find and get at information. This may involve creating key topics, issues and so on and to build cognitive structures that allow for classification, grouping and interrelatedness between concepts and large ideas. This navigation online requires synthesis, evaluation and higher-level activities that lead to deeper learning. In online environments, if you are required to engage in an instructional activity that requires rehearsal and organization, you will be more likely to be flexible in your thinking and to use information in more than one setting or context. This is exactly what is expected of those learning about social media.


As teachers and learners, you may occasionally need to describe, define or explain a topic to someone else. When doing so, as Nash says, you are elaborating (Nash, 2008; Reigeluth, 1999). Elaboration is deeply constructivist in nature, requiring that students not merely repeat, restate, classify and organize knowledge but make associations and connections between seemingly unrelated ideas, discussions and "chunks of information" (Nash, 2008). It may also require making connections between course content and your own knowledge or experiences with the topic at hand. Online courses require students to write essays and provide analyses that require them to engage in sense-making. To be effective, a set of "guiding questions" provide a cognitive scaffold needed to build newer cognitive structures and understanding. Modeling elaboration by providing examples of "situated learning" -- learning that places content in a certain context and asking students to transform it -- can lead to the acquisition of other useful learning strategies.

Behavioral learning strategies

Interpersonal help-seeking

Effective learners should sense when it is time to ask for help. In classroom settings or traditional face-to-face learning environments, various options for learning need to be provided. In-class group work or study groups outside of class provide various options for students who wish to seek help and support for their learning at their own pace. In online courses, you may also wish to provide answers to your students by answering their questions on the discussion board or by asking your students to provide support to each other (offline, if possible, or via e-mail). If neither of those media is desirable, students can also find ways to assist each other by posting information to an appropriate space such as on a course wiki. In addition, students examining social media can also engage with others in their social network, find assistance from their tutors or by going into virtual worlds such as Second Life. These are all very powerful supports for online learners who are comfortable asking for assistance.

Interaction / social reinforcement

Any activity that brings learners in contact with each other is potentially useful. Interactivity in face-to-face classrooms is effective when a facilitator moderates discussions and models behaviours that are desirable. Online, chat and discussion (even debate) can be effective for learning if multimedia such as video and audio are used. Blogs, instant messaging, informal webinars, collaborative projects and games of various kinds are a few examples where positive behaviours can be modelled. Students can also "check in" with others or their instructor as they make their attempts to learn. One of the most effective methods of achieving online social reinforcement is to ask students to post projects or papers to allow others to see what they are doing and to invite their commentaries. Establishing study groups and putting together one-on-one study buddies can also be effective. For some students, instant messaging can be an important supplement and even Twitter if the learners are comfortable using that platform can find all kinds of social reinforcement in those social spaces.

Seeking help from written material

This strategy involves providing some assistance for obtaining relevant information from books, digital resources and other items about social media. Some key strategies may involve how to narrow a search for information online, how to recognize authoritative or at least correct information once retrieved and how to apply it appropriately. The online environment provides instructors with numerous opportunities to coach students about how to retrieve and use information. This can range from using an online library to using digital learning objects scattered across social media sites. Learning objects may be as informal as a tweet or as formal as a powerpoint presentation in Slideshare. Further, all kinds of useful videos may already be posted in YouTube or TeacherTube. Smaller, highly-granular objects -- interactive maps, online dictionaries, diagrams, guides and flowcharts -- can be quite helpful and link with cognitive strategies that involve making connections, organizing and repeating (Nash, 2008).

Practical application

These procedures ask you to try things out. Effective learning strategies can be modeled and transferred by using simulations, games, and virtual worlds.

Self-regulation & efficacy

Time management

Using the calendar function can be very helpful for organizing and planning your time. You may also wish to analyze the tasks and match the tasks to the chunks of time you have available. Timed deadlines, and disabling/disabling access to Instant Messanger, chat, Skype, internet, and games may help.

Emotional control (anxiety, information overload, concentration)

Effective learning strategies in this area include procedures for minimizing and reducing anxiety, dealing with a lack of concentration or expressing your frustration. Because of the nature of social media technology, the online environment can create anxieties as technical difficulties arise. Poor design and navigation can create anxiety while good design can help learners gain an enhanced sense of self-efficacy and self concept. Keep in mind that the online environment (including the interface, nature of navigation, kinds of features) are in flux. This is also true of web 2.0 which incorporates mashups and other integrated web applications. One way to keep emotionally calm is to create your own web applications or to build your own presence in Myspace, Facebook, Linkedin or other social media.


Part of face-to-face instruction includes strategies to motivate students who do not like the instructional environment for some reason. Good instructional design can be effective in motivating students by adding visual interest, by making connections with peers and by providing other points of interest or reference. In addition, establishing relevance for students and instilling a sense of usefulness and urgency in mastering the topic are good strategies. Any course that helps to connect with others and to get information you need can be useful. Having access to social networking sites can be useful in creating study buddies, sharing helpful tips and hints and setting up mentoring. Virtual worlds (Second Life, encourage social networking in a productive, learning outcomes-oriented way. For example, you may find a tutor for Spanish in Second Life or through ning.

Comprehension monitoring

In traditional environments, monitoring student comprehension refers to how an instructor will evaluate the degree to which students have achieved the learning outcomes. Moreover, they help instructors identify gaps in comprehension or learning. In an online environment, successful students develop their own methods of testing themselves but a well-prepared instructor should provide additional ways to track and check on the comprehension of content and mastery of learning. This can take the form of e-mailing an instructor to obtain specific feedback or by submitting answers online to a computer program. Some students prefer to take online quizzes and engage in activities that help them assess whether or not they are on track. When building knowledge in social media, the instructor can also take advantage of the many social networks that are online where students can invite others to provide feedback.


The design and planning for an online course is a recursive process (Caffarella, 2002). Designing a course is also a process of acquiring new pedagogical skills and design strategies. According to Nash (2008), this seems to be a multi-stepped as well as iterative process, and requires an understanding of a) students, abilities, backgrounds, language, contexts, beliefs, core values, and reasons for taking courses; b) technological environment, which includes access, hardware, variability of access, complexity of interface, etc.; c) learning objectives; d) instructor, background and technical ability, understanding of effective mentoring, and willingness to adapt to ever-changing technological requirements.

Courses on social media should employ web 2.0 tools, tips and strategies to bring people and resources together regardless of their geographic location or technical skill. Social networking, collaborative information building, and informal learning tools (mashups, wikis) are constantly evolving and require constant monitoring. As these tools are a regular part of my teaching and learning, I aim to share my thoughts and ideas about them online as often as necessary in order to support my students' learning.


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