July 6th, 2011

Five Common Pitfalls of Online Course Design


Much of what passes for an “online course” these days could more accurately be described as the electronic version of class hand-outs. These courses usually consist of a course description, a syllabus, lecture notes, reading lists, and assignment checklists. In other words, whatever materials a student might have viewed on paper in the past are now read onscreen, and whatever presentations a student might have watched in the classroom are now observed on their screen.

Perhaps this suffices to replicate the classroom experience for students who are participating at a distance, but is this the best way to use the capabilities of a computer to support learning? It’s not unlike typing text into a slide presentation without realizing you could add sound, images, animations, colors, links, and videos. If you would like your online course to go beyond the offline paradigm, you will need to avoid the following five pitfalls of online course creation.

Online Course Design Pitfall #1: Upload your course materials, then call it a day.
Reading your course material on a computer screen does not make for a memorable learning experience. Step back and take a fresh look at your content in the larger context of the world and the Web. Think about how you can re-author your materials so that they leverage Web resources and computer applications. Rework that hand-out on tedious lab procedures into a colorful, animated slideshow. Bring a historic context to life through links to period paintings, historic sites, or even contemporary Google street views. Use your imagination to leverage the capabilities afforded by a computer connected to the Internet.

Online Course Design Pitfall #2: Let the course management system drive your thinking.
Course management systems (CMS) are usually preconfigured with a course template that instructors are expected to populate with their course description, syllabus, assignments, and announcements. Often these templates are focused on content that is more related to course administration rather than the educational experience. An empty template invites you to fill it with text-based information rather than opening your mind to wider possibilities. Start by thinking about the kinds of learning experiences you want to create rather than letting the CMS define a more limited view of putting your course online.

Online Course Design Pitfall #3: Insist on being the “sage on the stage.”
In the old model of education, the instructor stood on the podium and served as the students’ revered and primary access point to the desired knowledge. Today, your students may be Googling your lecture topic while you speak and finding three sources that update or improve upon your presentation. The Web provides instantaneous access to an enormous volume of opinions, commentary, and knowledge related to your topic. As a result, your role is now more of a content curator—the one who prunes and trains the branches that extend from your expertise out into the world. The Web enables interdisciplinary links, associations, relationships, and openness. Your course should be a place where students come to participate in the connections that can be made between your subject and the outside world. Build these bridges into your online course materials, and become a facilitator of these important connections.

Online Course Design Pitfall #4: Expect your students to consume knowledge rather than create it.
Most online courses aim at pouring content into student containers rather than supporting students in making that knowledge their own through practice, experience, and play. The interactivity and interconnectedness of computers provides increased opportunity for students to actively participate in their learning rather than passively consuming what you feed them. Developing content that asks students to recall and apply what they have learned is essential to the education process. In many cases, you can ask students to use the same digital tools you have used to explain your ideas in order to demonstrate their own understanding. In an online course, this could mean peppering your online content with quick test-your-comprehension questions or developing exercises that ask students to generate data, capture and upload photos of evidence, research connections to real-world conditions, or create explanatory slideshows.

Online Course Design Pitfall #5: Ignore the ways students learn from each other.
Many online courses assume a two-way dialogue between each student and the instructor, and they forget about the ways in which students learn from each other’s mistakes, ideas, and input. Consider creating wiki spaces in which groups of students can work together. Include assignments that require students to share ideas and resources, present topics to each other, and critique each other’s work. Use online communication tools and collaborative spaces to foster a class-wide web of supportive contact rather than settling into multiple parallel channels between you and each student.

The “online” in online course does not mean uploading Word documents into a course template rather than printing them out. Expand your view of how computer applications and Web resources can be used to increase the relevance, power, and memorability of the educational experiences you create.

Elizabeth St. Germain is the vice president of publishing and editorial services at nSight, a content development and communications services firm that specializes in learning and information products — and the people who create and produce them. To learn about nSight’s eLearning and course development services, visit http://www.nsightworks.com.

  • caponturist

    Thanks for this article, I was just conducting a study on project based learning in Online learning environment. I suppose this article is also beneficial for me.

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  • Jeff

    Good overview for all to remember as they design for the upcoming school year. Key Words:
    Learning Facilitator
    Collaborative Learning….

  • Great post. Makes you reflect on what you've done. For my course I use a number of tools, the best being livestream. In the livestream studio you can blend your thoughts with video from a number of sources, hopefully provoking thinking on the part of the students. This summer I had two students who stayed fairly well engaged throughout the intense period of summer school. They both had many distractions. They performed as well – by and large – as students in a ftof class. I lost one of three, and that was the one who stayed in our college town and complained about being confused on how to get the work done, but didn't respond to email, phone calls or text messages inviting him to cross the street and see me at my home. No matter how well you try to engage students, some will choose to disengage.

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  • Doc Finance

    Of course you have to keep in mind that most courses are designed to fit within a curriculum. In my case, for instance, I teach the same course online and face-to-face at the same time, so an important challenge is to make sure that they cover the same material and prepare students for the remainder of their degree. It's also important to have the same level of rigor in the online as in the face-to-face course, to prevent arbitrage between sections and/or instructors. Finally, the student interaction component seems to depend on the students – it's been well documented that students are more than willing to interact for cheating, but that synchronous online courses are very unpopular. What they can learn from each other IS important, as long as they're actually learning course material and not just how to game the CMS or open testing windows.

  • Elizabeth, this is a great summary and framing of potential issues and what to do about them. I'm sharing your post with my higher-ed colleagues who are at various stages of online teaching/learning. How about a follow-up column from you that addresses Doc Finance's concerns?

  • Bill

    An interesting summary of online course design. This reminds me of the beginning of the movie industry. They first started by placing a camera in front of a stage and filmed a stage play or musical. Then they started to put back drops behind the actors. Next they started to build movie sets, then location shooting, then/now computer generated scenery. So we are now realizing we need to make it better/different from a traditional classroom course. It will happen as time moves on but in the meantime people are just copying their course ware to the web. But you are seeing a lot of innovation as we move forward.

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  • Great post. I'm totally agree with your 5 points. Online teaching supposes for teachers to reinterpret and recreate material. They must adapt it to the student's attention in front of his computer which is not the same attention as if he was in a face to face lesson. Students can be more distracted by the web and teachers have to find ways to motivate him (maybe by adding games in the lesson or interactive tools/apps like youtube, google maps, etc).

  • One of the big changes for me in the online environment was assuming the role of a facilitator, rather than an interactive lecturer. As described in the article, allowing the students to foster learning and, as I like to call it, internalizing the information so that the students would apply the principles again because they were able to experience 'how to do so' through the course. I just finished designing a course for Social Media Marketing, and it was so obvious in that case that they needed to 'do it' and I added activities in, such as evaluating and setting up LinkedIn profiles and tweeted discussions, and balanced that with research on Social Media Marketing best practices.

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  • Alex W. White

    Fascinating and supportive of the material we are covering in a Web2.0 course at Parsons the New School for Design, The New School University. Viz Pitfall #5: I have always encouraged students to rely on each other first when figuring out an assignment. This teaches them to think and make choices they then have to defend. /// As a professor of visual arts, I find the class critique is the most significant part of my teaching: students learn by seeing what their classmates are doing and attempting to do more or better in response. I wonder how hard it may be to persuade students to upload images to a common site where they can see each others’ work as it develops between critiques. They may worry their ideas are going to be stolen.

  • Colette

    Thanks for this article. I am in the conceptual phase of creating an online course and this information has already led me to modify my approach.

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  • Domingo

    Creo que los cursos en línea deben ser diseñados en forma diferente, ya no es posible concebir la enseñanza con la misma estructura de la clase tradicional, es decir, los alumnos se deben sentir tentados a conocer el tema y a experimentar por sus propios medios guiados por el profesor, situación que puede ser revertida a través de la participación de los mismos en grupos y con la discusión entre los grupos y ellos mismos.

  • Nancy

    The pitfalls highlighted are also problems made by teachers in a traditional mode of instruction.

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  • Patricia Hoffman

    Another pitfall is: Don't accept poorly written software to post your classes content. The software system MUST work. Everyone who uses the software needs to interact well. They also need credit for their work. Make administrators responsible for providing to the needs of YOUR class. One solution does not work for everyone.

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