Designing Online Courses with Course Updates in Mind

Online courses are rarely “done.” Over time, things change, including the curriculum and content (because of changes in the field and changes to available content) and the technologies (ways that the content can be delivered and tools for interacting with it and with others in the courses, including you).

Bottom line: Just like initial course development, updating courses can be quite a lot of work. You can reduce the hassles and work (but not eliminate them) by designing your online courses with updating them in mind. That is, design so that updating is built into the process, not tacked on as an afterthought.

Identify change-likely elements
Most course designers start with a list of objectives or topics and then design the course elements, including content (such as narrated slides, reading materials, animations, audio clips, etc.), activities for students to do (such as answer discussion questions, review a site, perform tasks, etc.), and assessments (such as programs, reports, and tests).

High-level design tables, such as the one below, are often used to organize what will happen in the course. A high-level design table is then typically used to inform more-detailed design, including the design, development, integration, and testing of all the course elements.








One way to reduce the (unexpected) hassle in course updating is to identify up front the elements that are less likely to need updating and the elements that are more likely to need updating. Elements that are less likely to need updating may include content that doesn’t change and won’t need a what’s-happening-now focus. For a business writing course, for example, grammar rules are unlikely to change, so the content, activities, and assessments around those rules are likely to be stable. That doesn’t mean you won’t ever change it. In fact, you may indeed change it, for reasons discussed later.

Elements that are more likely to need updating may include content that normally changes over time (for example, certain science and Web design topics) and topics that are closely aligned with current events (for example, government and law topics).

To reduce update surprises, make note of elements likely to need changes and how often they likely will need updating when you are designing your courses. You could color-code the elements in your high-level design or use unique symbols that indicate when the element needs to be reevaluated for updating. Also note whether changes in those elements will cause update issues elsewhere in the course. For example, changes in content commonly necessitate changes in assessments.

Then, while the content and course are fresh, create an update plan so that when you get ready to update, you already know what needs to be done. This will save you time, energy, and hassles because you won’t need to start from scratch in determining how to go about updating.

Changes likely anyway
Certain aspects of your courses are going to change over time, even if the content itself is fairly stable. These include changes in textbooks, readings, and other “outside” content and changes to technologies (used for teaching and learning online).

When new versions of a textbook or a new textbook altogether is used, it is likely to impact all the other elements of your course. If you know that a new version of the textbook becomes available every X years, you should factor that time period into your course updating plans. The more closely your course content, activities, and assessments are tied to a text or readings, the more updating will be needed when that text or those readings change.

To reduce course update (and other) hassles, a bioethics professor I know “unhooks” the text and readings from the other content, activities, and assessments, and I think this approach could work for others as well. She supplies a list of readings (including the textbook) and time frames for reading them to students, but these readings are not in strict lockstep with other course content. Her goal is to provide foundational information in the time period before students will need it to understand the other content she supplies. She does pull test questions from these readings, so she has to update the test each time she updates the readings.

Another way to reduce updates caused by changes in readings is to develop general activity and assessment templates that can be used with minor tweaks as readings are changed. For example, an activity template that prompts students to select and justify the most significant influence/reason/outcome can be used with a variety of readings and isn’t tied to a very specific reading or readings. These kinds of templates can be developed to match the desired learning outcomes and tweaked to map to specific content as it changes.

Over time, the tools and technologies available to you inside and outside of your course management system will change as well, and this will influence how you “do” your course. For example, collaborative document creation tools (such as Google Docs) or easy-to-create media development tools (such as Google SketchUp) may change how your course works and the way you present content. This is to be expected and is, in my opinion, one of the fun parts about being involved in online course creation and delivery.

Patti Shank, PhD, CPT, is a widely recognized information and instructional designer and writer and author who helps others build valuable information and instruction. She can be reached through her website:

Excerpted from Online Classroom, January 2010, 4-5.