Planning a Great Online Class Through Roundabout Design

Roundabout features cars driving during fall and fall colored trees

Teaching a great online class requires more than an understanding of pedagogical strategies powered by technology. It requires a cohesive course design that enables all of our students to learn and succeed.

In asynchronous online courses, students navigate organizational structures, class materials, and activities, all without the real-time guidance of their instructor. And Learning Management Systems (LMSs) do little to help. These platforms have great potential to facilitate interaction and learning, but they are not (yet) intuitive environments.

To combat the twin challenges of online learner isolation and inhospitable LMSs we need impeccable course design. Here’s a planning framework to help us create equitable and inclusive online classes: Roundabout Design.

This approach is my evolution of Backward Design, created by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins in their 1998 book, Understanding by Design. The approach describes an intentional course planning process whereby we consider what we need our students to know and be able to do by the end of our class, then work backward from there to plan assignments, tests, activities, and materials to help students reach the desired destination.

Backward Design turns on its head a typical course planning process. When creating a new course, many of us start by identifying the textbook, then we build the rest of the course elements based on that selection. We have goals in mind for what we want students to get out of the class, but we may not start with those goals. Backward Design encourages us to do so. As a planning framework it fosters our ability to create well aligned courses in which all the elements work together to support student learning.

The problem with Backward Design, in my view, is that this is not the way we actually plan our courses. Though the authors encourage us to revisit course elements as we plan, there’s still a strong sense that we should start with the learning objectives. In my experience, that’s not how faculty members think about their class. That’s why I’ve found Roundabout Design to be a more authentic approach that accounts for all of my planning considerations in whatever order I’m thinking about them.

We’ve all been drivers in an unfamiliar country or location, and in that unfamiliar locale, we may have come across a traffic roundabout where we didn’t feel confident about which exit to take. Sometimes we drive round and round the roundabout until we figure it out.

When planning an inclusive and engaging online course, we know where we are, as the expert in our subject matter. We know where we want our students to get to by the time they reach the end of our class. Engaging in our planning process can sometimes feel a bit like going around a traffic roundabout.

The exits in this course planning roundabout represent the various considerations we must attend to. As I consider how to help my online students get to where they need to go, I take an exit, explore the options and possibilities in that category of course elements, and then return to the roundabout, only to take a different exit. Here’s a look at the roundabout exits, in no particular order, that foster our ability to create online classes that welcome and support all learners.

Textbook and required class materials. What will students read and watch to initially engage with new concepts and information? The textbook or other required books and materials may be the very backbone of our online class. This central element gives shape to the student learning experience, and it’s a natural place to start our thinking about a new class.

As you take this exit, consider inclusive and culturally responsive course materials in which students can see themselves. If the textbook cover image features only white people, or if photos in the book don’t include people from all cultural backgrounds, that sends a clear message to students of color or other marginalized populations such as women in STEM fields.

Yes, the quality of the book’s content is important, but so is our aim to convey to all of our diverse learners that they belong in our class. Look for materials that represent a range of cultures, and with contributions from a diverse range of people, too.

Likewise, explore the options for Open Educational Resources. With large numbers of students facing food or housing insecurity, it is only right to look for robust, rigorous materials that don’t require the people in our classes to choose between groceries and the textbook. Want to teach an inclusive online class? Make every effort not to exclude students who are struggling financially.

Activities, assignments, and tests. Taking this exit, we think about what we want students to do with the new information we’re teaching them. Here we consider what options we have in our Learning Management System (LMS) that allow students to practice applying new concepts, to try solving problems, to interact with information, get their hands on it, and work with it. And then, once they’ve had opportunity to practice, interact, and explore, to show what they’ve learned on the assessments we create.

In my view, LMSs leave a lot to be desired in terms of welcoming and supporting students, but they do have a particular strength: these platforms feature tools and technologies that foster effective time on task. Left to their own devices, students mistakenly think all they have to do to learn new information is read and highlight the textbook, then re-read their highlights and notes, if they took any.

This practice creates fluency with new information, leading students to believe they’ve learned it. But that’s not how learning works; while students might retain information long enough to pass their upcoming test, for example, reading and re-reading doesn’t lead to long-term, durable, flexible learning.

Instead, our LMS allows us to create activities and assessments that take advantage of the affordances of technology, as my colleague Michelle D. Miller argues in her book, Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology. Will students solve homework sets? Take weekly mastery quizzes? Engage in lab simulations? Process new concepts in online discussions? Annotate texts with their peers? Create video presentations to explain why a phenomenon does what it does? The technology in our online classes helps students work with material in meaningful ways that will lead to deeper, more durable learning.

Engagement and interaction. As we take this roundabout exit, we consider how to foster our own interaction with students as well as their interaction with each other. Building and sustaining community in online classes requires cultivating relationships between the people in our classes, ourselves included. We can achieve this goal by intentionally planning inclusive and equitable strategies to support students as they relate with us and each other.

For example, how do you plan to work with your students at the beginning of the course, and how will you continue week by week? You might:

  • send a welcome message before the class begins with a link to a friendly, casual video in which you greet students, convey enthusiasm for the semester ahead, and provide information about what they can do to get off to a strong start in your class.
  • begin each week with a written or recorded announcement that previews topics and activities for the week ahead.
  • engage with students in your online discussion forums or social annotation activities, providing guidance and incremental feedback throughout the week.
  • wrap up each week with a module summary announcement, where you summarize and distill the most important points from that week’s activities.
  • grade and return assignments in a timely fashion so students don’t have to wait for long to receive your all-important feedback on the work they submit for assessments.
  • respond to emails within one business day, so students feel heard and supported.
  • provide optional synchronous online office hours, review sessions, or other real-time opportunities to engage with students and answer their questions.

None of the above suggestions are particularly difficult, but they do take thinking through, planning in advance, scheduling time in your weekly calendar to engage in these activities, and communicating about them in the syllabus or other course materials. This roundabout exit allows you to explore which of these ideas, or others, will best mesh with your own teaching style and preferences while simultaneously supporting all of your diverse learners.

You can ask yourself the same question regarding how students will interact with each other. Will you plan group work? Create study buddies to allow students to support each other informally throughout each week? Encourage robust participation in online discussions? Students really do learn from each other in lots of formal and informal ways. Connect them intentionally to foster everyone’s success online.

Learning goals. As you circle around the course-planning roundabout, a frequent exit should be your goals for student learning in the class. Whatever online activity you’re thinking of doing, return to this exit to ensure that it supports the achievement of those goals. Ask yourself: Why do I want students to engage in this task? Will it help them successfully meet my class goals? Or is it well-intentioned but not directly related to our overall purpose here?

Asking these questions as you take this exit will help you avoid assigning busy work or other “course bloat” activities that don’t contribute meaningfully to your pedagogical purpose in the class.

As I plan an online class, each time I approach the roundabout I’ve moved a little further along the course development road. Lest you think I’m proposing endlessly spinning our wheels without making forward progress, fear not. Roundabout Design fosters onward movement and inclusive online teaching that welcomes and supports all learners.

To be sure, we all strive to create an intentionally designed learning experience for our students. I have never met an instructor who threw a bunch of random stuff into their class and expected their students to arrive at the desired learning goals.

But Roundabout Design allows us to repeatedly revisit course elements to ensure they support our overarching goal of creating an engaging and inclusive online course. This process fosters our ability to help all of our diverse online learners thrive.


Flower Darby is an instructional designer and the author, with James M. Lang, of Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes. Her new book, The Spark of Online Learning: How Technology and Emotion Science Invigorate Every Class, is forthcoming from West Virginia University Press.