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Seven Things to Consider Before Developing Your Online Course

As the number of online courses and degree programs in higher education continues to increase, more faculty are being asked to design and develop online courses. Sometimes this course design and development process is done somewhat reflexively, in a short time period, and with limited planning and preparation. This is not ideal as it can lead to a more stressful course development process for instructors and negatively impact the quality of online offerings. This article will explore seven things that instructors should consider prior to developing an online course.

  1. Establish a reasonable timeline for designing and developing an online course. Most institutions have a routine process that is used to schedule what courses are to be offered during any given term, quarter, or semester. However, scheduling challenges can occur when instructors get sick, retire, or resign on short notice. While there is no standardized benchmark for how long it takes to develop an online course, instructors sometimes report feeling rushed during that process. There are numerous factors that come into play when developing an online course, such as if there will be repurposing of content, how much production help is provided to the instructor, an instructor’s current workload, etc. I recommend allowing six to 12 months for course development if instructors are doing the majority of the work themselves.
  1. Determine what you really want your students to know. This may sound like a basic tenet of teaching, however, when prepping new courses instructors often start developing content from chapters in a textbook without giving much thought to what it is they want students to learn and be able to demonstrate after a course is over. Backwards design is a form of curriculum planning where instructors identify the big ideas they want students to learn, determine how students will demonstrate that learning (e.g., create assessments) and then develop teaching materials and course activities to achieve that. This can be a significant paradigm shift for many instructors and consultation with an instructional designer or other learning specialist can be beneficial.
  1. Explore avenues to find course content. During the past 11 years, I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with about 300 faculty at my institution who made the decision to develop an online course. One trend I’ve seen over the past three to five years is faculty exploring beyond textbooks when gathering course content. These options include open educational resources (OER’s) such as Khan Academy, College Open Textbooks, OER Commons, OpenStax, MERLOT, MIT Open Courseware Online Textbooks, Lumen Learning, and many others. Leveraging OER’s presents an opportunity to save students money, and early research on OER’s suggests student learning is similar to that achieved with traditional sources, such as textbooks.
  1. Create an instructor participation plan. It has been my experience that few instructors think about and actually create an instructor participation plan prior to teaching online courses. However, doing so can help instructors ensure that they are routinely interacting and communicating with their students, and can also help instructors estimate the workload associated with a course. Items within an instructor participation plan could include: posting regular course announcements, offering virtual office hours, providing feedback on assignments or other assessments, responding to student questions, participating in online discussion forums, and offering synchronous exam reviews. Having such a plan established prior to the start of the course can help faculty feel more organized, prepared, and confident once the class gets underway.
  1. Determine how you will use technology in the class. Faculty sometimes assume that if a course is going to be offered online, they need to use a wide variety of technologies to successfully teach the class. That is not necessarily true. Using too much technology when teaching a course can be overwhelming and stressful for both students and faculty. When considering what technologies to use and how to use them, it is helpful for faculty to have a clear purpose for why they are using a given technology and how it’s use will enhance student learning. Many faculty use technologies in online courses to more effectively create and deliver content, enhance instructor presence, facilitate student to student interaction, and communicate with students.
  1. Manage your workload. Teaching online can be challenging and I’ve heard from many instructors that they underestimated the workload associated with teaching their online course. It is advisable for instructors to think about and estimate the workload associated with various aspects of their course (communicating with students, participating in discussion forums, grading and feedback, etc.) prior to a course starting. A common strategy employed by some online instructors to ease the workload burden while teaching is to reuse certain components—course announcements, discussion forum summaries, feedback on assessments—from one term to another. Of course, these will likely need to be revised and updated, but this can be a considerable time saver.
  1. Use existing faculty support services. Most institutions hire faculty support personnel to help faculty with the process of designing and developing online courses. These individuals often have a working title such as instructional designer, instructional technologist, educational technologist, e-learning specialist, media specialist, or learning strategist and are many times housed in an educational technology unit or a teaching and learning center. The help provided could be related to writing effective student learning outcomes, creating course content, infusing technology into online courses, designing course assessments, etc. It is important that institutions make sure instructors are aware that such support personnel exist and are willing to help, whether that be through providing individual consultations, leading campus workshops, or even facilitating comprehensive online instructor training courses.


Designing and developing an online course can be a daunting task for instructors. However, thinking about the seven items outlined in this article on the front end can help make the course development process less overwhelming, more enjoyable, and more successful for instructors.

Brian Udermann is the director of online education at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.