Course Design Basics

Planning a successful hybrid or online course requires starting with the right foundation before the semester begins. To prepare a successful course in which students are fully engaged, we recommend a minimum of 4 to 6 months of preparation. What follows is a list of a few of the most important ideas to begin thinking about before you design your course.


Research shows that the the most effective learning environments are those that emphasize three important types of engagement:

  • Student to student: "the ability of participants to identify with the community (e.g., course of study), communicate purposefully in a trusting environment, and develop inter-personal relationships by way of projecting their individual personalities." (Garrison Richardson. 2009. A constructivist approach to online learning: the Community of Inquiry framework)
  • Student to instructor: the design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes for the purpose of realizing personally meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning outcomes.
  • Student with content: the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse.

Outcomes and Objectives

Planning a successful hybrid or online course requires starting with the right foundation: a clear understanding of what students should know and be able to do by the time they complete a course. To write the best learning objectives, keep two things in mind:

  • Specific.
  • Measurable

Some objectives fail because they're not directly observable.

  • "Students will appreciate the benefits of a democratic system of government" fails the measurability test because there's no way to pry inside someone's head to see if they're appreciative.

Other objectives fail because they're too vague.

  • "Students will learn about American history" could become: "Students will be able to describe the arguments used by the Confederate States to justify secession from the union."

If you'd like more information about learning objectives, please start with the following:

Site Organization

One of the most common frustrations that students have in online and hybrid courses is not being able to find what they're looking for. As faculty, the choices we make when designing our course websites may make sense to us, but if students are consistently stymied by our organization choices—then perhaps it's time to rethink things.

A well-organized course site begins with thinking about how to support students when they visit the site for the first time. We recommend adding a special "Begin Here" area to your site. In this area you can introduce yourself, discuss the format of the course, direct them to the syllabus or other content areas, request that they introduce themselves on the discussion board, remind them of the course's technology requirements, and ease their anxiety about how to begin the course.

Other simple but important changes to your course's design include changing the names of the default content areas in your Blackboard site. Instead of having a "Course Information" area, consider renaming it "Syllabus and Calendar." Similarly, an area named "Course Documents" might be much more useful if you renamed it "Learning Modules" or "Weekly Content."

Quality Matters

Quality Matters is an emerging national standard for quality in online instruction. The heart of the process is a rubric for measuring the design quality of online learning sites. This rubric is designed by faculty for faculty, and is updated on a regular basis to stay current with instructional technology and pedagogical best practices. Grand Valley is a QM-subscribing institution, and we offer faculty access to the rubric in order to help them shape the choices they make as they build their hybrid and online courses.

Disability Support Resources

Just as in your traditional courses you need to ensure accessibility of materials in an online or hybrid format. For more information visit Disability Support Resources for more regarding accessibility options for digital content.

Page last modified December 14, 2018