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What makes an online course great?

Five keys to designing online courses that engage learners and drive outcomes.

4 min read


What makes an online course great?


Creating a high quality online course is not an easy task. Focusing on key elements is essential to providing students with engaging and effective educational experiences. It is important to have meaningful activities, stellar resources and quality assessments.

As the mathematics curriculum and instruction coordinator at The Virtual High School, I have seen and designed many online courses. Our course design process encourages us to identify meaningful student outcomes, establish a holistic approach to unit design which students can engage with the content, and create assessments that allow students to demonstrate their knowledge. Here’s a closer look at what makes the best courses great:

Thoughtful and methodical design. The best courses are designed carefully; they’re not simply thrown together on a whim. A comprehensive and efficient course design process incorporates all these elements:

  • Course goals and learning objectives: Make sure they’re clearly spelled out in a way that students can understand and grasp.
  • Scope and sequence: Map it out ahead of time; don’t just leave it up to chance.
  • Storyboard of lessons and learning activities: Integrate interesting elements that will engage students and keep them interested.
  • Assessments: Test their knowledge and direct them back to content that needs to be relearned or reviewed.
  • Teacher-support materials: Give instructors the tools they need to be able to teach effectively and efficiently.

Interactive, collaborative environment. Interaction between students, and between student and teacher are critical to promoting deeper learning. Be sure to include interactive lessons, group projects, hands-on labs, class discussions, and private chats that students can use to connect directly with their teacher. Here are some other elements that contribute to a highly-collaborative online learning environment:

  • Video announcements, feedback, and tips
  • Online collaboration and discussion tools
  • Interactive video quizzes, tests, and video clips
  • Interactive instructions (for pre-labs, technical assistance, and demonstrations)
  • Ongoing outreach and support for students, teachers, and parents
  • Online peer reviews (for research papers, projects, etc.)

The three pillars of student learning. Content is what students learn. Instruction is how students learn. Evaluation is how students are assessed. Here’s how these three pillars translate into the online learning environment:

Content. Content standards are what students should know and be able to do with the knowledge. Learning outcomes are specific results that students achieve. Start by identifying meaningful student outcomes for developing a course, such as, “What should students learn? Where do we start?”

Instruction. Engaging learning activities include: class discussions, collaborative work in blogs and wikis, problem solving and projects. Start by establishing a holistic approach to unit design to ensure a wide variety of learning activities are available to keep students engaged.

Evaluation. Assessments plus teacher feedback leads to evaluation. Start by ensuring closely-aligned assessments to demonstrate student knowledge and skill, and by providing meaningful student feedback.

Accommodate a variety of learners. Some students learn by reading, others by doing, and still others by watching videos (and some by all three). Factor in kinesthetic, visual and other learning styles and serve up content that appeals to all learners. When designed right, online courses help students engage with the learning in a way that suits them best.

Careful pacing. Pace assignments so that students are neither overloaded nor bored during any given period. One effective way to do this is with asynchronous courses, where there are no live meeting times during which students and their teacher gather as a class. In a typical VHS course, students progress through the lessons, complete their assignments, participate in group projects, and contribute to class discussions at any time within the week. This provides students with the flexibility to learn at times that work best for them, while remaining part of a learning cohort. For additional support, some synchronous communications may be incorporated to help establish additional connections between students and teachers.

These elements all come together to create online courses that are truly engaging and valuable to a wide population of learners. Whether the student is retaking a course for credit recovery, taking Advanced Placement® coursework, or taking an elective course to explore a college major or career path, he or she deserves an environment that’s conducive to learning and knowledge retention. Are your school’s online offerings living up to these expectations?

Amy Miele is a senior curriculum and instruction coordinator for The Virtual High School, a Massachusetts-based non-profit organization that has empowered students, schools and teachers with quality online learning programs since 1996.


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