How To Create A "Design Blueprint" With A Flexible Learning Sequence For Your Online Course?

How To Create A "Design Blueprint" With A Flexible Learning Sequence For Your Online Course?
Summary: Over the last three years I have focused my instructional design efforts on a specific context: higher education courses delivered via a learning management system (LMS) by subject matter experts (SMEs). I have been particularly interested in developing best practices and a standardized framework for online syllabi.

How To Create A Design Blueprint

Researchers have identified three functions of an online course syllabus:

  • (a) contract1,
  • (b) communication tool2 and
  • (c) learning aid3.

As I have assisted in the development of dozens of syllabi for online courses, a focus on these three functions has mitigated many of the challenges inherent to the separation in space and time between online instructors and online learners. I have also seen how inter-semester revisions can undermine the effectiveness of a syllabus. As a result, I have come to the conclusion that online learners are best served by a schedule of activities and due dates provided in a separate document.

In my experience, many online syllabi include a “course schedule” that is abbreviated and/or designated as “subject to change”. While sometimes due to a “last minute” approach, more often I have found that instructors require flexibility in their course schedules to accommodate dynamic instructional practices. For instance, incorporating the learning goals of a particular group of students into the course’s delivery may require a change  in the sequence of the activities.

Developing a course schedule as a separate document encourages a distinction between what may be labeled as “adaptive” and “disruptive” changes to a course. For example, many students may benefit from changes driven by the pacing needs of a particular cohort4. On the other hand, a last-minute change in the main textbook could profoundly alter a course’s learning outcomes, and even affect a student’s ability to coordinate with post-requisite courses5.

At the Faculty Assistance Center for Teaching (FACT) at Utah State University, we have developed a tool that assists instructors with building an accessible course schedule in a native PDF environment—the free Adobe Reader. The PDF Course Schedule Builder assists instructors in mapping the order of learning activities by module, providing descriptions for each activity and designating due dates. Dynamic rows within each module enable changes in the sequence of learning activities to be made with a few clicks of the mouse.

As an Instructional Designer, I have found this tool particularly effective when working with an instructor to create a new, fully-online class, and when making extensive revisions to existing courses of any type. A course schedule functions as a “design blueprint” that guides the development of webpages and wikis, assessments (discussions, quizzes, assignments, etc.), communication methods and collaboration spaces. With the PDF Course Schedule Builder, a beneficial design document and an important learner resource are developed simultaneously.

Watch the “how-to” video

Download the PDF Course Schedule Builder:


  • Slattery, J.M.; Carlson, J.F. (2005). "Preparing an effective syllabus: current best practices.". College Teaching 54 (4): 159–164.
  • Habanek, D.V. (2005). "An examination of the integrity of thesyllabus". College Teaching 53 (2): 62–64.
  • Parks, J.; Harris, M.B. (2002). "The purpose of a syllabus.". College Teaching 50 (2): 55–61.
  • Holdgate, P.; Roberts, S. (2012). “Programming the progamme: pacing the curriculum in architectural education.” The Higher Education Academy. Available at:
  • Callaghan, J., Lauer, T.W., & Peacock, E. (1998). Developing a Comprehensive Curriculum For Accounting Information Systems:  A Model-Oriented, Tool-Enhanced Approach. The Review of Account Information Systems, 2, 57-65.

Contact me: george [dot] joeckel [at] usu [dot] edu

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