Creating Quality Designed Online Courses
Kevin Phillips/

How To Create Quality Designed Online Courses

Often times, as Instructional Designers, we are met with questions from faculty about students not being able to locate certain items in their online courses. 

1. Course Menu

One way to combat this is to have a user-friendly designed course menu. Rather than having all of your content listed in different areas throughout the course, why not design some symmetry?! Having the presence of subcategories is essential to the student’s success being able to navigate around the course seamlessly.

You first need an area where the students can access the information that is vital to the course. Course information serves this purpose. Inside this area, you will find the 'start here' page which includes the faculty’s credentials, syllabi, course-level objectives, and course schedule. Next, you have 'course communication' which houses all of the tools needed to interact with everyone in the course. This includes the main discussion board, collaborate ultra (virtual office hours tool), announcements, and course mail. Communication is key to have in an online course, and having those tools readily available and visible will be a welcoming sight for students. Course modules are where all of the course content will be. Depending on the course length whether it's 5 weeks, 8 weeks, 15 weeks or another length having modules present keeps the course design clean and streamlined. Inside of each module will be the weekly folders. Those weekly folders are where all of the weekly objectives, to-do lists, readings, assignments, discussions, etc. will be located. And lastly, we have 'course resources'. This is where the students will find my grades, resources, purchase course materials, research and adapt course materials (reserved for faculty and hidden from students), and tools. Often times, depending on the course structure, students tend to not visit the 'course resources' area. To help with this issue, you can create a direct link to the resources area on the 'start here' page. It is imperative to show the students that they have resources to help with their experience online at their disposal.

2. Icons

Using icons are not only utilized as a course design aspect but can also serve for easily identifying all of the items throughout the course. To better comprehend how students interact with online learning, we worked closely with student Graphic Designers to construct these icons. Currently, we have 34 different icons that represent a wide range of different areas such as journals, lectures, videos, surveys, and more. We also found these to be very instrumental to our visually-impaired students in that describing what they are accessing through alt text. They serve a purpose to all of our students.

3. Accessibility

Online learning can sometimes be a challenging environment for all types of students. Students with disabilities, in particular, can face hurdles and obstacles trying to navigate around these online courses. Course structure and design are most valuable for these students. We found this to be a problematic issue not adhering to all students and not just the students who do not have a disability. Granted, we had alt text on images and links along with videos being closed captioned, along with the icons just described above. However, we did not take into consideration other areas of importance such as duplicate items and tables. Having the ability to use screen readers will help tremendously being able to experience what those students are experiencing first hand on a daily basis. For example, on the 'start here' page, there is an item named 'start here' as well, which caused confusion amongst the students who have already read that in the course menu. That design flaw was corrected but was never a concern to us while we were designing the course. The screen reader JAWS was able to help with this issue. Tables are initially thought to be a simplistic way to convey and organize the content, but in terms of having the screen reader reading it turned out to be difficult. JAWS was not able to read this, and this caused the student to miss this entire area. As you are designing your online course, remember to keep in mind all the students. Making your courses accessible is an integral part of the student’s success.

4. Resource Guides

How many times has a student contacted you about how to do something in the course such as how to navigate the virtual office tool or recording and uploading their presentation? It happens too often. To help combat these issues, have guides that walk them through the process of accomplishing these tasks. With the combination of Instructional Designers and our student Graphic Designer, we create step by step guides. To make sure that our steps are functional and easy to follow, we have our student graphic designer go through it.

5. Grade Center

The grade center is one of the most visited areas for students. With that, it is critical to have that area as organized as possible. It happens toο often that the faculty copy over their course from the last semester and carry over unused grade columns. Students see all of those columns, which can cause unwarranted confusion. The best practice would be here to double check your grade center and make sure those columns not being used are removed. Also, old dates for assessments in the course can cause confusion and disruption as well. Having these issues present takes away from what’s important, and that is definitely teaching the course.

6. Resources For Faculty

Since the summer of 2015, we have applied a new online course development structure to ensure quality assurance. With that, we not only created guides for the students but for the faculty as well. We would only share these resources based on need. This became an issue trying to figure out how we can share them with the entire campus. We came up with creating a Blackboard course and embedded all our guides enrolling all of the faculty in it. We currently have about 65 guides/handouts covering a wide range of topics such as Blackboard, Kaltura (video repository software), Blackboard Collaborate (virtual office hours tool), and more. We are not able to provide support for the faculty after hours but with this online course, but they can access our guides 24/7.