Four Essential Criteria for an Effective Online Course

In 2012, Michael Bell joined Norton, where he established and now leads the Customer Success Department. His team is responsible for implementation and course design support for our products, including building content into LMSs like Blackboard, Canvas, and D2L. He is certified by the Online Learning Consortium in online course design.

Michael Bell
Image Credit: Michael Bell

Like many of us in the spring of 2020, I found myself on a webinar, struggling through some difficult conversations with colleagues, trying to imagine what the future was going to look like. We didn’t know how long we’d be quarantined, or what to expect in the coming months, but we knew things were changing rapidly in education. We were particularly concerned that, in the middle of the term, and often without any experience, guidance, or tools, instructors were being told to throw out their syllabi and spend the weekend building an online course in their LMS.

My team specializes in implementation and support of Norton’s digital progress, including LMS integration, online course design, and proactive support, and, with everyone moving online all at once, we were lucky to be in a position to help a lot of first timers navigate a challenging task during a difficult time. We learned quickly to focus our attention on a few common online teaching principles, where most new online instructors were commonly tripping up. I’ll walk through them below, and, though they may seem basic, if ignored, these criteria have the highest potential to generate friction in a course.

All course content must be accessible through the same interface:

If possible, all content should be accessed through the LMS (Blackboard, Canvas, D2L, etc.). Even when using external websites or tools, including web conferencing software, everything should be linked through the LMS course. If available, LTI integration can provide the power of external apps and tools while still providing a consistent experience in terms of organization and grade reporting. This is a big focus for my team when they work with instructors, and it really is important to make the LMS the hub for all communication and tools. Additional sites and sign-ins can add a lot of unneeded complexity to a course, so it’s worth the effort to get everything integrated with the LMS.

Course content is consistent and predictable:

Organizing course content into bite-sized learning modules is critical for student success. The way the course home page is structured should serve as a visual syllabus and timeline that clearly communicates to students what needs to be completed next.

These modules should be as predictable as possible. Having a repeated sequence (for example, “reading, formative assessment, asynchronous content, summative assessment”) helps students plan ahead and understand what is expected of them—particularly how much time it will take to engage with the content. That way students can effectively plan and set themselves up for success.

For our products we provide ready-made templates with a modular structure already built out, but our tools can also be customized to fit into an existing design. Having that kind of adaptability from a tool is important, so that students have a consistent experience.

Potential student friction is anticipated (and redirected away from the instructor):

Care should be taken to reduce the number of navigational moves a student needs to make. All content should be as directly linked as possible to avoid potential navigation issues, but that isn’t always possible. For this reason, we provide video walk-throughs for student registration and introductions to our tools, but I recommend creating video walk-throughs of anything requiring students to make more than a couple clicks.

Being available to students is important for any online instructor, but those conversations should be focused on the content of the course and NOT troubleshooting. We provide student support resources to instructors, but I still recommend creating a course FAQ that addresses common questions and provides links to documentation as well as campus and third-party resource pages. It’s the best way to insulate the instructor from tech support questions so they can focus on teaching.

The best online courses are constantly evaluated and improved:

As we learned all too well, building an effective online course is difficult to pull off in one weekend, so it’s best to create the best course possible within the time, tools, and information available, but plan to continuously improve over time.

Some of the updates you identify will be as simple as adding a new entry to the Q and A and could be as complicated as adding a new learning tool or assessment strategy, but unless something is preventing students from accessing content or completing activities, big changes should wait until between terms. An important part of our process is checking in toward the end of each term to discuss what went well and if any adjustments need to be made, before creating an implementation plan for the next term, but you could pick any date to serve as an occasion to evaluate your course and plan any changes. It’s just important that it is on the calendar.

For evaluation I’m a fan of student surveys, with a healthy combination of multiple choice and open response questions—this should be anonymous and separate from a formal school evaluation, so that the questions can be focused on the mechanics of the course. I also keep a running list of emails I receive from students to help identify other friction points. We learned a lot from our experience during the early days of the pandemic, and it was clear helping instructors avoid these pitfalls would still be an important part of the work we’d be doing moving forward. As a result, we’ve expanded our team so we can continue to provide hands-on support from a dedicated Customer Success Manager to each of our customers. Having a support professional with experience in building and running online courses makes it easy to get started, and knowing that they stay in touch throughout the term to ensure things are going smoothly is critical to moving forward with confidence. We look forward to our continued role in helping instructors build courses and improve students’ online engagement.

Leave a Reply