Designing Online Courses: Balancing Content and Community

I create courses regularly as a part of my day job. Coordinating composition programs, I have found, often means creating a default course and curriculum that can support adjuncts and other part time instructors in our department, and which full-time faculty can also draw from and modify in their own content design.

This activity and task has seen some wrinkles in my time. This was the first time I had to design a curriculum for composition to be delivered completely online. The experiences of actually shifting online quickly showed me that the experiences of the users (i.e. teaching and students) have to be weighed heavily when we create the courses, a sentiment echoed by a wide survey of faculty and students by the Gates Foundation. Consequently, I have rethought my ideas about designing for access, community, and scaling when creating courses, and which especially apply when creating courses for online learning.

Designing for Access: Chunking and Active Verbs

Courses online can easily become too overwhelming to understand for the user. This has to do less with the materials and activities themselves and more about how information and instruction are delivered textually in the online format. Plenty of research shows that the mediation required through online delivery systems actually taxes our brains – technically called bandwidth, in the original sense of the term – and makes it harder to understand the lessons themselves. The two techniques that works to make this process easier is to chunk information into smaller bits and stating what is to be done in active verbs.

Chunking refers to breaking down information into bite sized units that the user can complete in one sitting. This can be a chapter or a lesson, but it then connects to other discrete units in sequence. The key is to think of your course as a set of to-do lists. It might seem contrary to the open inquiry that we idealize as learning, but that is not how learning happens in the online format. The very medium of delivery automatically orients students to cut down on creativity and look at it as a task done on a computer.

Consequently, the way to frame things would therefore be to state them as tasks using active verbs. You can also go one step further and make those active verbs correspond to Bloom’s Taxonomy. The use of those verbs does provide a schema for you to think through the tasks and understand what exactly you are doing in your course learning strategies. It also provides a way for interdisciplinarity because multiple departments and organizations in and outside the college use the word-lists in the taxonomy to understand what they do in terms of learning.

Designing for Community: Interactions and Socialization

The main flaw in online teaching is that it takes away a sense of community and organic interactions in the learning space. This is often the most beneficial and gratifying aspect of the teaching job; teaching in the classroom is about working with people. Online courses take this human interaction away and puts even the experience of learning into an isolated box. The effects of this distance from instructors and other learners are particularly bad for nontraditional and first generation students, people who do not possess the traditional forms of “cultural capital” that support their learning and access to higher education. While we cannot really do anything to replace the aspect of human interaction in the learning process – even the tech utopians in the popular press are pointing out how online education fails because it cannot substitute for human interaction.

This being said, the main thing we have to do when translating courses into online delivery forms is to create spaces for interaction. These should take place outside of the lesson delivery forms themselves, and usually take place through informal discourse. The classic space for that is the discussion forum, which various online course designers advocate for, and provide useful recommendations to improve engagement. These include: do not use discussions as busy work and do not use discussions to check on readings; do use discussions to set-up debates on a topic and use assigned readings as support and do use clear rubrics to set expectations about the amount of information expected.

To this I would add the use of multimedia in discussion posts. Students should be encouraged to embed videos or audios or other forms of responses in their posts. These could be done by asking students to create their responses using the type of social media they use the most and then embed that into the discussion forum. This, I think, would get them to feel more comfortable in responding to their points.

Screenshot of a multimedia discussion post: Students are natural in their use of social media tools to communicate. I think that provides an opportunity for them to post discussions that they would find interesting and therefore improve engagement.

Rubrics that refer to content of posts and engagement with the prompt or the original post would apply to all mediums of posts and so it would not matter whether the poster used videos, or audio, or even a tweet in their discussion response.

Designing for Scaling: Reiteration and Backward Design

The idea of backward design has been around in curricular instruction for a while now and it’s longevity is well deserved. Thinking about creating a curriculum from the end – final takeaway – makes the entire process of pedagogy much simpler and easier. It is true that such a framework might do away with the open spaces that might lead to original and unplanned learning when we start from the viewpoint of providing students experiences. But at the same time, such moments are the exceptions to the rule that learning is a fairly regimented process when we look at it objectively.

When designing courses for online delivery it really did make the thinking process much easier when I started out with a set of stated outcomes for an essay/module, and then move backwards from there. Miggens and McTighe (2012) advise that we should ask ourselves what are (three) clear things we want students to take away, how can we articulate them in ways that could be measured and assessed with we what can do in the classroom, and what are the resources we have at hand that could be leveraged to provide them experiences that fit with them. “A unit or a course,” they argue, “might be thought of in terms of collected assessment evidence needed to validate that the desired learning has been achieved, [not] simply as content to be covered or as a series of learning activities”

The Backward Design Cycle: It starts with a stated learning outcome, and then thinks of that learning being assessed – through performance tasks and other evidence. Activities and instructions are then thought about as ways that will directly scaffold and support that learning (as identified through the assessment.)

Once I defined the outcome for an argumentative essay module as students identifying elements of arguments and performing them through their writing, it expanded my area of attention. I could see how discussions about the readings had to be framed in terms of questions related to identifying elements of argumentation – as a genre – in the readings the students were assigned. The discussions and the essays they wrote were to be holistically assessed together. It would allow me to see what the student knew even when they did not consciously perform that in their writing assignment.

Once this cycle is put in place, it is easier to reproduce it so that students internalize its dynamics of learning. This does not mean repeating the same thing, so much as adding additional learning outcomes, increasing the complexity of performance tasks, and other experiences and instructions that would facilitate that. Reiteration is key to learning that sticks for all populations, learning scholar Richards (2008) points out, and the backward design cycle can be applied again and again in a developmental manner.

Further Resources:

The Online Writing Community:

The Global Society for Online Literacy Educators:

WCET Frontiers:


Armstrong, P. (2016). Bloom’s taxonomy. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.

McTighe, J. and Wiggins, G. (2012). Understanding by design framework. ASCD. Retrieved from

Richards, R. G. (2008). Making it stick: Memorable strategies to enhance learning. LD On line The world’s leading website on learning disabilities and ADHD.

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