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Top 5 Online Course Creation Essentials

Updated: Feb 27, 2021

What are the most important pieces of an online course? Well, I’ve actually created a straightforward answer to this question!

When I first began as an instructional designer, I reviewed as many online course evaluation rubrics I could get my hands on. I then compiled a list of recurring line items to see what were the most important aspects of online courses across the nation.

My Excel sheet is a bit overwhelming. You don’t want to see it.

I tried to condense them into categories to which we can easily relate. I now have 5 simple, yet powerful, strategies you can follow while building your online course to make it more engaging and successful. Plus, they align with university standards across the nation!

So without further ado, here are my top 5 things all online instructors should do when they first find out they are teaching a new online course.

Online Course Essential Number 1: Commit to the Objectives

I get it. Course objectives aren’t very glamorous. Okay, let’s be honest, they are flat out boring. They are the first thing students skip over when reading the syllabus and the item teachers say students can “read on their own time” during the first class meeting.

You have to admit, it’s a common scenario.

Well, despite the blah nature of the objectives, I am here to tell you that they might just be THE single most important part of moving a class online for the first time. A well-written objective will save you hours of frustration trying to figure out how to make in-person discussions work in an online course, as well as how to connect with students you may never meet face-to-face.

Instead of focusing on replicating in-person activities in an online world, try focusing on the objective of the activity.

Why are you doing those activities?

How does an in-person discussion help students be more successful in the course?

What actions do you take to foster those interactions and relationships with students?

It may be possible to meet the objectives of the course and course activities, but in an entirely different way. Often, I find that if you can forget about the in-person activities and focus solely on what online tools can help your students meet the objectives then you can truly be free to reimagine your class, altogether. Commit to the objectives, not the activities.

Online Course Essential Number 2: Create a detailed online syllabus.

In my experience, online students reference the syllabus far more than in face-to-face courses and long before they contact the instructor for clarification.

I have another post about the details of a high-quality online syllabus, simply because it is so important to an online course that it needs its own explanation!

If you would like to get the online syllabus template, email and get the template and instructive blog for free!

Many online instructors make the mistake of using their face-to-face syllabus. Here’s the problem: this can often leave out important details you would usually explain on the first day of class. Do you provide a time for students to ask you questions about the online syllabus within your online course?

Over-communication is key to online student success. When it comes to an online syllabus, the more details, the better. It will give them the info they need to succeed and help reduce the amount of clarifying emails you receive.

You also need to ensure your syllabus speaks to, specifically, a distance education audience. If you traditionally have students meet with you in-person, or attend live events, you may want to restructure your assignments for the distance learners.

Here are some key points in hit in your syllabus:

  • There should be a place for a secondary contact in case the students are unable to get a hold of the primary instructor.

  • Explicitly state your expected response time to emails, and try to respond to your students’ inquiries within 24 – 48 hours. Be clear about how you will communicate to them and your expectations for communication to you.

  • Be up front about additional costs to the student, like proctoring fees. ANY additional costs to students outside of tuition and fees should be communicated on the first day of class, so students have the chance to drop the class if they cannot pay those fees.

  • Provide a detailed schedule with deadlines

  • Describe your expectations for their behavior and participation

  • Provide details of each grade item. Meaning, you don’t have to outline the instructions for each assignment, but describe to them what homework will look like, how much time they’ll have to complete it, and other details that apply to all of the homework.

  • Share technical requirements and Netiquette, or online etiquette, that students should receive as soon as the course is live. Email me for the free Arise Netiquette guide!

  • You should also consider breaking your syllabus into smaller pieces and making quick videos to explain the nuances with your students. They’ll love referencing these quick videos throughout the semester, and it helps give that “first day vibe” you get in a face-to-face course.

Online Course Essential Number 3: Streamline online course navigation.

Student retention can be directly related to your course navigation, so don’t underestimate how you should organize your course.

If you provide all of the content of the course for students to see on the first day of class, they could get overwhelmed and drop the course.

Imagine if your instructor set a pile of readings, homework, and exams on your desk in front of you on the first day of class and said, “here is what you need to do to pass the class, email me if you have questions…”.

It’s possible your anxiety would blow through the roof.

An easy fix is to set scheduled release dates (or post in weekly increments), so your students see small pieces of the course at any given time.

Think about reducing the number of clicks it takes to get to the important information. Don’t have several avenues to the weekly quiz, give them one very clear easy direction so they don’t get lost clicking around.

Organize your broad course content into smaller pieces, such as four large modules made of weekly topics. This way, students can easily find where to navigate in the content of the course.

Online Course Essential Number 4: Embed interactivity with multimedia

You’ll want to look for new ways to interact with your students since you will no longer see them face-to-face every other day.

Student interactivity means that you, as the instructor, are embedding opportunities to connect with students as well as for the students to connect with each other.

In an online environment these interactions may not happen naturally, so you want to be strategic about incorporating these opportunities wherever it makes sense for your class.

Student interaction is a powerful learning tool. Some ideas for interactions include text or video discussion boards, group work, virtual meetings in small groups, live text chats, and virtual office hours.

It is equally powerful to consider the places students are currently interacting with, and gaining new knowledge from, outside of the classroom.

Instagram is one of the most popular social media platforms among young adults, and Youtube is the second largest search engine in the world. We must also remember that traditional, incoming freshmen in college have never known a time without smartphones.

My point is that video, imagery and graphic design are commonplace in our students' lives.

I spend a lot of my time talking about preparing videos for an online course. There is a reason that YouTube is so popular, and why the film industry is worth over 35 billion dollars.

With bright visuals and personal or emotional connections to the instructor, videos are a great way to capture student interest and attention. Not only are they the way our students are used to learning, but they also allow students to slow down or rewatch difficult concepts until they have been mastered. Online courses utilizing videos within the course curriculum have shown to be more engaging for online students, than courses without video.

There are many, many different ways to include videos, including having your students post their own videos.

If we have to do it as instructors, maybe our students should do it, too!

And video lectures aren’t the only way for instructors to use video. Weekly video updates, videos summarizing or clarifying readings, or videos embedded in quizzes and exams are all great examples of how to incorporate videos.

Schedule an online interaction workshop for your team with Arise Education Consultants.

Online Course Essential Number 5: Utilize Multiple Assessments

In-person assessments are another pitfall for those transitioning to online for the first time.

Face it, these traditional exams are how we were assessed and it is the go-to assessment strategy for the majority of higher ed faculty. This does not mean it is the only assessment strategy.

I can tell you that paper-based assessments in an online course are very difficult to implement effectively. The majority of academic integrity concerns brought to my attention stem from instructors who issue traditional, paper-based (or multiple choice-styled exams) in their online courses.

If you are limiting your students to only multiple-choice exams in your course, you are limiting their creativity and essentially suppressing their voices. Also, you may not be accurately assessing their mastery of the material you so diligently prepared for them.

I would never say eliminate them entirely (I mean, not today anyway), but I will say they should never be the only assessment method, particularly in an online course.

You want to avoid courses where the only assessment tool in the course is exams. Whether you have 1, 3 or 6 exams in the course, these high-stakes exams set students up for big failures if they have no other grades to fall back on.

Instead, give your students multiple types of assessments, or you can also think of them as comprehension checks. Include a variety of homework assignments like quick quizzes, writing assignments and discussions to allow your students multiple ways to show you they understand the materials.


To summarize, there are five things you can incorporate into your online course to enhance the quality from just simply posting learning materials -- to an entire learning experience… and those things are:

  1. Commit to the course objectives to create your online activities

  2. Create a detailed and thorough syllabus to clearly define expectations

  3. Streamline course navigation so students know where to find important information

  4. Embed interactivity utilizing the same multimedia students are accustomed to

  5. Utilize multiple assessments to ensure students demonstrate mastery in a variety of ways.


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