Online Course Design Best Practices Checklist

What is it? 

This checklist provides guidelines to assist with creating high-quality online courses. This checklist can be used when designing and developing new online courses, reviewing a previously developed online course, or to providing ideas for revising an existing online course. 

The checklist is divided into two steps: Foundational Best Practices and Advanced Best Practices. Step 1: Foundational contains best practices that are relatively easy to integrate into an online course. Step 2: Advanced contains best practices that are also integral but may take more time to implement. 

The items in the checklist coincide with many of the standards in the Quality Matters (QM) rubric, which is based on research in online learning and instructional design. The checklist is meant to be a self-check guide for online course design and is not meant to be prescriptive. 

Why use it? 

The checklist provides a convenient way to consider research-based best practices in online learning when designing, reviewing, and revising online courses. This checklist will help in areas such as organization and navigation, online-specific course policies, alignment, presence, accessibility, technology, and more. 

 (This checklist was adapted from the Kent State University Office of Continuing and Distance Education Online Course Design Best Practices Checklist, Creative Commons Attribution International License CC BY 4.0

Step 1: Foundational Best Practices 

Start Here Page and Course Tour
 

  • What is it? The “Start Here” page gives students sequential steps for what they need to read, watch, or do to begin the course and provides a tour of the course site and components. 
  • Why should I do it? This course component lets students know how to begin their course when they first log in and addresses QM Standard 1.1, “Instructions make clear how to get started and where to find various course components.” as well as QM Standard 1.2, “Learners are introduced to the purpose and structure of the course.” 
  • How do I do it? Each Blackboard course site has a blank “Start Here” link in the course menu by default. Add an item to this content area with information on how to get started in the course along with a Course Tour (either written or video) that guides learners through where to find the various course components . A Start Here Guidelines document with examples may be found in the Templates section of the Faculty Resource Center in Blackboard (requires UTAD login).  

Instructor Introduction 

  • What is it? A way to establish teaching presence and preferred methods of contact. At a minimum, include a photo of yourself and contact information, as well as anything you wish to share about your expertise, teaching philosophy, expectations, etc. Ideally, a short video is recommended so that students can see and hear you as well. 
  • Why should I do it? To introduce yourself to your students and let them know how to contact you. This item also addresses QM Standard 1.8, “The self-introduction by the instructor is professional and is available online.” 
  • How do I do it? Create a link to a new content area in your course menu. Provide a title such as “Meet Your Instructor” or “Instructor Introduction” in this new content area, create a new item. In the text editor of the item, add a photo and include your email, phone, and preferred communication method along with any other information you would like students to know as your introduction. Or create and embed a short video introducing yourself and your teaching philosophy and expectations.  

Syllabus with Information Specific to Online Courses 

  • What is it? Online courses have special policies and expectations that the syllabus should outline including online etiquette, communication, technology requirements, where to go for technical help, and more. 
  • Why should I do it? Students need to be aware of both course and institutional policies, especially those that are specific to online courses.  
  • How do I do it? Refer to the Online Syllabus Guidelines and Template found in the Templates section of the Faculty Resource Center in Blackboard (requires UTAD login) for suggested wording and examples of what to include in your online course syllabus. 

Technology Skills, Requirements, and Privacy Policies 

  • What is it? Online students need to know what technology they’ll need to know/use, how they can access/download any required technology for the course, and how their data will be used by these technologies. 
  • Why should I do it? Making sure that students know what technology skills they must have, what software/hardware they need, and how their data will be used by the technologies in your course will set them up for success. This item also addresses QM Standards 1.5, 1.6, and 6.4 (See the QM Higher Education Standards for the standard descriptions). 
  • How do I do it? Use the suggested Online Syllabus Template (found in the Templates section of the Faculty Resource Center in Blackboard), and more specifically, include the “Technology Requirements, Skills, and Privacy Policies” section with the Technology Considerations link. If there are other requirements, skills, or technologies used in your course that are not listed on the linked page, add them to this section of your syllabus.  

Turnaround Time  

  • What is it? A way to let students know when they can receive a reply to a question and when they will receive grades/feedback from an assignment.  
  • Why should I do it? Letting students know when they can expect a response to questions will help them plan better and reduce their anxiety. Also, timely assignment feedback ensures that students can use your feedback when working on the next assignment. This item also addresses QM Standard 5.3, “The instructor’s plan for interacting with learners during the course is clearly stated.” 
  • How do I do it? Decide when students will receive a reply to a question (for example: 24 hours during the week, 48 hours on the weekend), and when they can expect grades/feedback on assignments (Consider the duration of the course and when they will need your feedback so that they can implement it on the next assignment and/or gauge how they are doing in the course. A typical timeframe is within 1 week of the assignment due date.). Include this information in your syllabus. The “Communication Guidelines” section of the suggested Online Syllabus Template is a recommended location for this information. The Online Syllabus Template may be found in the Templates section of the Faculty Resource Center in Blackboard (requires UTAD login). 

Communication Policy/Netiquette 

  • What is it? Information to let students know your expectations for communicating professionally in an online environment (commonly referred to as “netiquette”). 
  • Why should I do it? Online students need guidance on how to interact with each other in a virtual classroom, including things such as what is considered an appropriate, substantive contribution to an online discussion. Netiquette is addressed in QM Standard 1.3, “Communication expectations for online discussions, email, and other forms of interaction are clearly stated.” 
  • How do I do it? Include a netiquette policy and additional guidance on how students should contribute quality posts in online discussions, group work, etc. in your syllabus. The “Communication Guidelines” section of the suggested Online Syllabus Template is a recommended location for this information. Suggested Netiquette guidelines may be found here: Core Rules of Netiquette

Course Schedule with Due Dates and Times 

  • What is it? A document or checklist showing due dates (and times!) for activities and assignments. Consider following a consistent pattern of activities and due dates from week to week throughout the course span to help students better plan and manage their time. 
  • Why should I do it? Having a concise list of due dates is essential for online students, who must self-manage their time more than face-to-face students. As you develop your course schedule, consider that having nights and weekends available to complete schoolwork benefits students with professional and family commitments. This item also addresses QM Standard 1.2, “Learners are introduced to the purpose and structure of the course.” 
  • How do I do it? Online Course Schedule Guidelines & Template documents are available in the Templates section of the Faculty Resource Center in Blackboard. Post your schedule in Blackboard and/or as part of your syllabus.  

Consistent Course Structure and Organized Navigation 

  • What is it? Course structure refers to the organization of the course content. Consider creating learning modules and having a consistent structure within the modules. Navigation refers to how your course is laid out and whether it is user-friendly for your students. 
  • Why should I do it? Organized and consistent course structure and navigation can reduce frustration and allow students to focus more on learning rather than finding items. This item also helps to address QM Standard 8.1: “Course navigation facilitates ease of use.” 
  • How do I do it? Refer to the Module Design Guidelines available in the Templates section of the Faculty Resource Center in Blackboard (requires UTAD login). These recommended guidelines were developed based on Gagne’s 9 Events of Instruction and course design best practices. Within your course, the structure should be logical, consistent, and organized, rather than just listing items on one page. For more help with module design, contact your instructional designer.  

Measurable Learning Objectives/Outcomes 

  • What is it? Learning objectives/outcomes are measurable, performance-based statements describing what students are expected to be able to do through learning. Two levels of learning objectives are usually needed for a course: Course objectives and module/unit objectives. Course-level learning objectives are usually stated in the course syllabus and are also referred to at UToledo as Student Learning Outcomes. Module-level objectives break down each of the course-level learning objectives into specific knowledge, skills, or competencies that students will acquire on a weekly, modular, or unit basis. They should lead to the achievement of the course-level learning objectives. 
  • Why should I do it? To let students know from the beginning what they will be able to do by the end of their learning. Learning objectives help direct students’ learning efforts appropriately and monitor their own progress. Measurable course and module learning objectives address QM Standard 2.1 “The course learning objectives, or course/program competencies, describe outcomes that are measurable” and QM Standard 2.2 “The module/unit-level learning objectives or competencies describe outcomes that are measurable and consistent with the course-level objectives or competencies.” 
  • How do I do it? Unless the learning objectives/outcomes are mandated and cannot be changed, ensure that your outcomes are measurable, performance-based, and written clearly from the student perspective. For help with developing measurable learning objectives, please visit the Writing Effective Learning Objectives Handout in the Faculty Resource Center in Blackboard (requires UTAD login). For more help with writing measurable learning objectives, contact your instructional designer

Assignments & Assessments 

  • What is it? Assignments are composed of assessments (larger projects showing evidence that students have achieved course objectives) or practice learning activities (knowledge checks). 
  • Why should I do it? Assignments provide evidence of student learning in a course and should be sequenced and include different types of activities in order to promote learning achievement and increase engagement, motivation, and self-efficacy. This item also helps to meet QM Standards 3.1, “The assessments measure the achievement of the stated learning objectives or competencies” and Standard 3.5, “The course provides learners with multiple opportunities to track their learning progress with timely feedback.” 
  • How do I do it? Ensure your online assignments are aligned with course and module objectives/outcomes, and that students have low-stakes ways to check their knowledge with quizzes, short essays, reflective journals, etc. For help with developing online assignments, visit the Assessment section of the Faculty Resource Center in Blackboard (requires UTAD login) or contact your instructional designer

Video Lectures 

  • What is it? A video recording that presents course information and concepts. Text-heavy presentations and “talking head” videos without visuals should be avoided, and larger topics can be “chunked” into shorter video clips for ease of viewing and cognitive processing. The recommended length of videos is 10-15 minutes or less.  
  • Why should I do it? Videos are a primary way to add your expertise and guidance and help to show your presence in the course. They are the “lectures” of an online course. 
  • How do I do it? Video recording tips and information about multimedia services are available in the Multimedia section of the Faculty Resource Center in Blackboard (requires UTAD login). UToledo Online also provides support for Echo 360 Universal Capture, a tool for self-recording and posting online lecture videos. For questions about Echo 360, please contact the UToledo Online Help Desk at utlv@utoledo.edu or 419-530-8835. 

Learner Interaction 

  • What is it? In an online class, students have a variety of ways to interact, such as discussions, blog comments, wikis and other group/collaborative work, and peer feedback. 
  • Why should I do it? Learner-learner interaction can serve to increase social presence, promote engagement, reduce transactional distance, and contribute to the formation of an online learning community. 
  • How do I do it? Interaction opportunities must be designed and built into your online course. Provide opportunities for students to engage with each other through collaborative assignments including group/class discussions, small-group projects, problem-solving assignments, and/or peer critiques. For more tips and resources for student interaction, check out the Learner Interaction section of the Faculty Resource Center in Blackboard (requires UTAD login). 

Step 2: Advanced Best Practices 

Alignment  

  • What is it? Alignment refers to all course components working together to ensure students meet the desired outcomes. Stated simply, the materials in your online course should directly support students in completing your assignments, which should provide evidence to you that they have achieved your course learning outcomes/objectives. 
  • Why should I do it? Alignment ensures that there are no gaps or redundancies in your course, that students are only doing the work that is connected to your course objectives, and that only the most relevant content is included. Aligning your course components also helps to meet QM Standards 2.1, 3.1, 4.1, 5.1, and 6.1 (See the QM Higher Education Standards for the standard descriptions). 
  • How do I do it? To grasp the concept of alignment, consider taking the Applying the Quality Matters Rubric (APPQMR) workshop. Complete the Workshop Interest Form to be notified of the next available workshop. For guided help on designing an aligned course, consult your instructional designer for specific suggestions on what to do to achieve alignment in your course. 

Accessibility 

  • What is it? In online learning specifically, accessibility refers to the extent to which an online course, including materials, the LMS (Learning Management System), etc., is accessible for learners with disabilities. 
  • Why should I do it? University of Toledo policy 3364-50-03 requires that students with disabilities be provided reasonable accommodations to ensure their equal access to course content. An important consideration of accessibility is that it must be provided to students with a documented need, and legal liability and financial penalties can be applied if it is not. 
  • How do I do it? The Accessibility section of the Faculty Resource Center in Blackboard (requires UTAD login) has information about resources and services provided by UToledo Online for helping to make your courses more accessible. The Accessibility Checklist found there can also help to ensure accessibility considerations in your course are addressed. For students who need other types of accessibility support, refer them to the Office of Accessibility and Disability Resources for further assistance. 

Provide Context for Course Content/Materials 

  • What is it? All items within your course should have a short description to provide students with an explanation of why the item is included and how it supports the outcomes/objectives (what uses they will have for the information). 
  • Why should I do it? To help your students know what to read/listen for when interacting with course content and help them focus on how they will use this information on course assignments. This item also meets QM Standard 4.2, “The relationship between the use of instructional materials in the course and completing learning activities is clearly explained.” 
  • How do I do it? Add a 1-3 sentence description for each content item that identifies: what it is, how students will access it, and how they should use it (e.g., “This is a scholarly article on [topic], and is a downloadable pdf that will open in a new tab. When you read it, pay particular attention to [these topics]. You will use information from this article to complete [name of assignment].” 

Copyright 

  • What is it? Quotes, videos, articles, images, and any other content that you include in your course, should be available for use in the manner you have applied it, be properly cited, and/or you should have clearance to include it in your course. 
  • Why should I do it? Copyrighted materials may require a Fair Use/Copyright assessment to meet the University’s legal obligations. 
  • How do I do it? Consider using Creative CommonsWikimedia Commons, or other websites for open educational resources or public domain content to be certain that you are not infringing on anyone else’s intellectual property. If you are using copyrighted material (such as journal articles, scanned book chapters, etc.) it will be important to assess whether you are following the guidelines of Fair Use. The Instructional Materials section of the Faculty Resource Center in Blackboard (requires UTAD login) and the Fair Use Checklist found there can guide you as you select your learning materials.