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Top online course design mistakes

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In this month’s edition of Online Classroom, Picture of man overwhelmed by what he sees on the computer. Hopefully it's not your online class.John Orlando, Associate Director of the Faculty Resource Center at Northcentral University, shares his perception of four common mistakes course developers make when designing online courses. The first pitfall is the tendency to make sure we “cover” all of the content as opposed to focusing on having students learn the key parts of the content, which can result in too much content and information overload. Orlando labels this as a “covering content” view of teaching rather than a “learning view.” To guard against this, instructors should keep in mind that the content in a particular module should connect with the central concept of that unit in ways that reinforce it. It is possible to attempt to cover too many details.

A second common problem is designing discussion questions that simply ask students to reiterate what is in the material, leading to a set of answers that are basically the same. At the other extreme, some questions are designed to elicit only essay type answers which can lead to a class collection of mini-essays that inspire only limited interaction with classmates. Orlando recommends designing questions that allow for a variety of responses and opinions. Creating scenarios that “fall on the borders of fundamental principles” will inspire students to dig deeper in supporting their positions. The result will be increased engagement in a richer conversation.

Aim for real instead of perfect.

Tracy Schaelen, Southwestern College

A third area of concern is relying too heavily on text to deliver the content. The Internet’s strength is through the use of visuals as opposed to text. Our tendency as instructors is to write out the content using a lot of text and a few images, but student engagement will be improved and learning stimulated through the use of visuals, especially concise video. If you have yet to add a video introduction to your class, try it. There are various ways to approach this, from an informal self-created video using the free program Screencast-o-matic to a more polished video using the help of our Media Production team. But don’t stop after adding a video introduction. Add a brief video clip to capture students’ attention and imagination at the start of each module. Consider sharing a brief story, a case study or a key example to spark student interest. Tracy Schaelen, DE Faculty Coordinator at Southwestern College, shared suggestions for creating video as well as examples at a recent eLearning conference. I think she makes an excellent suggestion with “Aim for real instead of perfect.”

Editor’s note: We recommend CaptureSpace Lite over Screencast-o-Matic.

A final potential mistake is focusing on “creating” rather than “curating” content. Granted, the instructor’s voice and perspective are essential components of the mix, but there is already a wealth of excellent content online. Orlando is of the opinion “If someone can say it better than I can, let them.” The value of an instructor has become more about “being able to identify the best content available and to present it in a way that produces understanding.” Be sure to involve your subject area librarian in the quest for engaging content that already exists and may very well be better and certainly easier to implement than starting from scratch.


John Orlando’s complete article “Top online course design mistakes,” is available through our PCC subscription to “Online Classroom.” Here’s how to access these articles. (Only the first time you access is cumbersome. After that it’s easy.) While you’re there, skim through some of the recent articles in the archives. For example, “Expand classroom walls through international course collaborations” fits our focus on internationalization.

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November 2016

  • Top online course design mistakes
  • How to deepen online dialogue
  • Promoting deeper learning with online scavenger hunting
  • Incorporating gamification into your courses
  • Hashtag concept organization for better learning

October 2016

  • Mind mapping for better learning
  • Is creating online course content worth your time?
  • Teaching skill based courses online
  • Have you turned yourself into a writing tutor?
  • What FERPA isn’t

September 2016

  • Expand classroom walls through international course collaborations
  • Curt Bonk talks about open education
  • Improve your teaching with a teaching toolbox
  • Applying neurology to online videos
  • Facilitating real-time, online group projects

August 2016

  • Lessons learned from the world’s best MOOC
  • Get the most out of online discussion
  • Role-playing for improved online discussion
  • Fact vs. feeling in flipped learning
  • Use quizzes to add competition to your online class

About Greg Kaminski

Online Learning: online course design consultant, coordinator of Online Faculty Mentors, Quality Matters facilitator, interactive teaching practices enthusiast. more »