Teaching Online With Errol: Design and Write Online Courses with the User in Mind

I have been teaching online for 19 years, and during this time I have encountered many online courses where the layout was less than smooth, the writing quality embarrassing, and the contents confusing. And you who read this column have also experienced this: I know because many of you have emailed me about the problem. This should not and does not have to be. Below are some simple guidelines to ensure that each course is a high-quality learning experience. 

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I have been teaching online for 19 years, and during this time I have encountered many online courses where the layout was less than smooth, the writing quality embarrassing, and the contents confusing. And you who read this column have also experienced this: I know because many of you have emailed me about the problem. This should not and does not have to be. Below are some simple guidelines to ensure that each course is a high-quality learning experience.

The course must be easy to navigate. The best course delivery systems are not overly complex. Make it elementary for students to find their way around the course's components, and allow easy access for instructors when changes to the course need to be made. Twenty-first century technology can allow instructional designers to do wonderful things with the course, but the user of the course must always be kept in mind. Suggestion: Before the course goes live, get input from instructors, and invite feedback from instructors on the first edition of the course (including student feedback) for any tweaks that need to be made.

All assignments should include requirements and be easy to understand. It happens more often than one might think: key components of an assignment, such as length, due date, and weight of the assignment, are left out. It is imperative that all items are included so the students are not confused. Including a checklist of assignment requirements can be helpful. And be sure the wording of the assignment—the topic, the approach students are expected to take, examples of key assignment components—is easy to understand and structured in a manner for effortless reading.

Check all spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Students look to course websites/systems as extensions of the school and the instructor; thus, when the writing is poor it reflects on all associated with the course. While a Web or course developer will be expert in that part of the course structure, he or she may not be fully knowledgeable in the ways of writing; thus it is imperative that other parties be brought in to check and double-check all writing in the course for typos, incorrect spelling and punctuation, and poor grammar. Such mistakes should be nonexistent.

Be sure labeling of assignments is in sync with the gradebook. Online courses will typically have a syllabus that gives a breakdown of points for assignments; the assignments with points attached; and a gradebook, also with points for each assignment. These must match if the instructor cannot change any that are out of whack, and if it is possible for the instructor to make changes, the instructions on how to do this should be made clear and easily accessible to the instructor. Also, be sure that any multiple descriptions of assignments in the course are parallel in content.

Assignment due dates must be in sync and up to date. It can be easy to overlook assignment due dates when the same course is being used from a previous session or semester, yet this can bring about major confusion for the students and the instructor if the dates are old or if the breakdown of due dates, class weeks, or class modules is not in sync when appearing multiple times. Suggestion: post an easy-to-read chart of weekly assignments, due dates, weight of assignments, and course readings so students and instructors can have a master overview of each week.

Do not be an academic, scholarly writer in a course. Often a department chair, faculty manager, supervisor, or course content developer will write the lectures and/or assignment descriptions and/or discussion threads—and they will do so in complex, highly stylistic, and pedantic language that makes it difficult for students to quickly digest what is needed (if an assignment or discussion thread) or the material to be read (if a lecture). It is here where the author must keep two folders of writing: one for scholarly publications and papers, another with more basic, conversational writing for students. Yes, students need to push themselves to a higher level of education, but the writing should not be a barrier to students' understanding of the course materials.

Use illustrations, graphs, and Web links. Most courses contain a large amount of text, and even when this text is broken up with subheads, bolding, italics, and white space, it can still become boring and same old, same old to the students. By inserting hyperlinks in text and adding graphs and other visuals to illustrate major points, experiments, concepts, and information, you make the course material easier to peruse, and thus the learning has a greater chance of sticking with the student. Also, color of fonts and backgrounds should be studied; acres of material with nothing more than black-on-white can begin to blend words into one another, thus making it less attractive and inviting for students to dive in.

Make it easy for instructors to send attachments, record audio, and upload videos/other resources. Often instructors need to send replies with attachments to student emails/webmails—but if this is not a feature of the course it wastes the instructor's time; also, the instructor should be able to send more than one email with any email or webmail to students. Technology exists where instructors can record audio within a recording function of the course—this should be included in courses because studies have shown students become more engaged in courses and do better when audio is used in combination with text. Finally, the use of streaming videos and live chats and the posting of other resources need be components of the course, as they all make for more student engagement, better student-instructor rapport, and a richer learning experience.

Make information available to help students with the basics of taking an online course. A major fallacy is that all students taking online courses know computer technology; thus sending attachments, using citation builders, inserting hyperlinks, or creating online graphs and charts, etc., will not be a problem for anyone in the class. This is seldom the case. Students come into courses with varying degrees of computer expertise, and this should be anticipated by providing PowerPoint presentations, videos, information sheets, and/or audios that explain the technical basics required for a course. And along with these there should always be an IT contact number (with 24/7 support) for more assistance. Students should never need to worry about not having a full learning experience in a course due to their lack of computer knowledge.

Your efforts represent the school. The courses that students take are front and center for all to see—not just the students, but also anyone the students allow to view the course. Thus, when a course looks good in all of its nooks and crannies, this reflects positively on the school—yet a shoddily structured or poorly written course immediately takes away a bit of luster and panache from the school. Beyond taking the time to be sure all is in place, make certain good writing is de rigueur;always require the instructor to go through the course before it starts to check for any hiccups, guffaws, and whoopsie-doodles; the more that can be corrected before a course begins, the more students can focus solely on learning the course material rather than being interrupted by poor course layout or writing.

REMEMBER: Puzzles, riddles, mazes, optical illusions, jigsaws, and brain teasers can be entertaining and educational—but they should never become definitions for an online course.

Errol Craig Sull has been teaching online courses for 19 years and has a national reputation in the subject, writing and conducting workshops on distance learning, with national recognition in the field of distance education. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his second online teaching text. Please write him at errolcraigsull@aol.com with your suggestions and comments—he always responds!