Top Online Course Design Mistakes

Although online education has been around for nearly 20 years, I still see a number of common mistakes among online course developers. Here are the top course design mistakes in online education and how to avoid them in your courses.

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Although online education has been around for nearly 20 years, I still see a number of common mistakes among online course developers. Here are the top course design mistakes in online education and how to avoid them in your courses.

Too much content

When I hire someone to design an online course, I invariably get too much content. Developers will assign over 150 pages of dense, academic reading per week, along with websites and other resources. Covering all of this content would take far more time than can be expected of students, leading them to pick and choose what they think is important, not what the course developer thinks is important.

The problem is that the course developers tend to think that covering more content produces more learning, and so assigning someone 200 pages of reading will produce twice as much learning than assigning them 100 pages of reading. But this is not true. We have a limited ability to absorb new information, and beyond that limit we reach a point of diminishing returns where we lose not only the new information, but also some of the old information.   

Course developers also tend to have a “covering content” view of teaching, rather than a “learning view.” That is, they want to cover every possible subject within a particular topic because missing one would be missing information. I had one course developer building an emergency management course assign every process standard in the field because any emergency manager should know all of them. These are long lists of steps that mostly repeat one another in different words. But that is again the wrong view. The point is to teach what students will retain, which in this case is the fundamental steps of emergency management. What do the two approaches have in common? Once students understand this, they can always look up a particular standard if needed.

Finally, course developers tend to use themselves as the measure of time investment in doing course activities. They say to themselves, “It takes me an hour to read 30 pages, so 150 pages will take students five hours.” But developers are experts in their field with a background context in the field that allows them to immediately understand new content. Students lack that context, and so it takes them much longer to read and understand work, probably twice as long, if not longer. 

To avoid assigning too much material, always start with some time goal for the amount of material students will be assigned per week, such as six hours. Then find an algorithm for how many pages of reading or other content will fit this restriction, one that matches what students can actually be expected to do. Ten pages an hour is probably a good average for material that is not overly difficult.

Second, always begin the planning by asking what central concept is being taught in the week. That is what you want to get across. The content should all point back to the central concept to repeat and reinforce it. The goal is not to add as many new details as possible, like ornaments on a Christmas tree. The goal is to get students to understand the central points. If my week's topic is that up until recently the medical profession has adopted a paternalistic model of “doctor's orders” where patients were not allowed a say in their treatment, then I want to provide stories that illustrate that point. I want students to walk away feeling what it is like for doctor and patient to work in that environment, not the details of cases.

Finally, do not assign open-ended work such as “become familiar with this website.” Websites can have many nooks, crannies, and links that take the viewer in many different directions. The student will not know what to get out of it and will give up. Always provide students with specific questions to answer when looking at a website or specific pages to cover. Make sure to focus the student's attention so that it goes to where you want it to go. 

Essay questions disguised as discussion questions

Too often I see discussion questions in an online course written as mini-essays rather than genuine questions to debate with peers. Students end up just taking turns writing their mini-essays to the instructor without any real engagement with one another.

Faculty should not require references in student discussion posts. Those just turn them into essay questions.  In principle, online discussion mimics the discussion between peers in a café, and people do not require citations when expressing opinions in a café. Remember that you are interested in what the student thinks, not what someone else thinks. 

When crafting discussion questions, do not ask students to “explain X, Y, Z.” That is an essay question. Instead, try inciting controversy with a statement that invites debate. In an information security course I used the question, “Forcing people to use complex passwords and constantly change them actually undermines security by requiring them to write down their passwords or use some easily guessable rule for making them. Do you agree or disagree?” This question allows for reasonable positions on both sides of the topic and can be answered with what students already know and some critical thinking, which is the whole goal of discussion. 

Text-heavy content

Each mode of communication has its own nature, and the Internet's nature is visual. This makes videos the ideal content to develop for online courses, not text. A video can be used to introduce the module and let students know what they should be getting out of it. The developer can also assign articles if that is the best source of information, but a common mistake is for course developers to write out the content that they are developing. 

A simple rule I use is for course developers to create a 5- to 10-minute introductory video per module. They can use the digital storytelling method of narration with imagery, or they can record themselves speaking live if they are comfortable with that. The point of these introductions is to set the stage and create interest. They should focus on what makes the module interesting or important and what students should get out of it. 

The video must capture the student's attention and imagination, not just list the week's topics. One way to do this is to start with a story. For instance, I introduced a module on patients' rights by asking students to imagine that they were on life support and wanted to disconnect the tube and die. However, the hospital refused and strapped them down to force a tube down their throat. I then told them that this would actually have happened in the not-too-distant past, and it raises the issue of patients' rights, which is what we will explore in the module. Now I have their attention, and they know what to get out of the module. 

Creating rather than curating

Faculty members are used to delivering lectures that they have designed themselves. This leads them to think that they should be creating the same lectures from scratch for an online course. When I created my first online course, I wrote out 20 or so 5–10 page lectures from scratch. I basically wrote a textbook.

But I was wasting my time and not giving students the best possible content. The Internet is a wealth of great content. The move to online teaching takes the course developer from a content creator to a content curator model. The value of faculty members is not what they know. That is all available outside of them in books, articles, and the like. A faculty members' value is being able to identify the best content available and to present it in a way that produces understanding. Thus, a course developer's motto should be, “If someone can say it better than I can, let them.”

This means that before designing any course, faculty members should visit their college librarian to find the best resources on their topic. Librarians tend to be left out of the course development process, which tends to focus on meetings with instructional designers to learn about the Learning Management System. But librarians are a course developer's best friend. They are not wedded to print books. Far from it; they are fundamentally oriented to providing customers with the information that they need in any format and are generally at the cutting edge of digital content. They will save a course developer hours of time creating content from scratch by providing leads on sources that are better than the content developer can create.

When I covered the Human Genome Project in my first medical ethics course, I wrote out a long text description from scratch. Then I learned that the National Institutes of Health had a wonderful, interactive site that explained it much better than I could. Now I point students to that site and explain what to get out of it.

Avoiding these common mistakes will vastly improve your online courses.