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Principles and Suggestions

General Principles and Suggestions for Planning Online Courses

Planning an Online Course

By necessity over the past few semesters, we have all had to learn to teach fully online. These experiences have brought several key principles to the forefront that we suggest keeping in mind when planning online sections of English and Writing courses here at York.

(Need to switch to an online modality in a hurry? These recommendations from Spring 2020 can help.)

Start From the Pedagogy

Begin your plan for the course by focusing on your main objectives:

  • What do you want your students to learn?
  • What do you want them to do to help them learn?
  • What are your main priorities for the course?

As you plan how to meet those objectives through online activities, consider these four questions that highlight key differences between online and fully face-to-face courses:

  1. How will you teach content and skills?
  2. How will your students participate actively in their own learning?
  3. How will your students be interacting with you?
  4. How will your students be interacting with each other?

Be Selective about Tools and Use them Consistently

Do not feel that you have to use all of the tools in Blackboard simply because they are there. Instead, start with the tools you already know or choose 1-2 to familiarize yourself with that best suit your pedagogical aims. Then use them in the same way throughout the semester. Our experiences suggest that students often do better when these courses are modular and recursive--when they are asked to use the same tools/do the same kinds of things weekly. So for example, it is better to use a tool consistently in the same way weekly rather than to use multiple tools in multiple ways that vary week to week.

During the first few weeks, build exposure to the tools your course will use—remember that there will be a learning curve as students get used to using the tools in those particular ways, so consider designing some simpler assignments they can complete that will allow them to familiarize themselves with the tools.

If you are unfamiliar with Blackboard, we suggest beginning with these tools:

  • Assignments (and/or Turnitin Assignments): The Assignments Tool allows you to collect papers easily and to comment directly on those papers. You can also add longer comments and rubrics.
  • Discussion Board: This tool has a great deal of flexibility: you can use it for discussions, to allow students to ask and answer questions, and even for peer review. Discussion boards can also be graded very easily if you wish.

Establish Your Presence

Online teaching often requires a more conscious focus on how you establish your presence as an instructor. While you can do this fully through written instructions and responses to the class, individual students, and groups of students, you can also use audio and/or video recordings to round out that presence. Recordings can allow you to:

  • Lecture on key points;
  • Provide walk-through instructions for assignments;
  • Respond to student work (by recording audio comments, for example).

Many of us found that written instructions which might be perfectly adequate in face-to-face classes required adaptation for the online environment. In a face-to-face class, written instructions can be easily supplemented by further oral explanations. In an online class, however, those supplemental explanations need to be incorporated directly into the instructions. Many of us found we had to rewrite our instructions and prompts to offer more clarity and detail. Redundancy also seems to be particularly helpful in online modalities.

In your written interactions, also keep in mind that tone can be harder to detect online and therefore may be more prone to being misread. Balancing critique with diplomacy when responding to students work may require extra care in an online course.

Set Consistent Deadlines and Patterns

Keeping deadlines and announcements consistent on a weekly or bi-weekly basis can help establish a clear pattern for the course and thus make it easier for students to keep up with their work. For example, If you have a weekly deadline for student work, try to keep it the same day and time for each week; if you need to have two deadlines a week, make sure they are always on the same day each week (Monday/Wednesday, etc.) (Note: we do NOT advise having more than two deadlines per week.)

You might even aim to send out course Announcements on the same days each week. For example, you might send emails or other announcements only on Mondays and Thursdays.

Harness the Power of Groups

Encouraging interaction between the students is important in any class; using groups as part of an online class can help you foster connections between students and encourage them to be more actively involved in their own learning and that of their classmates.

Many of the focused, discrete tasks you might set a group to doing in a face-to-face class can be set-up using the Discussion Board or the Wiki tool. Groups can also be used for peer review and to workshop drafts, proposals, etc.

Avoid the Course and a Half

One common pitfall with online courses is to overload the course with tasks, videos, and instructions, and to underestimate how much time a student will take to absorb and understand assignments and other materials.

Remember that if you were assigning work in class, you would likely spend time discussing the prompt and answering questions. Allot that same amount of time for students to read and absorb the instructions when planning the activities for the week.

Mind Your Workload

Another pitfall of teaching online is feeling that you need to respond in detail to individual students on everything they write. For example, if students are posting to a Discussion Board, you may feel you have to reply to all the postings. But in a face-to-face class, we often respond collectively to the class and/or groups. It is appropriate for you to sum up issues you see and address them with the whole class through written comments (in an Instructor’s Blog or as a Discussion Board Thread) or a short video commentary/response. You might also consider structuring the way students reply to each other so that they can provide support and critique as needed.

Also keep in mind that a timely response, even if it is a little shorter, is often preferable to a lengthy response that is delayed.

Consider the Needs of All Your Students

Be conscious of barriers students may face to online education. Some may be technological: some may be relying on older hardware or using their phones to complete the course; others may have spotty WiFi.

Students may also be facing a range of other challenges that you may or may not be aware of. Several principles of Universal Design are especially worth considering:

  • Font choices: Many UDI experts suggest using 14 point sans serif fonts (Calibri, Trebuchet, Verdana) because those fonts are more legible on mobile devices and may be easier for those with dyslexia to read.
  • Document formats: Use Word documents or PDFs that have been converted to OCR whenever possible so that students who need to use reading tools can do so. (Unless a PDF has been saved as an OCR, it cannot easily be manipulated by reading tools.)
  • Provide multiple ways to access essential content when you can: For example, if you are asking students to watch a video lecture and you have slides for it, also make the slides available as a separate file. 
  • Captioning: Consider adding captioning to your videos. See here for more on captioning videos in Youtube.