Begin with what you already know

Many of you will have designed and developed courses in a face-to-face learning environment, so let's begin by considering the processes that went into planning those courses. Even if you haven't designed and developed a course, you might have participated as a student in an online learning experience – this can be quite useful too. What we do know is that teaching online without any planning rarely leads to success. And we know that there are certain questions you need to consider at the outset.

online learning

Learning delivered primarily over the internet.

In the following activity, click on each individual to learn more about the questions that should inform your planning.

Consider the following questions that should inform your course planning.


A goal without a plan is just a wish.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery
French writer

What should I focus on?

You could focus on what you want to teach or what you want participants to learn. Hopefully you will choose the latter. Concentrating on what you want students to learn will help you constructively align these 'learning outcomes' with the learning tasks and assessments to be included in the course.

Who are the learners, what will they contribute, and how can I help them learn?

What skills and knowledge do they already possess? Do they have access to computers and bandwidth? How will I know they have really learned what I want/need them to learn? And, what teaching strategies and activities should I use to make this happen?

What resources are available to me?

What resources does your institution have in place, including people, to assist you in the process? Do you have learning designers (sometimes called instructional designers) who can help? Are there online resources for sample syllabi, and sample online courses? Are best practices provided? Do you have colleagues or peers who have already been through the process of designing and developing an online or blended course. What were their experiences and what type of guidance can they give you?

A different type of planning

All of the issues from face-to-face learning have the same relevance for designing and developing an online or blended course, even though the learning environment may be new to both teacher and learner. It is important to keep in mind that online learning can be as effective as (or more effective than) face-to-face learning (US Department of Education, 2010) but it is not the same and requires different planning. Whilst the first generation of online courses merely placed face-to-face materials on the internet, online teaching today is much more sophisticated, especially in the ways it engages learners, utilises media, and incorporates teaching strategies into learning.

In the following videos, learners and teachers discuss what works well and what doesn't work well in an online course, demonstrating the importance of planning.

In the following interviews, learners and teachers discuss what works well and what doesn't work well in an online course, demonstrating the importance of planning.

Click 'Play' to start the video.
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Establishing good planning practice

Although many issues are common to face-to-face and online learning, certain problems that can be handled quickly in the bricks-and-mortar classroom can take more time to resolve via online communications. For example, imagine that directions for an assignment were not clear or assessment criteria were ambiguous. Whilst a two-minute explanation would probably be sufficient in a face-to-face situation, it is likely that multiple announcements and emails would be required to clarify any uncertainties in an online setting.

What else might help you to plan?

As with any course, you should plan effectively for the intended learning outcomes in the online learning environment. You should aim to design learning activities that give students opportunities to develop the knowledge, skills and attributes stated in these learning outcomes. Similarly, it's important to align assessment activities with learning outcomes during the design phase, to successfully test for the acquired knowledge, skills and attributes.

Considering the features of both successful and unsuccessful courses can be a useful starting point from which to plan your own online course.

In the following activity, enter your notes in the space provided and then click the 'Our answers' button to see our thoughts. Use the 'Next' button to move to the next activity screen.
You will now be asked to think of five features of an excellent online course, followed by five features of an unsuccessful online course. In each case, consider your ideas and make a note of your thoughts, then continue on to reflect on our suggestions.

PROGRAMME | Teaching Online
COURSE | Designing and developing your online course
UNIT | 1 : Introduction
PAGE TITLE | Why we need a plan

List five features of an excellent online course:

Our suggestions:

Your answers might include:

  • Clear instructions
  • Friendly and clear course orientation
  • Discussion of learner expectations and assessment criteria
  • Alignment of learning outcomes and assessments
  • Meaningful student-teacher and student-student interaction
  • Socially present teachers
  • Highly relevant course materials
  • Ideas, insights, and guidance sourced from colleagues.

List five features of an unsuccessful online course:

Our suggestions:

Your answers might include:

  • Lack of clarity in course navigation, instructions and learner expectations
  • Poor feedback on learner progress
  • Lack of technological support for learners
  • Poorly aligned learning outcomes, activities and assessments
  • Lack of interactivity
  • Absent teachers
  • Unreliable technology
  • Lack of engaging learning activities
  • Planning and designing without feedback from peers or more experienced practitioners

We need a plan when it comes to online and blended learning, and probably a much 'tighter' plan than we would have for our fully face-to-face learning situations. It is much easier to plan upfront in online and blended learning than to try to re-establish expectations or instructions once the course is underway. By creating this plan early on, you will reduce the time and effort required to reach your goal of a successful online course.

blended learning

Blended learning integrates face-to-face interaction with online learning.


A goal without a plan is just a wish.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery
French writer