Course Planning


All courses should contain course objectives, a textbook or reading materials, a well-articulated course syllabus, a course schedule, and lesson units or modules that are offered in digestible content chunks.

Course Map (download example )      

This is a flow chart depicting a one-page syllabus as a flow chart. Students have found it very helpful to have the visual version (syllabus at-a-glance version). It can be created as a word document or using software. Inserting about how much time is takes to do assignments makes this helpful for both the learner and the course designer. The learner sees about how much time it should take (time-on-task) and the course designer can get feedback on how much time it actually took. From a planning viewpoint, the time element also helps the course designer to get a reality check on the time commitment for each assignment. Are the assignments realistic given the credit load?       

Permission to adapt with acknowledgment to the authors: Dr. Joan D. McMahon and Marj Ashcraft, Human Resource Development, Towson University, Towson, MD, 21252, Copyright © 2002 Dr. Joan D. McMahon and Marj Ashcraft.

Course Objectives

The online course objectives should be clearly identified in the beginning of the course. Each lesson unit should be designed with the overall course objectives in mind. The objectives should be stated at the beginning of each lesson unit informing students of the content to be covered. The learning outcomes of the lesson unit should also match the course objectives. Methodologies for assessing these objectives can be altered for the online classroom. If any activities, such as the use of online group collaboration or asynchronous class discussion, will be needed to meet course objectives, they should be identified at this phase.

Bloom's Taxonomy provides effective verbs for designing these course objectives, such as the assessment of knowledge, comprehension, application, and analysis to support online teaching strategies. Click here to read more about Bloom's. To interact with the elements of Bloom's Taxonomy, click here to utilize a learning object developed by the Wisconsin State University System-WISC-Online. This exercise is an excellent example of a learning object, an interactive content item that can be added to online course materials. According to the IEEE Learning Standards Committee (2001), a Learning Object is any entity, digital or non-digital, which can be used, re-used, or referenced during technology-supported learning.

Many free resources are available online, or learning objects can be developed specifically for each course. The following is a list of free repositories:


The textbook is an important asset for an online course. You should examine the text from the perspective of online delivery and understand that in most cases, the text will be the major source for content delivery. The text should be a strong, stand-alone resource for the course and ideally offer ancillary support for students, such as website links and review quizzes. In many cases, textbooks will provide additional resources for both faculty and students. Textbooks that offer you assistance in the form of a CD-ROM, test bank, lecture outlines, PowerPoint slides, or website material give added support in creating an online course. Some textbooks published by Prentice Hall, Irwin-McGraw Hill, and others offer these licensed resources free-of-charge should you adopt the text. Other textbooks offer course cartridges of content that import directly into courseware management systems like Blackboard or WebCT.

When transitioning a course from traditional to online, instructors are sometimes reluctant to adopt a new textbook, but if easier course conversion is produced, they usually concur. The text adoption should be decided early enough in the process for you to become familiar with the contents of the textbook, and, of course, should support the core objectives of the course. Early text adoption is also critical for the course designer. Changes in the text may require extensive changes in the supporting course content. Additionally, if you should decide to change textbooks, any of the publishers' licensed or copyrighted material must be removed from the course and replaced with content from the new text or from other sources.

Course Syllabus

A complete and thorough course syllabus becomes highly significant in an online course. An instructor in the traditional classroom can spend the first class period explaining the syllabus and covering any deficiencies, but the online instructor does not have that luxury. For the online course, the syllabus is both a blueprint and a learning contract.

During the design phase, the syllabus serves as the blueprint for the course, setting the stage for meaningful learning. The syllabus should be completed before the course content is added. Additionally, the course syllabus is the foundation for a positive learning experience and prescribes important course guidelines, such as all grading methods, types of assignments, and the participation requirement for the students.

During the teaching of the course, the syllabus will serve as the learning contract with the students and will provide the course objectives, course description, and a schedule of covered topics and assignments. You should not deviate from the course syllabus once the course has begun as this will lead to confusion and frustration for online students.

 Many instructors have found it effective to provide the course syllabus in redundant places in the course management system or course website, outside the course management system, and also emailed to the student at the start of the class.

With the exception of some of the instructor's specific information, the course syllabus should be developed in the design stage and consist of at least these elements:

  • Instructor Contact Information: Name, office information, telephone-both office and home, if possible-and email address should be included.
  • Course Description: This description must be identical to the university catalog description of the course.
  • Mission Statement: Include this as a reminder of your purpose and unique perspective.
  • Audience: Note who should take the course? Note whether it is a core course, elective, etc.
  • Prerequisites: Include a list of specific courses, necessary computer software, skills, GPA, etc., required for the course.
  • Course Objectives/Goals: Note overall goal or outcome students will achieve by the end of the course (make these measurable).
  • Course Competencies: List performance expectations related to student learning. Use specific verbs that communicate observable, measurable performance or outcomes.
  • Evaluation Methods: List an explanation of projects, papers, and major assignments that will be graded to determine student proficiency for all course competencies.
  • Grading Criteria: List your criteria and requirements for major projects and term papers (style, format specifics, length, due date, and other criteria), and special grading practices (late work policy, make-up, extra credit). A policy for late work acceptance is critical. A class participation standard should be also listed-for example, in what ways and how many times do you expect students to participate on a weekly or session basis?
  • Assignment Submissions: Include information regarding assignment format and labeling. For example, students may need to turn in any digital word-processed document in an *.rtf format. Also, by what method should students submit their work? Email, fax, electronic drop box, regular mail, etc., and how should they title it?
  • Grade Composition: Include a list of all grade components, weight of each, scale for A, B, etc.
  • Text(s), Readings, Tools: Full bibliographic information for texts (state whether they are required or optional), list of other tools and equipment, electronic resources, reading packets, etc., and where students obtain them or gain access to them should lie noted.

Your Institution's General Policies

  • Attendance Policy: Required student participation/responses in online courses are considered necessary. Regular course participation should equal class attendance. Absences, for any reason, should be defined. State the length of the course period and identify attendance limits.
  • Academic Misconduct Policy: Your institution's policy should be clearly stated with special care given to plagiarism. Because of the open nature of the Internet, students should be reminded that copying and pasting webpages must be clearly documented and not submitted as their own material. The anonymity of the Internet allows for collaborative assignment submission. The policy should clearly state "the student's work must be his/her own."
  • Drop/Withdrawal Policy: Student drop and withdraw policies should be clearly stated with dates identified if possible.
  • Disabilities Statement: Institutional policy regarding ADA compliance issues should be stated.
  • Online Format: Indicate the way class sessions will be conducted, types of activities (i.e., web lecture, lab, research, discussion, groups, case studies, electronic media, etc.).
  • Technical Issues: You should list the possible technical problems and solutions that students may experience, or, at least, refer students to a telephone number and email address for helpdesk support.
  • Course Schedule: While separate from the syllabus, the course schedule should be included for convenience. A table format of the scheduled class session dates, assignment topics, and due dates should be included in the course syllabus.

Course Schedule

The course schedule is a road map and timeline for the student. Because of the learning contract that is created with the syllabus, all due dates for assignments and instructions should clearly be detailed for students. While the course schedule is included with the course syllabus, it should also be posted in the course management system or course website, and if applicable, the course calendar. For each lesson unit, a list of activities, content to be covered, assignments, exam dates, and due dates for all items should be listed.

You should allow for flexibility and revisions of the schedule based on the progress and needs of the class but should avoid adding additional assignments not covered in the course syllabus. Careful consideration of course assignments should be given before the course starts to be sure that students meet the required learning objectives.

A sample course schedule is provided below:<img src="content/schedule.jpg" width="558" height="266" align="left">

Lesson or Module Unit

When designing the course schedule, the course should be broken into lesson units. These are often one-week periods, but can be shorter or longer. Ideally, a good lesson unit has many parts: introduction, session objectives, reading assignments, instructional content, handouts, class discussion, written assignments, quizzes/exams, and a unit summary.

The flow of the course should be intuitive, transitioning from week-to-week, or session-to-session without the student feeling lost or isolated in the process. The total number of sessions in the course has a great impact on the course design. Just adding or eliminating as few as two sessions can lead to total course redesign. If the number of course sessions changes often, consider using smaller content chunks (see "Content Chunking" below) that can be combined into a single unit. Redundancy of key course information is important.

Sample Lesson Unit Outline

The example below demonstrates a sample lesson unit outline.

  • Introduction
  • Session Objectives
  • Textbook and ancillary reading assignment(s)
  • Instructional materials broken into several segments if necessary
  • Handouts
  • Class discussion question(s)
  • Session assignment(s)
  • Session quiz(zes)
  • Unit summary 

Content Chunking

Content chunking is an instructional design process, rather than a theory. It uses modular design in the delivery of online content. Each "chunk" of material is broken into small, understandable lessons or vignettes for the students to absorb. An example of chunking would be to break apart a lecture (that would amount to five written pages) covering several topics into smaller pieces. The entire lecture, if left un-chunked, would be a tedious website to scroll through, and more importantly, too much information to absorb in one session. Instead, the concept of content chunking would break the lecture into perhaps five or six smaller concepts. When a lecture is broken into topics or ideas and put on separate pages, research shows students are more likely to understand the content. In the online format, students can navigate through the session exercising personal preferences; for example, students may opt to skip the lecture and take the quiz first. It is to their best benefit if the content  is organized and easy to move through logically.

Quality course content should be a constant concern for the institution. Course content contributes highly to the success of students and the online education program. Course content can be obtained from several methods such as purchasing from peer institutions or for-profit entities. However, most of the pioneering institutions in online education use internal sources for content creation.

Numerous institutions do create their own course materials. However, alternative methods for obtaining content are to purchase course content from other institutions, textbook publishers, content creation companies, or free-lancing individuals. These alternatives have potential benefits when staffing a smaller online education department and often offer quicker program implementation.

With these alternative methods, the institution must ensure that the quality of the content is consistent with the institution's standards and that individuals with proper academic credentials have developed it. Accreditation demands that content used in any course meet the academic rigor expected at that level of instruction. When using any content not directly under the control of the institution, assurances must be given that it was created in a way that meets all university and accrediting body standards. Additionally, the lack of control over the content, lack of institutional faculty involvement with the content, and ownership of the intellectual property are issues the institution must be prepared to address.

For many, these negatives have caused institutions to focus on creating the content using their own employees and faculty. This allows the institution to develop its own content based on its curriculum plan and customized to its mission statement.

For an institution to create its own content, it must follow systematic and proven techniques. Failure to do so will lead to higher attrition and poor student performance. Fortunately, there has been much research into this topic, and many books and articles have been authored on this subject. An institution seeking to create its own course content should find plenty of resources to help guide them through the process. Creation of functional and effective course content should focus on a solid instructional design process. A basic understanding of instructional design models with proven effectiveness in online education is needed and should be communicated to all faculty charged with content creation.

Institutions creating customized content should take advantage of the uniqueness of the medium by integrating interactive content and rich media content into their courses. At the same time, institutions should understand that even the most eloquent and sophisticated content by itself will not make the course or program successful. The combination of interaction between learners and instructors and the development of the learning community is the formula for success. Research shows that students who interact in the online classroom have a better learning experience.

  Perhaps the most frustrating limitation for online content creators is the limited bandwidth available to deliver the course materials. In 2002, the majority of online learners' access to the Internet was only a 56K modem or less. Broadband network access among online students is growing, but even in the United States, it will be years before this access is available to many of the students located in rural or isolated areas. Unless careful consideration is given to the creation of media rich content, these modules will go unused simply because students do not have the proper bandwidth to download the modules, or will choose not to download them because of the time required.

Content Creation

Using rich media, such as online graphical models and video, can be time consuming and expensive. When creating text-based content, course designers should design the content to be read on the screen and printed. Often, online students will print out the lectures and highlight or mark the text as they read; therefore, printable lectures should be designed with this in mind.

Style Guide

Some institutions have created a style guide for the development of online courses. A style guide recommends colors, font styles, and the placement of certain institutional information in each of the courses. This consistency throughout the program conveys institutional ownership and endorsement of the courses and the materials in these courses.

Along with the guidelines for a consistent look and feel, the style guide will also suggest the format in which the course material is presented. The institution often recommends an instructional design theory for the creation of course materials and publishes this in the style guide along with examples. When students are presented with a familiar learning unit layout, they are more able to focus on the content and learning objectives, which may assist in student learning.