Structuring an Online Course

  • Course Planning
  • Course Organization
  • Communication

Experienced online instructors and students alike emphasize the need to have a clearly structured and well-planned course when teaching and learning online.

Structuring the course effectively means planning the course well in advance of when it is being taught, thinking through the organizational structures and qualities that will help students learn, and understanding that the online environment presents a number of communication challenges.

Course Planning

Designing a course always takes a great deal of time and thought. That is no different with online courses. At the same time, the online environment offers particular obstacles and opportunities for both instructors and students. As you think through the course elements, pay particular attention to the course components that may serve as stumbling blocks to student learning online. One particular tension that emerges is the need to have a clear and organized structure, while allowing flexibility for making adaptations mid-stream

·       Develop your course before the semester begins

Often new faculty discover that developing online courses is time-consuming and that transitioning a successful traditional course to an online setting can be difficult. Experienced online instructors suggest developing your course well in advance and with a clear, concise objectives statement. The better prepared you are, the better your online teaching experience will be.

·       Allow flexibility in your course design

Although it is important to make course expectations and due dates clear, it is also important to build in flexibility to your schedule. Building flexibility into your course structure will allow you to compensate for unexpected technological problems as well as give you opportunities to respond to student feedback.

Course Organization

Students in online courses are in particular need of a clear organizational structure. Keep in mind that each student is experiencing the course on his or her own – without the opportunity to turn immediately to a neighbor if confused or unclear about something in the course. In addition, students in online courses do not have the imposed structure of attending class at a consistent time and place each week they do not have the traditional “markers” of handing in papers in class or coming to the classroom to take a test. For all these reasons, it’s important to think carefully about how to appropriately organize your course to encourage student participation and facilitate student learning.

Chunk the syllabus into sections

Divide the course syllabus into discrete segments, organized by topic. Self- contained segments can be used to assess student mastery of that unit before moving forward in the course.

  • Tip: Use an “Assignments” page for course On that page,

outline each assignment in a paragraph, explaining its purpose in helping students, and provide explanations and guidelines for evaluation. See the sample course homepage in this chapter for an example of organizing your course this way.

  • Tip: Another way to divide the course is by time. One instructor uses the following organization, in which each unit is labeled by week and author, for her literature The following figures shows the first two weeks of her course:

·       Break assignments into chunks with “touch points”

Because students work at their own pace (and procrastinate) in an online course, it works best to develop guidelines that require students to come back to the course website often. Chunking assignments helps students keep up with the work.

In addition, use “touch points” at which point students do something–write in a journal, send an email, enter into a discussion–to help chunk course content and give the course more structure.

  • Tip: A literature instructor chunked one unit as follows:


  • BACKGROUND INFORMATION: Before you begin to read Their Eyes Were Watching God (TEWWG), please read the background information that I have
  • READ CHAPTERS 1-10 (pp. 1-99) and write a two-page, single-spaced reading response that you will put in your Journal on the course homepage journal link. This response will be more informal than an essay, and is due by MIDNIGHT, JULY

·       Provide due dates for assignments

Each assignment should have a clear due date and time (for example, “midnight EST on July 8”). In addition, multiple due dates every week keep students on track with course requirements.

·       Provide multiple opportunities for graded activities

Assess students on writing assignments, standard test formats, and class participation. The online course format offers a number of opportunities for graded written assignments, including threaded discussions, papers, web research, and online exercises. Multiple measurement points will stimulate students to become involved in multiple activities and keep them participating in class.

·       Give credit for participating in online discussions

Give students credit for the substantive learning that students provide for each other through online discussions. In many online courses, these discussions are essential for advancing the course goals. By assigning credit for participation in online discussions, instructors can deter “lurking,” where students listen to the conversation but do not participate.


In considering how you communicate with students about course goals and your expectations, it is again important to remember that students experience your course on their own and will come to the course with varying levels of technical expertise.

Place important information in a variety of places, and repeat it often, in order to enhance the chances that students will pay attention to it.

Give students a clear overall understanding of the course structure

Students need a clear message of the “vision” of the course so provide them a sense of the overall landscape of the course.

  • Tip: Use a Table of Contents layout design to help first time online

students understand the structure of the course. The Table of Contents style is similar to printed material. See the sample course homepage in this chapter for an example of how to provide a sense of the overall landscape of a course.

 Post course syllabus, policies, expectations, and objectives on the course website

You will most likely not be available to respond immediately when students email questions regarding assignments or due dates, so posting your syllabus on the course homepage will eliminate confusion.

  • Tip: Students will access the course homepage at any time of the day or

night. You can’t always be online to answer questions, so make the assignments easy to find and easy to understand.

Setup a housekeeping clearinghouse section on your webpage

To cut down on the number of individual questions, set-up a housekeeping clearinghouse section (sometimes called “Frequently Asked Questions”) on your webpage where students can post a question and get answers about general course information (e.g., how do I download the article, when is the next paper due, etc.) Encourage students to go to this section of the course before asking the instructor.

Use printed materials if a student requests

Have a printed workbook of course syllabus and other critical course information available for students who request printed copies.

  • Tip: For engineering courses with heavy math content, provide detailed lecture notes, solutions, and other course materials in PDF format before the lecture date or online access date. This will allow students to download and print course material in advance.

 Structure  online discussions

Structure the course to capitalize on the threaded discussion format. Use existing textbook material or website readings for “lecture” and guide students through activities and threaded postings for active learning.

Remind students frequently of due dates

Use a technique like “Nag Notes” to remind students of due dates and other requirements.

  • Tip: One Communication professor uses “nag notes” to remind his students of due dates. For example:

I’ve posted the topics proposed thus far. Browse to PROJECTS/PAPER #1. Reminders:

  • For Wednesday, Read the Birkerts piece, “Into the Electronic ”
  • For Monday, Read Postman’s Chapter 1 and do the IT/HC in the News Discussion Forum

FROM:  Teaching and Learning Online: Communication, Community and Assessment – A Handbook for UMass Faculty