Designing a course is like designing a house.  What does the structure look like?  Does it have a firm foundation?  What kinds of features would make it more appealing for viewers?  How do we assess its effectiveness?

In this section, we will look at key components of learning design, starting with the big picture questions and getting into the details of planning the course.

Key Questions

At the beginning of the planning process, the curriculum team should ask some of the following questions:

  • Who are the students?  What is the typical age, gender, work experience, program, etc.
  • How does this course fit in with the program?
  • If a previous course exists, has there been any feedback from students and Open Learning Faculty Members?
  • When do students need to take this new course?
Once you’ve answered those questions, you’re ready for the four key parts of the development process:

Course Design

See the following pages that take you through our design process:

  • Blueprint Planning: How to create a course blueprint to map your course.
  • Activity Design: How to choose engaging activities for online and web courses. This page lists a number of ideas for activities and assessments
  • Media: This page contains more activity ideas for engaging multimedia pieces. .
  • Assessment: Learn about the various types of formative and summative assessments, as well as rubrics to grade them.


Design Principles

To get a “behind the scenes” look at why we design courses the way we do, read on!  Following highlights some key principles of online learning styles, pedagogical frameworks, collaborative problem-based learning, and inclusive design.

Online Learning Styles

The Illinois Online Network has developed educational resources to support online education. Their page on Learning Styles and the Online Environment provides a useful overview of how learning styles manifest themselves in the online environment. The page also provides links to quizzes for you to find out more about multiple intelligences and your own learning style.

For a more applied view of how students develop online learning strategies, read Roper’s (2007) article How Students Develop Online Learning Skills. Roper highlights seven strategies of successful online learners. The Illinois Online Network has also developed a portrait of What Makes a Successful Online Student that you may find interesting.

For an examination of Kolb’s learning styles in relation to online learning, read Richmond and Cumming’s (2005) article Implementing Kolb’s Learning Styles into Online Distance Education.  This article investigates Kolb’s Experiential Learning theory, evaluates learning style research in online environments and how student learning styles can be considered in an online course.


Pedagogical Frameworks

Various pedagogical theories/models have defined distance education curriculum development over the years. Dr. Terry Anderson, in a 2010 CIDER session entitled “Three Generations of Distance Education Pedagogy,” talks about the challenges and opportunity afforded by the behavioural/cognitive, constructivist and connectivist models, with a focus on the emergent development of connectivism.


Collaborative Problem-Based Learning

In a problem-based approach, small groups work together to solve challenging, open-ended problems. This collaboration is facilitated by the instructor, whether online or face to face.

In “Authentic activity as a model for web-based learning,” Reeves, Herrington and Oliver (2002) identify the following ten characteristics of authentic activities:

  1. Authentic activities have real-world relevance
    Activities match as nearly as possible the real-world tasks of professionals in practice rather than decontextualized or classroom-based tasks.
  2. Authentic activities are ill-defined, requiring students to define the tasks and sub-tasks needed to complete the activity
    Problems inherent in the activities are ill-defined and open to multiple interpretations rather than easily solved by the application of existing algorithms. Learners must identify their own unique tasks and sub-tasks in order to complete the major task.
  3. Authentic activities comprise complex tasks to be investigated by students over a sustained period of time
    Activities are completed in days, weeks and months rather than minutes or hours. They require significant investment of time and intellectual resources.
  4. Authentic activities provide the opportunity for students to examine the task from different perspectives, using a variety of resources.  The task affords learners the opportunity to examine the problem from a variety of theoretical and practical perspectives, rather than requiring a single perspective that learners must imitate to be successful. The use of a variety of resources rather than a limited number of preselected references requires students to detect relevant from irrelevant information.
  1. Authentic activities provide the opportunity to collaborate
    Collaboration is integral to the task, both within the course and the real world, rather than achievable by an individual learner.
  2. Authentic activities provide the opportunity to reflect and involve students’ beliefs and values
    Activities require and enable learners to make choices and reflect on their learning both individually and socially.
  3. Authentic activities can be integrated and applied across different subject areas and extend beyond domain-specific outcomes
    Activities encourage interdisciplinary perspectives and enable learners to play diverse roles and build expertise that is applicable beyond a single well-defined field or domain.
  4. Authentic activities are seamlessly integrated with assessment
    Assessment of learning is seamlessly integrated with the major activity in a manner that reflects real world assessment, rather than separate artificial assessment tasks that are removed from the nature of the tasks inherent in completing the activity.
    9. Authentic activities create polished products valuable in their own right rather than as preparation for something else
    Activities culminate in the creation of a whole product rather than an exercise or sub-step in preparation for something else.
  5. Authentic activities allow competing solutions and diversity of outcomes.  Activities allow a range and diversity of outcomes open to multiple solutions of an original nature, rather than a single correct response obtained by the application of predefined rules and procedures. (p. 3)

Problem-based learning is essentially a learner-centered approach with the instructor facilitating the process. Sometimes, the learners must search for the content while other times the information is provided. When creating a problem-based learning activity, it is important to build in the necessary support for the learners.

Here are some interesting articles about problem-based learning that you may find helpful:

What’s your problem?: Increasing student motivation and quality of participation in discussions through problem-based learning (Gurrie, 2003).

Overview of problem-based learning: Definitions and distinctions (Savery, 2006)

Problem-based learning: A sceptic’s diary (Piggot, 2005).

You can also find a lot of additional resources about problem based learning on the Problem-Based Learning Initiative website.

Dr. Peter Hsu has also developed seven modules about collaborative problem-based learning for online course developers. You may want to take the time to view these modules in preparation for developing your online course.


Inclusive Design

Inclusive design is defined by the University of Toronto’s ATRC (Adaptive Technology Resource Centre) as “design that enables and supports the participation of individuals and groups representing the full range of human diversity” (ATRC, 2010).

The main principle of inclusive design is to create a more personalized learning environment. It means designing courses where learners have choices that will allow them to more easily access materials.

For TRU-OL, this means providing materials in a variety of formats, ensuring images and video have scripts and captions, ensuring resources follow accessibility standards, using flexible and adaptive assessment methods, and designing active learning environments.

Further Resources on Inclusive Design

Adaptive Technology Resource Centre, University of Toronto

Universal Design for Learning