Learning Technology > Teaching with Technology > Online Course Design
Guide to Online Course Design

1. Introduction

Welcome to the Guide to Online Courses. We hope that you find this guide a practical resource for teaching online at the IT University of Copenhagen. This guide includes good practice tips for designing course content, evaluating and teaching online.

The guide is written for faculty and staff at the IT University of Copenhagen already or soon to be involved in the development of online course teaching, as was written by learning consultants Yoo Falk Jensen and Annelise Agertoft, Research & Learning Support in October 2013.

The guide not only draws from our experiences as e-learning consultants on this particular project, but is also based on previous experiences, educational background and general knowledge within the field of online teaching.

1.1 Background

In the spring of 2012, the IT University launched the first 100% online course, Object Oriented Programming (OOP), as a pilot project. Today the course is successfully offered as an online course every semester.

Although, a programming course has been used in this case, the guide can also be applied to other courses. However, it is important to emphasize that not all courses can or should be delivered as online teaching.
If you want to know more about the specific form and outcome of Object Oriented Programming as online teaching and assessment click here to read the pilot project summary.

The guide has not been written with specific reference to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC), but staff involved in consideration on experimenting with these will also be able to find valuable information here.

2. Organisational anchorage and strategic goal

2.1 Purpose, analysis and identification

The first step when designing an online course is the careful analysis of the overall purpose. In the case of the OOP course it met an overall strategic goal aiming of experimenting with modes of exclusively online delivery and thereby gaining useful experiences within this area. This strategic goal matched the course manager’s interest in further developing his knowledge and practice with blended learning (part face-to-face classroom methods and part online delivery of content).

Perhaps one of the most obvious reasons for offering online reaching is when there is an inherent connection between the intended learning outcomes, the academic content and the online format. Take as an example a course where the academic content concerns ‘computer supported collaborative work’ where the use of technology is essential in order to support the intended learning outcomes. On the other hand, some courses require the physical presence of teacher and students and cannot be taught 100% online without compromising the quality of the academic content.

A secondary argument for offering online courses would be to accommodate specific student segments (full time employees, students living outside Copenhagen in Denmark or abroad). Online learning can also contribute to more effective work life for teachers as it offers a more flexible schedule and allows them to re-use video recorded lectures. It is an important task for everyone involved to specify the purpose(s) and align it/them with the management's perspective and goals.

Even if a course live up to several of the parameters above, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a course should be delivered online. It is still crucial that the course manager is willing to put in a considerable extra effort to participate in redesigning the course.

2.2 Organisational endorsement

Budget and resources
Department Management has to support the project strategically as well as financially. The development phase of online courses does not necessarily include large overheads, but there will likely be some expenses for software licenses, hardware, etc.
The development team must write up a preliminary budget of these expenses and get a green light from the Management.

Note, that budget posts for man-hours can be rather large depending on the type of learning activities planned out and how much existing course material can be re-used. Additional man-hours should be allocated for the course manager, extra teaching assistants, course and platform supporters and perhaps the support of IT Department, Student Affairs and Programmes and Research & Learning Support. Also, it might be relevant to involve the personnel manager (Head of Section) when it comes to prioritizing the time of the course manager.

Alignment with the Study Programme
As with the above, it is necessary to involve relevant Heads of study programmes and the Head of studies. This is to ensure that the online delivery of the course is aligned with the frame and structure of the entire study programme and/or other priorities regarding the general development of the educations.

3. Plan and Design Your Course

3.1 About this chapter

This chapter covers good practice when gathering a development team, designing learning activities and setting up your course in a learning platform.

3.2 Establish your development team

Prepare yourself for the many tasks that go into planning and developing a brand new online course. One great way is to make sure that you have the sufficient resources in terms of manpower and time. Without a sufficient amount of qualified resources and time management little can be achieved. Developing an online course must be a strategic goal put forward and supported by your institution and must be allocated the appropriate resources. Please, see above for more on budget and resources.

Consider the following:
  • Do I need a teaching assistant (TA)?
  • Do I need sparring and support from Learning Unit?
  • Do I have enough time to plan and develop the course (at least 3 months)?

Dividing the task among the development team

A good way to save time is to make sure that everyone in your tema knows their role and responsibilities in order to avoid later misunderstandings. Agree on ways to communicate and how often you will be doing this. What should be the frequency of internal information and communication and what is relevant to whom? Note, the team might also well be geographically distributed.

Consider which ways to communicate:
  • e-mail
  • phone
  • Skype
  • online meeting rooms such as Adobe Connect Pro
  • Face-to-face meeting
  • team workshops
  • etc.

Deciding on a shared online space for sharing files can be very helpful. There exist a multitude of online services and just to name a few:

3.3 Plan Your Process Ahead - Getting The Overview

Making a rough plan of the process from start to end can be very helpful. Outlining the structure, format and content will quickly uncover what is missing and needs to be done. Things often take more than time than you expect, because you depend on other people's contributions and efforts, too.

Start out by making a rough time schedule with your team. In other words, who does what and when? Asses how much time each phase and tasks should take by using this template.

3.4 Start Planning Your Course

The ITU Course Base outlines the formal prerequisites of your course. Note, that there is a programme coordinator allocated to each study programme and that this person may be able answer any questions you may have in this regard. Find the programme coordinator for your study programme here.

A good way to start is by getting an overview of the formalities in a course:
  1. Intended learning outcomes
  2. Learning activities
  3. Exam and assessment
  4. Overall academic progression

(Points 1-3 are all about Constructive Alignment principles which you can read more about here).

Intended Learning Outcome (ILO)

If you are about to convert an already existing course to online delivery there will already be a set of existing intended learning outcomes (ILO) and they can be found in the course description in the Course Base. If you are developing a new course or find a need for adjusting the learning outcomes. ILOs are formulated by course managers in collaboration with the Head of study programme and Learning Unit and follow the principles of the SOLO taxonomy and the guidelines for course descriptions that you can read about here.

Learning Activities

Learning activities are activities of shorter or longer variation that helps the student train, practice and obtain the intended learning outcomes. Learning activities from existing classroom teaching will need to be revised for online teaching. Read more below about how to design learning activities.

Exam and Assesment

The exam format must be chosen based on the style that allows students to perform on the ILOs the best - in an online environment! The date and type of course exam is decided months before the start of a semester. Read more about dates and exam form here. Before you settle on the formal exam form think the ILOs through once more. Can they be assessed with this exam form?


3.5 Using learnIT as a Virtual Classroom

LearnIT is the learnIT platform used for courses at ITU - online as well as regular. The advantage by using learnIT is this:
  • It is a virtual class room for you and your students
  • It is available online 24/7/365
  • It offers a wide range of asynchronous features
  • It can be combined with virtual conferencing systems e.g. Adobe Connect, which can be used free of charge with an ITU account.
  • It facilitates digital assignment submission.

If you are new to learnIT it is recommended to read the about learnIT section in the learnIT Guide. The guide offers a broad overview of the most basic features and tools and how to use them. Getting a sense on beforehand of which tools are available for you in learnIT may help you in the when designing learning activities.

3.6 How To Design Learning Activities

Once, you have your ILO's in place it is time to consider which learning activities fit for students to work with and practice these. This section covers the notion of progression and a variety of learning activities. Choose the type of learning activities based on both the ILOs and the academic content and go for a variation of learning activities. Also, consider how students may learn by interacting with you and each other.

According to learning theories based on social constructivism students learn best through active participation and also in collaboration with others (read more about ITUs pedagogical principles and constructive alignment here). The environment (social and virtual) furthermore plays a decisive role. Aligning all these elements is an even greater effort when teaching online than in traditional teaching.

Five-stage model
In online teaching, it is advisable to build up the learning activities in a certain progression. In her work, Gilly Salmon, a researcher and professor of E-learning and learning technologies, emphasizes a step-by-step approach. Stage 1 stresses the importance on spending initial time on activities that help online learners accessing and using the system, while stage 2 should focus on establishing student motivation and a sense of community. We recommend using Salmon’s five-stage model (http://www.gillysalmon.com/five-stage-model.html) for the overall semester planning.

Course plan - overview of the semester and the activities
When should what take place? What is the progression in the course? Are there important dates that you need to work around? It could be availability of online guest lecturers or other resources. Who will teach/supervise when? Which learning activities will you select for which outcomes? The below course plan template can be used as an iterative tool for planning the semester.

Once you are done with it, you can copy paste the content to learnIT. (In chapter 3.9 you can see an example of a complete course plan).

3.7 Types of learning activities

The amount of possible learning activities in online teaching is endless as it is in the traditional classroom. For your inspiration we are outlining a few of them and briefly commenting on their potential and use.

Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Learning Activities

As the delivery format is online - and online only - students will not be meeting each other in a physical location. Instead, they will primarily be using the learning platform, learnIT. Through learnIT you and your students will be able to communicate, interact and collaborate both synchronously and asynchronously.

A common misconception is that synchronous communication always is preferable over asynchronous communication. Perhaps, because we are used to be teaching and learning in a classroom all at the same time and face-to-face. Let it be stated that this is not the case at all. In fact, a synchronous activity such as an online lecture for example may be far less effective than an asynchronous activity if not used with a pedagogical purpose.

Expand your knowledge of synchronous vs. asynchronous learning with this basic overview here.

The video recorded lecture

The lecture format is still the most dominant form of teaching in higher education. For this reason recording a lecture can seem like an obvious choice when planning activities for your online course. As with live lectures the most effective once are those who are turning students turning into active participators instead of passive spectators by inviting them into a conversation by involvement.

Video recorded lectures can be delivered both synchronously (at the same time) and asynchronously (no timing requirement).
Synchronous lecture:
  • Facilitate dialog among the students and you by using a chat or video conference (video/audio). Plan how to moderate and involve students and consider how to conduct these online sessions:
    • Online meeting room in Adobe Connect
    • ITU Video conferencing systems
    • Contact FM for further support.
  • Include web-polls for engaging interaction. Use the feature 'Choice' in LearnIT or read more about web-polls here.

Asynchronous lecture:
  • Use exercises to make students construct knowledge by engaging with the material.
  • Recording a screencast can be a great way to make short and efficient tutorials and demonstrations. The software allows you to record what happens on your screen, while recording audio at the same time.

Note: Whether your lecture or screencast is synchronous or asynchronous make sure to record the and store the video for later use. It is a good resource for students to have. Find out how to record your own lectures or screencasts here.


Assignments: Using assignments is of course in order to train the learning outcomes as in every other kind of teaching, but in online teaching they can also contribute to the sense of online community. Small weekly assignments with deadlines will tell you if students’ learning is progressing, but also if students are actively involved or getting lost in anonymity. If students stop handing in on time it can be a signal for you (or your teaching assistant) to contact them for a helping check-up. A way of securing that students actually do these assignments is to make them hand them in in groups.


Supervision and feedback are important learning activities as they help students to keep the intended learning outcomes in focus by looking at their solutions, questions, interests and approach to learning. Whenever, students need to hand in assignments or do project work in the course they will need some kind of supervision. There are various ways of doing this. For example, you may choose to give a writte summary feedback of typical findings in the hand-ins. Another way is to upload a screencast going over difficult topics, themes, etc. The supervision can also take place as “open-office-hours” where you or your teaching assistant are available via Skype or the chat in LearnIT. Students may then book a time-slot ahead of the meeting by using Doodle or Group Choice in LearnIT.

Online Discussion in Forums

Some courses have as their main objective to teach students how to reflect, argue for a position and put something into perspectivation – in short deep critical thinking. Online discussion forums are useful for letting students reflect and discuss. Read more about how to set up discussion forums as a learning activity with specific intended learning outcomes and in learnIT in Chapter 4 - Going Live!.


As a teacher you can create a quizz to test students' progression and needs for further work with the material. You may also let the students create quizzes for each other based on specific readings. For setting up quizzes in learnIT click here. A quizz may also be a way for students to carry out self-assessment. For some learning outcomes and academic areas it makes sense for students to test their own declarative knowledge. This can also be done using the same quizz module in LearnIT as mentioned above.

Group Work

According to social constructivism students learn more by participating in learning activities that involve interaction with others. Group work is an intense form of student interaction. Not only is group work an occasion to build upon each others knowledge, but it is also a way to challenge their own academic skills and perspectives In todays job market skills like collaboration and computer supported collaborative work are often highly required.

Learning activity templates

When you plan your learning activities it can be helpful to have a variety of parameters in mind. The attached templates are tools for reflecting, planning and quality assuring activities on a detailed level.

3.8 Assessment and Exam

There are various ways to conduct an exam online. Note, that the exam has to be 100% online with no exception. All information regarding the exam should be clearly stated in the Course Base before the course begins. If there are certain conditions that students need to take into account i.e. hardware or software this also needs to be clearly stated. Read all about exams in general in the Exam wiki.

Choice and description of assessment tasks

The choice of assessment tasks of course depends primarily on the type of learning outcome that you need to assess, but also on what is possible and smart online in terms of technology and plagiarism prevention.

Read about 3 types of recommended online exams here, including tips to avoid plagiarism.

Involvement of exam office

We recommend involving the exam office at an early stage to check that your choice of exam form and the way you plan to carry it out is aligned with the exam regulations. Other issues to discuss with the exam office are:
  • how to formulate that students need to be online a certain time even before the exam
  • how to administer extra time for submission if learnIT should break down
  • who in the exam office will be “standing by” as contact person during the exam if questions arise
  • how to in the Course Base clearly state students’ own responsibilities at the exam
  • how to give any external examiners access to the assignments (if written)

Read a case of a 4 hour online hand-in exam.

3.9 Putting It All Together

Once, you have a rough outline of your course with Intended learning outcomes (ILO) and suggestions for teaching activities (TA) you can start by putting it all together like this example made by a teacher.

Collaborate with Your Development Team

At this point it is time to get in touch with your development team to go over your plan and split up the tasks. If you like, you can start out by sending your drafted outline to Learning Unit for initial feedback.

The next step could be to arrange a workshop with everyone involved in the development team in order to inform and delegate tasks. Learning Unit will help you with setting up a workshop.

Practical issues to be decided could be:
  • If you have decided to produce short videos, who records them and how?
  • Who will make sure that they are available to students at a specific time?
  • Which screen-casting tool will you be needing and do you have the necessary skill set besides hardware and software to produce them?
  • How will student activity be tracked?
  • Who is responsible for uploading assignments?
  • What about feedback and supervision?
  • Etc.

The output of the workshop should be a clear picture and plan for the coming tasks and for going live!

4. Going Live!

4.1 About this chapter

This chapter centers around the tasks throughout the running of your online course. Students need to feel a part of the course or "a community", which requires a strong sense of presence from you as a teacher. The carefully planned learning activities must be carried out as well as supervising group work, moderating discussions, recording videos, assessing assignments, etc.

4.2 Connecting with your team

After a longer break or vacation it might be necessary to team up with your TA's. Or perhaps, you haven't been assigned a TA until the last minute before semester start and need to advise them on the existing tasks. Read more on good practice in terms of collaborating with your teaching assistant here (teachIT workshop).

4.3 Opening your course in LearnIT

Students will automatically be enrolled/unenrolled in your course in LearnIT based on their enrollment in the Course Base. When you choose to open the course to the students they will log in with their ITU username and password. Students who haven't received a login may contant write the Student Affairs and Programmes the IT Helpdesk for further assistance.

It might be helpful to upload all the course material in LearnIT before the beginning the semester ie. slides, assignments, additional material. Or in other words; Everything you intent for your students to be learning week for week. For some students it is helpful to be able to see what is coming later in the semester as they might be away for a period of time and need to do November's work in October. Make the course as flexible for them as you can.

Be consistent in how you present things online. Use the same structure, fonts, format, etc. Your students won't be able to sit in the classroom every week and ask you questions, so avoid misunderstandings as much as possible.

4.4 Building online communities

Successful online community building is connecting a group of students online and making them feel a part of something special. This 'something special’ is a community spirit which is often the overlooked bit. Making students feel a part of a community and creating an environment for communication and interaction is very important when teaching online where you and the students never meet face-to-face as it is easy to feel lost and eventually fall behind and drop out.

Welcoming students

Communicate with students via the News Forum in learnIT before the course launches. It could be a short post from you reminding everyone when and how to get started. Students often have a lot of questions about the online format as they may be as new to it as you are. A good tip could be to create a forum in learnIT named "Ask me" introducing yourself and the course. Students may then ask questions relevant for everyone to see.

If you start the course with a live (synchronous) online meeting, invite the students to join this meeting and provide a "how-to-join". A link to the recording can be posted afterwards, but encourage students to participate the live session. One way of doing this could be to hold the meeting in Adobe Connect Pro, which can be used free of charge with an ITU account. Read more about how to use Adobe Connect here.

Get the discussion forum going throughout the first week with small mandatory activities. The purpose is to make the students feel comfortable in an online setting as well as acquainted with each other and the features of the learning platform. Be present and make sure to follow up frequently. As a teacher you have to be involved online if you expect your students to be involved.

However, it is important to learn how to manage your time when it comes to teaching online. If it feels like the course is hanging over your head 24/7, because the course "never ends" it's just not fun anymore. A good advice could be to list a matching of expectations, i.e. what your students can expect from you and what you expect from your students.

Example of expectations:

What you can expect from me as a teacher
What I expect from you as a student
  • I will respond to all your e-mails within 24 hours.
  • I will give feedback on all your assignments within x hours.
  • Etc.
  • Active participation
  • You can expect that I will follow the discussions in the discussion board, but not necessarily comment on every posting.
  • Etc

  • Ensure that the students understand the need for self-direction. In a normal course, students show up for class every week, hand in homework, know you are going to ask certain questions, ergo they have to be prepared. But when they work online it is all up to them, thus they have to be self-directed. Fewer live classes does not mean less work done for either student or teacher.

Good practice: Discussion Forum

  • Create all the forums needed before the course begins: post starter questions to get people talking. A discussion board is a very good tool for getting talking back and forth. In hybrid classes, students are very dependent on learning from each other, building knowledge together, sharing their experiences, getting advice, ideas and coaching.
  • Interaction between online students does not happen unless your facilitate it.
  • Comment early and often - be moderator and participant. Get in there early and start a good practice of writing things professionally: Clearly and in complete sentences (no chat or sms language).
  • However, do not interfere too much in the discussions or respond to each student. You want the students to respond to each other and not only to you. Step back a bit, but tell the students in the expectations section (see above) that you will be reading and give feedback every now and then. Not individual feedback, but feedback for the class. Keep individual feedback privately (otherwise students who didn't get individual feedback might think they did a poor job).
  • Create an "Ask me" forum, where they can ask questions, get advice from you, etc.
  • Require students to use full sentences in subject lines.
Here's an example why:
Re: Ideas?
Re:Re: Ideas?
Re:Re:Re: Ideas?
Who knows what the 10th thing is really about and why would you click on it an read it? How would you get any kind of debate going from something that is 16 Re's down the list? You just can't. That is why students have to write in full sentences, both when they make a posting and when they answer to one. And that complete sentence should be a summary of their main argument, so that people know exactly what they would be looking for when they read your discussion posting.

This also goes for writing e-mails: complete sentences should be used in the subject line. This will give you a clear idea of what's in that e-mail. This is critical for communication! Many teachers and students get swamped with e-mails everyday. You want people to be able to persuade others in e-mail, coach others in e-mail, delegate work in e-mail, and you can't do that if the subject line is "Hi".

How to use discussions forums as a learning activity with specific intended learning outcomes

It is essential that the teacher or TA moderates the discussion. Without a precise frame online discussions are not going to bring active participation and qualified discussions.
Here are some researched guidelines:
  • Divide students into groups of 4-8 with a forum each.
  • Outline the quantitative & qualitative criteria (intended learning outcomes) for participation (like number of posts/responses & elaborating on others contributions/ bringing forward new perspectives/reference to course literature/cases/experience).
  • For the sake of motivation and quality assurance the teacher should show virtual presence in the discussions by commenting and asking reflective questions here and there without taking on the role as presenter/judge.
  • Give precise information on when and where the discussions take place and when they close. In contrast to traditional classroom plenary discussions, asynchronous discussions allows all students to participate actively and the time between presentation of argument and response leaves time for reflection. See how to set up a discussion forum in LearnIT.

If you want to read more you can read this guideline from a workshop at ITU:

4.5 Online Group Work

If you have chosen to use group work as a learning activity here are a few tips:
  • Create clear instructions for the group work. Students require clear, specific directions, explanation of ‘why’ they are doing the assignment.
  • Remember to state specific outcomes and criteria for the group work. Highlight the purpose!
  • Monitor the groups. Since there is no face-to-face interaction, students may feel reduced accountability to the group, and when problems arise - such as complaints that not everyone is doing his/her part - mediation of conflicts can be more difficult.
  • Be available for concerns and questions. Arrange meetings via Skype or other and check in with each group.
  • Links to various resources connected to group work in general, click here.

Group protocol

If you want groups to collaborate over several weeks a protocol can be useful and decisive for the well functioning of online student groups. The attached template leaves it to each student group if they want to use/adjust some of these suggestions for their own group collaboration protocol on the online course they are following.

Creating Groups in LearnIT

Creating groups of students in LearnIT can be an effective tool for you to control who can see what and when. It will also help you sort through groups in the various activities that you set up in learnIT. See how to create groups in learnIT.

Group assignments and upload in LearnIT

If the course contains assignments and in particular mandatory assignments, students can hand in assignments both individually and in groups in LearnIT. See how to create and overview assignments as well as submit grades and/or feedback via the assignment activity. This module provides an easy overview of submitted assignments with names, time stamps and grades.

Read more about rules for mandatory activities in the course manager wiki.

4.6 Teacher designed course evaluation and quality assurance

When the course runs online for the first time it is necessary to carry out extra evaluations, partly to ensure that students are still active and not abandoning the course without anybody knowing it, partly, but just as important, to be able to adjust on the learning activities or technology before it is too late.

Early evaluation

There are two types of early evaluation you need to do:

Midway evaluation

The IT University’s own course evaluation will work as midterm evaluation. No doubt you will get comments regarding the online nature of the course. Especially since you don’t meet face-to-face with the students and the results are important we recommend teachers reminding the students to fill in the survey.

Final evaluation (only the first time you run the course as online)

The final student evaluation survey should take place in between the last week of teaching and the exam. This evaluation can be rather short but nonetheless important as it should focus on asking students for concrete suggestions of changes or things to keep for next time the course runs.

Final Remarks

We hope this guide to designing online courses was helpful. Feel free to contact us in Learning Unit at any time to discuss how to proceed from here.

Annelise Agertoft & Yoo Falk Jensen, October 2013.