New to Online Course Design and Teaching? No Problem! We’ve Got You Covered!

by Dolly Lemke

Online course design and teaching presents a unique set of challenges and rewards. There are dozens of new variables to consider, like course structure, content delivery, and synchronous sessions. There’s no face-to-face classroom interaction or collecting students work in real time. You might need to reevaluate your teaching style, make some pedagogical changes, or embrace moments of temporary panic, but always remember your support network and the ultimate goal of creating a positive, rigorous, and rich learning experience for your students. You’re not alone!

For more on shifting expectations, helpful resources, the rewards of online course design and teaching, read this interview with Northwestern Instructor and Master’s in Sports Administration Faculty Developer Dave DeVries as shares his experiences developing an online course with Learning Designer Elizabeth Lemke and teaching online for the first time.

What did you expect online teaching to be like?

Having taught the same class “on the ground” for many years, I expected the online teaching experience to be somewhat similar—although I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to interact with students as frequently. I also had come to expect my interactions with students would continue as usual (e.g., I would highlight key points in the material each week) but that it would happen in sync sessions.

How did the course design process prepare you to teach online?

During the design process, I quickly learned some best practices that would keep my interaction (albeit online) with students at a high level. The online course design process showed me that disbursing activities/assignments throughout the week is a good idea, to keep students engaged with the content and each other. It also helped me become familiar with the site that students would use for all material, and make adaptations in real-time.

What kinds of resources were most helpful?

Without a doubt, the most valuable resource for me was my learning designer. From her, I learned best practices, got practical advice and tactical support—none of which I would have been able to piece together in a trial-and-error fashion. I also found it helpful to see others’ online courses, because I tend to learn better when I see something as an example to emulate and then make adaptations down the road.

What was the most challenging part of teaching online?

I had to learn a whole new set of vocabulary during this process, which at times was a bit frustrating. I also found it challenging at times to quantify and assess (grade) virtually everything students would do online during the course—that’s of course a very different approach to a once/week in-person class session, in which the assessments are generally limited to several key assignments that are distributed throughout the quarter. Finally, I found it challenging that very few students took the time to attend the sync sessions, for whatever reason.

What was the most rewarding?

That I was able to get this course complete in record time—and have the set-up and content praised by others—was particularly satisfying. Some of the early feedback that I’ve received from the students is that they, too, found the course interesting, and practical, which is always a good thing.

What was the most surprising?

I found it surprising that some of my graduate students were not ready for the rigors of an online course, and perhaps took on more than they could handle. For instance, there were two group projects and I heard from more groups than ever that students in some cases would not make themselves available to the team for collaboration. Several, to my great surprise, didn’t participate in either project, at all.

What will you do differently next time?

I don’t think I’ll do much differently next time, but I probably will offer fewer sync sessions; I also will make some tweaks in the wording of my assignments. I suppose I had to experience the growing pains to learn where and how to make things run more smoothly.

What advice do you have for new online instructors?

In general, don’t approach online courses thinking you’ll be teaching or lecturing via videoconference. Instead, think about how your students will show you that they’ve done the reading and are learning with a lot of opportunities for interaction. This can take the form of focused online discussions, or even weekly assessments or quizzes…or whatever approach works for you. But bear in mind, the more assignments you make, the more you’ll need to grade and support.

Northwestern University resources for online course design and teaching can be found at:

For additional support, talk to your Learning Designer, contact the Distance Learning team, or reach out to your fellow online teachers!

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