Guidelines for analysing and developing an online course

by Sven Åke Bjørke
January 2015

What is an online course? Are there any criteria? Is an article or a power point presentation made accessible on the internet an online course? The answer is: An online course is as a rule a complex, structured and rich learning environment, carefully developed by a team of highly qualified experts on subject content, pedagogy and ICT.

International team developing online courses. University of Ruhuna, Sri Lanka. (Photo: Å. Bjørke)

International team developing online courses. University of Ruhuna, Sri Lanka. (Photo: Å. Bjørke)

Online courses at its most basic can be self-instructional, and be built as an interactive e-book with activities and quizzes. The learner works on his own, at his or her own pace.

Some teachers perceive online education as simply taping their lectures and making them available online. This is a misunderstanding.  That is just a question of making ordinary on-campus teaching available to those who happened to not being able to attend that day, and cannot be defined as e-learning.

More advanced online courses may add online lectures and various peer interaction like discussions, making a MOOC-like course. (Or DOCC, SPOC etc). Massive, open, online courses – MOOCs  – are well structured, interactive and advanced courses made for the online learning environment. MOOCs are in general demanding and expensive to make, but can reach many thousand learners. MOOCs are not tutor-guided, and cannot give personal feedback, since they are designed for an unlimited number of participants. If well organised, a MOOC will allow peer interaction and some collaborative learning, and can be very efficient for internal corporate training.

Flipped classroom
The approach can also be mixed, or blended, with some of the learning activities online, others in a classroom. The ICT-supported blended course tends to use the “flipped classroom” method.

The flipped classroom is one where students access content and engage in activities designed to develop their understanding before class, and then use the class time to discuss and engage in depth with issues, ideas and questions arising from the pre-class content and activities (Farmer, 2015)


Making a real online, interactive course is more complex. In addition to consider pedagogical approaches, you must also plan how to engage the participants, how to support the learners and their learning processes and how to build a collaborative and dynamic learning environment in virtual rooms. Online courses can be academic,  and part of a degree-giving study programme, or it can be an intensive “just-in-time” short, internal corporate training course.

An online course should be presented in three parts:

  1. A course description
    This is meant for prospective students, for administrative purposes and the public. It can be published on the internet and in a student handbook. The course description contains details about course type, prerequisites, aims, learning outcomes, pedagogical approach, course content, way of delivery, duration, number of student work-hours and costs
  2. A study guide
    This is a “work-instruction” for the students and tutors. It describes the tasks and the activities to do to achieve the described objectives, and guides the student through the “sea of information” on the subject.The study guide is typical for formal tutor-guided and collaborative courses. It is an important pedagogical instrument, and should utilise pedagogical principles such as the principles of engagement, intelligibility and participation. The principle of engagement implies that the learner becomes engaged and interested enough to start making sense and negotiate meaning with others from the beginning. This demands that a beginner’s “intermediate discourse” understandable or intelligible to the students is made by the tutor through “scaffolding”. Scaffolding implies that the course writer and the tutor prepare supporting arrangements and structures to facilitate entry into the new area.The learning process must be structured and ensure progress towards the learning objectives. Gradually the discussion must therefore shift from “trying to get an overview and understand what’s going on” to the “full-blown” subject discourse. The principle of participation implies that  the student increasingly participates confidently and actively in the academic discourse; discussing, formulating own views and interpretations and manages to argue for these views in a community. It is important in transformative pedagogy that the students are active information gatherers, that they critically assess information, and that they put the information to use in the assignment at hand, making the learning process contextualised. They should not be ‘passive’ receivers of information.
    The study guide paces the course, and gives an estimate of the time needed to do the activities for the average student. The study guide is given to those participating in the course.
  3. Learning resources
    This is learning materials, such as set books; CDs; online learning objects; video-clips, online quizzes, animations, online or typed mini-lectures; overview essays; graphics;  libraries etc. UN information material are as a rule quality controlled, and recent publications should be considered for some of the learning material.


Step-by step guideline

 Define target group

Who are your students? Open and distance learning claims to be learner-centred more than producer-centred. To be learner-centred, the course designer needs to make the course flexible enough to suit and adapt to individual needs.

Before starting to develop the course, you should be able to have some ideas about your students:

  • How many?
  • Ages?
  • Gender?
  • Occupations?
  • Studying from where?
  • Motivations for studying?
  • Expectations?
  •  Learning style preference if any?
  • What knowledge and skills do the students already have?
  • Personal interests?
  • Time available?
  • Access to the internet?
  • Access to support?
  • Access to library?

 Describe aims

The aims of the course must be defined. These should give a general description of the purpose of the course and knowledge and skills it will provide. The aim should also describe what the university or course giver wants to achieve with the course. What’s the point with it?

Example:  Aims of the “Global Environment Issues” course:

“To give an overview of the global environmental situation; driving forces behind the development; some possible scenarios and to develop an understanding of what is meant by sustainable development. The course will give State of environment regional overviews on priority issues and propose possible actions. The course will give alternative points of view on values, ethics and personal engagement. The students should be able to actively and constructively participate in and have an impact on the global discourse on sustainable development. The course shall give an introduction to and training in international, collaborative on-line learning with tutor support.”

Objectives or Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

Objectives give a more specific statement about what the learner will be able to do or do better as a result of taking the course. 

In a constructivist course, clear and measurable objectives are crucial. The objectives can be of different categories. A statement of objectives may start like this: “when you have completed this course you will be able to…”, followed by a verb indicating level of knowledge required (E.g. from Bloom’s taxonomy).

Some course makers prefer to define the intended learning outcomes (ILOs) rather than objectives. The learning objectives can be perceived as what the course maker wants the students to achieve. ILOs are more student or learner focused, and are so to speak the take-aways. The ILOs are what you as the succesful participant walk out the door with on course completion.
Using Bloom’s Taxonomy to Write Effective Learning Objectives

Declarative knowledge is an objective that should be clearly specified and listed, each beginning with a verb where the performance can be observed. E.g. : “describe”, “list”, “give examples of”, “demonstrate”, “carry out”, “discuss”, “analyze”, “apply” etc. By using these verbs, the learner can reflect on and “tick off” whether she has learned the objective or not.  NB! This is in contrast to using more vague words like “understand”, “know”, “be familiar with”, “be aware of” etc where the learner cannot know the level of knowledge or awareness that is required.

Attitudes: Other objectives could be changes in attitudes, beliefs, understanding and ethics. Ability to reflect critically on own learning and intrinsic motivation for life-long learning, are objectives that can be stated.

Skills: An important objective that as a rule should be mentioned is (generic or transferable) skills upon course completion. The objectives should be so concrete that it is easy to assess whether these were actually achieved.

 Content and modules or study units/blocks

Based on the aims and objectives, a content list can be worked out and divided into learning units or modules, each with specified learning sub-objectives. Each study unit should be given a title. The aims, learning objectives and content can to some extent be modified or added to during the development of the course and during actual delivery of the course, giving flexibility. 

Tasks or learning events

The content is divided in tasks or problems to solve. A task or a problem is something that must be learned, done or solved to reach an objective. A task may require one or several learning activities.

If the main pedagogical approach is (socio) constructivist or transformative, the emphasis is on learning, rather than on teaching. Learning is according to this approach best achieved in a context where the learner searches for relevant information to be used in an activity. “Passively” absorbing information from a lecture or a book just for the sake of absorbing information as such, is regarded as less fruitful than actually using the information to solve a task. Take note of that some students may find transformative learning uncomfortable and challenging. Some students resist taking responsibility for their own learning, and argue that they are doing the teacher’s job. However, socio-constructive and transformative pedagogy can at times be justified as necessary uncomfortable as it may result in incredible learning.

The theory is that the learner moves from “surface learning” to “deeper learning”, and that the learner constructs knowledge and gains a deeper understanding, not only for an exam, but for life. To avoid idiosyncratic construction of knowledge, it is important to negotiate meaning with fellow learners and tutors. The learner has learned when s/he is able to explain the issue to others using his or her own words and is able to respond adequately to critical questions or corrections from peers. The learners must learn to be critical to their sources and reflect on their own thinking. Efficient learning thus demands appropriate and at times varied learning activities, preferably in a learning community; to do the activities, manage the tasks and thereby achieve the objectives. Learning increases with activity and learning is defined as increased participation.

Another important principle is to distinguish between main concepts that must be learned deeply, and other concepts that the learner just needs to be aware of. The course constructur indicates this be giving instructions like “study” or “browse” the article, or use verbs from Bloom’s taxonomy. If this is not done, everything is of equal importance, and shallow learning unavoidable. Crucial for deeper understanding is Using Fundamental Concepts and Essential Questions to Promote Critical Thinking:

Wiggins and McTighe (2011) define essential questions as those that:

  • Cause genuine and relevant inquiry into the big ideas of the core content.
  • Provoke deep thought, lively discussion, sustained inquiry, and new understanding as well as more questions.
  • Require students to consider alternatives, weigh evidence, support their ideas, and justify their answers.
  • Stimulate vital ongoing rethinking of big ideas, assumptions, and prior lessons.
  • Spark meaningful connections with prior learning and personal experiences.
  • Naturally recur, creating opportunities for transfer to other situations, refer to “core ideas and inquiries within a discipline” and help “students effectively inquire and make sense of important but complicated ideas and knowledge.”

In short: the question “What did you learn?” is more interesting than “What did you study?”

A task can be “Learn about the greenhouse effect and climate change well enough to give a lecture on it to a class of students, and give substantiated answers in a discussion on the topic.” 


Activities to solve this task can be:

  1. Read the book xxx.
  2. Look at the graphics a,b and d.; the animations m,n,o, study the articles x,y,z in the resource library.
  3. Listen to online lecture #8.
  4. Take the self-instructional short-course called “the greenhouse effect and climate change” in your learning resources.
  5. Make a ppt presentation to your group with graphics, presenting the five most important points in the topic.
  6. Discuss with the others in your group and see if they agree with your list of priorities.
  7. The group in collaboration prepares a list of the five most important points.
  8. Compare this list to your own list and reflect on the differences if any.
  9. Write a 15 minutes lecture and make a ppt based on the lecture and place in your student folder on the LMS.

Note: When preparing activities, consider that research indicates that adults digest information most effectively when working on their own problem solving, performing practical exercises or while training others. As a rule of thumb, adults roughly remember 20% of what they hear, 40% of what they see and hear, 80% of what they see, hear, say and do. Training is least effective when received in a passive way during lectures and presentations, while applying the knowledge in practice and in training others increases the effectiveness of digested information.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

 ECTS The European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System

The ECTS system requires that each activity is given a time estimate in student work hours. “A notional student hour of work” is the course constructur’s estimate of how long time an average student would need to do the activity.  If the entire course is to be 10 ECTS, the number of notional student hours should roughly be 270, as 1 ECTS corresponds to 25-30 hours of work for an average student.

Note: it is the student workload we have to calculate. All is seen from a student’s perspective. There is no differentiation between contact hours, lectures, reading, discussing, etc. All learning activities count when making the estimate.
Calculate the time estimate needed and put in parenthesis behind the title of each activity.

(ECTS guide)

 Pacing. Study calendar

Each task with its learning activities must be planned with time estimates and given a time duration in number of days. The task should be achieved within this time frame to set a pace for the course. You must decide whether the 270 hours course go over e.g. six, nine or 20 weeks. Note the date for the start of a task and cut-off dates for hand-ins. Write this into the study calendar.

Learning resources

Decide set books if any, articles, URL collections, graphics, online lectures, animations, self-instructional short courses, videos, online library etc.

Constructive alignment 

This kind of systematic approach to course construction is called constructive alignment. This course construction process requires alignment between the three key areas of the curriculum: the intended learning outcomes (ILOs), what the student does in order to learn (the learning activities), and finally how the student is assessed.
Aligning Teaching and Assessing to Course Objectives by John Biggs

Assesments. Grading of students

As a rule of thumb, the students should receive frequent formative feedback. Formative feedback means that the student systematically is given answers to the questions: “How am I doing?” and “What should I do to improve?”.

Summative feedback is the final grade, and evaluates to what degree the student has reached the intended learning outcomes (ILOs) of the course. As a rule, the grade is composed of the exam result, evaluation of the student’s personal portfolio, result of the Tutor Marked Assignments (TMAs) and student activity and contributions during the study period. Student activity in discussions should be graded and given some formative feedback. Students must be informed from the start that parts of the final (summative) grade will come from their own participation in the learning environment.

It is an advantage that the course writers agree on grading criteria for the TMAs and exam, and that the students are aware of these criteria.

 Regular formative evaluations for each module should systematically be incorporated in the course. This can easily be done by auto-correcting quizzes.

The course participants should give feedback on the content, the activities and learning resources to the tutor. A short online questionnaire may be used for this purpose. There should also be room for an evaluation of the group process. Formative evaluations can be combined with metacognitive activities like asking the students to reflect on their own learning and self-evaluation. Content, graphics, activities and metacognitive sections can be continuously modified and improved based on formative evaluation.

Summative end-of-course evaluations should give indications of general learning satisfaction, and whether the course has achieved its aims and objectives. Course makers should always ask themselves whether they measure what is important. Many traditional teachers tend to measure ability to cram and reproduce marginal issues in the curriculum, rather than understanding and insight in the issues that matter.

Evaluation forms should be ready and planned before the course starts. 


The academically responsible institution must define scope, how to, when and how much the exam mark will count for the final mark.


Wiggins, G & McTighe, J. (2011). Understanding by Design Guide to Creating High Quality Units. ASCD, Alexandria, VA. – See more at:

Farmer, R. (2015) What is the flipped classroom? , LearnTech, University of Northampton,

More on course construction



Appearance / interface /design

Flipping the classroom

Adding content

Blogs /social media

Trans disciplinarity


Course creation apps

Support systems



Technology, video and education


Collaborative learning


Bloom’s taxonomy

Constructive alignment

Online corporate training

About svenaake

University Teacher.
This entry was posted in Online education. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Guidelines for analysing and developing an online course

  1. mutambo1972 says:

    Prof. Ake, I have enjoyed reading this article You put together. It has given me great insight indeed into designing online courses.


  2. ituryatunga says:

    I have enjoyed reading this entire article on e-teaching and designing an e-course;


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