Online Education Course Design

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Online Education Course Design

Key Takeaways


Below, we review four academic articles outlining best practices for online courses. Key themes include collaboration, clear course structure, and the importance of prompt instructor feedback.

Retention in Online Courses: Exploring Issues and Solutions—A Literature Review

  • An article, titled "Retention in Online Courses: Exploring Issues and Solutions—A Literature Review" and published by Papia Bawa of Purdue University in 2016, focused on understanding high attrition rates for online courses and what can be done to mitigate the attrition.
  • Bawa found that the high attrition rates could largely be attributed to a disconnect between the student's perception of the amount of work the course will take and the reality. He identifies that students can become easily overwhelmed with the amount of information presented all at once in online courses, the unfamiliar format, and the amount of self-learning that is required in online courses, which can then cause them to drop out.
  • In order to overcome these challenges, Bawa outlined four best practices; first, he argued that orientation programs for online courses should be mandatory, and that they should focus on introducing students to the online platform as well as truthfully and explicitly setting course load expectations.
  • Secondly, he argues that online courses should include "live" components like real-time discussion and visible identifiers of students and instructors.
  • Next, Bawa outlines the need for online courses to include collaborative opportunities, both between students and the teacher(s) and student to student. Specifically, he states that online courses should have clear timelines for feedback and feedback rubrics.
  • Finally, Bawa focuses on the need for faculty training and support specifically focusing on the online learning environment and course design. This should occur before the instructor teaches any online course. Research shows that as little as three hours of instructor training greatly improved "instructors’ perceived ability to instruct online."

Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies

  • The US Dept of Education published "Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies" in September 2010.
  • In this review, they found that online learning was more effective when the instruction was collaborative than when online learners completed the course independently.
  • They found that online quizzes did not increase the effectiveness of the learning, but assigning homework was somewhat effective. Creating opportunities for learner reflection and self-monitoring were important.

Best Practices in Undergraduate Adult­-Centered Online Learning: Mechanisms for Course Design and Delivery

  • In December 2007, Mary Rose Grant and Heather R. Thornton, both of Saint Louis University, published an article titled "Best Practices in Undergraduate Adult­-Centered Online Learning: Mechanisms for Course Design and Delivery". Their review found "three themes within best practices for online instruction: course design, instructional effectiveness, and interactivity or interconnectivity."
  • The research identified that online courses must include consistent communication between student and professor. This communication should include email and direct discussions with immediate feedback. Then, the researchers note the importance of peer-to-peer collaboration for online learning. Opportunities include peer review, peer discussion, and group projects.
  • The researchers also note the importance of clear course outline and expectations, delivered at the start of the course. Instructors should clearly outline goals for the course and relate back to the during the course. Instructors should assign written assignments or other assessments that are in line with the course objectives.

Best Practices for Online Business Education

  • An article, titled "Best Practices for Online Business Education" and written by John R. Grandzol and Christian J. Grandzol in June 2006, focuses on identifying best practices backed by research for online courses.
  • The best practices they found were: 1) to set clear course goals and learner expectations; 2) to provide course content in multiple ways; 3) to provide opportunities for learners to actively engage with the course; 4) to provide frequent, constructive feedback for students; 5) for there to be "flexibility and choice in satisfying course objectives;" and 6) for online courses to include regular instructor guidance and support for students.
  • In terms of course design, the research found that course structure should be consistent throughout the course as well as across courses throughout the institution. Courses should be completely outlined on the day classes start, and there should be clear navigational documents that "specifically tell students where to go and what to do next." The research also found that new material should be introduced every 2-3 days in order to keep students engaged and continue the progression of the course.
  • In terms of collaboration, the researchers found that "online courses that encouraged and rewarded collaboration, but did not require discussion from all students were the most successful." The researchers noted the importance of prompt, constructive feedback from instructors as students expected real-time communication.
  • The researchers found that courses that included self-assessment and automated testing were most successful. Researchers also found that tracking mechanisms for student reading were rewarding.

Paywalled Articles of Interest

In the course of the research, the research team also found the following articles which could not be reviewed fully due to paywalls. However, we believe they may be of interest.
  • Dazhi Yang, Sally Baldwin & Chareen Snelson (2017) Persistence factors revealed: students’ reflections on completing a fully online program, Distance Education, 38:1, 23-36, DOI: 10.1080/01587919.2017.1299561
  • Tal Soffer, Tali Kahan, Eynat Livne, E-assessment of online academic courses via students' activities and perceptions, Studies in Educational Evaluation, Volume 54, 2017, Pages 83-93, ISSN 0191-491X,
  • Finch D, Jacobs K. Online Education: Best Practices to Promote Learning. Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting. 2012;56(1):546-550. doi:10.1177/1071181312561114
  • Abel, R. (2005). Implementing Best Practices in Online Learning. Educause Quarterly, 28(3), 75-77. Retrieved from
  • Florence Martin, Albert Ritzhaupt, Swapna Kumar, Kiran Budhrani, Award-winning faculty online teaching practices: Course design, assessment and evaluation, and facilitation, The Internet and Higher Education, Volume 42, 2019, Pages 34-43, ISSN 1096-7516,
  • Kim, Jungjoo & Kwon, Yangyi & Cho, Daeyeon. (2011). Investigating factors that influence social presence and learning outcomes in distance higher education. Computers & Education. 57. 1512-1520. 10.1016/j.compedu.2011.02.005.

Research Strategy

The research team reviewed dozens of academic studies and articles related to online learning. We attempted to find those that were both recent (i.e. within the last five years) and that focused on the four principals of interest: start/end dates, cohorts, regular assignments, and a valued prize for completion. In terms of recency, we found that most recent articles were paywalled, which we included as helpful additional resources. In terms of focusing on the four principals, we found that even after reviewing articles that focused broadly on best practices for online learning, researching each principal individually, and focusing on studies illustrating challenges to online learning, we were unable to identify any articles specifically discussing the four principals as they relate to online learning. All studies reviewed instead focused on three clear themes: collaboration, clear course structure, and the importance of prompt instructor feedback.

Research proposal:

Only the project owner can select the next research path.
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