Will you be teaching a course partially or fully online? This module introduces you to principles of designing and facilitating a successful online (OL) or blended (BL) course for our department.

The module includes the basics of best practices in online instruction; setting up your course’s digital environment; fostering active and engaged learning; and structuring the course for student success.

First, make sure you are familiar with the Using Blackboard module before beginning this one.

Departmental Best Practices

Online/blended courses in our department should be rigorous college-level courses that engage students in active learning. In that way, they are no different from any of the other courses we offer. That said, the digital format compels some special considerations.

In the view of our department, an online course needs improvement if:

  • course simply presents content for students to read or watch without accompanying commentary or guidance
  • Powerpoint slide decks are provided without accompanying lecture or explanation, or without being modified from a face-to-face course lecture
  • no written work is assigned
  • students submit written work only to the professor, without interacting with other students
  • students only engage in discussion boards without developing other historical thinking / research / writing skills

Online courses should be fully planned and built out in Blackboard ahead of time. That said, we also recommend not making all course resources available at the start of the semester, because we have had it happen in the past that a student wants to rush through everything at once instead of following the intended pacing. Deploying course elements sequentially throughout the term is a better strategy.

Roles of Instructors and Learners in Online Learning

What are the differences between blended and fully online courses? What is the same across all course formats? This handout offers two charts, one for Instructor roles and one for Learner roles, along with a reading list of resources to help you think about what changes (and what doesn’t change) in online instruction.

Consider that some students may have unrealistic expectations about online courses (that they’re “easier,” for example). They may benefit from an orientation video such as this one from the University of Houston.

When Designing Fully-Online Courses

Blended courses allow some face-to-face instruction, interaction and community-building. But courses taught fully online must accomplish all these tasks through a computer interface, and that raises some special considerations and challenges, explored in this handout.

These considerations include:

  • Types of engagement needed for authentic learning
  • Preparing your course
  • Orienting students to your course
  • Setting expectations and creating community
  • Staying on top of things

One key part of online / blended course design is to consider the student interface — how will they encounter the course? What will orient them to your materials, and how will they navigate around within the course environment? How will you “chunk” the course (by week? by unit? or some other way)? Have you provided everything they need, in accessible formats?

You may find this Checklist for Online Course Orientation helpful during your course-building process.

Online Discussions

Synchronous discussion sessions can be hosted using the Blackboard Collaborate Ultra tool. Asynchronous discussions are usually conducted using Blackboard Discussion Boards.

For ideas on effective asynchronous discussions, see for example —

How to Host a Successful Online Discussion Forums” (Teaching and Learning Center, University of Oregon)

How to Prepare and Moderate Online Discussions for Online Learning” (Contact Nord, Ontario)

Further Resources for Best Practices

Beverley McGuire has identified five principles of a successful online course: humanize the course website, chunk the course content, structure and monitor online discussions, prioritize giving feedback, and make it relevant. [See The Teaching Professor 31, no. 4 (April 2017), or Beverley McGuire, “Principles for Effective Asynchronous Online Instruction in Religious Studies,” Teaching Theology and Religion, 20, no. 1 (Jan 2017), 28-45.]

See also the Hanover Research Council’s 2009 white paper “Best Practices in Online Teaching Strategies.”

The gold standard for online teaching professional development is a nonprofit called Quality Matters (QM). They have developed a rigorous rubric for best practices in online instruction, regardless of discipline. It can be used as a checklist for course design, or to evaluate a course for teaching effectiveness.

Here’s the brief 1-page version of the QM rubric, without annotations.