Online Teaching > Tips for Designing Online Courses

Tips for Designing Online Courses

by Karin Kirk, Science Education Resource Center, Carleton College
Jump down to communicating course content | using projects and case studies | references

Student working on computer
Online course design is rooted in the same solid principles of face-to-face teaching, but requires additional considerations.

Start with the same pedagogic principles of overall course design, such as the Cutting Edge course design philosophy.
That said, even though the course topic and goals may be the same as a face-to-face course, the course layout, pacing, content delivery and assignments will all be tailored for online delivery.

Traditional lecturing is replaced by a variety of multimedia communication tools.

The default mode of communicating course content, the lecture, is generally absent or minimal in an online course. Think of this as liberating rather than constraining, as there are many means to deliver content.

Options for communicating course content

Strive for a variety of methods to appeal to a broad range of learning styles
You do not need to create every element of the course content from scratch. Take advantage of the vast array of high-quality, readily available materials online and employ sources like the USGS, NASA, NOAA, and textbook visualizations. You can also find visualizations in the Cutting Edge Collections of Visualizations on Geoscience Topics. It does take time to search for and vet materials, and this can be a suitable project for a teaching assistant or upper level student. Moreover, you can build more pieces into the course each time you teach it.

Projects and case studies can actively engage students.

Online assignments and assessments present special challenges. Cheating is a potential problem if your institution does not offer proctored exams, and simple copy/paste is an all-too-temping means for students to answer online questions. These problems can be averted by designing assignments that do not provide opportunities for cheating and that require individualized answers (Burke, 2011).

Design the assessments from the start as you are working up your overall course design. This allows the assignments to be integrated within the course rather than tacked on top of the course content.

Take a highly scaffolded approach with assignments, beginning with a review of the syllabus and course policies and practice assignments that show students how to attach a file and upload an assignment (Everson, 2009).
Course Information Survey
Syllabus Quiz
Pre-instructional activities to prepare students for online learning

ReefGIS Map List
Structure the course with activities that are problem-based, project based, place-based or are case studies. These activities can have broad themes that either set the stage for upcoming content, or can be used as capstone project that integrate several topics or types of data. Projects can be tied into a discussion thread so students can ask questions, comment on each other's work or work in teams.

Is the New Madrid Seismic Zone at risk for a large earthquake?
Characterizing Plate Boundaries
The Lifestyle Project
Establishing relevance as a way to motivate introductory students
Personalize the assignment by having students apply the course topic to their own hometown. This can be especially interesting with students who are located in different locations, which is one of the benefits of online courses.
Analyzing your Hometown Stream using On-line USGS NWIS Data
From Grid to Home
Environmental Geology of the Area where you Live


Creating or Adapting Courses for On-Line Presentation (Acrobat (PDF) 83kB Feb28 06)
by Pascal Peter de Caprariis, Indiana University/Purdue University, Journal of Geoscience Education, v48 n5 p673 Nov 2000

Teaching College Courses Online vs Face-to-Face by Glenn Gordon Smith, David L. Ferguson, and Aldegonda Caris, from the April 1 2001 issue of THE Journal.
This article reflects the experiences of 21 instructors who have taught both in online and face-to-face format.

10 Things I've Learned About Teaching Online by Michelle Everson, Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Minnesota, from the September 2009 issue of eLearn magazine.
Contains useful tips on course design, how to interact with students, how to set up successful assignments and time management.

An Introduction to Teaching Online by Zhu et al, Center for Research on Teaching and Learning, University of Michigan

Online Learning Indicators by Erlan Burk, Park University, from the July 2011 issue of eLearn magazine.
The author describes common pitfalls of online course design and poses simple solutions for more effective courses.


USGS Online Lecture Collection This database is a compilation of selected videotaped lectures made at the USGS. All of these lectures are suitable for viewing by the general public and upper level students (grades 8 through university). The videos are in MP4 format and are typically 60-90 minutes long. Also see USGS YouTube Channel, containing a variety of videos from the USGS.

Geology Lab Videos by Tom Braziunas at North Seattle Community College - students can view short video demonstrations of some of the physical geology lab activities

See a complete list of materials useful for online geoscience labs and activities.

Read about website design for online courses.

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