Initial Publication Date: October 6, 2011

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.

  • Set out goals for the course: At the end of the course, I want my students to be able to...
  • Set skills goals such as working in groups, developing quantitative skills, or improve writing skills
  • Choose content to achieve overarching goals
  • Develop a course plan

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. 

  • Aim for less content overall, with a variety of methods to deliver course content, and an emphasis on projects, case studies, experiential learning and other forms of engaging assignments.
  • Set up the course so that you create a community. This includes the use of discussions, blogs, teamwork, and opportunities to share personal narratives and photos.
  • All instructions for the course have to be written in great detail, before the course starts, in language that is simple yet unambiguous. (Smith et al, 2001)
  • Written instructions can be supplemented with video instructions and backed up by quick assessments like a syllabus quiz.
  • The fact that the entire course must be designed and built before the beginning of the semester will encourage you to consider your goals and your course plan very early on in the process, which is a good thing.

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

  • Readings, including the textbook, articles, websites, books, or essays
  • Written material that you type up
  • Video lectures of yourself talking about a topic
  • Videos of someone else talking about a topic, like Richard Alley describing Milankovich cycles or strikes, dips and baked goods by Tom Braziunas at North Seattle Community College or Bill Nye explains seafloor spreading
  • Narrated animations, such as the water table
  • Humorous yet educational videos like Ring of Fire, sung by Richard Alley in the style of Johnny Cash
  • PowerPoint slides the students view and read
  • Narrated PowerPoint slides with a voice-over by you
  • Posts you add to discussion forums - this is a particularly useful place to correct misconceptions or add information when the relevant time comes around
  • Real-time question and answer sessions held as synchronous review sessions using instant chat feature (available in many course platforms)
  • Questions that lead to directed reading and writing, such as well-framed discussion questions or essay questions within written assignments
  • Visualizations, interactive media and simulations, such as PhET's radioactive dating game, that the students use with direction from you

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) PRIVATE FILE 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.