Initial Publication Date: October 6, 2011

Working with Data
Website Design for Online Courses

by Karin Kirk, Science Education Resource Center, Carleton College

While much of the look and feel of an online course is determined by your course management platform, there is much you can do to enrich the student experience by creating lively, engaging course pages. This page describes some simple guidelines drawn from discussions at the 2010 Online Learning workshop, recommendations from educators, examples from the educational literature, and from SERC's experience with educational websites.

Today's college students are often fluent users of the internet. A 2005 survey of American college students noted that 94 percent of students reported spending at least one full hour on the internet every day (Jones et al, 2009). Students can be sophisticated and demanding web users; thus it is worthwhile to give careful consideration to the design and functionality of course web pages.

Create a course website that students will want to visit

The web is an incredibly rich and useful medium, capable of delivering information via multiple media types, engaging users, and creating communities. This makes the web an ideal canvas for education; you can leverage the advantages of the web as you design your course website.

Some suggestions, gleaned from SERC's experience in educational website development:

  • The same principles that make any web environment engaging should be applied to your course pages. Also consider web environments that are popular with 18-21 year-olds. Why do they like them? Are there some elements from popular web environments that can be used in your course pages?
  • Strive to make your course pages rich assemblages of imagery, video, animations, links to relevant materials. An example animated glossary USGS animations for earthquakes
  • Avoid static pages, large blocks of text and pages with no images on them.
  • Keep the content updated. Remove broken links and add new materials as you come across them.

A consistent, organized structure will allow students to find what they need

  • Organize your course layout so that the things students need are always right at hand. Put links to assignments, course policies, deadlines and other key information from multiple places.
  • Use a similar format for each module within the course, so that students don't need to reorient themselves with every new module.
  • If you find yourself writing text that describes where to find something, consider putting in a link that goes directly to the materials.
  • The course syllabus and schedule will be most effective with clear deadlines and key dates spelled out. If possible, avoid unintuitive formats such as "due at the end of week 12."
  • Create a printer-friendly list of due dates (Van Duzer, 2002)
  • The pdf document, Instructional Design Tips for Online Learning, developed by Joan Van Duzer of Humboldt State University, offers simple checklists for various aspects of online course design.

Example of an "Image of the Week" integrated into the front page of an environmental geology course. Click to enlarge.

Keep the course pages fresh with frequent updates

Plan to roll out new material at least once a week so there is frequently something new for students to see. The front page of the course website is analogous to the announcements that often kick off a face-to-face class period. Here are some ideas for the front page of your course:

  • Image of the week
  • Segues from previous topics to upcoming topics
  • Reminders of deadlines and other announcements
  • General feedback from assignments (class average, comments on recent assignments, or key points that warrant further mention)
  • Polls - these offer an informal means for students to interact with the course and allow you to get a sense of students' viewpoints.
  • News from the Earth - links and images from earthquakes, hurricanes, relevant news about earth science, or updates on policy issues

In addition to the front page, you can add content to the course regularly via:

  • Discussion posts
  • Personal/professional anecdotes from you about the current topics in the course
  • Private messages between you and your students

Minimize user anxiety with thoughtful design

Although many of today's students are highly-savvy web users, the online environment can create anxiety for some learners. 

  • Allow some start-up time at the beginning of the course for students to get their bearings within the course website.
  • Respond quickly to student questions and concerns, so that students can be reassured they have somewhere to turn when they get stuck (Everson, 2009).
  • Scaffold the early assignments to give students practice with tasks like downloading assignments, creating graphs, uploading files, or adding images to assignments. Example: Pre-instructional activities to prepare students for online learning
  • Make the layout of essential information (such as assignment descriptions and due dates) as intuitive as possible, and put links to this information in multiple places.
  • Resist the temptation to add high-tech effects to the pages simply for the sake of having them (Everson, 2009 and Bean, 2011).
  • Be mindful of excessive use of high-bandwidth applications. Large images, audio and video can all add value to the learning environment, but consideration must be given to those with slower internet connections (Everson, 2009).


Instructional Design Tips for Online Learning, developed by Joan Van Duzer of Humboldt State University. This document offers simple checklists for various aspects of online course design. The lists are designed to be used in conjunction with the Rubric for Online Instruction developed by CSU, Chico, c 2002.

Everyday life, online: US college students' use of the internet by Steve Jones, Camille Johnson-Yale, Sarah Millermaier, Francisco Seoane Perez. First Monday, Volume 14, Number 10 - 5 October 2009 

Avoiding the Trap of Clicky-Clicky Bling-Bling by Cammy Bean. eLearn magazine, June 2011