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Designing a High-Quality Online Course

The information on this page provides local educational agencies with research-based guidance that can support developing and delivering high-quality distance learning.

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This information was formerly titled Appendix 3: Designing a High-Quality Online Course on March 19, 2020.

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International and National Resources

Prior to determining which distance learning platform to use, Local Educational Agencies (LEAs) should first familiarize themselves with the National Standards for Quality Online Learning. All of the standards are designed to provide guidance while providing maximum flexibility for the users. The standards are separated into three sections.

The National Standards for Quality Online Programs External link opens in new window or tab. provide a framework for schools, districts, state agencies, statewide online programs and other interested educational organizations to improve online and blended learning programs.

The National Standards for Quality Online Teaching External link opens in new window or tab. provide a framework for schools, districts, state agencies statewide online programs and other interested educational organizations to improve online teaching and learning.

The National Standards for Quality Online Courses External link opens in new window or tab. provide a framework for schools, districts, state agencies, statewide online programs and other interested educational organizations to improve online learning courses.

The International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) has developed a framework for online and blended learning adapted from the Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge model (TPAC) to describe key elements as an approach to systematic educational transformation.

Infographic of TPAC for online & blended learning. Use the link below for the accessible version.

Link to the accessible version of the TPAC Infographic

There are five primary types of online learning programs in K-12 schools:

  • Statewide virtual schools
  • Multi-district online schools
  • Single-district programs
  • Consortium programs
  • Post-secondary programs

Developing a distance learning program

There are a variety of elements to consider when developing your distance learning program. Among them are course structure, content presentation, collaboration and interaction, and timely feedback.

Course Structure:

Schlosser and Simonson identify four main components that are critical to defining distance learning. First, in order to differentiate distance education from self-study, distance education must be institutionally based. Second, there must be a separation of teacher and learner in terms of geography, time, and knowledge of the concepts to be taught. Thirdly, some form of interactive telecommunications must be available for learners to interact with each other, with the resources of instruction, and with the teacher. Fourth, distance learning established a learning group, sometimes called a learning community, which was composed of students, a teacher, and instructional resources.

The August 2015 report by Hanover Research outlines best approaches in the development and implementation of high quality online and hybrid courses for K–12 students. The curriculum should be “prepared to support learners with varied reading levels and learning needs and identify supplemental resources for their curriculum.” Further, online learners need to know from a very early state what types of support are available and where to find those support services (Lee et al., 2011).

The following are adapted from the National Standards for Quality for Program Design and provide guidance for curriculum and course design:

  1. The program must have clearly stated educational goals
  2. The program must clearly organize course offerings in a way that students can easily navigate.
  3. Courses included in the program should integrate quality instructional materials to enable and enrich student learning
  4. Courses offered through the program utilize regularly evaluated technology that supports the learning goals and enhances the learning experience.
  5. Courses including the program contains content that aligns with the CA Common Core State Standards and Content Standards and includes provisions for both intervention and accelerated learning opportunities.
  6. Courses included in the program provide opportunities that support active learning.
  7. Courses included in the program provide a variety of activities that include options for in-depth learning through authentic problem solving and experience.
  8. Courses offered in the program meet content copyright and fair use guidelines.
  9. Courses offered through the program are designed using research-based design principles, such as Universal Design for Learning (UDL), that improve access to learning for all participants.
  10. Courses offered through the program include opportunities for both asynchronous and synchronous learning.

Online education courses can vary substantially depending on the types of courses offered, the grade levels served and the nature of the students who are enrolled. The following findings are from a review of effective online programs:

  • The incorporation of collaborative opportunities is cited as an effective approach for promoting rigor in online courses.
  • Numerous sources recommend that program leaders establish a course design/selection team comprised of various stakeholders to ensure the development/selection of high quality and rigorous online coursework.
  • The appearance and layout of a course webpage can have an impact on the overall quality of an online course.
  • The transition from face to face instruction to an online learning environment requires instructors to take on new roles and responsibilities, which requires additional professional development opportunities.
Principles of Effective Online Instruction

The National Standards for Quality provide the following guidance on the instructional design of the online course.

The online course:

  • design includes activities that guide learners towards promoting ownership of their learning and self-monitoring;
  • content and learning activities promote the achievement of stated learning objectives and competencies;
  • is organized by units and lessons that fall into a logical sequence;
  • is appropriate to the reading level of the intended learners;
  • includes introductory assignments or activities to engage learners;
  • provides learners with multiple learning paths, as appropriate, based on learner needs, that engage learners in a variety of ways;
  • provides regular opportunities for learner to learner interaction;
  • Provides opportunities for learner-instructor interaction, including opportunities for regular feedback about learner progress;
  • present content in an effective, engaging, and appropriate manner;
  • contains materials that reflect a culturally diverse perspective that is free from bias; and
  • is free of adult content and avoids unnecessary advertisements.

A report published by Penn State’s World Campus identified a number of recommended  online teaching principles and characteristics, as described below.

Principles of Effective Online Instruction
  • Actively engage in online instruction
    • Although the majority of the curriculum or course material is designed and available to students at the start of the course, online instructors should still take an active role in the distance education.
    • An instructor’s role as a guide, facilitator and teacher is arguably more important in an online course due to the lack of any face-to-face interactions.
    • Online courses provide teachers with the opportunity to focus more on student interactions during the duration of the course because the content is already generated.
    • Instructors should pay attention to students’ course program, communicate course expectations, and manage students’ learning experience.
  • Practice proactive course management strategies
    • Examples of proactive course management strategies include: monitoring assignment submissions, communicating with students, reminding students of missing or upcoming deadlines, and making course adjustments where and when necessary.
    • The level of course management should be adapted based on the instructor, the size of the class, the students, and the demands for the course.
    • Instructors should set clear and defined expectations for students and communicate them effectively so that the roles and responsibilities of the instructor and the students are clearly defined.
  • Establish patterns of course activities
    • The establishment of patterns and routines during an online course can help instructors and students develop a sense of time management to balance the expectations of the online course with their non-course, life activities.
    • A course schedule helps instructors contain the course activities into an appropriate duration and workload.
    • A pattern of activities and timed expectations may assist students in their ability to keep pace with the class requirements.
    • It is beneficial for an instructor to establish work timeframes wherein course-related activities take place so that students become familiar with the defined work patterns and expect that the instructor’s responses will be confined to a predetermined timeframe.
  • Prepare for potential course interruptions
    • Communicate any unexpected changes to students in order to reduce the level of stress and anxiety associated with changes to the pre-established course pattern.
    • It is recommended that instructors inform students of any changes to the course schedule: via the learning management system, email, a posting on an announcement page, a phone message. Any interruptions that are scheduled in advance can be noted in detail on the syllabus so that students can prepare accordingly.
  • Response to student inquiries in a timely manner
    • It is important to note that a students’ abilities to complete their work may be dependent on a response from the instructor; therefore instructors should establish and maintain a reasonable response timeframe for their course.
    • The research related to online students’ satisfaction levels cite instructor connectedness as the most rewarding or frustrating aspect of an online course experience.
    • Instructors are expected to monitor student inquiries regularly and adjust course operation or content if a similar inquiry is received on multiple occasions. It may allude to the need for a refinement in instructions or content, or point to a need for additional clarification.
  • Establish a timely process for returning assignment grades
    • Instructors should develop a plan for how assignments will be graded and returned to students in a timely manner. An expectation of a two-day turnaround for assignments and quizzes ensures that students receive the necessary feedback to assist their course progress within a reasonable time period.
    • Instructors should inform students about when grades are posted or expected to be posted, particularly if there is a delay in the timeline.
    • There are often times when an instructor may not be able to offer a quick turnaround for an assignment and in those cases, it is advised that instructors communicate with students about when they can expect the feedback to limit the negative effects on the class.
    • Graded assessments are valuable because they can act as a form of effective feedback for making adjustments to teaching and learning.
  • Use the Learning Management System (LMS) for Communication
    • If the LEA or school has selected an LMS, it is recommended that instructors and students use the LMS for communication. It is often complicated for students and instructors to maintain communication through multiple emails.
    • The use of the LMS as a primary communication tool can helps students and instructors review the chain of communication more easily and maintain relevant communications in one location.
    • Through the LMS, student and instructor data is stored in an institutionally managed system, which ensures confidentiality and security.
  • Ensure course quality
    • The quality assurance process is important in the design, development, and delivery of an online course because it will contribute to the students’ learning and satisfaction.
    • Instructors should review and test the course across all relevant domains to ensure quality in course content, instructional design, and system performance.
    • Instructors can gather input from users and their colleagues and use that feedback to further improve the design and delivery of the course.
    • Practice quality assurance processes will reduce the amount of time instructors have to spend during the course to address system problems, instructional confusions, or potential user frustration.

Content Presentation

One of the most immediate and unique hurdles for online students, is the need to provide adequate technical scaffolding in order to prepare students for online learning. LEAs will have a variety of options when developing their online curriculum including online resources, learning management systems, and video conferencing tools. Online programs can be asynchronous, meaning that students and teachers are not necessarily online at the same time, or synchronous, wherein, courses operate in real-time and typically require students to attend virtual classes and have live interaction with their peers and instructor during a specific time period. Both have benefits and challenges. Synchronous online learning can most closely parallel the typical school classroom, and can even allow for some traditional teaching techniques and student interaction. The National Standards for Quality advocates for inclusion of both types of online programs.

Technologies can support any of the following three types of learning experiences:

  • Expository instruction- Digital devices transmit knowledge.
  • Active Learning- The learner builds through inquiry-based manipulation of digital artifacts such as online drills, simulations, games, or microworlds.
  • Interactive learning- The learner builds knowledge through inquiry-based collaborative interaction with other learnings; teachers become co-learners and act as facilitators.
The table below summarizes the conceptual framework for online learning.
Learning Experience Dimension Synchronicity Face-to-Face Alternative Face-to-Face Enhancement
Expository Synchronous Live, one-way webcast of online lecture course with limited learning control (e.g., students proceed through materials in a set sequence) Viewing webcasts to supplement in-class learning activities
Expository Asynchronous Math course taught through online video lectures Online lectures on advanced topics made available as a resource for students in a conventional math class
Active Synchronous Learning how to troubleshoot a new type of computer system by consulting experts through live chat Chatting with experts as the culminating activity for a curriculum unit on network administration
Active Asynchronous Social studies course taught entirely through Web quests that explore U.S. history Web quest options offered as an enrichment activity for students completing their regular social studies assignments early
Interactive Synchronous Health-care course taught entirely through online, collaborative patient management simulations that multiple students interact with at the same time Supplementing a lecture-based course through a session spent with a collaborative online simulation used by small groups of students
Interactive Asynchronous Professional development for science teachers through “threaded” discussions and message boards on topics identified by participants Supplemental, threaded discussions for pre-service teachers participating in a face-to-face course on science materials

To ensure the development of high-quality online course websites, California State University -Chico developed a rubric for online instruction, and recommends that development of online course websites adhere to the organization and design standards outlined in the figure below. Although designed for higher education, this rubric can be modified for the development of K–12 course websites.

Areas Related to Online Organization and Design Relevant Standards
Course navigability and organization
  • Syllabus is easily located
  • Links to other parts of the course or external sources are accurate and up-to-date
  •  Instructional materials required are easily located
  • Course content is organized in a logical format
  • Topics are clearly identified and subtopics are related to topics
  • Sequential topics are annotated with dates
  • Course schedule is available in a printer-friendly format for student convenience
  • Organization and sequencing of the course content is logical and clear
  • Resources are separated into “required” and “optional” categories
  • Includes the following elements:
  • Course objectives
  • Course completion requirements
  • Expectations of students’ participations, honesty, etc.
  • Timeline for student participation is clear
  • Faculty member(s) introductory information
  • Expectations of availability of and turnaround time for contact with instructor
  • Course schedule is summarized in one place
Aesthetic design
  • Typeface is easy to read
  • Sufficient contrast between text and background makes information easy to read
  • Appropriate images supporting course content add visual interest
  • Design keeps course pages to a comfortable length with white space
Consistency in course
  • Layout of course is visually and functionally consistent
  • Navigability is clear, simple, and user-friendly
  • Spelling and grammar are consistent and accurate
  • Written material is concise
  • Language of written materials is friendly and supportive
  • Clear directions are given for each task or assignment
  • Sentences and paragraphs are brief
Universal accessibility
  • Universal accessibility concerns are addressed throughout the course, including transcripts of any non-text objects
  • Images are optimized for speedy display and include alternative text
  • Alternative formats of materials are provided, when possible (e.g., optional print packet of extensive reading materials, CD of audio clips used in course, etc.)
  • Use of color adds interest but does not disadvantage those with color blindness

Source: California State University, Chico

Professional Development

Teachers will benefit from professional development throughout the duration of their online teaching career. This includes, but is not limited to professional development on the following which will positively impact course structure:

  • Helping teachers understand how to motivate individual learners
  • Enhancing student interaction and understanding without visual cues
  • Tailoring instruction to particular learning styles
  • Development 21st century learning skills
  • Modifying interactive lessons to meet individual student needs, including English learners, and student with disabilities
  • Developing heightened communications skills
  • Improving the time management skills critical for online teachers.

Virtual Collaboration and Interaction Opportunities

The single most influential factor in establishing a sense of community in an online classroom is the instructor (Delahunty, 2013), and their ability to establish a sense of community in the online learning environment.

The “community of inquiry” model for online learning environments developed by Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2000) is based on the concept of three distinct presences: cognitive, social, and teaching.  This model supports the design of online and blended courses as active learning communities.

Venn diagram with Social Presence, Cognitive Presence, Teaching Presence circles overlapping to form Learning Experience.

Rovai’s (2002) Classroom Community Scale is a survey instrument which measures social community and learning community within an online learning environment. In this framework, social community represents the feelings of students regarding their trust, safety, and sense of belonging (Rovai, 2002).

Keys to establishing teaching/instructor presence are to:

  • Develop activities that promote interaction and socialization;
  • Regularly communicate with students and provide a communication schedule for students
  • Provide feedback and responses in a timely manner
  • Facilitate learner dialogue
  • Clearly communicate expectations; and
  • Monitor student interactions and intervene as necessary.

Timely Feedback

iNACOL presents a number of model communication guidelines currently in use by various K-12 online learning programs and are modified below:

  • Student questions are answered in a timely manner
  • Teacher initiates phone calls to each student
  • A weekly progress check is recorded for each student
  • Student discussions are actively facilitated
  • Parent calls are held monthly
Weekly or monthly face to face or video meetings are held with a mentor or supervisor.

Accessible Version of the Infographic: TPAC for Online & Blended Learning

T for Technology Platforms

  • Enterprise architecture
  • Learning management system/virtual learning environment
  • 1:1 computing
  • Broadband Internet Infrastructure
  • Need new SIS models for standards-based and new competency-based approaches

P for People/Pedagogy/PD

  • Teachers need new skills to teach online
  • Administrators need new skills to manage online programs
  • New Response to Intervention (RTI) models through blended

A for Assessment

  • Online/adaptive
  • Personalization engines
  • Performance-based

C for Online Content

  • Online courses
  • Dual enrollment
  • Credit recovery
  • Common core curriculum

A Circle with two outer rings and a core, split into quadrants

  • Outer ring = Policy/Advocacy, with a leader line to the following:
    • Advocacy/Policy
      • Does every student have access to online learning?
        • Policies and funding models
        • Remove barriers that limit enrollment
  • Inner ring = Management/School Administration, with a leader line to the following:
    • Student Support Services
      • Online tutoring
      • Technical support
      • Registration
      • Counseling
  • Inner quadrants - clockwise from the top:
    • Tech systems & Platforms
    • Pedagogy People PD
    • Assessment
    • Online Content & Courses

Note beneath the circle:

  • Next Gen Models need to reset model for competency based
Questions:   Curriculum Frameworks and Instructional Resources Division | | 916-319-0881
Last Reviewed: Thursday, January 4, 2024
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