Creating Online Courses: A Step-By-Step Guide

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Will you offer an online course in the future? It could be more likely than you think. Demand for such courses is growing rapidly. For one, high schools and community colleges, following universities' lead, are expanding into distance learning. For another, major research universities are creating online graduate programs, and are offering more and more of their existing courses online. Universities recognize that even traditional campus-resident students sometimes prefer online courses, in order to resolve schedule conflicts or take popular courses where physical space limits enrollment. A colleague of mine recently made online instruction an option for his class of 150, and 50 studentsall of them campus residentsimmediately switched to the online section. Finally, the growing population of post-college learners creates a market for courses delivered online. Rapid economic and technological change creates a continual need for "life-long" learning, increasing numbers of people have two or more careers in their lifetime, and workers and employers like the convenience and value of the "just-in-time" learning provided by online instruction.

When creating an online course, there are certain key decisions to be made at the outset. Those decisions—crucial for anyone considering an online course, or even adding online content to a traditional course—can be summarized by three questions:

  1. What do I want to accomplish in creating an online course?
  2. Do these goals justify the extra work?
  3. Once I decide to offer an online course, should I package it in a "turn-key" commercial system like BlackBoard or WebCT, or do it myself with Web-creation software such as FrontPage or Dream Weaver?

Qeustion 1: Justifying an Online Course

The primary justification for creating an online course is providing access. Professionals who want to learn more in their field, for example, may have difficulty going back to school or even taking night classes. Oil workers in Venezuela who need petroleum engineering courses, in-service K-12 teachers who want formal course work in their subject, and ranchers in West Texas who want agribusiness courses—they all need these courses provided someplace other than a traditional academic institution. Likewise, high school or college students can take courses online that are not available at their home school. Home schooling, growing as an alternative to public schools, can benefit from the educational richness of online courses.

But more than just access is involved. Good online courses offer a quality of instruction that cannot be matched by face-to-face instruction. Online instruction provides access to a broader range of information, integrating course content with the informational resources of the Web. Students can interact and work together in ways that are not possible or practical in face-to-face education (Collison et al. 2000). Space and time barriers to collaborative work on plans, projects, reports and other learning tasks are removed. Virtual field trips to museums, historical sites, foreign countries, and the like already create learning opportunities that are not otherwise practical. The day is coming when such trips will be expanded to university research labs, corporate business offices, government agencies, and expeditions into remote parts of the world. ("MayaQuest" is an existing low-tech example.) [Do you have a citation or website for MayaQuest?]

Question 2: Justifying the Extra Work

Online courses do present a few immediate challenges, challenges that take up time. First, they require a lot of technical support. It is essential to have a Web server and a Webmaster, and useful to have help from instructional designers. Second, online courses require more than the usual amount of time spent on e-mail and electronic conferencing with students, because students are otherwise isolated from the teacher and from each other. Third, online courses frequently require the instructor to re-think some basic concepts, including how he or she approaches teaching. This is especially true for teachers accustomed to the lecture mode, because online teaching does not readily support lecturing. Even with streaming audio and video, online lectures are invariably less stimulating than face-to-face ones. Finally, online courses have to be marketed well in order to be effective. Competition among online courses is fierce, added technology fees mean that online courses often cost more, and there is no complete national registry for online courses. A few years back, I created an online course in biomedical research, mainly because my career has been spent in that area. But since I failed to identify my market, enrollments remained low. I have since discovered a possible market among high school science teachers who want to be better equipped to talk about biomedical research, and whose administration encourages post-graduate course work. Effective marketing often requires the help of a professional. At a minimum, the instructor needs to network contacts and learn about potential markets.

Despite these challenges, the benefits of online instruction outweigh the time consumed creating them. Perhaps most importantly, moving to online teaching forces critical reflection on teaching philosophy and goals, which may well improve the effectiveness of teachingonline or not. Online teaching also presents new opportunities for learning activities: group cooperative learning, for example, is easier online, because asynchronous meetings eliminate schedule conflicts. Even synchronous meetings are easier online because space and distance barriers are removed.

Question 3: Designing the Course

Initial considerations. When designing an online course, you'll need to consider the following:

Choosing software. Once these design issues are addressed, the next step is to decide how to deliver the course. The easiest way to get a course online is to use a commercial course management system (CMS), such as WebCT, Blackboard, First Class, or Top Class. Such systems are usually licensed and maintained by the institution, which may make the platform mandatory for its telecampus. CMSs are very popular, largely because they are template-driven: authors fill in forms, and Web pages magically appear.

CMSs have their limitations. While they they accomplish basic tasks easily, they generally:

Even though my campus makes a CMS available, I chose to do it myself using a Web editor. I created the course in FrontPage, which is no more difficult than using Word or Word Perfect. In fact, learning FrontPage on my own took less time than learning WebCT in my university's formal training program.

Even without a CMS, I found I was able to incorporate necessary functions into my course Web site. Compare the popular functions of a CMS and my solutions:

1. Automated registration and grade books. Most CMSs allow students to register for courses online, and to be entered automatically in the grading spreadsheet. My Web master created an HTML form for online registration; the information can be downloaded into an Excel spreadsheet for grading. Other registration functions (fee payment, grade records, and the like) are handled in the old fashioned way, at the registrar's office.

2. Restricting access to authorized students. A few lines of Visual Basic code do the same for my homemade Web site.

3. Scheduling calendars. I already have very good scheduling software through Palm Pilot and Groupwise. For a Web course, I can easily create an HTML course calendar in Word Perfect.

4. E-mail support. My students and I use the university's e-mail system, as do professors and students at most institutions.

5. Bulletin-board discussion forums. I find this popular feature of CMSs limiting. Such "threaded" topic discussions consist of separate e-mail messages, which do not convert easily to academic deliverables. For my course, I use FORUM98, a program that uses hypertext as the organizing principle. Students can write "in the margins" with in-context pop-up notes and links to other documents, and can insert graphics on the same shared pages. This is more advanced than using e-mail software that can send HTML links. Nor is this a typical threaded-topic discussion board, because FORUM documents are hypertext linked. You don't attach notes to other notes, you attach notes to specific places within a note. Users can create "community documents" in which a student group can jointly edit and make annotations directly on the document itself (Klemm, 1998c).

A good online course is made from good content. The CMS wrapper doesn't provide this—the course author does. Authors add such features as automated self-study quizzes, crossword puzzles, slide shows, case study programs, intelligent-agent "bots," computer simulations, and computer conferencing environments. Too many online courses are casually generated without such features. The resources to create good Web pages make a CMS unnecessary—and teachers without the resources should perhaps not offer online courses.

Getting started. The most important thing about getting started is to get started early. When I created my course, it took the better part of a year, even though I was converting the course from an existing one, I already knew how to build Web pages, and I had a student helper. If you're starting from the ground up, it will take even longer. Most of the time and effort goes to content and learning activities. There are many useful interactive devices that you can put in your pages, using JAVA script code that others have written (Ford, 1998; Flanagan, 1998; Goodman and Eich, 1998; Negrino and Smith, 1999).

If you are an experienced word-processor user, start learning a Web site creation and management tool, such as FrontPage. If not, consider a CMS. Make arrangements with a Web host, either at your institution or a commercial Internet Service Provider host. Typically, a webmaster will give you space on the server and create the login access. The rest will be up to you.

Conclusion: Ten Lessons

My experiences with online courses taught me the following:

1. Have a good reason to build an online course. For my first online course, I did not identify a market, nor did I have a good way to inform people about the course—so my enrollment suffered.

2. Convert an existing course, rather than create a new one. Creating new subject matter while building an online course can be overwhelming.

3. Initiate the effort well in advance of "delivery" date. It took me a year to get my course online, and I am still making improvements.

4. Change your teaching style and philosophy. The unexpected advantage of the online environment is that it weans me away from traditional lectures into the more satisfying world of instructional management. Now my goal is not to transmit information from my notes to student notes, but to help students find, digest, assimilate, and apply knowledge.

5. Use content other than your Web site. Too many online instructors think that all course content has to be on the Web site. Not so. I also saved myself a lot of time and effort by mailing copies of published readings (find journals that have liberal permission policies) and by assigning activities from other Web sites.

6. Focus on content and learning activities, not technical frills. The time I spent on graphics and features such as grade books reduced the amount of time available for content and learning activities.

7. Set and enforce deadlines. Students who procrastinate impair group work. To address this, I set rigid deadlines for every major activity.

8. Put the burden of communication on students. I prefer team activities and assignments to open discussion forums, because team activities encourage moreand betterparticipation. In those teams, the burden of communication is on the students; I only monitor the process. I do not allow "lurking," where students do no more than read the commentary of others. Part of the final grade includes peer assessment of each student's contribution to the team effort.

9. Do your own course maintenance. I like being in control of my own course and having the technical skills to be largely independent of campus tech support. This also encourages me to improve course content and keep it updated.

10. Automate. Automated electronic grade books are nice if you have a huge class. Another device I find useful is automated feedback on assignments. My students reply via e-email to open-ended questions on their reading assignments. When I receive their responses, I reply with a "boilerplate" answer that includes key points students should provide at exam times. The next time I teach the course, I will provide my opinions about each reading (my students requested this) in a similar boilerplate posted in FORUM. My students will be invited to annotate my opinions. A third automated device is an electronic flash card system I designed with my colleague Jim Snell. We have also developed automated ways to deliver and score case studies and to create a "20 questions" game with academic material. Others have produced crossword puzzle software that can be adapted for academic material (see or crossword express).


Collison, G. et al. (2000). Facilitating online learning. Atwood Publishing, Madison, WI.

Ford, D. (1998). Web guide to building intelligent web sites with JavaScript. New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

Flanagan, D. (1998). Javascript: The definitive guide. Cambridge, Mass.: O'Reilly & Associates.

Goodman, D, & Eich, B. (1998). JavaScript bible. Foster City, CA.: IDG Books Worldwide.

Klemm, W. R. (1998a). Eight ways to get students more engaged in online conferences. The Higher Education Journal, 26 (1): 62-64.

Klemm, W. R. (1998b). New ways to teach neuroscience: integrating two teaching styles with two instructional technologies. Medical Teacher, 20: 364-370.

Klemm, W. R. (1998c). Using computer conferencing in teaching. Community College Journal Research  & Practice, 22: 507-518.

Negrino, T., [&] Smith, D. (1999). Javascript for the world wide web (visual quickstart guide). Berkeley: Peachpit Press.