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Effective Online Course Organization

Updated on April 21, 2017


As a student, I took several online courses and found some classes to be much easier to understand than others. While the clarity of instruction is certainly an essential element in an online learning environment, the most difficulty I ever had taking an online course was when it was difficult to navigate. The class was bursting with menu buttons, directions were scattered here and there, and the structure of the course seemed to change with each unit. There were even grammar mistakes. After being a student, then becoming an instructor, I can see how easy it can be to clutter up an online course or create it in a way that may be difficult to understand. In my online courses, hybrid courses, and even in my classroom courses (where I maintain an online component), organization and clarity are the keys to success.

Now, I am continually looking for ways to improve the online learning experience for students. While content and collaboration make the course, categorizing menu buttons, placing items in logical locations, and minimizing areas where directions can be found are all methods that I use for efficient content delivery. This article addresses suggestions that I have used in my courses - suggestions to which students have consistently given positive feedback.

Organizing In Categories

Many courses have several useful areas where content is placed, or supplemental information is provided. However, an abundance of information, even when useful can result in clutter. Examples of valuable information provided to students that may clutter a course is support services links, multiple assignment and discussion board links, and multiple module (or weekly) links. Most colleges (hopefully all) have supportive services including tutoring, writing, math, and so on. Some instructors may choose to create links to an assignment area, content area, testing area, discussion board area in different ways creating many menu items to choose from creating a plethora of choices. There are many factors to consider in organizing multiple menu items. Limiting categories may be the best option, but logically categorizing information is even more important. One organizational method that I use is grouping all links into the following three categories: Course information, student work area (or another name that includes assignments and other information listed in the chart below), and student resources.

Possible Main Categories

Course Menu Link
Information Located There
Course Information
Syllabus, instructor contact information, Getting started
Student Work Area
Course modules, assignments, discussion boards, journals, tests/quizzes
Student Resources
Writing services, math services, general tutoring services, library research area, reviews, others relevant to the course

Course Organization Variations

While I make no claim to have the absolute best course organization on Earth, I do claim that the setup shown in the video below works and earns positive feedback from students. The video was an introduction video to orient students to the course. I highly recommend an orientation video for online and classroom courses. I have found that instructors set courses in different ways. Orienting students to the way you do things can increase the likelihood of student success.

Please note some of the important elements as you view the video including a clear organization of work, multiple was to access most major assignments and clear course objectives for each week. Since all weekly goals should be in alignment with the overall course objectives, don't forget to review those when drafting weekly goals. I have found that students like knowing how the assignments fit into the course objectives. In other words, students know that I'm not simply giving busy work. It is also a good way of holding myself to the standard for the course.

My Video: Example Online Course Setup

Rubrics convey assignment requirements

Rubrics convey expectation to students in online and classroom settings.
Rubrics convey expectation to students in online and classroom settings. | Source

Key Areas To Consider

Careful consideration should be given to:

  • Alignment of goals to course objectives as shown in the video above. This can be a rather simple process. Examine the course objectives for the course. This is usually provided by the university or community college department. It may also be in the student catalogue of courses. Here is a pretty good video on alignment of goals/course objectives. The video focuses more on individual assignments, but these can also be done by week like in the prior video. Here's the link:
  • Creating an organizational system that is easy to navigate as discussed and shown in the video above. Organization generally works better for students when buttons are clearly labeled, there is a clear weekly or unit structure (ideally dated), access to helpful resources and documents, and the instructor contact information. A "getting started" section can also be very helpful in getting students oriented to the course.
  • Communicating regularly with students in online and classroom courses. Communication is so important. See my example video below for an online course. It was my check-in and short lecture on the annotated bibliography assignment. I have found videos for online (and classroom) courses to be incredibly helpful to students. Additionally, my experience indicates that they help build rapport with students online and in the classroom. The video is in the next section or you can click here:
  • Creating clear methods of grading such as the rubric method. Rubrics provide clear directions on how a student should complete an assignment. An article will be posted soon on creating clear rubrics, so check back this coming week.

Example Video: Online Course Video

Don't forget the excellent resources to help you set up quality online courses!


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