VirtualMV/Digital Learning Technologies/Pedagogies/Course Design Guidelines

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Course Design Guidelines

By the end of this page you will be able to:

  • Follow a 5-step process to design an online or blended course
  • Evaluate an online or blended course against a set of guidelines

Some of the information contained in this page is repeated elsewhere. This page is designed to put this information in the context of a process to follow.

Step 1 – Analyse what you have

After you have completed this step you will be able to:

  • explain what you do
  • describe what you have.

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Figure 1 The five steps of course design

What does it mean to analyse what you do and what you have?

In this step you’ll make a big-picture analysis of your approach: who you work with; what you work with; and how you work. You’ll go into more detail later on in the design part of the process. You need to consider:

  • your project team
  • the current course objectives
  • your current teaching strategies
  • the technologies you currently use
  • the activities you currently use
  • the resources you currently use.

Step 1 Action

Sit down with your team and answer the following critical questions:

  • Who do you think will be involved with your course development?
  • Are your course objectives generic or specific?
  • Why do you use particular strategies?
    • Is it just because you’ve always done it that way?
    • Do you want to consider new ways to do things?
    • Will your current strategies transfer to an online environment?
    • Who will you talk to about this?
  • Are you familiar with the basic tools in your LMS?
    • Do you need some help/training to increase your confidence in using these tools?
  • What criteria would you use to describe your activities?
  • What type of resources do you use?

Step 2 – Decide your teaching strategy

After you have completed this step you will be able to:

  • consider a variety of teaching strategies
  • decide on a teaching strategy that suits your students, your subject matter, and your teaching style.

How do we do it?

You need to consider the possibilities for doing things differently – to lecture less, to make the learning environment more interactive, to integrate technology into the learning experience, and to use authentic and collaborative learning strategies when appropriate. Here are some strategies to consider:

  • a conference (students learn by being conference attendees and presenters)
  • a collaborative learning community (students learn together in groups, sharing experiences, searching for meaning)
  • micro-lectures (students have access to short bursts of information).
  • book club (students read a variety of material and then discuss in a virtual classroom).
  • projects or case studies (students work individually or in groups).

All of these strategies are integrated with discussion, activities and assignments.

Step 2 Action

Sit down with your team and answer the following questions:

  • Does the strategy suit synchronous/asynchronous participation?
  • Do students have the necessary access (for example, access to computer labs, home PC’s, home Internet access, sufficient bandwidth)?

Step 3 – Create a broad course design

After you have completed this step you will be able to:

  • create a broad course design.

What is a broad course design?

Your broad course design is a diagrammatic representation of the major elements in your course and the blocks or features of each element. Think of it as a ‘street map’ or a bird’s eye view’ of your course.

Why do we need a broad course design?

Your broad design shows your sequencing and learning/teaching workload. The sequencing in a blended environment is particularly important. It’s difficult and very time-consuming to change direction part way through teaching the course, especially if you are team-teaching. Creating a diagram will not only help to cement your understanding, but also provide the basis for communicating your ideas to others.

You also need to plan to use different technologies. Having a map of your course means you know, for example, that in Week 4 you’ll be running a video-conferencing session or that, in weeks 3, 5 and 8, students will electronically submit part of their overall assignment. The broad design is part of your ‘no surprises’ strategy – and you’ll have time to plan for training and to practice with these technologies before you need to use them.

How do we create a broad course design?

  • Set aside a decent length of time – at least 2 hours
  • Make this a team activity – include your learning technologist, mentor or experienced faculty member, and other teaching colleagues. Two, three, or even four brains are much more creative then one in this situation!
  • Refer back to your teaching strategy (Course Design Thing 5: Step 2–Decide on your teaching strategy
  • Sketch/create a timeline and note important, unmovable dates(e.g. start and end of course, assignments due, work experience/residential classes and so on)
  • Work from those set dates to fill in the sequence of events that must happen, considering the elements you want to include, such as:
    • course introductions
    • weekly topics
    • case studies
    • assessment
    • forums (specific types)
    • activities of various types that might run over several weeks, or that must be completed before others
    • practical work


Figure 2: Broad design created in flowchart software

Step 3 Action

Sit down with your team and complete a broad course design for your course.

Here are some easy ways to create your broad design:

  • Whiteboard, markers, and camera
  • Pens, paper, and camera
  • Online tools.
  • You might draw your broad design on a whiteboard and then capture on camera or you might create a flowchart, as shown in Figure 2

Step 4 – Create a detailed course design (OTARA)

After you have completed this step you will be able to:

  • use OTARA to create a detailed course design.

What is OTARA?

OTARA is an activity-centred design framework that you can use for all types of educational programmes or training courses. The process is clear, efficient, and thorough. The OTARA template not only helps you to work through your design, but also provides a record of what you did and why – and is a valuable document to have on hand at times of audit. The five elements of the OTARA model are shown in Figure 2.


Figure 2 The five elements of the OTARA model

Why do we use OTARA?

OTARA was developed to help designers and teachers think through and record the planning process. Many instructional designers, teachers, and researchers have pondered the issue of how to create consistent, effective, and reusable learning designs.

Our emphasis in the vocational sector is that of developing applied skills, but our tendency when creating online/blended courses is to focus on either the content (ie resources) or the technologies. Using a specific design process enables us to step away from the LMS and focus on the pedagogical principles, our teaching strategies, and the broad course design.

OTARA also allows us to continue with a team approach to design – rather than one person ‘making it up as they go along’ in the LMS, the whole team can contribute to a shared document. OTARAs can be very useful when working with other colleagues on a single module or across teams—it can help make sure that those involved understand what needs to be done and gauge the time it will take to deliver it.

How do we use OTARA?


  • What do my students need to achieve?


  • Provide clear expectations and instructions for your learners.


  • What do my students need to do to bridge the gap between objectives and assessment?
  • Which part of my course causes (or is likely to cause) students the most problems?
  • Will this activity help students to make the journey between the objectives and the assessment?


  • What support and resources do my students need to build skills, knowledge and understanding to complete the activity?


  • How will my students demonstrate their knowledge or skills?

Step 4 Action

Sit down with your team and complete the following:

  • Select one objective from your course.
  • Write some basic information in all of the columns for that objective.
  • Discuss your simple OTARA with your learning technologist, others in your workshop group, or with members of your project team.
  • Revise your OTARA as a result of these discussions.

Step 5 – Write your learning activities

After you have completed this section you will be able to:

  • write learning activities for online and blended learning.

What is an Authentic Learning activity?

Authentic Learning is another important term for the vocational sector. Reeves, Herrington and Oliver provide 10 characteristics of authentic activities:

  • Real-world relevance.
  • Ill-defined, requiring students to define the tasks and sub-tasks needed to complete the activity.
  • Comprise complex tasks to be investigated by students over a sustained period of time.
  • Provide the opportunity for students to examine the task from different perspectives, using a variety of resources.
  • Provide the opportunity to collaborate.
  • Provide the opportunity to reflect.
  • Can be integrated and applied across different subject areas and lead beyond domain-specific outcomes.
  • Seamlessly integrated with assessment.
  • Create polished products valuable in their own right rather than as preparation for something else.
  • Allow competing solutions and diversity of outcome.

How do we design learning activities?

First, consider your learning activity. What do you want to achieve? The following four questions can help you choose the best tool:

  • Do you want to disseminate information to your students?
  • Do you want to assess your students’ learning, either formative or summative?
  • Do you want to communicate or interact with your students, or do the students need to communicate or interact with each other?
  • Do you want to co-create content and collaborate with your students, or do the students need to co-create content and collaborate with each other?

Secondly, follow a clear and consistent structure for writing your activities, so you don’t risk leaving anything out, and your students always know what to expect. Consider the following elements, which are loosely based on Gilly Salmon’s key features of e-tivities.

An e-tivity should have:

  • a name and number
  • a spark (this can also be the name)
  • purpose
  • the task
  • the expected interaction or response
  • indication of time
  • resources
  • feedback
  • sequence of activities.

Try to cover all of these elements, although some of them may overlap. Align the activity with Authentic Learning (above).

Step 5 Action

Sit down with your team and complete the following:

  • Go to your course and evaluate the activities as authentic learning tasks and if they follow a clear e-tivity structure.
  • If required, rewrite your activities (either in your in your OTARA or online) to fit the criteria for authentic learning and e-tivity structure

Evaluating Online or Blended Courses

The following lists a set of standards that are useful to follow when creating an online or blended course. Adapt this to suit your own needs.

EIT Learning Design Standards

The course evaluation checklist uses the above standards in an easy to follow checklist that includes an action plan as part of the iterative design and evaluation process

EIT Course Evaluation Checklist

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VirtualMV/Digital Learning Technologies/Pedagogies/Course Design Guidelines. (2023). In WikiEducator/VirtualMV wiki. Retrieved December 2, 2023, from http:    (zotero)