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9 Best Ways to Improve Online Course Design

Let’s face it: online course design is tough. It can be even more of a challenge if you’re accustomed to teaching in a live classroom. Thankfully, technological advances and online test software make it possible to design online courses that keep students engaged and learning just like they would in a traditional course. 

9 ways to improve online course design:

    1. Make it personal
    2. Set clear learning objectives
    3. Control the use of AI tools
    4. Make the course easy to navigate 
    5. Keep accessibility in mind
    6. Engage with communication & encourage active listening
    7. Design engaging questions
    8. Provide effective exams
    9. Deter and prevent cheating

1. Make it personal

Students who may be learning exclusively online will still want to feel a connection to the institution, instructor, and other students. Depending on the course, you may have hundreds of students and several teaching assistants who may be grading their assignments and interacting with students in smaller sections. That doesn’t mean you can neglect an effort to humanize yourself in the eyes of your students. They will want to get to know you at some level. 


  • A short welcome video could help you introduce yourself and set a tone of positivity and trust with your students 
  • Share a bit of your background, your goals for the course, and your professional passion 
  • Show your students that helping them learn and succeed is a priority for you

2. Set clear learning objectives

Every instructional designer knows how important it is to clearly explain the learning objectives of the course. These objectives need to be more direct than simply a list of titles or assignments on a syllabus. 

What should your students know and be able to do by the end of the course? Maybe it’s simply how to set up and use a spreadsheet, or how to implement Six Sigma and other process improvement methodologies. Foreknowledge of what is expected and how they will benefit will help increase student engagement and motivation.

3. Control the use of AI tools

AI tools are here and they’re going to be a part of our lives and education whether we like it or not. Some want to block AI tools entirely, but some want to use them in certain situations to create engaging course activities like debates and simulations.

Regardless of your stance, you need the ability to control if, when, and how AI tools are used in your online courses. But to do so, you’ll need a lot more than browser lockdown software and AI plagiarism detection tools, which have proven ineffective against AI generated content.

To control AI tools, you’ll need flexible proctoring software that can also detect cell phones and extensions, listen for voices (not just sounds), prevent keyboard shortcuts, check the room for unauthorized resources, and record the test taker’s desktop. See the full article about how to use proctoring software to control AI tools.

4. Make it easy to navigate

One of the best things you can do when designing an online course is to make it easy to navigate and simple to follow. A structured and consistent course layout helps your students navigate and understand course content. Consistency also makes course content predictable, which means that students won’t miss course elements like they might in an unstructured, inconsistent format. 

Regardless of whether it’s a specific assignment, forum discussion, or taking an exam, your students should be able to quickly navigate the course and find what they’re looking for. 

Making clear what goes where and how various components will aid learning. They should not have to wonder, for example, where the Next or Previous buttons, or other universal controls live.

5. Keep accessibility in mind

Some learning management systems are more accessible than others. Ideally, yours will be usable for students who use assistive technology or navigate solely via their keyboard. 

When designing online courses, you should consult with your school’s faculty who specialize in accessibility for advice on creative solutions. The goal is to remove accessibility barriers without compromising the content of your course. The better you can prepare, the more inclusive you will be able to be, and the fewer burdens you will place on disabled students. 

Here’s a quick accessibility checklist to use for online course design:

  1. Use color contrast and accessible fonts
    • Contrast ratios ensure that text color is easily visible against the background color 
    • Sans Serif fonts, such as Arial, are typically easier to read
  1. Provide consistent structure and organization
    • Use headings (not bolded font) and lists (not hyphens)
    • Headings should be in a consistent order
    • As an example, use H1, H2, H3 not H1, H3, H2
    • Use descriptive hyperlink text
    • Link text provides context and purpose of the link 
  1. Using different text colors doesn’t establish a link
    • Do: Article 2 for Assignment 3, Module 7
    • Don’t: Click here
  1. Provide text alternatives for non-text elements
    • Non-text elements such as audio, video, and images should have a text alternative such as captions, transcripts, and descriptions
  1. All multimedia elements should also be fully accessible
    • Students should be able to pause, rewind, and forward the online course video using keyboard controls. 
    • Video should work with any computer, cell phone, and LMS
  1. Provide accommodations
    • Accommodate diverse learning styles and technologies
      • Adjust exam time limits, provide bathroom breaks
      • Students should be able to communicate their responses in different ways
        • For example, if your test requires a spoken portion, the ability to accept sign language or written responses for those who cannot speak

6. Engage students through communication & active listening

Good instructional design can also facilitate positive communications with your students beyond the online classroom. All will benefit from your availability in answering questions, leading or monitoring discussions, and integrating feedback. Find ways to drive consistent engagement such as encouraging forum responses and group discussions. Doing so may help encourage questions that students have or topics they’d like to discuss. And online learning is often self-paced and self-directed, so students need courses that are designed to keep them learning actively, which can improve their focus and increase their motivation.

What is active learning?

Active learning is a method of instruction where students participate and engage in the learning process and materials. Simply put: students are doing things and thinking about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.

Active learning strategies include:

  • Incorporating interactive drag-and-drop activities, simulations, or exercises
  • Connecting lessons to real-world scenarios to make the material immediately relevant
  • Facilitating collaboration with discussion prompts for forums or message boards

8. Design engaging questions

Designing the right questions will also further active learning in an online course. The technology can only go so far, it’s your content that drives the online course experience. What questions do you want to raise? 

What flame do you want to spark in your students? You already know that telling students the answers is never as effective as leading them to the solutions. It’s well-designed questions that make those accomplishments possible. 

Ways to create better test questions:

  • Open-ended questions (often starting with “how” or “why”) require more than one-word answers and reveal how students think
  • Challenging viewpoints helps lead students to address the pros and cons of arguments or solutions
  • Encourage problem-solving with case studies or “what would you do?” scenarios

9. Provide effective online exams

The best-designed exams allow students to demonstrate both the breadth and depth of the learning that they have been doing in the period leading up to the assessment. 

Consider the following ways to set up your students to shine:

  • Ask questions requiring students to demonstrate higher-order thinking
  • Use different types of questions: mix short answers in with multiple choice
  • Create multiple versions of each test, or change the sequence of the questions
  • Show only one question at a time
  • Remind students of the importance of academic integrity

Use exam reporting to improve future exams

  • What questions are students struggling with? 
    • Is the question difficult to understand?
    • Can a different response type help students articulate their answers? 
  • What questions are students breezing by? 
    • Are they too easy? 
    • Is the answer too obvious?

In-depth exam reports will provide this insight and allow you to continually improve student engagement and your exams.

10. Deter and prevent cheating

The tip immediately above is effective at reducing cheating on exams . . . to a point. But it takes more than simply reminding students that honesty protects the integrity of your courses and degree programs. Institutions with all or most of their programs online have been using remote proctoring software for years, and traditional brick-and-mortar universities have accelerated their online exam proctoring options during the pandemic. All are finding that a hybrid model, combining the best of AI and dedicated human proctors works most effectively for faculty and students alike. 

Honorlock’s online proctoring services allow faculty to:

  • Detect cell phones and other devices
  • Combine artificial intelligence and live human proctors
  • Allow students to schedule and take exams 24/7/365
  • Detect voices in a meaningful way
  • Verify student ID in less than a minute
  • Proctor third-party exams
  • Reduce exam content on homework help sites
  • Access exam reporting and recordings for review

Use these best practices as a guide to creating a well-designed online course that engages your students, improves learning, and protects academic integrity.

Honorlock’s online proctoring services allow you to offer convenience and flexibility to your students without sacrificing security or academic rigor. Schedule a demo and we’ll show you how it works.

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