Online Course Design Guide

The Online Course Design Guide was produced by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Office of Educational Innovation and Technology (MIT-OEIT), in collaboration with the New Media Consortium (NMC), to support instructional designers, educators, and facilitators in the development and implementation of online courses. Each section of the guide contains critical information, recommendations, examples, checklists, and resources for further exploration to create and deliver effective online learning experiences.

MIT has long been committed to developing and delivering high quality online learning experiences. In 2002, MIT launched MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW), a web-based publication of virtually all MIT course content — accessible to the world. Through OCW, educators improve courses and curricula and students find additional resources to help them succeed. A decade later in 2012, MIT partnered with Harvard University to launch edX — an offering of free, open source, online courses that can be taken by anyone from anywhere. This guide leverages the online learning expertise of MIT-OEIT.

To provide support through this guide for educators building online courses, a panel of online learning experts was convened to share research and insight. A result of their discussions was a list of assumptions about online learning vs. face-to-face learning which offers a foundation for thinking about and interpreting this guide.

Solid instructional design and facilitation is the basis of an effective course, whether online or face-to-face. As online learning is receiving an increasing amount of interest from learners, education institutions are developing more and more online courses to both replace and supplement existing courses. As such, the design of these online experiences has become paramount; in order to provide effective and high quality learning experiences, they must encompass rich media, interactive features, clearly defined objectives and outcomes, and polished content, along with fostering a robust community of engaged learners.

This guide expands upon best practices that could be used in both digital and face-to-face environments to highlight considerations specific to online learning, bearing in mind the following assumptions established by the panel:

  • Content development for online courses is more time-consuming because in the absence of face-to-face interaction, there is a greater need for creating rich media that stimulates virtual interaction.
  • Designing online learning activities involves a diverse set of technology and tools; instructors must learn how to use the technologies and integrate them in the online environment.
  • Topic- and question-driven discussion is more natural in a face-to-face environment, so instructors must intentionally plan for and build in similar engagement opportunities within online curriculum.
  • Because many online courses draw in learners from all over the world, careful consideration must be given to diverse demographics and backgrounds when developing material.
  • Learners do not have the benefit of sitting side-by-side with their classmates in an online course; thus, it is easier for learners to feel isolated, and a significant effort must be exerted to make them feel part of a community.

Part of the appeal of online courses is the flexibility; learners are able to engage in the material from wherever they are, generally during the times that are most convenient for them. Online courses have also become an attractive option for students who hold full-time jobs or have families, as well as for professionals who want to acquire new skills for the workplace.

The purpose of the Online Course Design Guide is to provide education professionals with the support needed to develop and deliver an effective online course using forward-thinking practices. This guide takes a process approach to online course development, from the pre-design cycle all the way through the evaluation phase of the course, regardless of size, and is organized in concrete sections so that educators can pick and choose the areas they wish to investigate further.