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50 tips to develop and run your online courses

From getting started to managing the day-to-day business, try these 50 tips for setting up a successful online course for any grade level

online-learningAs many K-12 U.S. public schools and districts are struggling to compete with 100 percent online cyber charter schools for essential student funding, many universities are struggling to understand the impact of MOOCs on future enrollment. Both of these scenarios point to the one thing that is abundantly clear, online education is having another growth spurt in the second decade of the 21st century and the race to create in-house online content is on.

In-house online content is defined here as online course development created by practicing K-12 educators to avoid having to access sometimes cost-prohibitive, commercially-developed online courses.

However, in addition to the already full plates of educators, in-house online content and course development remains a challenge. With a healthy dose of optimism and motivation to better serve their current, digitally-inclined students’ expectations, along with many excellent, free online tools for online and blended course development, K-16 educators are now able to master the task of online course content for blended learning models and/or 100 percent online course development using the following easily-implemented strategies. While the physical location of the classroom may be left behind, the online classroom adventure has just begun.

Next page: How to get started and personalize interactions


Before the course begins:

1. Make certain you are familiar with all the software and hardware you intend to use in your online content or course

2. Create the projects you expect your students to create to determine the difficulties they may face when trying to execute certain tasks.

3. If not using a school-adopted learning management system or course management system, create a wiki or class webpage complete with areas for faculty contact, sharing news, and resources.

4. Create an FAQ board for questions and answers about the course

In the beginning:

5. When addressing students, learn to use the global command that is common in most LMS to personalize messages by adding a student’s name. For example, create your course welcome by writing, “Welcome to our class together {firstname},“ which then appears as “Welcome to our class together, Joe.”

6. Introduce yourself as the instructor, offering both professional and (some) personal information to personalize your online presence for your students’ future learning experience and request that students do the same. Provide an instructor image and optionally request that students do so as well. This introductory period is also a great time to discuss students’ reasons/purposes for participating in the content or course and what they are hoping to gain from the experience.

7. Offer a detailed syllabus so students have an outlined understanding of the content/course objectives, course expectations, calendar due dates, grade points/percentages for each assignment, office hour information and overall grading system.

8. Foster a community of good digital citizenship with a set of online guidelines, expectations and procedures. For example, with regard to online student discussions, state how many words you expect (e.g. 200-250 words per response), and explain any request to respond to other students’ responses.

9. Arrange for times to meet with students as a group outside of the online environment incorporating hands-on lessons, especially when using unfamiliar technology and with younger age groups. You may also want to meet as a group at the beginning of the class and at the end of the class for more personalization, if possible.

During the course

10. Use case studies, current events, and videos as materials for discussions, in addition to text.

Next page: How to be a supportive, responsive instructor


11. When developing student-led discussions, pose open-ended questions, and provide multiple perspectives about topics to promote higher-level responses.

12. Support students with a strong teacher presence and timely feedback during student-led discussions (for example, check in and respond daily for K-6 and at least 2 times per week for grades 6-12). If not able to respond to all individually, stagger responses so that all students receive feedback as often as possible.

13. Provide suggestions and direction for additional resources during online discussion based on students’ responses.

14. Generally, summarize students’ overall responses to the discussion.

15. Keep lesson presentation and due date expectations as consistent as possible.

16. Post standards and lesson objectives at the beginning of each new topic.

17. Distribute online content and course materials in small doses on a predictable basis (according to the syllabus), rather than posting all course material online at once, which may overwhelm students. Provide lessons for the next 1-2 weeks for those students may like to work ahead, without overwhelming those who easily overload from too much information at once.

18. Post information in PDF format, with hyperlinks to additional online resources, websites, and videos.

19. Once content is posted, make it accessible throughout the full lesson/course time frame.

20. Address technology concerns immediately, if students are having trouble accessing class or course materials, and correct the issue.

21. Offer a variety of teaching materials to engage students: Online tutorials, videos, podcasts, written articles/texts, web 2.0 tools, interactive website activities, and games.

Next page: Differentiate, collaborate, and communicate


22. Accommodate diverse learning styles by providing a variety of materials, media, and assignments that allow students to construct knowledge through personal choice.

23. Offer an online checklist to help keep students on task and on schedule, but don’t get too carried away with this feature so that each task is dependent upon another, which can easily frustrate students who may like to explore all content course direction before responding.

24. Display all due dates using an interactive, online calendar display option.

25. Create lessons to encourage students’ critical analysis and problem solving skills.

26. Let students adapt projects and problem solutions to include development of project content that is personally relevant and meaningful to them.

27. Allow students to contribute to information resources beyond the classroom whenever possible.

28. Create lessons that encourage collaborative work.

29. Encourage blogging during specific class/course timeframes.

30. Provide experiences for students to collaborate with content experts outside the classroom as well as with one another during projects though Skype or other tools.

31. Typically, allow students freedom to choose whether to work on projects individually or as a group, based on their preference, although at some point during the course it may be advantageous to require students to work together on small group projects to assess teamwork capabilities.

32. When using the small group project strategy, provide groups with a private discussion forum for work on their project, or allow them to choose their own (like Google Docs). If appropriate, provide guidelines for specific roles for each group member, a lowing groups to organize themselves, and promote collaborative learning.

33. Assign more weight to projects as opposed to tests. This will allow you to witness students’ application of key concepts and may help boost their overall grade.

34. Create short (less than 20 questions) online quizzes or surveys for student assessment and evaluation of key concepts.

35. Use a variety of quiz question formats (true false, multiple choice, open-ended, etc).

36. If an emergency arises and your student notifies you promptly, be flexible with assignment due dates.

37. Share interesting content-related news articles with your students as you discover them, to keep a cutting-edge slant.

38. Provide rapid and positive responses to student questions and requests for help through personal email and post for all students if helpful to all.

Next page: End courses on the right note

39. Showcase a variety of students’ strengths by providing students’ with various assessment strategies to highlight and communicate what they have learned.

40. Allow students to choose their own medium to express their ideas about the topic.

41. Grade and give feedback promptly on all assignments.

42. Hold online office hours at cirtical times during the students’ assessment period, more often for younger students, or anytime a student needs specific help.

43. For each student, display individual grades so the students know their grade in the class at all times, and can keep track of the grades themselves.

44. Make students responsible for their own grades. For example, announce that by a certain time all assignments have been graded and that, if they have submitted an assignment, they should be able to see the grade and that they are responsible for reporting if they have questions about their grade or do not see it posted.

45. Provide 1-2 extra credit projects that are available throughout the enrollment of the class.

46. Use web 2.0 tools such as Glogster and VoiceThread for asychrnous online presentations (formative assessment).

47. Use online classroom tools such as Blackboard Collaborate or Google for synchronous online presentations (summative assessment).

48. Prepare to use a variety of technology but also be prepared to do some tech support and to contact the IT help desk when needed.

At the conclusion of the course:

49. Provide a formative and summative evaluation of the online course content and/or course for feedback from students.

50. Revise online course content and or course delivery based on student feedback.

At first glance, these 50 development strategies for creating in-house courses may seem overwhelming to you as an educator. However, as you begin to explore developing, collecting, and assembling an abundance of online lesson activities for your students you will soon discover that you have developed an entire online course along with the tools and knowledge of how to run it successfully.

Acknowledgements: Dr. Harmer would like to acknowledge her ITC 435 and ITC 520 classes at Kutztown University for their excellent contributions to this discussion.

Dr. Andrea Harmer is chair of the Instructional Technology & Library Science Department at Kutztown University and part-time director of educational outreach and web-based education in Materials Science & Engineering department and the Center for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology at Lehigh University.

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