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Developing an online course: Getting started

Darren Sudlow —

Putting a course together that is clear, follows a logical structure, promotes student interaction and that develops engaging approaches to learning is no easy feat. The following section is designed to give you some ideas on how to do this.

Planning your online course

Spend some time thinking about how you want your course to work. What sorts of tools do you want to be available for students? For example, do you want to be able to gather feedback from students on a regular basis, do you want a place for them to ask questions or discuss ideas, or do you want a glossary of terms? Work out what tools will enable to do this effectively.

The key starting point is to have a centralised online class space and to decide early what you will use for that. Most NetNZ teachers have use google+ communities, but there are alternatives that teachers are free to consider – Google Classroom (Although difficult across schools currently), Edmodo, Schoology are all possible. The key is your approach, rather than what technology you use. Once you have decided what you want on the space start planning it out on paper. Make sure you also spend time reading and watching tutorials to learn more about the tools.


In a face to face class the usual practice is to launch straight into the content, but we strongly recommend you don’t do this with an online class. Spend two to four weeks on getting students to orientate themselves on the course. This would include:

  • Gathering information on the students
  • Set them tasks to complete that introduce them to certain tools
  • Getting orientated in the environment
  • Developing community

Gathering information

A good starting point for learning is to first establish the knowledge and skills of your students. As part of this you might like to design a survey or questionnaire that enables you to learn something about your students. Over time I have developed this questionnaire using google forms. All students are required to complete on entry into the course. You also might design some broad diagnostic testing that establishes students’ prior knowledge and skills. You might get them to do a short essay to examine writing technique or a quiz to determine prior knowledge.

Developing Community

One of the most important aspects of teaching online is developing your students as a learning community. This is a totally new experience for many students who might be quite unused to working with others, but it is an absolute imperative for you. Why? Well…

  • You are not there face to face for quick help if they need it. You might not be able to answer a question for a full 24 hours sometimes so it is important they can ask questions of other students.
  • Learning by distance can be an isolating experience for students, but it doesn’t have to be. Developing student interaction and collaboration will break down this isolation. You need to develop a sense of being part of a class or group of learners, rather than working entirely independently. The video conference also plays a part in this (see later), but an online hub can be used to develop ongoing discussion that will ease the stress of learning by distance for many learners.
  • Numbers will play a part in this. It will be much more difficult to develop online discussion with a small number of students

We will come back to building an online learning community later.

In order to build a sustainable online community you will need to put in a lot of effort in the early stages of the course. As suggested above, it is worth putting aside the course content for two weeks or so and develop some online discussion using your course forum. Set up some icebreaker activities which require the students to interact. Once all students have spent time on these activities they will feel more comfortable contributing. From here you need to develop opportunities for students to continue discussion based on the work they are doing.

As Palloff and Pratt indicate in Building Online Learning Communities, “…the need for social connection is a goal that almost supersedes the content orientated goals for the course. Students should gather online just as they do on the campus of a university.”

Ice Breaking Activities

Animal Introduction

Create a discussion thread and get everyone (including yourself) to post a reply introducing themselves and some of their interests. In their post each student must attach an image of an animal that represents them and their personality. Students post replies to each other guessing why they chose their animals and what characteristics they might represent. Students could then find another student who has chosen an animal that shares two characteristics they have chosen. Together they could find another animal that shares these two characteristics as well two new ones. They then post this with an accompanying image. Sounds silly, but it works!

Truth or Lies

Each student posts two truthful statements and one falsehood about themselves. Each member of the group then tries to distinguish the truths from the lie. What makes this activity fun is to be as outrageous as possible while sharing a bit of who you really are with your fellow participants. Once all responses have been received students post their truths and explain why they chose to share them.


Have one person enter a basic introduction of himself or herself, including his or her interests. A second person must enter an introduction of himself or herself and find one thing in common with the first person. A third person enters his or her intro and finds one things in common with the first and second person. Each of the rest of the class members then enters an introduction and must find something in common with at least three other people. The first person in turn, must respond to at least three people with whom he or she has something in common. The second person must respond to at least two additional people. The third person must respond to at least one additional person.