Quality Course Design

Planning to teach an online course for the first time can be overwhelming. In addition to module objectives, assignments, and accessible course materials, you face the hard work of engaging your students and maintaining your "presence" in a distance learning environment. A focus on a few key strategies will help you approach some of the more challenging areas of quality course design and encourage student success in the process.

1. Start with a course template.

One way to promote quality online instruction in your course is to use a course template. By copying the ODL Quality Course Shell into your Canvas course site, you’ll automatically build your course on selected quality standards based on the nationally recognized Quality Matters rubric. Your course will be easier for students to navigate and positioned to yield better learning outcomes and a better student experience.

New to Canvas? Get started by enrolling in the Canvas Instructor/Staff Orientation.


2. Organize your course for student success.

Instructors are well acquainted with writing course objectives. A greater challenge can come when breaking down objectives into weekly or module-level elements. In online courses, module-level objectives are critical to delivering instruction that meets quality standards. Ideally, module-level objectives are aligned with the materials, activities, and assessments. Like a study guide for the unit, they help students focus their learning in the way the instructor intended.


  • Course Planning Worksheet. Use this simple worksheet to organize your course goals into weekly topics or modules and identify course materials, activities, and assessments that align with your course objectives.
  • Module Overview Template. Divide and map your content into modules using the Module Overview Template in Canvas.

3. Design effective assessments.

When assessing students, avoid high-stakes testing when possible. Consider using assignments like papers, presentations, portfolios, and multimedia projects to measure your course’s learning outcomes. These can provide a realistic picture of what your students have mastered and serve as an alternative to proctored testing. You can also convert a high-stakes test into several low-stakes quizzes. When quizzes count for less of the overall grade, they function as an opportunity for periodic check-ins with students and can lay the foundation for a more robust, authentic assessment of student learning. When high-stakes testing is unavoidable, take advantage of in-class or other proctoring solutions that include in-class polling, lockdown browsers, Scantron services, in-person testing at an approved proctored testing facility, or other third-party solutions. Online proctored testing is an option for distance learning students unable to test in an approved proctored testing facility. If you allow distance students to use online proctored testing, be sure to design assessments well and know that some students may experience problems with reliable internet connections, equipment, or other issues that make online proctored testing difficult or impossible.


  • Online Alternatives to In-Person Proctored Exams. Consider alternatives to proctored testing like open-book tests, discussion forums, student portfolios and multimedia presentations, and online simulations and labs.
  • Proctored Testing. Learn more about FSU Testing Center services, including form scanning, in-person proctoring at the main campus facility, and coordination of in-person and online distance learning exams.

4. Engage your learners with online activities.

With a little extra planning and creativity, you can engage students in the remote learning environment much as you would in a traditional classroom. Course discussion boards, the use of breakout rooms in tools like Zoom, and student video projects are popular tools for engagement. Students can introduce themselves to each other; comment in response to prompts and other students; and post assignments like videos, presentations, and papers for group review and feedback.


  • Tools for Student Collaboration. With web conferencing tools like Zoom and Canvas Conferences (BigBlueButton), you can divide students into groups to work on assignments together and hold virtual meetings.
  • Student Video Projects. Foster student creativity and engagement by offering options to do video assignments. The completed videos can be uploaded into a discussion board where others can view and comment, or they can be used as assignments and graded.

5. Provide course materials in a variety of formats.

Relying on principles of universal design in your course design helps ensure that all students can access your course content. It’s your responsibility to make sure your course documents are accessible to students. ODL has a wide variety of resources to help, and FSU Libraries is a great resource for finding journal articles, textbooks, and media in accessible formats. In addition, adopting open and affordable course materials will save students time and money and increase first-day access to required course materials. Subject librarians will work with you to locate open or already licensed content. For more information, see the FSU Libraries article Supporting Students Through Open and Affordable Course Materials.


  • Accessibility and Usability Overview. Review guidelines and tips for overall course site design, course multimedia, student communication, and text and file formatting.
  • Ally. One of the simplest ways to make your course content accessible is to use a program called Ally. It works within Canvas and automatically provides content in alternative formats. It corrects accessibility issues whenever possible and gives easy-to-follow instructions when it can’t.
  • Video Captioning in Kaltura. Captioning ensures courses meet accessibility standards by providing an alternate means of receiving content. Videos uploaded into the Kaltura media platform are automatically machine captioned and can be easily edited using upgraded video captioning technology.

6. Stay present with your students.

Your presence in the online environment is important. Something as simple as uploading a picture of yourself and a brief bio that includes reasons you love teaching this course can increase what we refer to in online learning as “instructor presence.” See below for more ideas on how to increase your instructor presence and keep students connected.


  • Announcements. Use announcements in Canvas to give your class regular updates on course content and overall feedback on how students are doing. Make announcements more engaging by leveraging the Kaltura Express Capture tool.
  • Feedback via SpeedGrader. Give students individual feedback with SpeedGrader in Canvas. You can provide audio and video feedback as well as text markup like highlights, strikethroughs, and text boxes (much like using the track-changes function in Microsoft Word).

Need help developing your online course? Contact our instructional development faculty at ODL-faculty@campus.fsu.edu.