Henny Breen and Melissa Robinson
“When it comes to the design of effective learning experiences, one provocative question is worth a
This chapter addresses how to design an online course, building on the theory discussed in Chapters
2 and 7. The focus is on the integration of pedagogical theory, principles, and best practices for
online course design, with examples provided throughout. Although there is some mention of how
technology can be used to enhance learning, it is not the focus of this chapter. There are several
sources available that the reader can access for a more “guidebook” approach to learn how to build
an online course. A key feature of this chapter is the emphasis on how collaboration is an integral
part of course design, consistent with our collaborative model.
Best Practices for Online Course Design
Many books and articles on online course design are “how-to” manuals on building a course online
that lack reference to a theoretical foundation, or if theory is mentioned, it is not integrated into the
discussion. When designing an online course, theory and an understanding of the most effective
pedagogical principles should receive the same attention as they do when planning for the face-to-
face classroom. Constructivist learning theories with applications in online course development
include cognitive constructivism, social constructivism, collaborativist learning theory, and
transformative learning theory (see Chapter 2). Models of curriculum design based on constructivist
learning theory include concept-based curriculum, backward design, and integrated course design
(see Chapter 7). Having a good understanding of these theories and models will provide the
educator with the foundational knowledge to design a new online course or put a course taught in
Pedagogical principles guide the design, implementation, and evaluation of online courses. For
online postlicensure nursing students, we believe the pedagogical approaches that best serve our
students include an integration of the different constructivist learning theories and models of
curriculum design. Online courses need to be carefully designed and ready to go within the learning
management system before the student first enters the class. This is of particular importance for
working adults because they plan their schedules based not only on the workload of the course but
also the course calendar. Further, they have the opportunity to review the course to ensure it is a
course that meets their learning needs. This may not be as much of a factor for core curricula in
nursing education because of the requirements to meet the program outcomes. However, it may
make a difference in choosing elective courses.
There is some consistency in what is deemed “best practice” for online course design. The following
best practices are recommended for online postlicensure nursing students, based on the literature,
our experience, and the experience of our students who have provided us with ongoing feedback.
Further, they are consistent with the constructivist learning theories and curriculum models we
recommend for online learning and teaching. The best practices are introduced here and applied
throughout the chapter.
The Learner Is at the Center of the Course Design
Before the planning of a course, it is important to know the student. In addition to knowing what the
student needs to learn in terms of course content and concepts for the profession of nursing, it is
important to know each student’s characteristics, barriers to learning, and motivation for learning.
Years of working with adult practicing nurses have taught us much about what works for them in
terms of course design.
Collaborative learning is at the heart of our online courses. Collaborativist learning theory
(previously known as online collaborative theory), as developed by Linda Harasim, was used for a
research study and found to provide an effective model to evaluate the student’s ability to
collaborate (Breen, 2015). The study is found in Chapter 15.
Develop a Clear and Consistent Structure
Within any program of study, it is important to have a consistent structure for all courses. It is very
frustrating for students to learn a new way to navigate each course within the same program of
study. It is equally important to provide a simple, consistent navigation system within each course
(Johnson & Meehan, 2013).
Collaborate on Course Design
When designing a course, collaborating with at least one colleague is an excellent way to achieve
high-quality course development. In many larger online institutions, it is not uncommon for online
design experts known as instructional designers to work closely with faculty as content experts to
develop an online course. We have found that collaboration is critical not only to have more than
one mind working on and reviewing a course but because collaboration among all faculty who teach
in the program ensures effective leveling of concepts.
Collaborative and Individual Reflection
Reflection is an integral aspect of the nursing profession, regardless of the specific nursing practice.
This applies to our practice as educators as well. We engage in ongoing individual and collaborative
reflection to ensure each course design is meeting the intended process and outcomes for learning.
Revisions are made as needed based on how well the course meets student learning needs and
Process of Online Course Design
Backward design and integrated course models, as discussed in Chapter 7, form the framework for
ensuring there is alignment between the course outcomes, assessment strategies, and learning
activities. To support learner persistence, attention needs to be given to how the course is designed
(Stavredes & Herder, 2014). Faculty involvement in course design is on a continuum from being
minimally involved to being fully autonomous, depending on the learning institution, resulting in a
number of approaches to the design process (Santelli, Stewart, & Mandernach, 2020). Course design
that is faculty led is more common in smaller online programs and ranges from having minimal
guidelines to some basic university guidelines and some faculty autonomy. Large online institutions
tend to have a highly specialized approach that includes a standardized course design with minimal
faculty autonomy (Lee, Dickerson, & Winslow, 2012). A collaborative approach, which we endorse,
involves shared expertise and ideas on how the course should be organized. Faculty, instructional