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Online Course Design

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CHAPTER 8 Online Course Design Henny Breen and Melissa Robinson
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Henny Breen and Melissa Robinson


“When it comes to the design of effective learning experiences, one provocative question is worth a

hundred proclamations.”


Bernard Bull




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

the face-to-face classroom online.


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

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

student feedback.

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

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