Engage, Motivate, and Empower Students with Effective Online Course Design

Concurrent Session 1
Streamed Session

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Brief Abstract

Designing online courses can be overwhelming; a course that is lengthy and text-heavy, is neither beneficial nor efficient to students. Effective course design increases student engagement and motivation by reducing cognitive load.  In this session, we will discuss research-based strategies for structuring content in order to create a learner-centered environment.


Suzanne is a Lead Instructional Technologist in DELTA at NC State University. She develops and leads workshops for the faculty and staff on various technology tools, such as Google, Blackboard Collaborate, and Moodle. Suzanne also provides personalized training and support for the WolfWare Outreach Service. Prior to NC State, she worked at Davidson County Community College as an Instructional Technology Specialist. Suzanne also taught elementary school for seven years before making the transition to higher education. Suzanne obtained her Master of Arts in Educational Media from Appalachian State University and her Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education, also from Appalachian State.

Extended Abstract

Jaggers, Edgecombe, Stacey (2013) have found that instructor presence and course design are the two leading indicators of student success in online courses, and though instructors are highly concerned with student success, the process of designing and facilitating an online course can be daunting.  In fact, creating content in digital format often overshadows organizing the resources within the learning management system, whether it is Blackboard, Moodle, or another LMS. The content, of course, is the main element of the course, but effective course design increases student engagement and motivation by reducing cognitive load.  Though online learning has increased in the last decade, many students are still new to the online course environment, so ease of navigation is important so that students can focus on learning course content rather than learning to use the LMS and find resources.  

Our learning objectives for this session are as follows: by the end of this presentation, the learners will be able to:

  • Identify the best practices for designing an online course
  • Recognize the benefits of organizational strategies in an online learning environment
  • Utilize appropriate LMS and multimedia tools that foster student engagement

In this session, we will introduce the importance of visual and structural design in online courses as a function of an effective student-centered learning environment.  As learners are entering the session, they will be presented with a poll question, via Padlet, centered around “good” learning experiences.  At the beginning of the session, we will ask participants to discuss one of the strategies they currently use to organize online classes.  This activity will inform and serve as a foundation for introducing formal, research-based strategies for effective visual and structural design and their application within online courses to create a learner-centered environment.  In particular, we will focus on 1) planning, 2) organization, 3) consistency, 4) navigation, 5) design, 6) accessibility, 7) engagement, and 8) feedback.  We will explain each of these strategies, and provide a number of examples for each.  For instance, one element of the principle of consistency focuses on creating a clear course and module structure that is mirrored throughout the course, so that once students know what to expect, they can become engaged in the learning process.  To explain this element, we will provide examples of consistent structure in the LMS environment.  

As part of the visual and structural design, we have also chosen to include planning, accessibility and feedback. It is vital to include planning when thinking about designing an online course - creating objectives and guidelines forms a foundation on which to build the actual course.  Also, we find that a proactive approach to accessibility, or designing with that in mind, is much more successful than having to redesign elements retroactively in the case that a student with a disability registers for a course.  In addition, one of the most crucial, albeit vulnerable, components of online course design is feedback; when instructors actively ask for constructive feedback from their students, they are building a more learner-centric environment.  Overall, when each of the principles is considered beforehand, instructors and course designers can save time and focus on fostering student learning during the course term.

After we discuss these strategies, we will invite the audience to participate in a think/pair/share activity, in which they will reflect individually on their current courses or projects and consider how they might incorporate at least one strategy discussed in their courses, share their thoughts with a partner, and then volunteer to share their ideas with the whole group.  After the session, we will share the presentation and completed Padlet with all attendees.



Jaggers, S. S., Edgecombe, N., & Stacey, G.W. (2013). What we know about online course outcomes. New York, NY: Columbia University, Teachers College, Community College Resource Center. Retrieved from http://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/publications/what-we-know-online-course-outc...