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5 Common Mistakes to Avoid During Online Course Design

Submitted by on July 22, 2013 – 12:49 pm5 Comments

Whether you’ve been teaching online for ten years or ten minutes, chances are you’ve made a few mistakes along the way. Below we’ve outlined five common mistakes of online course design and provided suggestions on how you can avoid them.

Woman with umbrella in rain

Mistake #1: You don’t allow enough time to design and build your course.

As a faculty member, you’re busy. You may feel tempted to push course design to the side; however, doing so rushes course development and can causes the quality to suffer.

Suggestion: Begin the course development process at least 16 weeks prior to the course start date, and establish benchmarks to reach along the way. When you begin the course production process early, you can slowly chip away at it while devoting time to other priorities.

Mistake #2 You give in to fear.

Many instructors become nervous prior to building an online course. A little nervousness can motivate you to ensure quality; however, don’t give in to fear too much—it can stunt your progress. Common fears include the following:

  • technology
  • uncertainty of how to accelerate a course
  • uncertainty of where to begin
  • students cheating
  • inadequate time for course design
  • inability to match the quality and rigor of face-to-face courses
  • uncertainty of how to foster student interaction

Suggestion: Rather than dwelling on your fears, simply begin the course design process. If you do a little at a time (see #1), your fears will begin to vanish.

Mistake #3: You try too many new things at once; you don’t try anything new at all.

Online instructors are introduced to LTIs, OERs, Wikis, and other online learning tools. Some faculty dive in and want to use all of them at once, while others shy away and avoid these tools altogether.

Suggestion: Choose one new tool or resource to use in your course. If it works well, choose an additional tool for the next time you teach the course, and so on.

Mistake #4: You transfer your course online rather than transform your course online.

Quality course design requires you to do more than simply copy and paste content from your face-to-face course. Without rethinking your course design, you increase the possibility that students become disengaged or drop out.

Suggestion: Maintain the quality and rigor of a face-to-face course while accommodating areas of course design that affect student learning:

  • Multimedia—Avoid recording hour-long lectures, which fail to maintain students’ attention; lectures for online courses should only be 4-5 minutes
  • Accelerating Courses—To prevent burnout and content overload, avoid cramming all of the content from your 15-week, face-to-face course into the 7-week, online version. See 10 Proven Steps to Accelerate Your Online Course.
  • Interaction—Don’t assume that interaction will automatically take place like it does in a face-to-face classroom. Include the three types of interaction that foster student engagement.
  • Organization—Since you don’t have traditional class time to clear up confusion and make announcements, you must be explicit and organized in your course design (e.g., navigation) and communication (e.g., directions, assignment expectations, due dates).

Mistake #5: You don’t use rubrics.

Rubrics are vital in an online environment because they

  • give clear direction for students when completing assignments and discussions.
  • prevent confusion among students.
  • prevent your inbox from filling up with assignment questions.
  • ensure consistency when grading the same assignment.

Suggestion: Include rubrics for every assessment in your course. For help with rubrics, check out How to Save Time Developing Rubrics.

Your turn!

Have you made any of these design mistakes? What other common mistakes would you tell others to avoid as they design their online course? [social-bio]


  • Laura Perry says:

    Ever since I began teaching I have kept a section of both my computer and my physical files for the courses I not only teach regularly, but also the ones I dearly wish I could teach. As the Web has evolved – and as I have interacted with more and more educators – I’ve found a world of terrific ideas, suggestions, and resources. I either print them out or tuck them away on my computer, and when I go about revising my courses, onsite or online, or, spend that precious and wonderful time putting together my ‘dream academy’, I pour through the file(s).

    One follows general ‘good teaching practices,’ and that one remains the largest and most commonly-thumbed. I’ve also combed the web for ideas regarding pleasing and easy-to-use site design. For example, sports pages frequently have exciting and engaging layouts.

    The others refer to specific courses / time periods in which I take interest – or that my institution may ask me to teach.

    Of course, I discard many of the resources (not ‘discard’ from the files, but perhaps reject due to broken links or specific focus constraints), but the information remains lifesaving whether I have 6 days or six months to pull syllabi together.

    I am truly excited about this topic – and yes, I have committed several of these grievous offenses!

    Looking forward to more suggestions!

  • C. Smith says:

    It really can be an overwhelming process for teachers to create/add their content in online environments. These are really helpful tips to help ease them into the world of online learning. I think the most important thing for online courses is to remember that you are teaching in a different way, and so your course should be geared more towards that. Just transferring your in-class course to your online class could do more harm than good. I found another article that also talks about how another important thing to do is learn from your past mistakes so that you can continue to improve your course. Here is the link to that article if you want to take a look:

  • Melanie Hovland says:

    Hi Laura,

    Thank you for your comment! You are completely right – As the Web has evolved, it has been an excellent opportunity to learn from and communicate with fellow educators. While the abundance of resources can be overwhelming at times, I still tuck away best practices and 9 times out of 10, I end up using the resource at a later time.

    Thank you for adding these suggestions to your files as you continue to put together your “dream academy.” (Great phrase, by the way!)


  • Melanie Hovland says:

    Thank you for commenting, C. Smith! In the article you shared, I like that the author included “Minimal use of quizzes and tests” as one of the mistakes. This mistake tends to be overlooked, especially at the Master’s level where the thinking is that students are too advanced for quizzes and tests. I typically suggest including a non-graded quiz for content evaluation purposes only. This would be the same as asking impromptu questions in a face-to-face classroom. If students are not grasping a concept, low-stakes quizzes will reveal that and give the instructor an opportunity to address it. Thanks again!