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Designing online learning – start with the design!

Malcolm Hewlett

Designing online learning uses the same solid principles of face-to-face teaching but requires additional considerations. If you’re thinking about making the shift to online or blended learning, you start with the same planning principles as you would for any course or sequence of learning:

  • What are your goals or learning outcomes/intentions? How do these link to the New Zealand curriculum or Te Marautanga o Aotearoa?
  • Why do your students need to learn this?
  • What will be the evidence of learning? How and when will they demonstrate their learning?
  • What content/contexts will students need to access and how will they access?
  • How might they collaborate?
  • How will you provide feedback on the learning?

But there are additional considerations:

  • What digital tools do they need to be successful learners online?
  • How will they connect with you?
    • What is the purpose of synchronous (live webinar or classroom) opportunities?
    • What methods will students use to communicate with you asynchronously (off line)?
  • Instructions have to be crystal clear about how to engage with the tasks and what the expectations are for demonstrating learning.
  • Learning has to be structured so that students can access it in a way that suits them.
  • Most importantly do you know and understand the context in which your students are learning and what support they have? During Covid-19 lockdown some students have not engaged with online learning at all. Do you know the barriers and what you can do to engage these students?

Designing online learning – breaking down your unit or course

A course should be broken down into ‘chunks” that reflect the natural divisions that exist in the content of the course, and which can also be easily assigned to manageable amounts of time that students may have available. There are no rules about what this might look like, but here are some examples:


  • five modules in a term course (10 weeks) would allow two weeks for each module to be worked with, enabling a pattern of independent work in the first week and a time of reflection and interaction (synchronously or asynchronously) in the second week
  • two modules may provide an opportunity to differentiate between the ‘theory’ and the ‘practice’ of a particular course. The ‘practice’ part may be given to a group activity or personal application and report back.
  • the module for the final week could include the opportunity for assessment or feedback, reflection, or mini-presentations from students to each other.


Modules can be further broken down into a series of topics – these are the more manageable ‘bits’ that can be addressed in a single sitting or period of study. A topic may consist of the following for example:

  • A video or a reading or series of readings with questions to support self-directed reading.
  • Links to online resources or readings, with a quiz to check understanding.
  • A single activity/task based around a particular resource or reading.


Learning resources to support an online course may be considered in a range of ways, including;

  • Readings created specifically for the course, and available for download
  • Links to readings in other places on the web
  • Links to interactive resources on the web
  • Links to video or audio files
  • Slideshow presentations
  • Student created resources
  • An introductory video from you introducing the students to the sequence of learning.


These are things that students engage with as active learners, rather than passive consumers of the course content. Activities should be described in terms of the nature of what is being done (e.g. a discussion, think-pair-share, brainstorm etc.) rather than the particular technology used to facilitate them (e.g. video conference, forum, chat/break out room etc.) The primary purpose of an activity is to promote learning through participation and action.

LearnWell Digital resources provide a range of activities types you can use to support learning which include:

  • Multiple choice – standard multiple choice, true and false or matrix style
  • Fill in the blanks – cloze association, drop down, free text and math equations
  • Highlight – highlight words/sentences
  • Written and recorded – file upload, free text and audio
  • Sort and match – order, match and categorise
  • Label – image drop down and hot spot
  • Charts and graphs – number line and bar charts.


Assessment differ from activities in that they are designed as a way for students to summarise, feedback or demonstrate what they have understood or learned. In some cases, these will be the focus of an assessment approach (self-assessment, peer assessment, criteria etc.). Or it could be a quiz or multiple-choice questions. If they have to upload or share something, make it clear how they can do this.

All of the tasks available in LearnWell Digital can be used as either formative or summative assessment so you can embed authentic assessment throughout the learning.

Course/Unit Map

A course/unit map is a way of visually representing the relationships between the various elements of a course or a unit as described above. Each course should have a map available for learners to view at the beginning of the course – and may act as a navigation aid to the course itself. A course/unit map enables learners to “see” what the course “looks like”, thus empowering them to plan their own pathway of participation.

The Contents page in LearnWell Digital resources provides a useful way for students to see a map of the learning. This page shows all modules and topics and also gives an indication of how long each page will take to complete. This page can be accessed from the tool bar on the side of every LearnWell Digital page.

Content map
Contents page in LearnWell Digital. 

Students will decide how they will engage in the learning

When designing learning it is important that students can see the whole course, including all the modules topics, tasks, assessment requirements etc. Some students will start by looking to see if there is an assessment task and work backwards from there, working out what content and tasks they need to engage in to be successful. Other students will work their way through all the tasks before looking at the assessment. Some will pick and choose what they want to engage in (or not). Get some feedback from your students about what worked best for them so you design your next learning sequence more tailored to their needs.

While designing online learning has many similarities to designing face-to-face learning, there are some key aspects of online learning that are worth coming to grips with as they will help you and your students have a more meaningful learning experience. Starting with the course design will help get you off to a great start.

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