Online Course Design Guidelines

The following guidelines provide a roadmap for instructors during the course design process or as a “self-evaluation” tool to assist instructors in revision of an existing online course using the rubric and suggested examples. This research-informed framework highlights key components essential to a high quality learning experience for students.

The full Course Design Checklist in Microsoft Word format is available for download or may be browsed by guideline topic area:

Learner Support and Resources

  • Link to general student services and resources (Student Life)
  • Link to resources on conducting online research (Library Research Help)
  • Link to resources on academic support (Academic Success Centre)
  • Link to writing centre/other learner support (Writing Centres)
  • Link to information on accessibility (Accessibility Services)
  • Contact information for Technical Support/Quercus Support (Quercus Student Guide)
  • Information about being a successful online learner/student is provided (Getting Ready for Online)
  • Orientation or overview of the course overall, as well as in each module.
  • Learners know how to navigate and what tasks are due
  • Contact information and short biography for the instructor and co-instructor(s) and TA(s) if applicable
    Guidelines for student-instructor interactions (i.e. channels for different types of questions and timelines for response)
  • Contact information for academic department or registrar
  • Syllabus (printable option included)
  • Links or reference to relevant information on academic integrity, computer use, course equity, diversity and inclusion
  • Information on access to any accompanying texts or materials not available on the course web site
  • Link(s) to web sites with supporting information, links to organizations or associations relevant to course content
  • Glossary of terms or links to definitions of new vocabulary
  • Link to UTL Library resources or Lib Guide if applicable

Course Technology and Tools

A list of technical competencies necessary for course completion is provided; identifying and delineating the role/extent the online environment plays in the total course.

  • Requisite skills for using technology tools (websites, software, and hardware) are clearly stated and supported with resources
  • Technical skills required for participation in course learning activities scaffold in a timely manner (orientation, practice, and application – where appropriate)
  • Frequently used technology tools are easily accessed. Any tools not being utilized are removed from the course menu
  • Instructor takes advantage of the supported tools provided by the Learning Management Engine (Quercus) to enhance learning. Institutionally supported tools are used when possible
  • Any technology tools meet accessibility standards


Encourages students to become active learners and contribute to the online course community.

  • Introductory announcement or email to be sent to your students providing them information on how to access your course
  • Expectations for interaction are clearly stated (netiquette, grade weighting, models/examples, and timing and frequency of contributions)
  • Learners have an opportunity to get to know the instructor
  • Course contains resources or activities intended to build a sense of class community, support open communication, and establish trust (at least one of the following – Ice-breaker, Bulletin Board, Meet Your Classmates, Ask a Question discussion forums)
  • Course offers opportunities for learner to learner interaction and constructive collaboration
  • Learners are encouraged to share resources and inject knowledge from diverse sources of information in their course interactions


Design and Layout

Use of technology to effectively organize and deliver course content, and allow students to navigate with ease.

  • A logical, consistent, and uncluttered layout is established. The course is easy to navigate (consistent colour scheme and icon layout, related content organized together, self-evident titles)
  • Large blocks of information are divided into manageable sections with ample white space around and between the blocks
  • Instructions are provided and well written
  • Course content is concise and is free of grammatical and spelling errors

Accessibility and Universal Design

Addresses the course’s adherence to accessibility and universal design principles that are critical to some learners but that benefit all learners.

  • Text is formatted with titles, headings, and other styles to enhance readability and improve the structure of the document
  • There is enough contrast between text and background for the content to be easily viewed
  • Flashing and blinking text are avoided
  • When possible, information is displayed in a linear format instead of as a table
  • Tables are accompanied by a title and summary description
  • Table header rows and columns are assigned
  • For all slideshows, there are simple, non-automatic transitions between slides
  • Text content is available in an easily accessed format, preferably HTML. All text content is readable by assistive technology, including a PDF or any text contained in an image
  • A text equivalent for every non-text element is provided (“alt” tags, captions, transcripts, etc.)
  • Text, graphics, and images are understandable when viewed without colour. Text should be used as a primary method for delivering information
  • Hyperlink text is descriptive and makes sense when out of context (avoid using “click here”)

Learn more about Universal Design for Learning

Content and Activities

Addresses the opportunities students have to interact with the content, their peers, and their instructor(s).

  • Course offers access to a variety of engaging resources that facilitate communication and collaboration, deliver content, and support learning and engagement
  • Course provides activities for learners to develop higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills, such as critical reflection and analysis
  • Course provides activities that emulate real world applications of the discipline, such as experiential learning, case studies, and problem-based activities
  • Where available, Open Educational Resources, free, or low cost materials are used
  • Course materials and resources include copyright and licensing status, clearly stating permission to share where applicable
  • Modeling academic integrity, instructor appropriately cites all resources and materials used throughout the course

Assessment and Feedback

Refers to the process used to gather evidence of the achievement of the Learning Outcomes.

  • Learning outcomes are provided for each unit. The outcomes should use active verbs, and also be specific and measurable
  • Course grading policies, including consequences of late submissions, are clearly stated in the course information area or syllabus
  • Course includes frequent and appropriate methods to assess mastery of content
  • Criteria for the assessment of a graded assignment are clearly articulated (rubrics, exemplary work)
  • Learners have opportunities to review their performance and assess their own learning throughout the course (pre-tests, automated self-tests, reflective assignments, etc.)
  • Learners are informed when a timed response is required. Proper lead time is provided to ensure there is an opportunity to prepare an accommodation
  • Learners have easy access to a well designed and up-to-date gradebook
  • Learners have multiple opportunities to provide descriptive feedback on course design, course content, course experience, and ease of online technology
  • Assessments are authentic (e.g., designed with personal and real world relevance)


These guidelines are based on The SUNY Online Course Quality Review Rubric (OSCQR). The OSCQR Rubric, Dashboard, and Process are made available by the Online Learning Consortium, Inc. under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. The OSCQR Rubric, Dashboard, and Process were originally developed by the State University of New York, through SUNY Online, Online Teaching.

A condensed checklist can be found in web format as well as print formats.


We would like to acknowledge original content and research into online course design guidelines was informed by:

  • Duzer, Joan Ann. (2003) Instructional Design Tips for Online Instruction. Humboldt State University and CSU, Chico.
  • Graham, Charles. (2001) “Seven Principles of Effective Teaching: A Practical Lens for Evaluating Online Courses.” Technology source (Chapel Hill, N.C.).
  • California State University’s Quality Online Learning & Teaching, Instructor (Self) and Peer-Review Course Assessment Instrument.

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