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07 / 2020 article

Quality Online Education Begins With Solid Course Design


The current public health crisis has accelerated the use of technology to bring the classroom into the homes of learners across the nation. The frantic move to remote teaching and learning to complete the spring semester at higher education institutions left many instructors feeling disoriented, panicked, and technologically behind. Looking forward, institutions must decide on their modes of instruction for the fall, weighing the knowns and unknowns of COVID-19 and their ability to deliver quality instruction online versus on-ground.

This past spring, as most turned to web conferencing to host remote lectures and class discussions, others uploaded recorded lectures and course resources to a learning management system (LMS) that already housed their course syllabi and grade postings (Ralph, 2020). While institutions and faculty did their best, the unprecedented disruption to student learning with the sudden shift to online led to concerns about the quality of instruction and, in some instances, the potential of lawsuits (Laird, 2020).

It must be stressed: The difference between putting educational content online and educating online goes far beyond the technological platform and software used. For online teaching and learning, technology is a means to an end; it is not the end.

At Zovio, our expertise is grounded in the theory and practice of online learning. We have been developing and delivering quality online courses for higher education for more than a decade. Our courses are designed to enable faculty members to focus on teaching and students to concentrate on learning. Students benefit from clear course instructions that detail what they are learning, the purpose of the course and lessons, easy access to course resources, and the opportunity for engaging discussions and rich feedback as they progress through instructive activities and assignments.

The Magic of Course Design

A tremendous amount of thought and planning goes into the development and design of a high-quality online course. Working with subject-matter experts, instructional designers start with a flexible template that follows basic principles and guidelines for consistency with other courses but allows course content to be tailored for the best delivery of that subject. It’s kind of like designing and building a house.

For every house built, there is a blueprint. We can count on all houses to have windows and doors and basic rooms, but ultimately the use of space in the floor plans is different. The same is true for online courses. The content will vary, but all courses offered by an institution should have features in common to make them easily navigable and fully accessible by students and faculty members. A health course may look different than a math course, but access to support features such as the university library, online tutoring, the help desk, and chatroom should be in the same place.

Digging deeper, we use a backwards design for our online courses. We start with assessable course learning outcomes—the specific knowledge and skills we expect students to master by the end of a course. Then the course learning outcomes are mapped to the program learning outcomes—what is expected of graduates of that program—and ultimately to institutional learning outcomes. Courses within a program are sequenced to allow for scaffolding of skills and knowledge.

The design of a scaffolded and well-aligned course ensures comprehensive coverage of the learning outcomes through rich and diverse learning materials, engaging activities, and appropriate assessments. At Zovio, the LMS is optimized to meet the needs of the intentionally designed classroom. All academic support and learning resources are accessible through the classroom; the course calendar and course layout provide a clear map of when activities are due; and all activities have clear and consistent instructions, rubrics, and mechanisms for instructional feedback.

Zovio’s LMS can be accessed via a mobile app or browser. Students can check their classroom notifications, which pop up based on their preferences for message type and frequency. They are alerted when a classmate or professor has responded to an inquiry. Additionally, numerous self-assessments are built into the virtual classroom so students can see how they are doing.

As with designing and building a home, online course design requires a team of professionals and ongoing collaboration. Instead of architects, contractors, electricians, and the like, we involve deans, faculty, instructional designers, assessment analysts, and curriculum specialists, among others.

If your institution is joining the online education revolution triggered by COVID-19, our academic experts are here to help.


Laird, L. (2020, May 19). Will lawsuits for tuition refunds succeed? It depends, experts say. EducationDive.

Ralph, N. (2020). Perspectives: COVID-19, and the future of higher education. Bay View Analytics.


By Jodi Feikema, PhD
Vice President, Academic Products and Services