Teaching online is an opportunity to think more broadly about the different types of instructional content to use in your course and go beyond lectures or PowerPoint presentations to scaffold learning.

While a lecture approach is common in the classroom, in the online environment this approach overlooks other possibilities. It can also result in a limited course design that simply records classroom lectures and delivers them to an online audience with no contextualization or personalization.

When using and selecting instructional materials such as lecture notes or videos, it is recommended to redesign them for online learning so they are effectively organized, “chunked” and formatted. Regarding organization and sequencing, in general online courses can take advantage of a modular organization that has a beginning, middle and end, with an arc that starts with fundamental components and builds toward greater complexity.

Example of weekly rhythm spanning Monday to Sunday
(Graphic also shown in Module 1.)

Pictured above is an example of how an online course can be organized to provide a weekly rhythm for students so they know what to expect on a weekly basis. Source: Professor Dietram Scheufele, University of Wisconsin-Madison, College of Agricultural & Life Sciences, Department of Life Sciences Communication

“The goal is to sequence topics so that they build on one another in a way that allows students to integrate each new idea, topic, or theme with the preceding ones as the course proceeds" — Fink, 2013, p. 128

Consider: How can learning activities and communication be structured within the rhythm of your course to better manage your and your students' time and best achieve your course objectives?

This Google Doc provides four different templates that you can duplicate and edit in order to plan your own course rhythm.

Guidelines to keep in mind when planning online course content:

Consider using a variety of content sources and media formats to motivate learning, appeal to different student needs, provide multiple perspectives on issues, and draw upon resources available on the web. It is important to diversify the role course content plays.

Divide the content into logical units or modules. A modular approach organizes content at the topic level, where each module or module is devoted to a major topic. Each module should include its relevant subtopics, objectives, materials, activities and assessments. A modular structure makes it easier for students to locate all the information needed to learn that topic and complete the work. It can also benefit instructors by giving them the ability to remix and reuse their own modular content in their other courses.

Source: Slideshare: Basics of Content Chunking (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Chunk and format the content into simple, logical, and manageable components, such as a syllabus, schedule, lesson file, and/or assignment files. Then use formatting such as headings, bullets, graphics, and other formatting devices that make course content easier to read and comprehend. Utilize the navigation structure of the learning management system to help organize course content. Simplifying both navigation to course elements and sources of course information can help reduce potential information overload for students making their time online more efficient and effective.

Emphasize relevance. Trigger intrinsic motivation of the learner by articulating the content’s relevance and associated learning objectives. Provide familiar or real-world examples and write in a direct and friendly style. This can be particularly effective for adult learners who are motivated to readily apply learning to their professional context and who appreciate understanding "why this is important to learn" within the broader context of the course, program, or domain.

It is also important to consider accessibility and copyright issues, which will be discussed later.

Note about publisher resources: A number of textbook publishers have made resources available to faculty members in support of their textbooks, including test banks. Read this article for the types of available publisher materials and a summary of advantages and disadvantages

Selecting Instructional Materials

Think about other content options, but be careful to maintain a focus on both the scope of content (selecting the right mix of content for alignment with learning objectives), and coverage (choosing the right amount of content to cover).

Walvoord and Anderson (2011) point out that focusing too much on coverage, (i.e., including too many topics) can actually impede student learning by crowding out opportunities for learners to practice applying the skills and knowledge they gain. Having the right scope and coverage for your instructional content can provide opportunities for students to thoughtfully engage with the selected content so that deeper learning can occur.

Below are seven criteria that are helpful in the process of selecting which content and materials to include in your online course.

  1. Alignment - The instructional materials are properly aligned with other course elements such as learning objectives, activities, and assessments.
  2. Accuracy - The materials provide an accurate picture of the ideas, concepts and theories of the unit/module.
  3. Authenticity - The selected material creates opportunity for the learner to fully engage. The material is aligned with a related activity or assessment that provides further meaning, motivation, and authenticity.
  4. Meaningful - The material meaningfully contributes to the topic, and provides the learner with opportunities to construct and integrate new knowledge.
  5. Appropriate - The material is appropriate for the experience, age, or skill level of the learner. Determine if other material is needed to scaffold learners to prepare for the particular material.
  6. Cost - The material is worth the time, expense, and effort involved. Alternate instructional material that may be equally useful, effective, and engaging at a lower total cost, particularly free open educational resources.
  7. Balance - Provide a good balance of interactivity, engagement and easy access to a variety of instructional materials and media to provide varied opportunities for learning.

Consider: Often instructional materials and learning activities are paired together to provide students different ways of engaging with the course concepts. We will learn more about learning activities in the next module.


Fink, L. D. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. John Wiley & Sons.

Walvoord, B. E., & Anderson, V. J. (2011). Effective grading: A tool for learning and assessment in college. John Wiley & Sons.