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Designing an Online Course

Posted in DH Blog

By: Hayley Brazier and Heidi Kaufman

Welcome back to the DH@UO blog. We want all of our readers to be aware that the New Media and Culture Certificate (NMCC) Program is hosting Dr. Melissa Gregg, an anthropologist and Intel researcher, whose talk, “Counterproductive: Time Management in a Knowledge Economy,” will take place on Monday, April 16 at 4:00 in the Knight Library Browsing Room. The talk will be followed by a catered reception. We hope to see you there!

Now, let’s jump into the blog. Today we are focusing on online course design. This topic is inspired by my own need to build a new online course, History 473: History of the National Parks. Across American universities, humanities departments are turning to online teaching as an accessible way to offer courses to a broader range of students.  Online courses often draw higher enrollments than traditional courses, particularly in the summer months when students travel or take on additional work. Many new online courses are being designed to give students the flexibility to complete their studies around other summer commitments.  In my home department, History, we will offer eight online courses this summer alone.

While the content of an online course may be similar to face-to-face courses, the delivery of information will be different in online courses. Instructors designing courses must decide how best to convey information that might otherwise be presented in a face-to-face course via lecture. Online teaching tools provide numerous options, including screencasts, video lectures, or assigned readings. I plan to use a combination of all three options. At the University of Oregon, the majority of online teachers use Canvas as the primary site for posting a course syllabus, news and updates, and assigned reading materials. Instructors also use the “Course Chat” feature on Canvas that allows for live-chat. This feature can be used both for virtual office hours as well as the facilitation of virtual conversations among students.

Screenshot of Hayley Brazier's Canvas page showing the start of a live chat session.
Screen shot of my personal Canvas site, which allows instructors to live-chat with students during virtual office hours.

While video or screencast recordings of lectures has its benefits, new online course instructors should consider some of the difficulties of this method of content delivery. First, the process of recording screencasts or lectures on video significantly increases the amount of time it takes to build and design the course. Faculty have to prepare each lecture, set up a studio space and time, deliver the lecture, and make subsequent edits to their videos. This process of editing and uploading videos can be time consuming. Moreover, once the video lectures are recorded, they need a storage site—that is, a place where they can be stored and accessed by students. While Canvas does allow instructors to upload video files, space is limited to a total of 104.9MB.  As a result, many instructors have turned to Vimeo as a site to store course videos. Yet, Vimeo requires a paid subscription if uploads exceed 500MB per week or 5GB total account storage.  In response to this storage problem, the Department of History has made the decision to pay for a shared Vimeo subscription for all of its online teachers.  However, not every department has moved in this direction. Therefore, it’s wise to consult with your department prior to making videos to find out what your options will be for storing course videos.

Another popular option is UO Blogs, which is free for UO students, staff, and faculty who want to design their own WordPress sites. However, the upload limit on UO Blogs is 50MB per file, which would constrain the size and quality of video files. A creative work-around to this file limit problem is to post lectures on YouTube and then embed them into your WordPress site (all for free). The drawback here is that there’s no way to hide YouTube videos, which means content will be publicly available to all, regardless of whether users pay for the course and course content. Instructors should be aware too that their intellectual content on YouTube can be taken and used by others teaching similar courses.

Screen shot of Vimeo's homepage, a myriad of bright colors

A screen shot of University of Oregon's UO Blogs homepage, which is bright green.
Screenshots of UO Blogs and Vimeo’s homepages, which are two options for delivering course content outside of Canvas (Photo sources: and

If you are still undaunted by these admittedly small challenges, you may wish to proceed with pre-recorded lectures. The initial time investment to make the videos can be worth it for courses you teach multiple times. Students, faculty, and staff at UO have the option of borrowing a camera from the Center for Media and Educational Technology (CMET). Currently, CMET provides several helpful options—a  digital Canon Powershot G12, Nikon D3200, a digital Canon Vixa HF S21, HF G20, and a GoPro Hero3+.

Once the lectures are recorded, you will probably want to use video editing software. For Mac users, iMovie is already available on your computer and is easy to navigate. For Windows users, Movie Maker is also an accessible editing software. Open-source video editing software is widely available on the Internet. Check out something like Blender for a more powerful tool. Tutorials for any of these video editing software are easy to find by searching on YouTube.

But don’t let these obstacles stand in your way! Designing a new course can be an empowering way to reach wider audiences and to develop digital skills using new teaching tools—most of which are user friendly and designed for beginners. UO is offering a number of programs to support instructors as they develop new online courses. This spring quarter UO Libraries will run a four-part series on designing and teaching an online course. These workshops, which are free and open to all, will be crucial to any new (or experienced!) instructor designing an online course. Alongside this helpful four-part series, UO Libraries is also offering a workshop called, “Creating Accessible Course Content for All Students” which will be held on May 15, 2018, 3:00pm – 4:30pm, LIB 42.

Blue flyer displaying the times and dates of UO Libraries' upcoming series on designing an online course

One common challenge for online course design is making sure the assignments are as rigorous as those in face-to-face courses. We don’t want to feed into the popular misconception that online courses are easier. But how would you know if your course is more challenging than others? Teachers can now gauge the difficulty of their courses by consulting some of the emerging rubrics available, such as  Quality Matters (QM), created by faculty from Maryland Online consortium. Robert Voelker-Morris, Educational Technology Consultant in the Teaching Engagement Program, Office of the Provost at UO, writes, “The QM rubric would not be the only evaluation guide for one’s course because there are variables like teaching style, student demographics, and discipline-specific content and skills that make a course much more complex than a checklist can communicate, but the rubric is still an excellent starting point.” Voelker-Morris encourages online teachers to read Building Online Learning Communities: Effective Strategies for the Virtual Classroom and to participate in MOOC’s online training. For UO teachers, the University also maintains an account with EDUCAUSE, which provides free access to educational webinars and training.

Further help for online course design is available across campus. Robert Voelker-Morris is a great resource for both designing and teaching your course. The Center for Media and Educational Technology (CMET), housed in the basement of Knight Library, is also a helpful resource. UO Libraries provides both drop-in hours and individual appointments with instructional designers. To set up an appointment with one of the Library’s course designers send an email to or phone them at 541-346-1942. You can also drop by Knight Library Room 19.

Thank you to Robert Voelker-Morris and Stefanie Dupray who supplied a lot of helpful information and links used in this blog post. Christopher Smith in the Department of History also provided tips and ideas featured in this post.

Please feel free to reach out to us with success stories, cautionary tales, and questions about online teaching. We’d welcome the opportunity to showcase work or challenges on this timely subject.



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