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Development principles for online courses
a baker's dozen

By Rory McGreal / November 2005

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Course development on the Web is becoming more sophisticated as instructors and course specialists become more familiar with the environment. At present, most development principles for online courses have been derived from what seems to work best in the traditional face-to-face context. However, the Web opens up entirely new possibilities for learning (as well as unique limitations). What follows is a baker's dozen of development principles that attempt to build on the knowledge-base of distance education and traditional learning, and to adapt both to the online environment and the strengths and weaknesses of software applications. We hope course developers find these principles useful when initiating and supporting online projects.

1. Beg or borrow (steal!) courseware, or learning objects. Don't reinvent the wheel. Using previously created materials is almost always preferable to creating your own. There is a growing body of learning materials accessible through the World Wide Web. Many of these materials are free, so take advantage of them. Often they must be used "as is," but sometimes adaptation is allowed. Some materials come at a price, but paying for quality materials is almost always cheaper than developing them yourself. If desired course materials are not reasonably priced or are otherwise unobtainable, take the idea and create your own. Remember, ideas can't be copyrighted, only the specific expression of an idea is protected. Useful sites for accessing learning materials include Merlot, Careo, MIT's Open Courseware Initiative, Java SIG, and Co-operative Learning Object Exchange.

2. Take what exists and build the course around it. This is a tried-and-true approach to course development. Early universities developed around monasteries or religious study groups, where teachers based their lessons on the Bible or other holy texts. Now, most instructional design manuals insist that you start with a needs-analysis and base course materials on those findings. Instructors can construct relevant courses, or at least relevant course modules, based on available materials without undermining this approach. For example, a Geography instructor might design specific relevant tasks around the simulation game SimCity. Computer-programming instructors can refer students to free online courses on Java programming. Christiansen & Anderson report on three courses at Athabasca University built around available materials [4]. Courses in English and Nursing employed this method, and free materials reportedly were easy to come by. And at least one business course developer we know of has used off-the-shelf proprietary materials successfully [15].

3. Avoid the "not invented here" syndrome. Curriculum specialists, instructional designers, and individual teachers can always find fault with any course materials they evaluate. Turf protection is alive and kicking in most institutions. Nash refers to it also as the "let's re-invent the wheel" syndrome, claiming that quite often "there are no other factors that dictate an internally developed solution would be superior" [13]. Material developed or chosen by someone else is commonly judged to be inferior. But settling for someone else's course material that is "good enough" is sometimes better than going to the expense and effort of creating your own "perfect" materials. "Protestant" physics in Quebec is not that different from Italian "Catholic" physics or Turkish physics. Quite often the only people who care are the curriculum specialists themselves, who can spend years arguing over the relative merits of different approaches, techniques, and content.

You may choose to adapt an entire course produced by other institutions; in many cases, a specific module will prove sufficient. Externally produced learning objects can form the component parts of specific modules or larger courses. Often they can serve as alternate pathways to accommodate differing learning styles among the students, facilitate students using different software/hardware configurations, or serve the special needs of learners with disabilities [10].

4. Know the content—garbage in, garbage out. When you choose or create content, make sure that a real content expert is fully involved. Do not depend on non-specialists for content. At the same time, the content specialists should be paired with instructional designers, because good subject-specific content does not necessarily translate into good learning content. Adaptation is necessary. This marriage of content expertise with instructional design know-how forms the primary strength of distance education course development. Add a good Web designer to this team and you have the makings of a solid online course.

5. Establish realistic deadlines. Procrastination is a common human trait. Time limits, whether externally or internally imposed, are essential for the completion of course-development projects. Deadlines should be established in consultation with the course-development team. The tasks assigned must be seen to be realistic by those who have to complete them. Have people agree on the task deadlines and then see that they adhere to them. Written expectations for all team members are crucial. Beck, in his approach to software projects, recommends that short cycles with real deliverables are best. Unless real achievable short-term goals with realistic deadlines are in place, it is too easy to get bogged down in details and never finish.

6. Estimate your costs and double them, then double them again. The budget established must be adequate for the required tasks. With limited funds, it may be more realistic to use prepackaged content and avoid significant development work (this can be prudent even when you have significant funding!). The scope of a course-development project must be controlled in order to keep costs down. "Must have" features should be incorporated into the course before the "bells and whistles" are added. This helps to keep a project on track and within budget.

7. Be realistic about scheduling and scoping. Just as nine women cannot produce a baby in one month, hiring three more people never triples productivity [3]. Use the extreme programming approach in building courses: Have short iterations of less than two weeks in which a module is completed. Reduce the scope of the project if necessary, but do not compromise by extending the time or reducing quality. Make clear priorities. And make them real priorities. If everything is a priority, then nothing is. Clarify the relative importance of each task into one of three categories: necessary, desirable, or optional.

Get a basic usable module up-and-running online. The first automobiles broke down every few hundred meters and the first airplanes were not considered air-worthy. Getting a basic prototype up-and-running, no matter how faulty, should be a top priority. Then test it. With this approach, if the module is not initially successful, you have not lost as much as you would have by waiting until a full multimedia product had been developed.

Once you have created the basic modules of a course, build features into them and then build around the new features, like the layers of an onion. This lowers costs and diminishes risk. The course developers can learn from mistakes made in one layer before a new layer is built. Like in the automobile and airplane examples, the experience gained in building the first prototype is valuable in making subsequent builds better.

Build one course module at a time and then deliver them independently, before building the other modules. In any event, don't create the idea of a perfect course and then try to implement it. Ideas and features should be formulated as part of the experiences gained during delivery. As more courses are delivered, and experience is built up, the development team can afford to take more risks.

8. Be prepared for major shifts—a course development project plan must be flexible. It sounds trite but it's true: The world is rapidly changing. Course content that was valid yesterday can be outdated tomorrow. In many fields, new knowledge is being published on a monthly and even weekly basis. Any plan must take this into account. Courses must be constructed flexibly so as to allow for significant and continuous changes. Fortunately, the Web environment is ideally suited to this. Any plan must be flexible enough to allow for updates. Course materials must be reusable and adaptable for repurposing. To facilitate this, organize lessons as modules and construct learning objects. Learning objects are a reusable digital resource encapsulated in a lesson or assemblage of lessons grouped in units, modules, courses, and even programs [12].

9. Build for reuse and repurposing, thereby reducing costs. Learning objects facilitate change in the type and amount of content, features, and functionality of your course materials, and they are self-contained and portable to different environments. Costs of overall development are reduced significantly when materials are generic and available for use in multiple content areas and formats. For example, an interactive ASCII conversion scale can be designed for use in various courses—e.g., introduction to information technology, mathematics, and computer programming—if it is designed from the beginning to be adaptable and editable. This approach also makes ongoing maintenance and error correction much easier. Too many designers do not allow for multilingual capacity in their course structures. Many materials can be easily translated if the course structure is open. For example, translation to other languages is easier if text is not used inside graphics.

10. Build to standards. Course materials that are built to commonly accepted standards are easier to adapt and repurpose. Developers must ensure that their products conform to emerging international standards for learning objects (IEEE LOM, SCORM) in addition to institutional standards for interface design and quality. Use CanCore ( to facilitate the implementation of these standards.

Create a standard procedure and "look" for course development in your institution and follow it intelligently. Be consistent in instructions, icons, etc. The finished product should look like one person did it. Cyrs reminds us that ego gratification is not as important as consistency [5].

11. Make sure courses involve the completion of meaningful tasks. It is no secret that people learn by doing. ElBushra suggested that a set of related tasks make up a lesson [7]. These tasks are the lesson. They are not extras. They can include copying, note-taking, and calculating, as well as more specialized activities. Their purpose is to reinforce concepts being studied and aid the memory with appropriate practice. The tasks together serve to achieve specific lesson goals. Course designers and teachers are responsible for ensuring that the learning tasks are sufficiently generalizable so that the knowledge acquired and the skills used can be applied in a wide variety of contexts.

12. Provide different routes to learning. We know that different people learn in different ways in different situations, at different rates, at different times of the day, week, month, year, and life, based on different experiences, attitudes, and talents. Contrary to what many professionals believe, learning-styles research does not support the view that individuals have a preferred learning style in all situations [9, 14]. A number of factors can have a significant impact on the preferred individual learning style of a learner, including the complexity of the concept being learned, the time of day, the comfort level of the learner with the material, the quality of the presentation format, and the level of interactivity. Learners who show a preference for "visual" learning in a standardized test may find that in many other situations they prefer a "kinetic" or "audio" style.

If a choice of approaches and techniques is available to learners, they will not only be able to choose their preferred format but to try a different one when needed. When a concept is experienced in a variety of independent ways, learning is improved. Learners develop skills by using or working on the concepts being taught.

13. Diagrams and charts included in lessons should clarify the text. Quite often graphics are superfluous and can actually detract from the learning experience [11] Real-life images often contain too much information. Simple diagrams are usually superior, eliminating visual "noise," and focusing on the features that are critical to the understanding of the concept being taught. The designer should also consider the goal of the message and the level of the learners. Gilbert lists several principles for the use of images to promote learning [8]. Images should focus only on features that are critical to the concept being taught and be used for one or more of the following reasons:

  • to prepare the learner
  • to attract and direct attention
  • to guide the learner through successive steps of complexity
  • to present the content repeatedly in a variety of contexts
  • to provide a vehicle for practice with immediate feedback
  • to make connections

An online course should at a minimum have these basic features:

  • title page
  • introduction to the course
  • course schedule, and a list of objectives and requirements
  • course content arranged into modules
  • Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) file
  • glossary of terms used in the course
  • table of contents, a search engine, and/or index with a roadmap to the course
  • resources page with links to useful external course related information
  • credits page listing the sponsors and the people who have developed the course along with copyright statement


The most important aspect of designing a course is to keep it simple. Do not make the interface difficult to navigate. Use simple commands and easily understood icons. Simple, clean interfaces with no glitz are preferable to overly complex designs with bells and whistles. Don't forget that many users still connect to the Internet with low-bandwidth modems. Their systems cannot handle the showy elements that require high bandwidth. These "bells" can also be problematic for disabled learners using special devices to interpret texts. All too often, glitz detracts from the learning.

Make it easy for the learner. Use plain, simple language. Some content specialists hide their poor writing abilities by using big words (sometimes incorrectly) and elaborate sentence constructions, overusing the passive voice. Use simple words and the active voice. One computer application guide that I used repeated this command on every second page: "Ensure that the on/off control key is depressed" instead of a simple command like "Press the on/off button" How do you "depress" a key?

Explicitly state the course objectives on a separate course objectives page. Make the link between the assignments and the course materials clear. Let students know what is expected of them for each individual assignment or test, and for the entire course and examinations. Clearly describe the resources that will be needed and the learning activities that will be undertaken [6]. In that the way, both the instructors and the learners can be confidently aware of the requirements of the course. And lastly, it is important not to procrastinate. Just do it.


1. Bates, A. W. (1992). Theory and practice in the use of technology in distance education. In Theoretical Underpinnnings of Educaton at a Distance. London: Routledge.

2. Beck, K. (2000). Extreme programming explained. Toronto: Addison-Wesley.

3. Brooks, F. P. (1995). The Mythical Man-Month: Addison-Wesley.

4. Christiansen, J.-A., & Anderson, T. (2004, March). Feasibility of course development based on learning objects: Research analysis of three case studies. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 1(3). Retrieved January 23, 2005, from

5. Cyrs, T., & Smith, F. A. (1990). Teleclass Teaching: A Resource Guide (2 ed.). Las Cruces, NM: New Mexico State University.

6. Eastmond, D., & Ziegahn, L. (1995). Instructional Design for the Online Classroom. In Z. L. Berge & M. P. Collins (Eds.), Computer Mediated Communication and the Online Classroom: Distance Learning (Vol. III, pp. 59-80). Creskill, NJ: Hampton Press Inc.

7. ElBushra, J. (1979). Writing for Distance Education. Cambridge, UK: International Extension College.

8. Gilbert, A., & Mitchell, N. (1995). Is a picture worth a thousand megabytes? Journal of Interactive Instruction Development, 7(4), 25-32.

9. Greenagel, F. L. (2003, September 15). Lead balloons, stone canoes, and learning styles. Learning Circuits. Retrieved July 17, 2004, from

10. Leeder, D., Davies, T., & Hall, A. Reusable learning objects for medical education: evolving a multiinstitutional collaboration, Retrieved January 23, 2005, from

11. Mayer, R. E. (1989). Systematic thinking fostered by illustrations in scientific text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 81, 240-246.

12. McGreal, R. (2004, September 4). Learning objects: A practical definition. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning (IJITDL), 9(1). Retrieved September 24, 2004, from

13. Nash, M. Overcoming "Not invented here" syndrome, Retrieved January 23, 2005, from

14. Stahl, S. (1999, Fall). Different strokes for different folks? A critique of learning styles [Electronic Version]. American Educator, 23(3). Retrieved July 17, 2004, from

15. Wilhelm, P., & Wilde, R. (2004, March). Developing a university course for on-line delivery based on learning objects: From ideals to compromises, Retrieved January 23, 2005, from


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