Tips and Tricks for Online Courses: A Q&A with Instructional Designers

In the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota, we have a group called the Office of e-Learning Services (ELS) that works closely with instructors who teach fully online. The model we use here is working collaboratively and often with instructional designers in ELS to design our online courses. We (the instructors) are the content experts and they are the technology and learning management system (LMS) experts. They provide instructional support (e.g., activities, assessments), lecture development (e.g., production), and LMS course site development (to name a few; for more info, see this page). I value their insights in online learning and invited them to share their insights on StatTLC. In this post, you will meet two of the members from ELS: Katy Korchik and Kris Woll.

This post is in a question and answer format. Enjoy!

Contributor Kris Woll is the Assistant Director of the Office of e-Learning Services in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota. She assists with project management, offers instructional design coaching, and serves on the SPH Student Advisory Board for Online Learning.

Contributor author Katy Korchik is an Instructional Designer for the Office of e-Learning Services in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota. She works with SPH faculty to translate complex instructional ideas into practical, well-designed educational experiences.

Katy and Kris have each worked in higher education programs and partnerships, advising, and instructional design for two decades. They bring varied experiences to this work and are able to help people think through complex projects. Kris’s family adopted a dog during the pandemic and Katy got really good at making “kid-cuterie” snack boards as a stand-in for real lunches.

Questions and Answers

When designing a course in a LMS, what are the top 2 or 3 things that instructors should keep in mind?

Kris: One key recommendation is to be consistent. And two key ways to do that: 

  1. Be sure the content of the LMS is consistent with the content in the syllabus — titles of assignments, timing of readings, due dates. 
  2. Organize content in your course site in a consistent way. Organizing content by week is always a clear approach; if that won’t work for your course, you could organize by content type (readings, assignments, etc.), though if you follow this approach you will just want to make sure that timing and due dates are clear.
What tips do you have for getting students engaged in an online course?

Kris: There are lots of ways to do this, but one I like and that can fit in nearly every kind of course is to create opportunities for authentic discussion that allow students to draw on their prior knowledge and also to reflect on/make sense of assignments. It helps if these discussion posts are low stakes and can be in informal language (rather than formatted with citations, like a mini-paper). Open-ended questions with multiple solutions or possible answers, coupled with clearly articulated response expectations (for example, “respond by drawing a connection between one of your peers’ posts and your own”) work well. Also clearly indicate when initial posts and responses are due. Though online discussions have a different rhythm than in-person discussions, they can work well. They give students time to think about their response and to formally construct it, and give all students a chance to contribute to the conversation.

Other than recording videos, what kinds of content delivery methods do you think are most effective?

Kris: In addition to videos and voice-over slide recordings, you can consider “conversations” — recorded Zoom (or other) sessions that show you as the instructor in conversation with a subject matter expert / practitioner. These can be recorded in advance and the questions and dialogue can be designed around key course content; if there is time, you could even collect questions from students in advance. These personalize content delivery and bring in new perspectives. They do not need to be long. 

Of course there are readings — and there are new technologies that make collaborative annotation of readings a possibility, which could be useful for selecting materials.

I know you have done pilot testing with LMS systems on how students navigate the course site. What insights did you glean from this experience?

Katy: The biggest takeaway from this process is that you have to be humble and recognize that other people may approach an organizational system much differently than you. Students may even use the LMS differently than the software developers intended. So you have to stay curious and get feedback. Remember that you won’t get everything right for every student no matter what you do. But as mentioned earlier, offering consistency goes a long way.

What tips do you have on how an instructor can gauge the amount of content (e.g., too much, too little) provided to the students?

Katy: If you have time, you can ask someone to test out how long it takes to complete a sample activity and extrapolate from there. Most schools have baseline standards for how much work one credit hour should entail, but these are usually only general requirements in order to account for the wide variation in courses. 

If you really want to get a sense of this, you have to just directly ask students for feedback. This can be done informally during office hours or through anonymous mid-term surveys. If you choose to survey your students, it’s important to share the purpose of the survey, be concise, and respond to the results so that students can see that you are taking action on their ideas.

What should all instructors do before they launch/publish a course? 

Katy: Find out how to view your course as a student and walk through each element. Read each page. Click on every link. Look at every assignment setting and due date to make sure that everything works and is consistent across all materials. If you are able, ask another person to click through as well. If you have been working intensely on your course site, there will be blind spots for you. A fresh set of eyes can offer you a lot of valuable information. 

What are some common areas of improvement that instructors could make to their online courses?

Katy: First and foremost, go back to your course objectives and ask yourself if the content and activities that you have chosen speak to these. If they don’t really align, then that is the place that you need to focus your efforts first. 

Next is to check for basic accessibility and inclusion issues. Most of us are not trained to think about accessibility so this is an area where almost everyone can improve. 

Be selective about using new technologies. Avoid using anything that doesn’t add value to an activity or that you are not comfortable with. Sometimes there are really fun and interesting tech tools that you might be tempted to use, but they require a lot of time to explain and set up. If you only use the tech for one activity, that is a poor use of a student’s time. You want your students to be spending the majority of their time learning and using your course content, not a new technology.

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