Five Tips for Open Online Courses

Document created by Employee on Apr 8, 2015Last modified by on Apr 15, 2015
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Our team of instructional designers has reviewed hundreds of open online courses. In the process of doing so, we have discovered that there are basic best practices that, simply put, no course should be without.



Before you design your course, consider the following:

  • Who is my target audience? What kind of participation can I expect from them? If you are currently teaching traditional courses, you might ask how is a traditional student different from an open online learner.
  • What is my definition of success for this course? How will I measure it? How will students measure or assess their own learning?

Think about how the answers to these questions might influence your course design.


Front Page / Home Page

Create a homepage with a short course description, clear instructions on where to begin and what to do next, along with links to content within the course. Learners generally want to jump to the core content as quickly and easily as possible, so try not to bury links to content beneath a lot of dense text.


General Course Information

Always include a page with general course information. Here are some items we ask all our instructors to include:

  • Brief outline of course objectives or outcomes
  • Describe course activities required for completing the course
  • Define time expectations for the participant (i.e. 3 hours per module or 3 hours per week)
  • Note the cost (even if it is free!)
  • Explain what to do if they have a question.  Pro-tip: Set up a "Help" or "Ask a Question" discussion thread and link to it!
  • Be clear about grading and feedback students might expect. Will the instructor be personally grading assignments? or posting in discussions? If so, what is the turnaround time?
  • Who else will be involved in the course? Explain their role and what to expect.
  • Link to the instructor's Canvas Network Profile, where there should be a bio and picture



Learners appreciate structure. One way to provide structure is to organize content with Canvas Modules.

  • Use a simple descriptive naming convention across modules, pages, and activities.
    • Not so good: W1
    • Better: Week 1   (But users still don't know what to expect.)
    • Best: Week 1: Living in the Mountains   (Here students know what the Module is about.)
  • Include an introductory page or module overview page at the beginning of each module. Include the learning objectives, a list of tasks and links to those activities and resources.



  • If using videos, include an introduction to the video. Explain what the video is about to add some context and entice people to view the video or listen to its contents. Essentially, tell learners what they will learn by watching the video. Also, tell them what to do after, such as "After the video you will have a chance to share your ideas about it in the class discussion." This is important for courses for older adults not accustomed to online learning and for an internationally diverse learner group.
  • Use quality Closed Captioning and/or subtitles. If the text does not match the audio include transcripts to the video or add captioning. Here are helpful Canvas Guides: How do I add captioning to new or uploaded videos in Canvas?  and How do I create a caption file for an external video?
  • Avoid raw URLS when linking to external videos. In other words, instead of displaying the link as, display a descriptive title like this: "Harlem Shake v1 (Canvas Edition) - YouTube".


A well designed course will minimize the amount of administrative tasks required so the instructor can focus on teaching and learning.

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