Design & Planning

Are you new to UNCG? If so, please view this document, which is a quick overview of the basics you need to know to get started teaching a course at UNCG.

As online classes become more commonplace and accepted as a valid method for learning, it is important that educators take the time to consider the effectiveness of online course designs. With so many media and presentation options available, it can be easy to become mired in the technology and lose sight of the actual instruction. Remember to let the content and learning goals drive the selection of content and technology. Developing an online course can be a tremendously rewarding project, but it does take time and planning. This section of the website is designed to provide a framework for how to proceed through the various stages of online course design. As you will see, the preparation for developing an online course is just as significant a part of your strategy as the actual technical creation of the course—without proper preparation and planning, you could well end up with a technically sound course that flounders instructionally.

A good first step in planning for an effective online course is to identify the factors that affect online learning. One factor is the time & cost involved in developing online material. Consider the resources and support available to you through your university. For example, are there services available to help with multimedia? Also, make sure to allow enough time before the semester to create all of your content and assignments. Will it be a course you’ve taught before? If not, you may spend more time determining, writing, and collecting content than you would for a course that you have taught before.

Another factor is access. Students must have regular access to both a computer and the Internet, along with any specialized software needed for the course. You might have students in the military or who are living in other countries and do not have access to advanced technology. Keep in mind the digital divide: inequalities in access to digital materials “that arise from broader social inequalities based upon social class and income, occupation, gender, race and ethnicity, geographical location…. and nationality.” (Flew, p. 84). It is particularly important to keep this in mind if you work for a public institution where the mission is to provide equal access to education for all people, regardless of economic, social, and geographic considerations.

You must also consider any policy issues that may be in place at your academic institution, and any special procedures that may need to be followed in developing an online course. The main policies to consider at UNCG are the Quality Matters Checklist, accessibility compliance, FERPA, terms of service agreements, and copyright. There is a section in the main nav above that provides more information on these policies. The content on this website is presented in a way to help you address the Quality Matters checklist requirements from the planning stage onward. Finally, consider class structure. The online structure for a lower-level course with 100 students should look very different from an online graduate-level course with 12 students. Will your course be writing intensive, project-based, heavily weighted on discussions?

Time, Costs, technology, policies, and class structure affect course design

Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

different paths to reach the same destination

Universal Design for Learning is based on a set of principles developed by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) that provides assistance with curriculum development so that all students have equal opportunity to learn. UDL does address disability accommodation, but goes beyond that to ask how to provide better access and engagement for ALL students. UDL is based on the principle of learner variability- students learn in different ways, regardless of overall ability.

UDL is, essentially, about access and choice. Instructors provide “students choices in how to recognize, engage with, and report back the information they learned” (Tobin and Behling, p. 25). By providing choices, Universal Design for Learning can create in students a sense of control and ownership of their learning. Instructors ask students for evidence of their knowledge and then let them choose how to demonstrate it. Below are some simple ways you can incorporate the principles of UDL in your online courses:

  • Include some videos, images, and other media in your normal text content. (presentation)
  • Instead of assigning one article for all students to read, provide a short list of possible articles from which each student can choose one to read. (engagement)
  • Create a screencast overview of your course explaining the structure and expectations (presentation and engagement)
  • Consider assigning a project, allowing students the option to submit a presentation or video instead of a written paper (engagement and expression)
  • Incorporate optional review sessions and/or discussion boards for ungraded feedback from the students- students list one thing they learned, one thing they had trouble with, one thing that surprised them, etc (engagement and expression)

To better understand UDL, consider the benefits of adding captions to video files. Yes, this meets the important goal of making the video accessible to deaf students; however, consider that video captions also can help students who need to view the video in a public place, as well as students whose first language is not the language in the video (they can listen and view the captions together). This is an application of UDL- captions benefit multiple groups of learners. Another example would be providing ramps, elevators, and automatic doors in buildings. This makes the building accessible to those with mobility disabilities, but it also benefits people with strollers, rolling luggage, and students and instructors who might have their hands full with equipment.


The Backwards Design Model

Understanding by Design is a book written by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe that offers a framework for designing courses called “Backward Design.” Instructors typically approach course design in a “forward design” manner, meaning they consider the learning activities (how to teach the content), develop assessments around their learning activities, then attempt to draw connections to the learning goals of the course. In contrast, the backward design approach has instructors consider the learning goals of the course first. These learning goals embody the knowledge and skills instructors want their students to have learned when they leave the course. Once the learning goals have been established, the second stage involves consideration of assessment. The backward design framework suggests that instructors should consider these overarching learning goals and how students will be assessed prior to consideration of how to teach the content.” Source, and also for more information see Vanderbilt University’s Understanding By Design.

Flew, Terry (2002). New Media: An Introduction. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

CAST (2019) About Universal Design for Learning. Retrieved from

Tobin, Thomas J. and Behling, Kristen T. (2018). Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education. Morgantown, West Virginia: West Virginia University Press.