Designing Modules


For many online instructors, the primary mode of course delivery is through modules, which approximate the organizing principle (a kind of weekly routine) that face-to-face sessions in a live class would otherwise have provided. While the syllabus often houses a class schedule, this schedule usually only lists the student work in broad strokes, such as chapter numbers or sections. A common practice is to develop modules that are spread out throughout the semester (perhaps one per week in the term), and provide specifics about reading assignments, context, learning activities, tasks, discussion board posting requirements, and so on in those individual modules. The syllabus/schedule can then point to the relevant module(s) in a given week (see a sample schedule).

Providing Context

Many modules are presented with subsections such as Reading Assignment, Learning Tasks, Quiz Directions, and so on. The module represents the instructor's best hope of guiding the students' eyes as they read. In a face-to-face class, students are given reading assignments that provide the basic knowledge, and then lecturers flesh out the material. Since there are not face-to-face meetings in an online class, the module provides the only means of setting the context for the students as they engage the material in their textbooks or other primary sources. Some instructors highlight what is most important in the reading. Since you cannot write down ideas on the board or repeat them as you might in a lecture, the better to lay emphasis, you must find a different way to express the primacy of some information in the online format.

Replacing Lecture: Narrated PowerPoint Downloads

In one sense, the online module is similar to a replacement lecture. Some instructors opt to literally provide a lecture through electronic means. At its simplest, this could take the form of creating a PowerPoint slideshow and allowing students to download the .ppt file. A more time-intensive method, but one with perhaps a greater chance of achieving the desired outcomes for student learning, would be to record an audio file of your lecture concurrent with presenting the slides.

The PowerPoint software itself includes built-in functionality to record your audio commentary. In this fashion, instructors can literally deliver their entire lecture electronically, which can be especially useful in an online course. The resulting file is still a standard PowerPoint file, but when the slideshow is "played," the recorded instructor's voice narrates the action, and the slides advance on their own, turning whenever they had been moved by the lecturer during the recording. Click here to see a sample.

It is also possible to use AuthorPoint Lite, a free software download, to take the narrated PowerPoint presentation and transform it all into a Flash video movie, which plays in any Web browser. Here is a sample. To create such a video, you must first record a narrated presentation, and then use AuthorPoint Lite to convert the file. Our tutorial explains the process.

Context Without Audio

If you opt not to capture a live performance of a lecture, you may wish to explore other avenues for helping students make connections in the reading. One of the most important (but least-heralded) aspects of live lectures is that lecturers construct arguments and methods as they speak, since they are literally verbalizing, and the immediacy of the experience lends itself to making bridges and connections that might otherwise not be realized. An online course constructed without "real time" explanations and argument-making may suffer from a general sense of disjointedness. Reading the textbook alone may not replace lecture, and so context provided in modules becomes even more critical to student comprehension of the material.

Varied Activities

Many modules include directions for students to perform tasks, both as a means of practicing the learning and to assess student comprehension. The nature of these tasks often appeals to diverse learning styles; those who relish interpersonal communication enjoy discussion boards, group projects, wikis, and blogs, while those who learn better independently are attracted to individual reports, online research, and individual homework. Since online courses do not have have a face-to-face component, and students therefore cannot practice the learning with each other in a live setting, the online curriculum should adjust to meet the needs of diverse learners in other ways. Well-constructed modules attempt to bridge the divide by promoting multiple modalities and interactions when engaging the material.


  • Thomas Brueckner's general physics class (W-course) includes this sample module about water on Mars.
  • Patty Farless teaches history classes (both Enhanced and W-mode) and uses an innovative type of recursive group commentary to foster discussion.
  • The Faculty Center's graduate-level program in preparation for college teaching (M-course) includes this module on learning theories.

Further Reading

Getting Started

  • Knox, E.L.S. The Rewards of Teaching On-Line. American Historical Association Annual Conference
  • First person account of the perceived benefits of teaching history online.  Article focuses on experience teaching an introductory course to western civilization. 

Planning an Online Course

  • Teaching on the Net:  LERN
  • Learning Resources Network (LERN) is a nonprofit organization that offers consulting and training in online learning.  Teaching OntheNet is their online newsletter and courses for professional development in the area of online education.

  • Lessons Learned Teaching Online
  • George Siemens expert advice based on his experience teaching online.  This article provides lessons learned when preparing an online course.

  • University of Michigan CRLT – Teaching Strategies: Online Teaching
  • The page links many resources on the web for Online Course Design, Online Pedagogy, Examples, Assessment of Learning, and Mentoring among others.

Designing Modules

  • MERLOT:  Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching
  • The Online Resources area offers many examples and materials for building modules or as examples of quality modules.  Please note that learning modules are rated by peers for quality.

  • National Education Association’s Online Teaching and Learning Resources
  • Annotated bibliography of links for designing, managing and improving online education. Also provides examples in a variety of topics presented using online learning.

  • MIT OpenCourseWare a_module_approach.html

  • Cirillo, J. M. & Artiz, C. S. A Module Approach to Online Integrative Teaching and Learning, Mountain Rise
  • From Mountain Rise, an online journal dedicated to SoTL this paper discusses the strengths of a module approach to online learning.  The authors also provide step-by-step guidelines for using a module approach and the expected implications of application to online learning.

  • University of Colorado Denver-  CU Online:  Online courses and Degrees
  • Faculty Development – Tips for Online Teaching provides best practices and guidelines type document that addresses online teaching.

  • Teaching with Technology from Palomar College
  • The Teaching Online webpage, run by Haydn Davis, provides a checklist for exemplary online teaching based on several resources (which are also provided).

  • Higher Education Resources from Dr. Richard Felder at NCSU
  • Multiple links to resources targeting online learning in higher education.  These resources span the gamut from video clips of teaching experts on active learning to examples of syllabi in a variety of disciplines.

Continue to the next section: Deciding Which Course Tools to Use


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