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Online Course Components

Presenting Course Content   

When teaching online, it is important to “chunk” your course material into learning units or modules. Each learning unit will contain a combination of content, activities and assessments. The content in each learning unit may be presented in a variety of formats to engage students in learning. These may include video lectures, screencasts with PowerPoint presentations, audio recordings, documents and other formats.  

Consider the differences between having students actively engaged in your online course vs. passively interacting with your course content. Passive learning involves students reading and watching course materials. Active learning takes this a step further by having them do something with the information. Some examples of active online learning include having students participate in online discussions related to the content introduced, encourage problem solving activities and group projects. It will be difficult to gauge students’ understanding of the course readings and lectures without connecting them with activities designed to get them to engage more deeply and critically with course concepts. 

Consider using Open Educational Resources in your course. There are many high quality OER available in many disciplines. Using OER reduces the costs associated with textbooks, alleviating the financial burden on students. The library can provide you with guidance on resources available for your courses. 

Your course materials need to be accessible to all learners. Articles should be easily read by screen readers, audio and videos should include captions; images should also include alternative text-based descriptions.

Fostering an online learning community is a critical component of all online and hybrid courses. Researchers Garrison, Anderson, and Archer illustrate the essential elements to promote community and interaction in the Community of Inquiry theoretical framework. COI represents a process of creating a deep and meaningful (collaborative-constructivist) learning experience through three overlapping components: Cognitive Presence, Teaching Presence, and Social Presence. At the center of the three overlapping components is the learning or educational experience.    

  • Cognitive presence is the presence of cognitive thinking or critical thinking process. This can be brought into an online course by:
    • Presenting video or audio lecture content or other learning materials 
    • Using exercises and activities related to the course topics
    • Facilitating discussions on course concepts
    • Structuring group work and projects 
    • Having students do presentations
    • Assigning homework and digital annotation of course readings 
  • Teaching presence is the involvement of instructors, the presence of instructor, or teaching materials. This can be achieved by:
    • Welcoming students to the course
    • Providing feedback and reinforcement on course assignments and activities
    • Offering virtual office hours 
    • Sharing updates and reminders through messages and announcements
    • Engaging in discussions
    • Offering synchronous class sessions online
  • Social presence is basically the existence of a person or communication process. This can be achieved by:
    • Offering open ended discussions, Q & A forums, etc.
    • Having students engage in small group work
    • Having students do peer reviews
    • Having students work on collaborative projects: wikis, blogs, journals, discussions, social media, etc.
    • Using online communication tools such as chat or video conference sessions.

Additional Resources and References:



How do we engage students in online courses? It is recommended that you design activities which will actively engage students in problem-solving, critical thinking, reflection, discussion and collaboration in order to deepen learning. Dixson (2012) set out to research this and found that “student engagement is not about the type of activity/assignment but about multiple ways of creating meaningful communication between students and with their instructor – it’s all about connections.”  

Review the following resources on how to design activities that encourage active learning in online courses: 
●    Implementing Active Learning Activities: A Toolkit of Active Learning Options from Gardner-Webb University
●    Active vs. Passive Learning in Online Courses from the University of Florida 
●    Active Learning in an Online Course from Ohio State University

Source: Dixson, M. D. (2012). Creating effective student engagement in online courses: What do students find engaging? Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 10(2), 1-13. Retrieved from 

Online Discussions

Online discussions are one of the most common tools to promote discourse and engagement in online courses. By integrating discussions in your assessment strategy, you encourage participation and community building in the course. It’s important to provide detailed directions for initial posts and comments and participate, as an instructor. Multimedia, images, and audio can all be incorporated into online discussions to vary the mediums used and increase student engagement. In large classes, students can be split up into smaller groups for the purpose of discussions. For a learner centered approach to online discussion boards, this article "Should You Let Students Lead Discussion Boards?' by Dr. Joan Thormann, shares the value of student led discussions.

If you’re completely new to facilitating online discussions or want to know why your online discussions aren’t as lively, fruitful, and deep as my classroom discussions, Seattle U’s Center for Digital Learning & Innovation offers an Online Discussions Doctor guide. It addresses common issues that occur in online discussions forums, such as when student responses are “short and uninspired,” “based on opinion,” and not being completed on time. 

On Dr. Judith Boettcher's blog Designing for Learning, she refers to "Four Types of Discussion Forums in Online Courses" .  Discussion prompts should be approached in different ways depending on the learning objective you want to address each week.  "The first discussion type focues on INTRODUCTIONS and community-building among the students. The other three types of focus on the content and tasks often assoicated with student activites for each course module: the INITIAL engagement with the content followed by INVESTIGATION and exporation of the content and wrapping up the module with INTEGRATION and summary of the content."

The University of Central Florida’s Teaching Online Pedagogical Repository includes additional tips for creating engaging discussion prompts: 

  • Avoid yes/no questions and invoke more variety in responses.
  • Allow students to choose between two alternative topics. 
  • Draw on personal connections/experience. 
  • Use discussions for debate, role play, scenarios, feedback on work, etc.
  • Enable students to generate questions/topics. 

Motivation and Engagement
Motivating students is important whether you teach online, hybrid or in person. According to a recent article from Faculty Focus, titled "Nine Strategies to Spark Adult Students’ Intrinsic Motivation,instructors should consider the various factors that motivate their learners and incorporate them into their online courses.  Curtis Bonk and Elaine Khoo’s book focused on motivation in online and hybrid learning environments includes specific activities and instructional strategies to help motivate online learners. This free ebook includes hundreds of activities to motivate and engage online learners.  Adding Some TEC-VARIETY: 100+ Activities for Motivating and Retaining Learners Online



rubricAs with face-to-face teaching, assessments in online and hybrid courses play a core role in the learning process. When developing assessments for online courses, consider the following recommendations:

  • Student outcomes are clearly communicated through course goals and weekly learning objectives.
  • Assignments are well aligned to the intended learning objectives and relevant instructional materials.
  • A variety of assessment methods are utilized including a combination of formative and summative approaches.
  • Assessments are relevant and meaningful to students.
  • Criteria for judging successful performance is clearly communicated to students in advance and grading procedures are fair.
  • Assessments include grading rubrics to assess contributions to discussions, assignments, projects, and other types of course work. Rubrics clarify misunderstandings about assignments. 
  • Students receive meaningful feedback regarding strengths of performance and areas in need of improvement.

Grading and Feedback

Feedback is very important in online courses. Students want constructive, personalized feedback that includes suggestions for improvement, with explanations, is timely, and applicable beyond the course. Peer review and peer feedback in online discussions can be a powerful addition to increasing student feedback in online courses. 

A rubric is a grading tool that defines criteria for assessing a performance, product, process or skill. 

  • Clearly communicate expectations to students.
  • Provide detailed criteria for evaluation. 
  • Streamline the grading process and make grading fairer.

There are some online tools you may use to help create rubrics:

Example Rubrics:

Proctering Exams in Distance Learning

Understanding the increased role distance education will have within CUNY, please know that we will establish a system-wide task force including members from our Committee on Academic Technology, Council of Academic Affairs, University Faculty Senate, and Council of Chief Information Officers to review and provide forward-looking recommendations on this issue.
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Acadmic Intergrity

Whether teaching in person, or online, it is important to consider approaches to assessment that discourage academic dishonesty. The following are some additional tips to help deter cheating in your courses:

  • Remind students about the university’s academic policy.  Include a statement in your syllabus and let students know what your expectations are. Calling attention to plagiarism increases student awareness and may deter the behavior.(See “Rational Ignorance in Education: A Field Experiment in Student Plagiarism” by Thomas Dee and Brian Jacob). 
  • Implement testing practices that deter cheating:
    • Use Question Pools: Create multiple questions grouped in question pools so that each student receives a randomized set of questions. 
    • Randomize Questions and Answers.
    • Restrict Feedback: Sharing immediate feedback on correct/incorrect responses makes it easier for students to share with others right away.
    • Set Time Restrictions: Using a timer can help reduce the window of time students have to consult materials and other sources of information to help answer questions on the test. 
    • Display Questions One-at-a-time to prevent students from taking a screen capture or printing the full test. 
    • Use a Variety of Assessment Types: 
      • Use authentic and application based assessments such as projects, and presentations. 
      • Use frequent low stakes assessments rather than a few high stakes tests.
      • Incorporate group work into assignments. This can help students hold each other accountable for work done. 
    • Check for Plagiarism using SafeAssign.
    • Use Discussion Assignments and other personalized forms of student work. 

    Dr. Shi Jin, Professor of Chemistry, shared some valuable tips on how to prevent cheating in the Synchronous/Asynchronous workshop on April 28th, 2020:

    • Frequent, low-stake online quizzes, equipped with feedback
    • Always record on-line classes
    • Use screen-sharing function (instead of uploading/converting files) for better illustration, which is further enhanced by the use of a drawing tablet for annotation/drawing/writing
    • Harden online tests that students have little motivation to cheat 
    • Use question sets instead of questions in a test, so that each student will see a question randomly drawn from a set of questions targeting the same concept in a question set
    • Display one question at a time, randomize the order and prohibit back-tracking
    • Time a test so that students won’t have time to cheat
    • Make a test link only available for a short period of time (at most a few minutes).

    Additional resources: