Theoretical Case: Designing & Developing a Typical Course for Online Delivery


Suppose that you wish to put an advanced mathematics class online. Let’s stay out of the very common ones such as first-year Math, or any of the sciences. They have issues that will be dealt with later on. Let’s suppose that your faculty has developed a course in solving ordinary differential equations (ODIs for short). This is a course that needs to be taken by math, physics and chemistry majors as well as by engineers, generally in the second or third year of the program. The course is somewhat universal but not really, is somewhat popular, but not really. This means it is in most regards a typical course; a good case-study.

The course design is straightforward. Students will be presented with 12 methods by which to solve differential equations. The 12 methods will comprise 12 lessons. Each lesson will consist of these components:

  • Presentation of the theory behind the method.
  • Three worked examples, in increasing order of complexity.
  • Exercises for the student, which shall be submitted for grading.
  • Three exams.

The student will receive a grade out if a possible 100 points. Each of the three quizzes shall be graded out of 30 points and each lesson assignment shall be graded out of 10 points. The final grade will be the sum of: the average of the lesson assignments plus the total from the three quizzes.

Let’s assume that the course has been run in a face-to-face mode for many years but is now to be run as an online course. A previous attempt which consisted of class notes posted online and an evaluation based on two 50 point exams which were taken at several regional centres, did not work out. The students did not access the class notes frequently and said that it was next to impossible to get answers through the course email system. They also noted that it was extremely inconvenient driving to the regional centres to write the exam.

Let’s redesign it. We don’t have to redesign the curriculum. The twelve methods for solving ODIs remains the basis of the course.


Start with the evaluation methodology since this will have an impact on how the rest of the course is delivered. We know how important it is for the students to complete work assignments so we have allocated some grade points to them. It must also be convenient for students to get feedback on them. For simplicity’s sake then we will construct, for each lesson, a five-question assignment. To ensure that each student does not get exactly the same assignment, for each of the five questions we will put in 3 versions. For each student, then, question 1 will be randomly chosen from the 3 available, question 2 will be randomly chosen from the 3 available and so on. These will be presented as a series of multiple choice and with 10 possible answers. The students will get three attempts at each question. After either the successful entry or after the third unsuccessful attempt the solution will be displayed. This continues until all five questions are done. In this way, the student gets a reasonable chance at getting t the answer themselves but, if necessary, they will get the full response.

Of course any student could just “game” this and ask others for help. This may happen but, in the end, it is the student who will lose out since the development of facility with the solution methods is contingent on trying the practice exercises. To keep possible cheating from heavily skewing the grades, overall, we are limiting the weight to ten percent of the total—enough so that people should take it seriously but not enough to render the scheme invalid should cheating occur.

A different tack will be taken for the exams. These will no longer need to be taken at a regional centre because we will purchase into one of several available online exam proctoring services. To take the exam the student logs in from their local PC and its webcam is turned on to pan the room and ensure that only the student is taking the exam. The screen is then “locked down” to only display the exam and the student takes the exam, in view of the camera using pencil and paper. When finished the student scans the exam using an ordinary scanner, as a PDF file. This file is then placed in the exam drop box that is also on the locked-down screen. With this done the screen is released.

The instructor will then either print off the exam as normal or open it onscreen using Adobe Acrobat and mark it onscreen using a Wacom pen. The marked up exam is then (rescanned if marked old-school and) placed back in the exam drop box.

Content Design and Preparation

Recall that a previous effort based on placing class notes online had not worked out. This is to be expected for several reasons:

  • Instructors’ own class notes tend to be somewhat cryptic. They are the distilled version of the instruction, generally minus the many prompts and explanations that are given live. The instructor has crafted these to be part of the delivery system, not all of it.
  • Notes are often idiosyncratic, based on one particular view and often with unspoken assumptions that are not at all evident to the outside reader.
  • At best, mathematics is hard work to read so most students tend to procrastinate and not read texts or notes unless forced to.
  • Instruction goes better when students are challenged; encouraged to predict what should happen next. This is most of what makes live classes so effective when done well. You cannot do this effectively through notes.

We could videotape the instructor. In fact this is routinely done in university campuses everywhere through “lecture capture” technology. Let’s be frank, though: it amounts to boring, badly produced TV. Instructors are not paid performers and, as such, make frequent missteps, often have distracting habits (such as excessive pacing about, saying “ah” often and such). While this is perfectly acceptable in a live classroom, for recorded media it falls far short.

You could, of course, train an actor to deliver the course but, practically speaking, given the nature of the subject, the budget is just not there.

We shall do a cost effective compromise. We will begin with the course notes. Since the course has been offered for many years live we know we have access to a perfectly valid set. They are hand-written so we will enlist a senior math student, nominated by the math department, to redo them as PowerPoint slides. An Instructional designer (ID) will work with the draft slides to clean them up somewhat. In particular an effort will be made to make them far less busy and only display onscreen what is necessary.

A live class, based on the notes, is then videotaped. The same math student then transcribes the class lecture and the ID goes through the transcript to clean it up. Only that which is necessary remains. We are then left with a script that matches the PowerPoints, slide by slide.

The course instructor is then enlisted to read the script in a sound booth. This leaves us with a clean vocal track for each slide.

The PowerPoint slides are loaded into Adobe Captivate. The audio track for each slide is then layered in. The result is then produced as HTML5 and SWF which can be viewed on a desktop, notebook or mobile device.

For each lesson, then 5 multimedia files are produced.

  • A audiovisual presentation of theory that ends with three multiple choice questions for understanding.
  • Two audiovisual presentations. One for each of the first two worked examples.
  • Two interactive audiovisual presentations. These will be like the first two but at each step the student will be asked what should happen next and will need to choose correctly before proceeding.

Course Delivery

All of this is loaded into an LMS such as Desire2Learn. Students can log in at any time. The LMS will track and document their progress. In theory the course can be run on an as-needed basis but we will offer ours on a schedule. Why? So we can assign an instructor who can maintain the course pace, offer extra insight and respond to student questions.

So what does this mean for the instructor? Does it mean that we can build a system in which instructors are no longer necessary?

Let’s get real, shall we…

First let’s not forget for a second that learning is as much a social activity as it is an intellectual one. Most (yes, not all but still most) students want to feel as if they are a part of something; that their actions are noticed, even rewarded. If we leave the class instructorless it will not work; it’s like leaving a ship “captainless.” Sure it will float but it will get nowhere. In time, some students may finish but most will not, eventually choosing to just bail out.

The course will have an instructor. The duties we be these:

  • Respond promptly to student questions.
  • Post periodically to ensure that the pace is maintained.
  • Provide feedback in the form of grades and comments.
  • Continue to improve on the course content: develop better examples, provide more examples for students who need them, or, do the existing examples several times, using different language; different prompts, convert some of the presentation examples to interactive ones, update the assessment sets. The list is endless.


There. One case sort of closed. Not perfect, but then again not meant to be. It was, rather, meant to be serviceable and affordable. As such this was by no means the only way in which it could have been done. Alternatives include:

  • Making parts of the assignment such that they were scanned and submitted like the tests.
  • Making parts of the test objective using multiple choice items if valid items were found to exist (frankly I can’t really see that being the case for this course).
  • Using produced video instead of the method described.
  • Writing simulations in which the students interactively solve the equations. Mind you, this would be a major project and a significant cost item but maybe a worthwhile one if the budget permitted.
  • Adding some “gamified” elements to reward success or the completion of extra exercises or to enable group completion of items.
  • Adding a live tutorial component using synchronous tools such as Blackboard Collaborate.

With the last bullet stated it should also me noted that there’s really nothing stopping the math department from making a complete switch from using the lecture hall to, instead, moving the instructor to a Blackboard collaborate environment. Instead of going to the lecture theatre, students and instructors would just log in to Blackboard Collaborate and the instructor would do what (s)he has always done, as would the students.

All of this kind of makes you wonder why this is not already the case, doesn’t it? Let’s address that. Here are a few reasons:

  • Existing methods work very well and faculties do not have the resources to make wholesale shifts in short periods of time.
  • Not all faculty and students wish to do this. Not only is “Live” instruction something many, many students and instructors thrive on but also, the converse is very true: for those same individuals the quiet confines of the office or home is anathema to effective learning.
  • Audiovisual presentations can place a distance between the student and instructor, making both reluctant to interact with one another, even when absolutely necessary.

That said, think of the advantages: Students get more freedom regarding when they take classes. They also get to redo the examples when necessary. Finally, instructional quality is assured through a deliberate process. Instructors are also freed from the “routine” instruction tasks and are freer to deal with individual issues and, maybe, even have a bit more time for research.


9 thoughts on “Theoretical Case: Designing & Developing a Typical Course for Online Delivery

    1. I picked that course in particular because it seems more or less typical and as such would have some overlap to other areas. The ones thing about the model used here, though, is that it is better-suited to situations in which the transmission of information is a significant activity. I am guessing that in your area of interest synthesis, ir at least re-processing of information is much more important so this model would only have “some” usage.
      Now, that said, I did make some mention of Blackboard Collaborate and I am reasonably sure that it might have good application to what you would like to do in class. Because the students participate in real time they can use these tools:
      – full two way audio an video.
      – shared whiteboard.
      – text chat closed to the class only.
      – shared applications (you can, say, share an instance of SPSS and examine real data)
      With those tools the whole class can do these:
      – react (whole class discussion) to issues presented by the moderator.
      – prepare (individually or collaboratively) live presentations which they deliver to their peers
      – participate in small – group discussions (BBC supports “breakout rooms” which are private sub-classes where they can gp but return at any time to the main group)

      1. Point well taken. So many merge knowledge-based instruction and skill-based instruction. Both meet in higher level thinking but the recursive nature of skill learning differs from the more linear progress of knowledge learning. Have passed on your entire article as a base for a new discussion in curriculum development. There always seems a rush to technology as a shiny bauble with often disregard for purpose and needs of audience. Assessment is its own Gordian knot.

  1. Bravo! Pretty intensive as far as IT resources and people. Even though anything I might offer would be in one of the disciplines you immediately discounted (!) I think what you’ve described here could go a long way to successful delivery of even the content I could offer. One of the biggest … perhaps THE biggest hangup with folks in my area … and that which keeps them from jumping on-board with any sort of distance education is …. you got it …. labs! What the heck can we do with labs? Do they represent the Achilles’ heel of distance education in my area? Many would say ‘yes.’ D

    1. Not discounted–“shelved for the next post” is the actual status. Here’s the thesis: most undergrad first year science and math courses are “semi-universal” that is they share around 70-80% of content. With that in mind there should be readily-available high-quality eLearning content. Furthermore, if publishers aren’t willing to take this on then maybe post-secondary institutions should consider organizing to do this cooperatively.
      Let’s do a quick exercise. The two links below connect to a short-form description of the two first-year Biology courses at Memorial University of Newfoundland Labrador. I bet there is a significant overlap with the ones you teach–and I haven’t even seen your course descriptions. Let me know if I’m correct.

    2. Now, the labs. No, not only is there no satisfactory home-based alternative for Biology and Chemistry labs but, furthermore, I believe that the university science lab experience is so fundamental that efforts should constantly be undertaken to enhance the experience not replace it with “alternatives” that do not reflect the true nature of scientific inquiry.
      I do believe that for many students the lecture experience can be replaced with the model presented in this post but it ends there. Not labs.
      Now, that said the big buzz word that’s been floating through campuses the past 5 years or so is “blended learning”–it’s the thing that happens when you take the best of both worlds (eLearning and face-to-face) and I am pretty certain that it applies very well to first year science, regardless of the discipline. Three items:
      ONE: Preserve the existing face to face classroom experience for students who do better with this approach.
      TWO: jointly (get a couple of institutions to help cost share this) develop the first year program more-or-less as described above but modify the evaluation scheme to match the requirements for the course.
      THREE: Re-work the lab component such that it fits better with the schedules of students who also take the course at home. Possibilities include: (1) a one-week block of full time attendance, near the middle of the semester in which you complete all lab activities for the semester (2) a weekly evening lab slot or (3) a weekend all-day slot in which you complete three activities at a time.
      As for home based activities or simulations I believe that there are a few lab activities that could be done well this way, but for the most part it would be a really bad idea, something that really takes away from what the students are supposed to be able to do. It’s sort of like “play time science.”

  2. Very interesting!! Of course I immediately start to think about how to hack the exam 🙂 Are online exams already done like this?

    What if the student places a cheat sheet next to the monitor – so that the camera does not “see” it? What if the student has to go to the rest room during the exam (as it would be allowed in a real-life exam I think) – but actually checks the cheat sheet?
    If every student has to be supervised using a camera – doesn’t that imply that more human resources are required to supervise all students during exams? Or – if all students take the exam at the same time – isn’t is easier to cheat (compared to real-life exams) because somebody needs to watch x monitors or x windows in parallel?

    1. You are right on all counts (unfortunately).
      Students who wish to game the system can do so fairly easily.
      The only real response is to have students take the exams in a traditionally proctored environment, all things considered. There are some work around that could be made to help out–and these things are already in place at a lot f institutions.
      – partner with some nearby institutions so that distance students can take the exam at a nearby one. There would need to be an up-front fee in the tuition, of course, to pay the proctor but that’s probably something the student would be willing to pay for.
      – transfer the exam to and from he centres and the institution using the dropbox in the LMS. The proctor logs in, gets the exam, prits it off and then scans the completed ones as PDF when completed. These are then uploaded back to the LMS dropbox when completed.
      – multiple choice exams can still be delivered online but also now in this proctored centre. A commercial product such as Respondus Lockdown Browser can be used. This integrates with the LMS and, when the student opens the exam link, it ONLY opens in the secure browser which only displays the exam and locks everything else out until the exam is submitted. The face to face proctor would have to check for cellphones and such of course.

  3. My thoughts are with above, some people will find a way…..always to cheat! BUT in the end like you say Maurice, the student will only be harming themselves. The world moves forward there will always be hiccups with new technology and cheats.

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