Don’t Panic! 3 Tips for Your First Online Course

Designing an online course can seem like a very daunting task.  But, if you break your task down into smaller bits that are more manageable, you will find it much easier. I find that using some basic Project Management strategies can really help you get through the process.  In online courses there is more front-end work and planning compared to a traditional face-to-face course. The plan you create should have three major components; define your project, break it down, and estimate your time. Applying this process will simplify your task, and help you produce a well-constructed “back bone” for your course.

The 8 1/2 minute video below provides you with a visual tour of the three steps summarized in this post.

Step 1: Define Your Project

On paper or a spreadsheet, start by defining your project.  Consider these questions:

  • What are the dates for your course?
  • What resources are you using (textbooks, test banks, etc.)?
  • Are there any major holidays or breaks to account for?

I like to start this process by making a spreadsheet divided into weeks with the start and end dates clearly defining each “bucket” or module. Within those modules I first determine if there are any special events that I need to be aware of. For example, Thanksgiving week is always a week where many people travel, so I try to assign very little work that week and plan around it. I also label finals week to ensure I am not assigning work that week. This will depend on your campus standard practice: if there isn’t work in a traditional face-to-face class that week on campus then I don’t want to include any in my online class either.

Next, I want to really think about what the  course outcomes are and how I plan to design a learning experience to ensure my students meet them. For most of us, we know what we are assessing and what we want to accomplish. Sometimes, additional thought and structuring must be put into assignments to ensure they are appropriate for the online environment. This can be the case for certain types of traditional assignments like term papers, presentations, or projects that need special instruction. If you need support, contact your campus distance education folks or explore the @ONE blog for ideas.

Step 2: Break It Down

After defining the project, it is important to break it down into manageable parts. Using Canvas for your online class, typically means breaking down the coursework into Modules.  I usually create a weekly format that goes from Monday to Sunday.  I divide the book chapters to fit within the weeks allotted with one extra “Start Here” module. Remember to check in with your distance education folks as they may have a boiler plate template that you can edit.

Step 3: Estimate Your Time (x2)

Once I have all the above information I move on to my last step, which is budgeting my time to get the project completed. This will largely depend on your familiarity with Canvas, instructional resources available to you, and the technical requirements for your course. Try to double all estimates for your time until you have a better feel for the actual work. Some aspects of any project will take more time and some will take less. I encourage you to spend time searching for and getting to know the distance education resources available at your college, and others like @ONE and the OEI.

All in all, creating an online course will help you examine your role as an educator and reflect on how to take your students through a journey of learning. That process can be daunting and can seem like a large mountain to climb. But, if you pre-plan and think about it with some basic project management tools, it will make the end result better and will allow you to work through the project one piece at a time instead of trying to build a proverbial house without plans.

Posted in Articles, Course Design Showcase, Rubric Section A, Uncategorized.

I received my Master of Science in Applied Economics and Finance from the University of California, Santa Cruz. I received my BA, with Honors, in Economics from UCSC and my AA from Santa Monica College. I have been teaching traditional classes, and online classes, since 2008. I have taught classes at MJC, Cabrillo, MPC, Gavilan, Saddleback, Santa Rosa JC, College of the Sequoias, and Humphrey's University. I have attended classes at Goldenwest College, San Diego Mesa, San Diego City, Santa Monica College, and Cuesta.


  1. “The plan you create should have three major components; define your project, break it down, and estimate your time.” While i am not taking online courses, this simple process of defining a project, breaking it down, and then estimating your time is a principle that can be passed onto other areas of life. Its a simple process if applied and then followed through with.
    “Thanksgiving week is always a week where many people travel” This is also true. My family would spend 5 hours traveling every Thanksgiving weekend.Carrboro NC And then not only the travel time but also the time spent with family so wasnt much time to do anything else.
    These holidays throughout the year are days that definnately need to be taken into consideration when taking online classes. My kids will be in college in a year or two and will be needing to use this process for sure. Thankyou Don for this post!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.