5 Course Outlines in Online Learning

Jia Li


Developing an effective course outline is critical to designing any course and for online courses in particular. The course outline helps teachers develop a structured curriculum including instructional strategies and material while guiding students’ expectations about learning outcomes and workload. A typical outline encompasses the following

  • the overarching targets of the course,
  • a timetable of lesson plans; objectives,
  • classroom and home learning activities, and
  • assignments that are in line with the expected learning outcomes.

There are myriad issues involved in course outline development. This chapter will focus on a few critical aspects of online course outlines leading to higher student engagement and learning outcomes.

The design of a course outline should enable teachers to teach and students to learn effectively by nurturing a community of inquiry (Garrison, 2011) and promoting deep learning (Fullan, 2013). Both goals require a social, cognitive, and teaching presence, high quality and meaningful collaboration, and communication so that students can learn subject content knowledge and skills in a holistic educational environment (Huang & Kinshuk, 2012). In addition, a good course outline can encourage a strong sense of citizenship and character, stimulate creativity and promote critical thinking skills (Garrison, 2011; Fullan, 2013).

Designing a course outline may be easier for in-person learning, given the setting’s advantages in building an interactive and constructive learning environment with a teacher’s personal touch and attention to individual students. While I am optimistic that future technology, such as Augmented and Virtual Reality, may project life-sized students and teachers in 3D, enabling us to teach and learn as we would in a physical classroom. The limitations of current online instructional platforms cannot support some pedagogical strategies implemented in the physical classroom. In other words, many effective strategies in face-to-face instruction are not transferable to online settings. Therefore, we need to develop innovative pedagogical approaches when designing online courses to bridge these gaps.

I have been teaching online courses with synchronous and asynchronous platforms in Zoom, Adobe Connect, Knowledge Forum, Blackboard and Canvas for 12 years. This chapter pinpoints a few key issues in online course design for graduate and undergraduate students. Many of the basic principles could also apply to secondary school classrooms. The following section explains several principles underlying my design philosophy and my rationale based on evidence-based teaching and learning theories.

General Guidelines

Instructors have often heard student feedback about online course(s), such as:

  • there was not enough involvement,
  • my teacher was not quite there — I was mostly left on my own,
  • I could not present myself well online, and
  • I cannot learn much from my peers in online classes.

These diverse comments illustrate the significant challenges in developing online courses: creating a good social presence, focusing on cognitive engagement, and providing students with a rewarding, seamless learning experience. Based on three teaching and theoretical learning models, I will describe my approaches to address these challenges.

  • Social presence and community. To engage students effectively throughout the term based on authentic learning (Lombardi, 2007), design your online course to bring a strong social presence to the learning community (Garrison, 2016). This approach can include the following elements:
    • Engaging students’ lived experiences to stimulate their intrinsic learning motivation (Fitzsimmons & Lanphar, 2011).
    • Focusing on real-world problems to enable student-centred learning, inspiring open-ended inquiries by examining and referencing multiple resources, and developing critical thinking skills (Callison & Lamb, 2004).
    • Developing authentic group learning activities to provide students with collaborative opportunities to gain a constructive learning experience (Herrington et al., 2003, Rule, 2006).
  • Cognitive presence. To direct students’ attention to learning-centred activities with sustained, meaningful engagement—cognitive presence (Garrison, 2016) — a few strategies can help to enhance deep learning (Fullan, 2013):
    • A well-structured course syllabus includes lesson units that outline their objectives and explicit expectations for each learning activity and assignment.
    • A learning infrastructure is created through instructor and faculty guest lectures, plus presentations by student groups and individuals. In this way, students are exposed to diverse perspectives and the academic skills necessary to analyze, interpret, and organize content. This infrastructure enables them to reflect on their understanding, convey their ideas, and develop relevant skills.
    • A community of inquiry is built through teacher modelling of constructive feedback and opportunities for student collaboration in learning tasks and completing assignments.
  • Engagement. To sustain high-quality student engagement, design learning activities and assignments to balance challenges with the cognitive load of the tasks and students’ background knowledge, skills and prior experiences, also known as schemata (Samuels, 2013). When designing your outline, minimize intrinsic and extraneous cognitive load and maximize germane cognitive load (Paas et al., 2003). Strategies to address cognitive load include:
    • Provide step-by-step instruction for incremental learning growth to decrease intrinsic cognitive load—the inherent difficulty of complex academic skills. For example, in an academic or professional online writing course, we may teach students paraphrasing skills using a reading-to-write procedure, providing effective writing techniques to avoid patchwriting (Li & Mak, 2022).
    • Multimedia learning materials are provided mainly for the introduction of content. Videos help students to develop initial interest in content, decreasing their intrinsic and extraneous cognitive load and enabling them to ease into complex learning materials and make connections with prior knowledge (Mayer & Moreno, 2003).
    • A disciplined approach to course content development is critical to avoid overburdening students and enhance their confidence in and appreciation of the online course while establishing a proper level of cognitive puzzlement to challenge students. The course outline should include a clear description of required readings and assignments that students can complete to satisfy the course requirement. The learning resources presented in the course outline, whether in text, audio, or video, should be well-organized by learning module or weekly theme, with explicit annotation. Therefore, while providing students with rich resources to learn, we also have to filter out irrelevant information and repetition (Levitin, 2014) to reduce students’ extraneous cognitive load.
    • Using case studies and integrating personal and professional experiences to make real-world connections are effective ways to help students develop an in-depth understanding of new knowledge through making connections with their schemata—germane cognitive load. This type of mental effort can help students achieve long-term retention of newly learned knowledge and skills (Paas et al., 2003).
    • Research has also reported that students’ long-term memory can benefit from the project- and problem-based inquires (Wilder, 2015) and experiential learning activities (Bohon et al., 2017). These activities, which provide students with opportunities to gather original data and information, exercise their judgement, and make choices, often make a more profound cognitive imprint, and develop high levels of cognitive skills, such as synthesizing and analyzing.


Activity 1: Virtual Fireside Chats


The course covers instruction in certain types of professional writing during the term, such as narrative, academic persuasive and expository writing, news stories, features, commentaries, business reports, technical reports, and content writing. To help students gain an in-depth understanding of the characteristics, conventions, and readership awareness of different types of professional writing, I invite writers who are experienced in various fields to develop case studies using multimodal content relevant to students’ lived experiences. This approach includes a series of one-hour virtual fireside chats with each writer, hosted by two student volunteers interested in the writer’s field. A week before a conversation, an introduction to the specific type of professional writing is provided to students, who are required to examine the corresponding case study and a couple of sample works by the writer.

  • These video-recorded fireside chats take place via teleconferencing using Adobe Connect or Zoom.
  • Students host the interviews with questions proposed by the class and the writers.


Below, I provide a sample of a virtual fireside chat for the lesson unit on journalism writing to describe this activity in detail. After reviewing the case studies), many students expressed an interest in journalism writing,

The virtual chat started with the guest’s introduction, including reviewing their career and involvement in other forms of writing (literary translation and history), followed by an extensive Q and A and an open conversation with the whole class. Some sample questions included:

  1. What is journalism; what are the main characteristics of a journalistic writing style?
  2. How did the journalistic style evolve?
  3. Why is it beneficial to learn how to write this way?
  4. How did you get involved in journalism?
  5. Can you give us some examples of the role journalism plays in society?
  6. How has the IT revolution affected journalism, and what are the implications for the future?
  7. Do you have any final words of advice?

Fireside chats created an excellent learning experience, and the class embraced the activity. Conversation with an experienced journalist, which included understanding his journey in becoming a professional journalist, brought a more robust social, cognitive, and teaching presence to the class (Garrison, 2011). Students were provided with an intimate venue to learn about the critical aspects of different types of journalism writing (i.e., news, feature, and commentary). Student feedback on this activity was highly positive; they reported that gaining practical knowledge about journalism writing conventions from an experienced journalist in a relaxing, communicative environment was very helpful (Mayer & Moreno, 2003). The interactions occurred during the chat among the guest, students, instructor and teaching assistants via video conferencing and texting messages. The discussions involved their shared lived experience in real-world issues (Callison & Lamb, 2004; Fitzsimmons & Lanphar, 2011), for example, the impact of the Covid pandemic on higher education.

In addition, the fireside conversation between an experienced writer and students can benefit students’ significantly in the following aspects:

  • This chat created many powerful, deep learning moments that promoted citizenship, character, and critical thinking (Fullan, 2013). It nurtured students’ interest, passion, and understanding about journalism through Edwards’ recounting of interesting vignettes during his career as a professional journalist. Students gained an understanding that a true journalist assumes a strong sense of social responsibility to the community, which requires strength and perseverance in often challenging circumstances to seek truth and reflect critically on current affairs.
  • This activity facilitated collective inquiry by the class (Garrison, 2011). The interactions delivered a strong social and cognitive presence to the valuable, enjoyable teaching space through video conferencing and text messages between Edwards and the class and peers. Students gained a better understanding of the conventions of journalism writing, including readership awareness and editors’ expectations, which are difficult to grasp for university students who do not have experience as journalist interns.
  • The discussions about why what, and how we write dissected the complex writing process and related complex and abstract concepts (Paas et al., 2003). Many aspects of the chat, similar to the thinking-aloud techniques used in writing research to contextualize writing goals and analyze writing strategies, had the potential to enhance students’ writing skills.

Possible Challenges

Particular challenges might arise when completing this kind of activity, but can be overcome with proper preparation and instructional strategies as described below:

Challenge 1: Students may not complete the required learning materials before the chat. Instructional strategies include:

  • The teacher can start a thread of asynchronous discussion as a small assignment and ask students to post their questions to the guest writer, focusing on his works and specific questions on the topic.
  • A week before the chat, the teacher can organize small group discussions in class that focus on the professional writer’s work and specific genres.

Challenge 2: Students may hesitate to ask the writer critical questions or follow up with further questions that lead to deep learning. Instructional strategies include:

  • Before the chat, teachers can encourage their students to ask questions and assure them that any question is good.
  • Teachers can model how to ask sincere and critical questions and craft an open question to lead to a productive conversation.
  • Teachers can help the students who will host the chat to organize the questions they collect from the class and coach them with creative interview techniques to build a cordial and collaborative learning environment during the fireside chat.


We used open multimedia resources and three video clips to develop case studies to teach students journalism writing in three genres (news, feature, and commentary):

Activity 2: Descriptive Activity


While most students appear to be competent in creative/narrative writing—the genre most innate to our communication nature—many struggle with the academic writing required for university and college assignments. Research has shown writing skills between these two types of writing are transferable. Thus, the first-course assignment asked students to write a narrative story on a topic of their choice, either fiction or non-fiction, based on their personal experience or imagination. The students well-received this activity. It boosted much-needed confidence in their writing and helped them identify the strengths and weaknesses in their general writing ability.


This activity (assignment) required each student to write an 800–1000-word narrative essay that told a story and made a point that would impact an audience. Students could write a personal narrative story based on their own experience, other people’s experience, observation of others, or a fictional narrative story based on their imagination. Before the assignment, I introduced students to well-known Canadian writers and short fiction and non-fiction narrative writing samples. These included annotated stories, such as “The Diamond Necklace.” The instructions for writing both fictional and non-fictional narrative stories were posted on Canvas, in addition to narrative stories written by the instructor and teaching assistant: “Grandmother,” “Poor John,” and “The Night of the Eagle.” In a class meeting, I provided students with detailed instructions about the content and structure of a narrative story and important writing tips. This approach of contextualizing instruction by using creative narrative writing was effective in engaging students in learning writing skills in the following ways:

  • First, having students write a narrative story and comparing its differences from academic (expository or persuasive) writing served as a springboard for them to perceive the writing course in a different light—interesting and fun. The process enhanced students’ motivation to learn writing and confidence in mastering academic writing skills (Fitzsimmons & Lanphar, 2011).

The students reported that they enjoyed the course and considered it a great learning experience. Students’ feedback reflected the enjoyment in an anonymous survey collected by the university at the end of the term: “This is a great course… I find this course also helps me improve my writing for other courses.” “The course itself gave me the opportunity to be a strong writer, which I haven’t realized.”

  • Second, students learned about their writing strengths. They could connect what they knew better—narrative writing—and what they needed to learn—academic writing. They were able to distinguish the characteristics of academic writing from a comparative perspective (Paas et al., 2003). One student said, “I can actually enjoy writing, even writing for schoolwork, after your feedback pointing out the connections between my story and the papers other profs assigned.”
  • Third, through this assignment, the instructor and teaching assistant got to know students individually, which helped to customize instruction to be relevant to each student.
  • Finally, students demonstrated a more substantial commitment to learning and writing practice during the term. They improved more than previous student cohorts who did not have access to this assignment and its related learning activities.

Possible Challenges

Challenge 1: Students have difficulties differentiating fiction and non-fiction narrative works. Instructional strategies:

  • I provided instruction in class and analyzed writing samples of fiction and non-fiction narrative stories. The characteristics of both types of narrative writing were also posted in Canvas.
  • Some samples of fiction and non-fiction narrative stories were also annotated and posted in Canvas.

Challenge 2: Some students tended to write narratives in a book-keeping manner and failed to convey a message or create a powerful emotional effect. Instructional strategies:

  • Before the assignment, student group discussions can be organized to respond to these questions: How do you feel after reading the story, for example, “The Diamond Necklace”? Why do you feel this way? What is the meaning behind the story, or what does the author want to tell us? How does the author achieve this effect and deliver his message? These discussions, along with the instructor’s feedback, can be effective in helping students explore deeper and focus on exciting and meaningful ideas. They can hone the relevant writing skills from the sample writings.
  • During a narrative writing workshop, the instructor can discuss the assignment with individual students and brainstorm ideas that help them describe interesting characters, incidents, and settings within tense plots. These qualities work together to create a powerful emotional impact and convey a solid message to readers.


General Resources


Andresen, L., Boud, D., & Cohen, R. (2000). Experience-based learning. In G. Foley (Ed.), Understanding adult education and training (2nd ed.). Allen & Unwin.

Bohon, L.L., McKelvey, S., Rhodes, J. A., & Robnolt, V. J. (2017). Training for content teachers of English language learners: Using experiential learning to improve instruction. Teacher Development, 21(5), 609‐634. https://doi.org/10.1080/13664530.2016.1277256

Callison, D., & Lamb, A. (2004). Key words in instruction: Authentic learning. School Library Media Activities Monthly, 21(4), 34-39.

Fitzsimmons, P., & Lanphar, E. (2011). ‘When there’s love inside there’s a reason why’: Emotion as the core of authentic learning in one middle school classroom. Literacy Learning: The Middle Years, 19(2), 35-40. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A259959925/AONE?u=avondalecoll&sid=bookmark-AONE&xid=a9eed064

Fullan, M., & Langworthy, M. (2013). Towards a new end: New pedagogies for deep learning. Collaborative Impact.

Garrison, D. R. (2016). E-learning in the 21st century: A community of inquiry framework for research and practice (3rd ed.). Taylor & Francis.

Herrington, J., Oliver, R., & Reeves, T .C. (2003). Patterns of engagement in authentic online learning environments. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 19(1) 59-71. https://doi.org/10.14742/ajet.1701

Huang, R., & Kinshuk, J. M. S. (Eds.). (2012). Reshaping learning: Frontiers of learning technology in a global context. Springer.

Levitin, D. J. (2014). The organized mind: Thinking straight in the age of information overload. Penguin Canada Books Inc.

Li, J., & Mak, L. (2022). The effects of using an online collaboration tool on college students’ learning of academic writing skills. System, Article 102712. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.system.2021.102712

Li, J., Mak, L., Hunter, W., & Cunningham, T. (2022). Structured instructional design for integrated language skill development: College students’ perspectives on collaborative reading-to-write activities on a cloud-based platform. Preprint.

Lombardi, M.M. (2007, January 1). Authentic learning for the 21st Century: An overview. EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative. https://library.educause.edu/-/media/files/library/2007/1/eli3009-pdf.pdf

Mayer, R., & Moreno, R. (2003). Nine ways to reduce cognitive load in multimedia learning. Educational Psychologist, 38(1), 43-52. https://doi.org/10.1207/S15326985EP3801_6

Paas, F., Renkl, A., & Sweller, J. (2003). Cognitive load theory and instructional design: Recent developments. Educational Psychologist, 38(1), 1-4. https://doi.org/10.1207/S15326985EP3801_1

Rule, A. C. (2006). The components of authentic learning. Journal of Authentic Learning, 3(1), 1-10. http://hdl.handle.net/1951/35263

Samuels, S. J. (2013). Toward a theory of automatic information processing in reading. In D. E. Alvermann, N. J. Unrau, & R. B. Ruddell (Eds.), Theoretical models of reading (pp. 698-718). International Reading Association.

Wilder, S. (2015). Impact of problem-based learning on academic achievement in high school: A systematic review. Educational Review, 67(4), 414-435. https://doi.org/10.1080/00131911.2014.974511

About the author

Dr. Jia Li is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Education, Ontario Technology University. She was a Canada-U.S. Fulbright Scholar at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a John A. Sproul Research Fellow at the University of California Berkeley. Dr. Li’s work focuses on data-driven innovative language and literacy interventions using new technologies for linguistically diverse students, i.e., urban students from low-income families, English learners and Indigenous adolescents and youth. 

She has developed and taught undergraduate and graduate courses using synchronous and asynchronous online platforms such as Zoom, Adobe Connect, Canvas, and Blackboard. These courses include Culture and Digital Technologies, Fundamentals of Professional Writing, Emerging Technologies for Literacy Development across the Curriculum: Research-Based Practice, Aspects of Second Language and Culture: Language Teaching Methods, and ESL Materials, Educational Technology & Communication, Technology Diffusion in Education, Analysis and Design of Web-Based Learning Tools, Research Methods in Education, and Advanced Research Methods and Design.


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