Make Course Design Simple

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Designing professional learning courses for adult learners? Then avoid the temptation to apply out-dated instructional design methods to new courses. In this session, I'll share with you how to design online, self-paced courses. You will also see how online course design gets planned and implemented via learning management systems.

You will walk away with the template for online courses, how to embed self-assessments. And, you can sign up for a free course if you want to.

What's YOUR Approach to Instructional Design?

Take a moment to reflect on what YOU do for instructional design, then vote in the poll shown to the left. Click the picture or the link below to...

Learn More:  First 4 Models | SOLO Taxonomy | Mike Bell's Five Steps

Want to join a group of Instructional Designers? Check out Instructional Designer, a private Facebook group. They have some great conversations. 

On The Course Development Trail

Wondering about digital tools to use? There are tons available. Here are a few of my no-cost favorites for video editing

My two go-to tools? OBS Studio (free) for screencasting and video recording (as well as streaming) and Shotcut for video and animated GIF editing/creation.

  1. Respecting Tradition

The push for remote teaching and learning has made us all a bit weary. It’s times like these where some cling to outdated approaches to course design, or cast caution to the winds. If you’re in the latter group, then you and I are are striding boldly into the unknown. 

Wagons, Ho!

Ever seen those old pioneer movies where you have a few oxen dragging an overburdened Conestoga wagon behind them? At some point, the lean and mean trail boss shows up. He says:

“Unload that wagon. Bring only what you need to survive. Drop the piano, that bookcase, that heavy desk your parents came from Europe with.” 

Then, he pauses for emphasis. “Do it, or die.”

Turn and Talk: 

Do You Agree, or Disagree? Why?

One Opinion: Too many of our online courses are heavy with unnecessary activities. Let’s dump the unnecessary. Today’s courses for adult learners need the same brevity. 

Spare learners the unnecessary content, checks for understanding, and vacuous exercises. Let’s avoid packing activities that become unwanted debris on the harsh trail.

2. Keep It Simple - The Guhlin Gambit

Every course I put together follows this outline. In a moment, you’ll see why keeping it short and sweet is so important. 

You can see a partial outline for one of my courses, Remote Learning Tools, via this document.

The welcome module (shown right) is kept simple on purpose. We'll explore each of the major components in a minute.

Module #0 – Introduction & Logistics

Capacity Matrix

Planning the course comes down to two key documents. Those include the capacity matrix and the course overview. The course overview is the first part of the course outline (see example).

The course overview is a list of module titles and their description. Do you know what predicts failure or success? A course developer’s inability to craft a capacity matrix and course overview. 

Here are two samples of capacity matrices:

Sometimes, a single point rubric works better than a capacity matrix. Either way, content focus is reflected in the capacity matrix or rubric. 

Each boasts at least five videos in the Explore component. 

The Screencasting for Educators course is one of the initial courses I put together. Put side-by-side with Remote Learning Tools, it is less-streamlined and more sprawled out. Comments continue to be positive for both.

Need low-cost captioning or transcription for your videos? There are several tools you can use, both at no cost or for free. For free tools, try Microsoft Flip (f.k.a. Flipgrid). You can upload < 5 minute video clips and it will caption them for you. 

Or, pay for (cost varies by video length) to caption your videos. Vimeo Business ($600 per year) offers captions for videos you host and stream on their service.

3. Course Outline

The topic outline shown is repeated for as many modules as a course is planned to be. 

Short courses, five modules in length, are perfect for professional learning. 

They offer depth and provide opportunities for digging deep. Take a look at the outline below, then we’ll discuss some key points.

As you can see, each module has only four components.

Module #1 – Topic

1.0 About Module #1

Module 1 Completion Quiz/Form

Storyboarding can be fun for planning out a course. I'd rather collaboratively outline short courses in a Google Doc, but using a storyboard may be your thing. Lots of tools you can adapt or use for that. 

Some use whiteboard apps like Mural, Miro, or concept mapping tools like, YeD Live, Cmap Cloud Tools, or SimpleMind. Another free open source tool, Twinery, works for branching. Read a tutorial. More tools for branching courses.

Reflect: How do you map or plan your online course? What tool do you use? How complex is it?

Listen: Find and listen to someone else share their reflection.

Share: After they are done, share your reflection with them.

Connect: What's one thing you learned, or one thing you both do in common?

4. Course Components

1.0 About the Module

In this brief component, participants are offered four to six sentences that summarize key concepts that will be addressed in the module. 

In longer about sections, relevant research or background information is included for review. 

The point of this brevity is to provide a springboard for learning for participants, engaging them with interesting tidbits.

1.1 Explore

The Explore component is where the heavy lifting happens. This component addresses a topic in three to five videos with minimal exposition about each. Each video ranges in length from six to eight minutes in length.

Since the focus is on engaging, short videos that offer bite-sized morsels of information, this length works well. The overwhelming majority of viewers has spoken. Their message about online course videos? 

Be brief, to the point, and don’t make me watch a long video. A series of shorter videos works great.

Screen Recorder?

One question that always arises is, “What video recording or screencasting tool should I use?” The answer is, “Whatever works best for you.” Some course developers have relied on Screencastify, paying for the license. Others use an up and coming favorite,

RecordCast is a free, browser-based video recording and editing tool that gives you up to 30 minutes of recording time. It’s video editor lets you add title and credit slides. You can also incorporate media (e.g. no attribution required sound from YouTube).

Sign up for the Screencasting for Education course. It covers various tools you can use and shows you how to use them.

1.2 Practice On Your Own

This component has evolved. It began as a real life problem, a way to give participants the opportunity to apply the knowledge. It transitioned from “Problem and Solution” to a self-governed activity for participants. 

The choice was entirely theirs if they wanted to share their reflections in a forum post or Flip video selfie. It includes a scenario or task for participants.

Participants soon told me they wanted the solution to the task. “Don’t expect us to know how to apply information, show us.” Now, this component includes a video response from the course developer.

1.3 Module Completion

In this final piece, participants indicate whether they reviewed the module’s content. The only answer allowed is, “Yes.” Honest answers of “No” really are within the conscience of the course participant. 

Who hasn’t sat in a professional development session, looking interested but not engaged or learning? The choice has always been up to the learner. Trying to force feed content into adult learners is foolhardy.

6. Course Development Process

A few rough steps


7. Give It A Try


8. Choosing a Learning Management System

Selecting a Learning Management System (LMS) can be a journey. If you commit to a commercial LMS, you could end up paying a lot of money annually. Of course, if you decide on a free, open source solution (FOSS) like, then you may find yourself learning the ins and outs of technical support. Here are a few recommendations.

Commercial Solutions

Free, Open Source Solutions

9. Become a TCEA Course Developer

Want to become a TCEA Course Developer? We are always on the hunt for course developers who offer specific areas of expertise. You don’t need to know how to use Canvas learning management system, but Google Docs and screencasting is essential.

Send your completed capacity matrix and course overview to Miguel Guhlin ( I can’t wait to see what you’ve come up with.