Planning a Distance Learning Course

Help Center Planning a Distance Learning Course

Although many of the steps in planning a distance learning course will be familiar to instructors of classroom-based courses, the demands of teaching without face-to-face contact with students make the planning process particularly important.

For additional help on these steps, contact University of Washington Online Learning, the Center for Instructional Development and Research (CIDR), or email the Learning & Scholarly Technologies support staff.

Write clear learning objectives

Although you may choose to complete some of these steps in a different order or in different ways, we recommend that you always begin your course planning by designing learning objectives. Learning objectives are written statements of what you want your students to learn in your course. They focus on what you want students to know and be able to do when they complete the course. Clear learning objectives will provide a framework for your entire course and are especially important to articulate in a distance learning environment because all the course material--which should stem from the objectives--needs to be prepared in advance. Well-crafted learning objectives also guide the course development process. The choice of course materials, assignments or activities, and assessments should all reflect the learning objectives. Each element of the course should relate back to one or more of the learning objectives.

Begin writing learning objectives by brainstorming a list of what you want learners to know or be able to do. Include knowledge and skills that can be directly observed and measured. Add to this list a description of the conditions the student should perform under and the criterion for acceptable performance. See an example of learning objectives from a computer programming course.

Think about instructional design

In distance learning, as in classroom instruction, it is important that the method of teaching you employ suits the medium of instruction, the topic you are teaching, and the students in your classroom. You may determine the goals, what information will be learned and how by providing readings and asking students to memorize information and practice particular skills. You can also use student-driven learning where the students state their goals and learn through problem solving, exploration, and discovery. Our understanding distance education guide may help you to think about the ways in which a distance learning environment may alter the most effective way for you to reach your students. Many distance learning instructors find that an active student learning approach is easier to accomplish in a distance education context.

Write a course introduction

Because you cannot orient your learners to your course or answer their questions in person, you must write a comprehensive, specific, and succinct course introduction before the course begins.

Once you have created learning objectives and decided on an instructional design approach, you are ready to outline a course introduction. Use the objectives as your guidelines for how to structure learning activities, interactions, and assessments. A good course introduction will introduce you (the instructor) to the students, and provide them with a clear idea of what to expect from the course and how to contact you. Consider including the following sections in your course introduction: introductory statement and objectives, required materials, activities and assignments, assessment information, a brief autobiographical sketch, study hints, and your contact information. You may also want to ask your students to give you information about themselves so you can personalize your responses to them.

Focus on lesson planning

Lessons are the heart of your course. Well-designed, easy-to-follow lessons with interesting assignments are the key to a successful learning experience for the distance student. As you create your lessons, each component should be separately identified just as it is here. The suggested outline for each lesson echoes the format of the course introduction, assuring consistency in your instructional design approach. Suggested categories include: overview and lesson objectives; reading, viewing, and/or listening assignments; a list of key terms; discussion or commentary; summary/review of objectives; and assignments and/or exercises.

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