Digital Learning & Design

Now that you have designed your course, what comes next? This guide covers what instructors do during the course, as opposed to what must be done before the course, which is design. You design an online course before you facilitate it, but understanding facilitation influences design and removes some of the mystery. Facilitation focuses on what students produce and how you, the instructor, respond to that work.

Develop a Clear, Consistent Structure. While this is a design consideration, your facilitation depends on it. Module structure should be consistent throughout.  Learning objectives, pre-recorded lectures, readings, assignments, and discussions should be formatted consistently and appear in the same location within each module. Keep your course simple and predictable to facilitate student learning. 

Send Two Regular Announcements Per Module. This means a Module Kick Off that gets students ready for the new module, including any timely information that didn't make it into course design, and a Weekly Takeaways to sum up or call out work done in the module just completed. This helps everyone focus in the same direction. In addition, you can use announcements at any time to redirect a discussion or respond to a question shared by many students.

Teaching presence in an online course is about the students’ sense that you’re a real person in the course interacting with them.

Make a Facilitation Plan. Consider how you will integrate online teaching into your workload. Set up a sustainable weekly rhythm and approach that works. When making your plan consider a level of visibility in the course you can maintain:

  • When are the students posting to discussions?
  • When do you want to check in and read what they are sharing?
  • When are the weekly deadlines for assignments?
  • When do you plan on grading and how long will it take?

Be consistent in both the approach and timing of communications to students, discussion involvement, grading, and feedback. 

Remain Visible. Log in often to effectively facilitate the course, even if only for a short time to get caught up on student submissions. Just as you advise students not to fall behind on work, don’t let yourself fall behind on keeping up with their work.

Humanize with video, audio, images. In the classroom, students get a sense of who you are as a person from interacting with you, even on the first day of class. Starting your course with a personal video introduction can help students connect with you. 

Communicate. Let students know how to contact you (is it email? Canvas?) at the beginning of the course and state it in the Orientation module. 

Respond promptly to email. Online courses move very quickly and when a question goes unanswered for more than 24 hours it will likely impact student progress. If you don’t have the answer, at least let students know you are working on it.

Office Hours/1:1 meetings. Post “office hours” in the Orientation module or via an announcement so students may request an appointment. You could also host live help/Q&A sessions using Zoom for the whole class. Online office hours can help connect students with each other and with you, especially when planned in advance. 

Discussion Facilitation. How do you facilitate discussions in your seminars, with a light touch or something more? What influence do you exert? Do you let students maintain the momentum and intercede only to keep the discussion on track or do you participate more actively, leading the conversation and soliciting responses? Most online discussions lean toward the non-interventionist model, an acknowledgement that this is the students’ space and not the teacher-centered one characterizing many face-to-face classes. It might not be helpful to frame your understanding of the online discussion as the online version of the seminar. It’s not. It’s a different entity. 

For more information on Discussion Facilitation, please review this guide.


Grade Promptly. Grade assignments and/or provide detailed feedback promptly so students know how they are doing – ideally before your next assignment is due as they may need that feedback to better understand expectations for the next assignment. 

Use Canvas Speedgrader to provide individual feedback  and grading to students on assignments. It is addressed to, and visible to, only the intended student and can therefore be personalized. 

Talk to students individually in one-to-one conferences over the phone or Zoom and answer emails promptly.

Whole Class

Use Announcements and Weekly Takeaways to provide guidance, advice, and further instruction to the whole class. Post directly into a discussion for all to see. Hold office hours by phone or Zoom for any who can attend—and options for those who can’t.