Digital Learning & Design

Students seated in large lecture hallThis document expands upon Digital Learning & Design’s Fall/Spring Design Guidelines for online courses. It is directed toward instructors transitioning large-enrollment courses from a face-to-face to a fully online format. This guide provides general advice for planning and building an online course. Instructors needing support on specific topics within this guide can arrange a 1-1 consultation on this Google calendar.  


Ideally, your online course should be complete before the first day of class. This means that the full syllabus, as well as the complete set of lectures, readings, assignments, and assessments must be developed, scheduled, and posted to the course website on Canvas. Digital Learning & Design has created the following resources to help instructors get started on the design of their online course.

After importing the Online Course Template into your Fall 2020 Canvas site, your course should consist of fourteen modules. Each module represents one week of the course. The following outline describes the items instructors should place within each module. If you do not know how to create items within a module, please see: Creating Items from Modules

First Module: Course Orientation

The first module serves to orient your students within your online course. We suggest writing a general Course Welcome page in the orientation module. If you are unsure how to create a new page in Canvas, follow this Canvas guide. The welcome page should contain:

  1. A general overview of the course topics or a course description
  2. Course learning outcomes
  3. Pertinent course resources (textbooks, web resources, etc.)
  4. A link to view or download the syllabus 

Subsequent Modules

  1. An overview that includes learning objectives: The overview should give students a good idea about what they will learn by the end of the module and how the module is structured. It can consist of a paragraph-length explanation, or a series of bullet points listing  objectives and the structured tasks for the week.
  2. Pre-Recorded “Lectures”: You can use Zoom or Panopto to record short lectures that can be embedded within each module. These lectures can be used to offer an overview of module content or explain a difficult concept. This approach is optimal if you have not arranged with our digital media team to create lectures. Find more information in the “Pre-recording Lecture” section below.
  3. Readings: Be sure to list readings in a consistent manner and to provide URLs to each document you expect students to read.  We advise using Brown Library’s Online Course Reserves system for delivering readings to your students, and activating the E-Reserves tool in Canvas
  4. One “assignment” per week: DLD has created a guide for Assignments in Large Enrollment Online Courses (link). Briefly, consider the following points... 
    1. Assign autograded reading quizzes in Canvas to check for engagement in material.
    2. Attach a quiz to your lecture videos with Panopto. 
    3. Assign your lectures as “readings” and embedded questions with Top Hat.
    4. Use Gradescope to expedite grading of assignments that cannot be autograded.  
  5. 1-2 Discussions
    1. Each module should contain one to two discussions that connect to the assignments and readings. One discussion should be a place where students share experiences, ask questions, or respond to questions posed by the professor. This discussion should be due toward the end of the week. The other discussion should be tied to the content and/or the major assignments and should be due mid-week. We provide further advice regarding Online Discussions later in our Large Courses Online Discussions guide

The module format and content can vary depending on your course content. However, whatever changes you make, make sure each module is consistent and predictable, and includes clearly stated deadlines and expectations. There should not be a large increase in work or dramatic change in type of assignment without advance warning. Keeping your course simple and predictable facilitates student learning. 

Above all else, consistency is fundamental to communicating with your students. Use the same platform for communication throughout the semester so students know where to find new messages. Brown offers several platforms for communication. Each offers advantages and disadvantages. 

Canvas Announcements

Announcements allow instructors to communicate with students about course activities and post interesting course-related topics. Announcements are designed to allow instructors to broadcast information out to all members of a course or to all members of sections within a course. 

Pros: Resides within the Canvas course. Messages persist in the course site and students will receive an email notification once the instructor releases the announcement. 

Cons: Students have the ability to disable notifications and may not receive alerts about new announcements. 

Ed Discussion

Ed Discussion is a discussion tool designed for medium to large enrollment courses. Instructors can post announcements, and students can ask questions anonymously, answer each other’s questions, and bring attention to pertinent questions for teaching assistants and faculty to answer.

Pros: Can be used within or outside Canvas. Allows students to ask and follow questions, and for faculty to respond. Faculty responses are flagged to ensure students see the post. 

Cons: Does not allow for graded discussions. If graded discussions are part of the course requirements, then Ed Discussion would become a redundant discussion area, and complicate the overall student experience. 

Google Course Group

When instructors request a Google course group, they receive a shared google account for the entire course roster. Instructors can email this google account to send messages to the entire class. 

Pros: Roster updates in real-time with add/drops in Banner. Allows for emailing the class, as well as sharing files in Google Drive. 

Cons: Does not integrate with Canvas.

Instructors sometimes need to collect information from each student in the class. In this situation, we recommend that instructors leverage a digital survey tool. Brown instructors have two easy-to-use options for creating and deploying forms.

Canvas Surveys leverages Canvas’ Quiz tool to send students a series of customized questions. Surveys can be anonymous and optionally award points to students upon completion. 

Google Forms is available to all Brown faculty and works within Brown’s G Suite for Education. It allows users to create and send custom forms to students or entire courses (made easy with a Google Course Group). 

When teaching asynchronously, pre-recording your lecture content becomes a priority. Ideally, lectures should be recorded, edited, and placed within Canvas before the course launches. Here are  three ways you can add pre-recorded content to your course. 

  1. Record new content. This guide includes best practices for recording your own lecture  or introduction videos, presentation tips, and technical tutorials on recording through Panopto or Zoom to help get you started on your own. 
  2. Re-Use Recordings. Instructors who have used lecture capture in previous semesters can choose to re-use those recordings. However, we strongly recommend adding chapter markers or bookmarks within Panopto to aid navigation. Be sure that no students are identifiable in your previous recordings before reuse. 
  3. Get support from DLD & Media Services. Please visit this calendar to sign up for a 1:1 consult with a media specialist or learning designer. 

In an online large enrollment course, assignments function as one of students’ primary modes of class participation. Consequently, instructors may need to create and distribute more assignments than in a typical face-to-face large enrollment course. While the increase in assignment quantity may create more upfront work for instructors, the overall course workload need not drastically rise if instructors leverage the proper tools and strategies. To ensure that instructor (and student) workloads are manageable while also providing a superb learning experience, instructors should review our Assignments for Large Courses guide.

Digital Learning & Design has a created an Grading Guide for online courses. We also advise referring to the Sheridan Center’s resources for developing grading criteria. In terms of technology for large-enrollment courses, we suggest instructors use Gradescope. Gradescope is an assignment submission, grading, regrade request, and analytics platform that makes the entire grading process more efficient and standardized. It is a stand-alone tool that can integrate with Canvas to pull course rosters and push grades to the Canvas Gradebook. For questions regarding Gradescope, please sign up for a consultation on this Google calendar.

Quizzes and exams are an important assessment component in some courses. In some cases they translate to an online mode while serving the same purpose. In other cases this may prove an inadequate or less reliable measure of learning. In our Rethinking Exams for Large Online Courses guide, we question assumptions about traditional summative assessments and explore alternatives that may better demonstrate mastery of stated learning objectives.

To make large enrollment courses more manageable, instructors can use groups to organize large discussions, build class community, and reduce the number of graded assignments.  

Instructors can use the Canvas People tool to create Groups. When creating groups, choose between random or self-enroll groups. For larger courses, using automatic enrollment for groups will save instructors and TAs much time. Self-enroll allows for groups to form around specific topics of interest designated, or if students need to enroll based on time zone. You can gather this information using Canvas Surveys or Google Forms. Simply name your groups based on your data gathering, and assign students to self-enroll based on their preferences.

For instructions related to designing group assignments or discussions, refer to our dedicated guide.

In an asynchronous course, online discussions function as the core social learning experience. Some of these discussions should be weekly routine activities of the course. However, Instructors should also provide a space for asking and answering ad hoc questions, as well as forums for collaboration and interaction regarding course work. Discussions may take place between students as well as between instructor and students. All of these activities, or at least the structure for these activities, must be planned in advance as part of your design of the discussion area. For a detailed guide to managing online discussions in a large course, view our dedicated guide.

If you are using Ed Discussion as a class communication channel, you may be tempted to also use the platform for discussion assignments. Unless your discussion assignments are not graded or tracked for completion, then Ed Discussion is not your best choice. Ed Discussion does not allow for Discussions to act as an assignment in Canvas. To create a discussion assignment, instructors should use either Canvas’ built-in Graded Discussion tool, or request the Harmonize integration from Digital Learning & Design. 

DLD has created a dedicated guide to build and sustain communities online. Our approach is grounded in designing spaces and experiences that are engaging, meaningful, and inclusive.

Teaching an online course requires instructors to consider themselves as facilitators of the students’ learning experience. This means that instructors focus on what students do and produce and how you, the instructor, respond to that work.This perspective may be a change from prior approaches to teaching large, lecture-style face-to-face courses where it is the instructor’s duty to deliver information to a student audience. To better understand this approach to teaching online, we have created a Facilitation Guide.

Digital Learning & Design has created this guide for instructors to consider issues related to inclusion and accessibility. We recommend reviewing it before creating content for your course to ensure that your material is accessible to all learners. 

Have a question? Please see our Online Course Design Helpful Links page.

Still need help? Email