Well Worth a Read (or Two): Essentials of Online Course Design: A Standards-Based Guide

How do teachers who excel in the classroom learn to translate that expertise into an online course that serves their students? What works well in online learning?

Marjorie Vai, an online, academic, and publishing consultant, has created a comprehensive guide, Essentials of Online Course Design: A Standards-Based Guide, that explores not just the fundamental principles of online course design, but also the very practical technological fixes that help make that translation.

We were impressed with the way the book, coauthored by Kristen Sosulski, presents options that allow a teacher to choose the best alternatives for their particular lesson. At the same time, as a learning management system provider, we were interested to learn more from the author about ways an LMS can facilitate learning. We reached Vai in New York, and she graciously granted us an interview. What follows results from our conversation.


The first thing that stands out about Vai is her enthusiasm, not the enthusiasm of a recent convert, but the enthusiasm of a pioneer in the field of online learning. Vai draws on 27 years of experience working with software and learning environments, ranging from being a contributing editor for Dowline, a magazine of Dow Jones online services, to developing an entire online Masters in TESOL for The New School in New York City.

Vai is enthusiastic about what technology offers educators. “I'm a visual person, an artist,” she says. “I love the idea that you can so easily produce something of such great interest and texture. It's intellectually and creatively interesting.”

However, Vai emphasizes the need for teachers to focus first on the educational processes they want their students to engage in. She supplies a short list of the processes that are important to incorporate into online courses:

  • Ensure readability
  • Engage the student
  • Facilitate collaboration
  • Ensure ease of communication among all participants
  • Vary the resources and images
  • Provide frequent and ongoing assessment

Vai provides three points of guidance for teachers developing online courses, especially those who have been teaching in a classroom setting for some time.

  1. Create new content that utilizes the capacity of the Internet. “Don't just take the notes from your existing lectures and put them online, or you'll lose the students,” Vai cautions. While existing material can provide a starting point, the possibilities for incorporating multiple medium (media) in a single lesson plan requires using existing materials in new ways.
  2. Use technology to support active learning processes. Vai references her own experience taking an online course in the history of graphic design. Each student was assigned a famous graphic designer and then did a presentation to the class about that designer using visuals. “In a sense, the students were doing the teaching,” Vai said. “It was a much richer experience. However, the teacher was very active in designing the course, and making the assignments. If the teacher is passive, it's irresponsible. If they're active, it's wonderful.”
  3. Take time to explore the new educational possibilities technology presents. The tendency to focus on the wizardry of technology can keep people from going deeper into the educational opportunities technology should support.

Essentials of Online Course Design is an excellent resource for learning how to take educational technology seriously. Simple in language and layout, it embodies the message it conveys.

Online Learning With Learning Management Systems

In the text, Vai mentions that teachers can produce and present online courses without the use of a learning management system (LMS). She says an LMS can either enhance or impede online courses.

To enhance learning, an LMS must be designed well for flexibility—and not all are. Vai says an LMS does not embed educational principles per se, but needs to give educators the flexibility to use them. For example, something as seemingly simple as being able to determine the length of a line of text on the screen is important when designing a class, she says. Some learning management systems don't allow you to adjust the length of the lines. “It's really about readability,” Vai says. “As if readability were not important. As though readability is something no one knows anything about.” (Vai counsels people using a LMS without the capacity to change the lines to do what they can to accommodate, to write short paragraphs, or skip a line.)

Vai believes some new tools educational technology makes available not only enhance the learning experience, but also support the development of skills our entire society needs, such as critical thinking. “We have to learn how to debate,” she said. “It's critical that this county has critical thinkers and imaginative learners.” Learning systems that support group discussion and collaboration can be used to support this function.


More information about Essentials of Online Course Design: A Standards-Based Guide and about Marjorie Vai is available at www.essentialsofonlinecoursedesign.com.