Skip to Content
Resource Articles //

How to Create an Effective Course for an Online Learning Program

If you’re seeking a career as an educator, learning how to teach online can expand your opportunities.

Technology has revolutionized education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 27% of undergraduate students and 31% of graduate students are currently enrolled in online courses.* In addition, 83% of U.S. high schools offer at least one course online, according to a Project Tomorrow report. If you want to teach in today’s education system, knowing how to create an online course can be a vital skill. Here are some recommendations for how to succeed:

Earn a Degree in Education

There’s no better path to teaching than earning an education degree. Many education degree programs address online education, but for an even better understanding of how online learning works, you might consider earning your education degree online to experience online learning firsthand. Numerous universities offer online bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees—along with a variety of other program types—in education.

How to Create an Effective Course for an Online Learning Program

Understand the Nature of How Students Learn Online

Online courses do not operate like face-to-face courses. While there are typically assignments with set deadlines, students are not required to be in a specific place at a specific time. They work on the course when it best fits with their schedule. Each student may be participating at different times of the day and week. A learning management system (LMS)—provided by most online colleges and schools—will make your job easier by giving you a virtual space where you can communicate with your students.

Find the Right Content

Typically, your students will not be gathered in one physical space at the same time, so you’ll need to provide content that’s appropriate for them to access and absorb on their own. Content is anything that provides the facts, data, arguments, hypotheses, etc. necessary to teach the lessons you want your students to learn. You’ll need to create a balance between creating a thorough set of resources while not overwhelming your students. For each lesson, choose the most valuable texts, videos, audio clips, interactive programs, or other formats. You can create these yourself or use the vast resources of the Internet. There’s a lot of excellent educational material online, and much of it is free for educational purposes.

Create Effective Activities

Your lesson content should prepare your students for an assigned activity, which they will typically have to complete by a certain deadline. The activities you create are important, as they’re how you’ll evaluate whether your students are learning successfully. The type of activities you assign depend on your educational objectives, and can include discussion forums, written assignments, group projects, and traditional tests.

Communicate Expectations

Once you’ve assembled your content and decided on the course assignments, you’ll want to clearly communicate your expectations to your students. Since your students won’t be in the same physical space, clear communication is critical, including:

  • Writing an introduction to the course and laying out the course objective (this can live at the top of your course’s LMS home page).
  • Developing a detailed syllabus that is accessible from a direct link on your LMS home page.
  • Setting rules for discussion boards (e.g., everyone must participate a certain number of times in each discussion, conversations must remain respectful, digressions are—or aren’t—welcome, etc.). 
  • Providing an easily accessible list of assignments and deadlines. Putting this on the course home page is a good idea.
  • Providing detailed instructions for each assignment. Tell your students exactly what content you want them to read, view, and/or listen to, and then explain the assignment in full.
  • Sharing your grading rubric for each assignment. Tell your students how you will assess their work and what level of mastery will earn them a particular grade or score.  

Be Present and Available

Research published in the Journal of Interactive Online Learning shows a direct link between how present an online instructor appears to be his or her students and what defines a successful course. Put simply, effective online teaching requires you to be involved and attentive, just as it does in a physical classroom. Check in on the course’s discussion boards frequently and participate at least once in every discussion. Respond within 24 hours to student e-mails. Call a student on the phone if it becomes clear there’s a communication breakdown. And don’t be afraid to reveal your personality in all the written material you provide. Students want a human instructor, not an automated learning program.

Evaluate Your Course

The final element of effective online courses is evaluating each course after it’s complete. Your school may have different or additional criteria for evaluating online versus in-person courses, but you should strive for the same success with an online course as you would with a traditional course. And of course, take student evaluations seriously—they can help you improve so you’ll be even more effective next time.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering online education degree programs. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.

*National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, The Condition of Education 2015 at a Glance, on the Internet at

†Project Tomorrow, The New Digital Learning Playbook, Advancing College and Career Ready Skill Development in K–12 Schools, on the Internet at

‡Journal of Interactive Online Learning, “Student Perceptions of the Relationship between Indicators of Teaching Presence and Success in Online Courses,” on the Internet at

Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,