Thoughts on ‘Essentials of Online Course Design’

I’ve just finished reading this book by Marjorie Vai and Kristen Sosulski, available from Amazon (and other good booksellers!) Unusually, I bought the print version so I could makonlinecoursedesignessentialse notes as I read it. I’ve learned that despite reading almost exclusively on my Kindle, when I need to study, retain and retrieve, doing it ‘the old way’ is more effective.

Style and layout:

The book uses a template (very remiscent of the Packt books I used to write and review). This means that key points are highlighted in shaded boxes, a variety of different font styles are used, chapters are summarised with checkboxes and lengthy information is presented in table format. This is all good, because it makes the book seem modern and easy to read -which it is. Having spent much of last semester reading somewhat dry PDFs in Times New Roman, this was a welcome change that made me approach the task with enthusiasm. My one criticism would be the use of what is either Comic Sans or its younger sibling for the checkbox summaries. While I accept it is cheerful and clear, I always associate it with primary school worksheets and as such it doesn’t seem quite grown up enough for this serious book.

Chapters and content

There are ten chapters and two appendices, all with focused, engaging titles: “Visual design basics”, “Engaging the online learner”, “Assessment and feedback”. You follow a well constructed path from, in essence, “what’s this all about?” to matching your fully  developed course against a useful standards checklist.

On the minus side, a disappointment was the accompanying website which was introduced as providing “additional references and resource materials, templates for units, instructions and models of good online course design.” I found the site somewhat lacking, almost as if someone had started connecting the site to the book but lost their motivation half way through. As an example, Chapter 2 “Elements of an Online Course: A  tour frequently sends the reader to the site for examples, but these are nothing more than a selection of YouTube videos, blogs that we could have googled ourselves. I was also unimpressed,when clicking a link ‘How to create a course introduction video’ to find my computer automatically downloading a PDF file. Likewise in Chapter 9, it’s not clear whether we are being sent to a website, a Google document or PDF. I realise this is an open and free website and its useful links save people looking for themselves, and I also realise that the book does not want to showcase any particular LMS. However, I think there would have been a case for developing a course on an LMS with guest access or linking to it within the book’s website to provide more of a example.

The ‘best’ bits:

My favourite chapters were the chapters on “Language and Writing Style” and on “Visual Design Basics”. If you don’t get these right, your students will be at a disadvantage when they access your course materials.

As a facilitator in a MOOC with participants whose first language is often not English, I see the importance of keeping it short and simple. No long words and no long passages of text. This is all the more essential now when learners access their courses from a mobile device and don’t want to be faced with long blocks of text. This book offers excellent checklists to help teachers ensure their written language is clear and usefully also includes tips for spoken language in podcasts or video -again something close to my heart.


While much of the book contained information I was aware of (but encouraging to have our practices confirmed) I did pick up several ideas from the chapter on Visual Design. As someone with no design skills whatsoever I am always impressed when I see courses laid out in a graphically appealing way. I learned about the importance of white space and  about sensible use of colour.

Moodle’s default Atto editor does not have options for different colours, whereas the older TinyMCE editor does:


On we  frequently get teachers asking how they can get their colour button back because they want to type text and headings in blue or red and different typefaces. They dismiss any rationale about themes or accessiblity by saying their students don’t have any sight issues and so it is not a concern. Hmmm…

The ‘hmm..’ bits:

This book is an excellent starter book for anyone wanting to teach online. The reader learns how to be an active facilitator, engaging their learners with collobarative and self-reflective activities. It does a good job of not promoting any particular LMS but of talking in general about features of all. So while I cannot fault it as a whole, there were a few points that made me go ‘hmmm..’

Several times Howard Gardner’s Frames of Mind: The Theory of Mulitple Intelligences (1993) is referenced as a justification for presenting information in a variety of ways for different learning preferences. The book invites us to do the VARK test and explains  how

..Visual learners, for example, may need […] images, illustrations, graphs […] Some learners need active, hand-on engagement to do their best…

Amongst others,   Paschler, McDaniel, Rohrer and Bjork ( 2008) question this approach:

[…] it is undoubtedly the case that a particular student will sometimes benefit from having a particular kind of course content presented in one way versus another. One suspects that educators’ attraction to the idea of learning styles partly reflects their (correctly) noticing how often one student may achieve enlightenment from an approach that seems useless for another student. There is, however, a great gap from such heterogeneous responses to instructional manipulations— whose reality we do not dispute—to the notion that presently available taxonomies of student types offer any valid help in deciding what kind of instruction to offer each individual. Perhaps future research may demonstrate such linkages, but at present, we find no evidence for it.

I would argue that the online course materials should be varied regardless of any perceived learning preferences of the students – all learners should be exposed to a range of materials in order to have different parts of their brains challenged, or as Dr Britt Andreatta puts it in her book “Wired to grow” (2016)  introducing

 a range of concepts […] increases the change of creating moments where learners can connect the dots.



Whether you agree or disagree with the learning preferences argument, you’ll still be encouraged in the book to engage your learners in a variety of ways. You will also be reminded  to be humble, as a teacher:

Students bring in new information and experience alongside the teacher. She often finds that she is learning alongside the learners.

So in conclusion, this book is an excellent starter for anyone wanting to teach online. The reader learns how to be an active facilitator, engaging their learners with collobarative and self-reflective activities. It does a good job of not promoting any particular LMS but of talking in general about features of all.

I’ve also purchased  the 2013 edition of Palloff and Pratt#s “Lessons from the Virtual Classroom”. I’ll be reading and reviewing that next. It looks and feels quite different!

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