Course Information

Overview – Designing an Online Course for Athabasca University

Outline | Course Materials | Study Schedule | Student Evaluation

Although you have been asked to write a course for Athabasca University, design is probably a better word to describe the collaborative process it takes to get from conception to delivery. You will not only be providing expert knowledge of your field, but also helping an online course development team make it as beneficial as possible to AU students. Your course development team is assigned at the beginning of the process, and the sooner you begin collaboration with them, the easier the process becomes (see Unit 6 for more on the course team). AU online courses are delivered through Moodle, a learning management system similar to others you may have used, such as WebCT or Blackboard. This guide is in Moodle.

What an AU Online Course Has

We have identified five core functions that should be present in every Athabasca University online course—orientation, communication and collaboration, instruction, learner support, and assessment. Each should receive about equal attention in online course design. This may seem quite different from your previous work creating course content, but it reflects the whole experience of online learners. As a course author, you will be involved with creating the last three functions, however, you may wish to take an active part in designing the orientation or setting up opportunities for students to learn using the communication and collaboration functions. Although much of the orientation and communication and collaboration is designed into the AU Moodle prototypes, the course coordinator and course author will still have decisions to make regarding their use in their courses. Designing a distance education course means taking into account the full range of learning experiences that might benefit a learner and finding ways to make them happen through all means available.

As for the course content you provide, keep in mind the need for a balance of instruction, learner support, and assessment:

  • The instructional content of the online study guide should be formed around learning objectives.
  • Commentary should mainly guide the student through the learning activities, which might be readings, case studies, virtual guests, brainstorming, WebQuests, concept maps, problem-solving and critical thinking exercises, timelines, summaries, comparative charts, and so on. Learning activities may be designed for discussion forums, blogs, and wikis. (The five functions are fluid in that one tool can fulfill many functions, and a single function can involve many tools.)
  • If the commentary is very long and needs to be in print, it should probably be used in lieu of a textbook, in which case the remaining commentary will refer to it in the same way as to a textbook.
  • The most common learner supports are the practice quiz with rich feedback and the glossary of important terms and concepts, both of which require your authorship.
  • You will also need to help the course team determine what other learner supports are needed, that is, what do students need coming into the course as prior learning and what do they need to help them succeed with the new learning that the course presents. Other support may be links that you or other members of the course team have found with appropriate learner aids or specialized tutorials or learning objects that you have asked the course team to create specially for your students.
  • Writing assessments (mainly assignments and quizzes for credit, and invigilated examinations) that help students consolidate what they have learned and that fairly represent their level of achievement is a third important role for the course author.

The rest of this course is designed to help you with all five functions, and, in a traditional course design, especially the three just mentioned.

What It Doesn’t Have


Websites are not well suited to the delivery of some materials, particularly large blocks of text, so courses must often be supplemented by off-line components. Textbooks and required readings that are not available through the library databases or other stable online sources—as well as obvious components like home science labs, CDs, and DVDs—will be mailed to students in course packages or lent through AU Library Services.

Students who do not have ready access to online readings may request that the Library copy and mail required readings to them. Students always have the option of requesting that all text provided online be mailed to them in print form or on a CD.

Make Your Own Choices

There are always choices. For example, some professors and tutors believe that telephone contact is better than email or other written communication in establishing tutor–student relationships or in explaining complex concepts and determining where students need remedial help. In those cases, they may direct students to take telephone quizzes or they may simply encourage students to phone whenever they have questions.

While designing and writing your online course, keep in mind that Moodle is a tool to help you to teach and to help students to learn, not a set of constraints to limit your efforts. If Moodle won’t let you do something that you believe is needed, talk to your course team. A way to provide the needed component can usually be found, either inside or outside of Moodle. However, the best, and somewhat paradoxical, guideline is keep it simple while offering learners as many viable and motivated choices as possible.


Link to detailed PDF version of this outline for downloading or printing.

This guide is organized as follows:

Course Information

Unit 1 Orientation

Unit 2 Communication and Collaboration

Unit 3 Instruction

Unit 4 Learner Support

Unit 5 Assessment

Unit 6 Putting It All Together

Course Materials


There are two kinds of course materials, online and off-line. Online materials include the course website and materials that are accessible through the website. Off-line materials are those that are mailed to students and may include textbooks, DVDs, CDs, reading files, or print study guides.

Some courses may also have required materials that are borrowed from the AU Library and returned after use, such as costly DVDs and CDs or lab kits. Unless cost is prohibitive, required DVDs and CDs should be included in the off-line materials package.

Important: The course coordinator should order textbooks at least six weeks before the course is scheduled to open. Normally the textbook order is part of the Phase 3 or Phase 7 report (see Unit 6 for more on this).

List course materials under the appropriate headings following the example below:

Online Materials

  • The online course environment for XXXX 1000: Course Name Here, where you are now.



  • The forms you may need to complete the course successfully (examination request, course extension, etc.) are available through your myAU portal.
Course Planning Prototypes

Off-line Materials


  • A. Author. Title of Book (Place: publisher, 2008)

Reading File

  • XXXX 1000: Course Name Here Reading File (Athabasca, AB: Athabasca University, 2008).


  • Famous Director, dir. Movie Title [DVD video recording] (Place: Production House, 1974).

You should have received a package in the mail containing the off-line materials listed above. If you have not received them by your course start date, or of any items are missing, contact Course Materials following the instructions in the Off-line Materials section of the Student Manual.

Other Materials

At the appropriate point in the course, you will be reminded to order the following materials from Athabasca University Library Services:

  • Laboratory Course 2001: Course Laboratory. Call number LABB 2001

Study Schedule

Students who approach their studies in a systematic and organized manner are more likely to complete the course successfully than are those who do not. Following a study schedule, such as the one given below, will help you budget your time and monitor your progress.

Print a copy of the Suggested Study Schedule and check off each activity as you complete it so you will know it is done and you can actually see the progress you are making in the course. Be sure to contact your tutor if you have difficulty with the material or if you are unable to adhere to the work schedule as suggested. If you fall behind in your course work, contact your tutor immediately. Your tutor will be able to advise you as to what options are available. You may, of course, proceed more quickly than is suggested in the study schedule. Note that, if the course includes a final examination, you will be required to write it within 6 months of your contracted start date (12 months for a six-credit course). If you cannot do so, or if you need more time to complete your course for any reason, you may apply for a course extension. See Course Extensions in the Athabasca University Calendar for details.

Note: Students who are receiving educational funding may be required to complete their studies within a shortened time period. If you are receiving funding from any source, please check the details of your obligations and adjust your personal study schedule accordingly.

The usual suggested schedule for undergraduate courses permits learners to take up to 26 weeks and thereby take full advantage of the 6-month self-paced individualized-study course contract. You may wish to pace your students a little more quickly through the course by suggesting a shorter schedule.

Although the Suggested Study Schedule is placed near the beginning of a course, it is probably best completed after the course is written. The study schedule below is typical, and you may want to use it as a starting point. Remember, though, that each course will have a different internal logic, and planning the activities according to that logic is essential.

Suggested 24-week Study Schedule for XXXX 1234


Click here for a PDF checklist for downloading or printing.

Week Topic Task
1–2 Unit 1 Title of Unit Familiarize yourself with the course materials; complete the readings, study questions, and self-test quiz for Unit 1.
2–3 Unit 2 Title of Unit Complete the readings, self-assessment exercise, and study questions for Unit 2.
4 Assignment 1: Name of Assignment Complete and submit Assignment 1 to your course tutor.
5–6 Unit 3 Title of Unit Complete the readings, study questions, and self-test quiz for Unit 3.
6–7 Unit 4 Title of Unit Complete the readings, self-assessment exercise, and study questions for Unit 4.
8 Review

Review the materials from the first four units in preparation for the take-home mid-term test.

Contact the University, ask for the administrative assistant for XXXX 1000, and ask him or her to send you the mid-term test.

9 Assignment 2: Mid-term Take-home Test Complete and submit Assignment 2 to your course tutor.

Unit 5 Title of Unit

Assignment 3: Name of Assignment – select a topic

Complete the readings, study questions, and self-test quiz for Unit 5.

Select a topic for your research paper. Contact your course tutor for topic approval.

Start your research.


Unit 6 Title of Unit

Complete the readings, study questions, and self-test quiz for Unit 6.
Continue research for your paper.
14–15 Unit 7 Title of Unit Complete the readings, study questions, and visual art project for Unit 7.
Continue research for your paper.
16 Assignment 3: Name of Assignment Complete Assignment 3 and submit it to your tutor.

Unit 8 Title of Unit

Final Examination

Complete the readings, study questions, and visual art project for Unit 8.

Apply to write the final examination. See Applying for and Writing Examinations in the Student Manual.

19–24 Assignment 4: Name of Assignment Complete and submit the research paper to your course tutor.

Student Evaluation

To receive credit for XXXX1000: Course Name, you must achieve a course composite grade of at least “D” (50 per cent) and a grade of at least 50 per cent on the final examination. The weighting of the composite grade is as follows:

Assessment Activity
Assignment 1: Name of Assignment 15% of final grade After Unit 2
Assignment 2: Mid-term Take-home Test 30% of final grade After Unit 4
Assignment 3: Name of Assignment 20% of final grade After Unit 7
Final Examination 35% of final grade After Unit 8
100% of final grade

To learn more about assignments and examinations, please refer to Athabasca University's online Calendar.

Click here for a Word prototype you can use for the Course Information section of your course.


Last modified: Wednesday, 10 October 2012, 1:18 PM MDT