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Essentials of Online Course Design: A Standards-Based Guide

reviewed by Torria Bond - April 12, 2013

coverTitle: Essentials of Online Course Design: A Standards-Based Guide
Author(s): Marjorie Vai& Kristen Sosulski
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415873002, Pages: 224, Year: 2011
Search for book at Amazon.com

Vai and Sosuski (2011) introduce their book with a quote from Paul Rand:

To design is much more than simply to assemble, to order, or even to edit; it is to add value and meaning, to illuminate, to simplify, to clarify, to modify, to dignify, to dramatize, to persuade, and perhaps even to amuse. (p. 1)

Unless you have developed a course from the very beginning, you may be surprised that there is more to the design than just a place to house information, assignment directions, and tests. Designing online learning solutions is also about the user’s experience, communicating asynchronously, and providing a conceptual framework undergirded by measurable learning outcomes. Influenced by the work of graphic artists, professional designers, and educational researchers, Vai and Sosulski (2011) have crafted a primer that exemplifies the design elements espoused for developing and designing online courses. As such, the reader is immersed in simple page designs that make good use of white space, lists, screen shots, headings, and “chunking” of content, illustrating how good design promotes clarity, readability, and understanding. Both authors have experience teaching undergraduates and graduates; and developing, designing, and evaluating online educational projects for profit, non-profit, and government agencies. Currently, Vai is an online, academic, and publishing consultant, and Sosulski is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Information, Operations & Management Sciences and a Director for the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning at New York University Stern School of Business.  Together, the authors have 35 years of higher education teaching, and several publications on related distance learning topics.

The book has several topics common to other instructional materials that address online learning solutions. This allows practitioners to apply posited processes to any learning management system. Elements of an online course, engaging the online learner, activities and tools for collaboration, assessment and feedback; and writing learning outcomes, course outlines, and syllabi are a few of the presented topics. The book is unique in its discussion of visual design elements, and the use of a companion website to extend the reader’s knowledge of chapter topics. Unfortunately, many online courses are text heavy, ignoring the multiple learning modalities present within a group of learners (Armstrong, Henson, & Savage, 2009). Practical ideas are offered for interaction and collaboration, which lend themselves to social learning, active learning, universal design for learning, and multiple intelligence theories. The authors do more than tell the reader what to do when designing courses. The suggestions are exemplified in the written text, conveyed through screen shots of online courses, and extended through additional content on the companion website.

The foreword provided by Michael Carrier, an English language subject matter expert for the British Council in London, legitimates the authors’ aim to produce a book that is informed by theory but not about theory. The foundation of the design principles discussed throughout the book are undergirded by the latest research related to course design as disseminated through Quality Matters and the Sloan Consortium, both of which are non-profit organizations that advance online learning solutions. The Quality Matters Rubric and A Quality Scorecard for the Administration of Online Education Programs published by the Sloan Consortium, specify the attributes of outstanding online courses. In line with those attributes, the book chapters are independently topical, allowing experienced course designers to quickly identify areas of relevance.

Vai and Sosulski (2011) set out to simplify the process of course design using a jargon free, standards-based approach. Through screen shots of an instructor’s online course, basic features of a learning management system and its interactive tools are illustrated. A process for collaborative student projects is provided along with a list of project types that enhance the critical thinking and social presence of online course participants. Additional illustrations, and videos are provided on the companion website, allowing the reader to explore peripheral issues related to course design, online learners, web 2.0 tools, and learning theories. The website provides opportunities to explore Marc Pensky’s work on digital natives, digital immigrants, and digital wisdom; weblinks to grammar sites, editing tips, and writing style; design links for using white space, typography, universal access features, and graphic elements; recommended readings on active learning, learning styles and community building; strategies for using blogs, microblogs, wikis, and discussion boards; sites for finding royalty free images, audio files, and videos; strategies for testing, providing feedback, and combating plagiarism; templates for building a syllabus, a course and lesson outline; and strategies for orienting students to your course within a learning management system. For the practitioner who does not have to be convinced through empirical evidence that the steps in the design process facilitate a positive online learning experience, the reader may immediately begin developing a course, or refining the design of an existing course.

Although the book is practical to a wide variety of educators, course developers, and corporate trainers charged with designing online learning solutions, it is particularly beneficial for those without technical expertise, and knowledge of pedagogical and andragogical underpinnings for teaching and learning. The content of the book is foundational for subject matter specialists who find themselves commissioned to develop a course with little to no training or support. The significance of each topic is reinforced in three ways. First, standards are identified and discussed. Second, checked boxes provide a visual cue that a particular standard has been addressed; and third, the standards covered are presented in the summary of each chapter with an empty check box, whereby the novice practitioner is encouraged to check off each element as they apply it to a course design project. For an experienced practitioner, Vai and Soluski’s (2011) work serves as a reference for evaluating and revising existing courses.

With the increase of K-12, colleges, universities, government and non-government agencies’ consideration of distance and blended delivery of courses and training programs, issues of educational quality, student retention, and attainment of learning outcomes remain salient (Allen & Seaman, 2007; Government eLearning, 2012).  Researchers acknowledge that issues of course design, technology access, instructor training, accelerated courses, and individual motivation influence student retention and the attainment of learning outcomes (Sener & Hawkins, 2007). Instructors and designers are limited in their ability to address all of these multifaceted issues. However, once it has been determined that an online learning solution is appropriate, universities and training professionals can address issues of course design, student support, and instructor professional development. Vai and Sosulski’s work provide basic tools to address these issues and can potentially streamline the process of course design through the suggestions and templates offered.


Allen, I. & Seaman, J. (2007). Changing the landscape: More institutions pursue online offerings. On the Horizon. 15(3), 130-138.

Armstrong, D., Henson, K. & Savage, T. (2009). Teaching today: An introduction to education. Columbus, OH: Pearson

Federal Government Distance Learning Association. (2010, August 1). E-learning goes everywhere [E-News Article]. Retrieved from http://gov.2elearning.com/lead-news/article/e-learning-goes-everywhere.html

Pittenger, A. & Doering, A. (2010). Influence of motivational design on completion rates in online self-study pharmacy-content courses. Distance Education. 31(3), 275-293

Sener, J. & Hawkins, R. (2007). Factors Affecting Completion Rates in Asynchronous Online Facilitated Faculty Professional Development Courses. International Journal of Instructional Technology & Distance Learning. Retrieved from http://www.itdl.org/Journal/Dec_07/article03.htm

Vai, M. (2012, September 12). Essentials of online course design: A standards-based guide [Website]. Retrieved from http://www.marjorievai.com/WEBSITE-CONTENTS.html

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 12, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17084, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 5:50:13 AM

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About the Author
  • Torria Bond
    California Baptist University
    E-mail Author
    TORRIA BOND, is an accomplished educator with expertise in the areas of curriculum and course design for today’s multi-generational adult learning environments. A published writer, researcher, presenter, and award winning course designer with over 20 years of experience in elementary, secondary, and post-secondary education, she currently mentors university professors in the Online and Professional Studies Division of California Baptist University as they develop interactive and engaging online courses for adult learners. Her scholarship can be read in peer reviewed journals such as The Journal for Childhood Education published by the Association for Childhood Education International; Teachers College Record; The Journal for Educational Considerations published by the College of Education at Kansas State University. Most recently, her essay entitled “The Good Teacher” is published in Kidd and Chen’s edited textbook, Ubiquitous Learning: Strategies for Pedagogy, Course Design and Technology. She blogs regularly on topics related to online teaching, course development, and course design at TorriaBond.com.
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