What Makes a Good Online Course?

October 28, 2020

Part 1: Organization and Structure

With a wide variety of online programs available at our five Alamo Colleges, it hardly seems possible that so many instructors are able to maintain consistent quality across hundreds of diverse courses. Fortunately, faculty who teach these courses are actively working to build their classes around standards to provide a high quality learning experience no matter which of our Alamo Colleges you attend… or if you attend more than one! But what exactly are the standards of online course design and, as a student, how can you learn to spot them? This 6-part series will review the most common best practices of course design so that you can learn to identify the hallmarks of a quality online course and, as a result, make the most of your learning experience.


Organization is the foundation for any academic course. In an online course, organization specifically refers to the layout. The layout should be organized so that students can find what they need with minimal navigation. For example, introductory information—such as the purpose of the course or a welcome message from the instructor—might be located in an area called “getting started”, “introduction”, or a similar title. The syllabus, which provides a course outline, grading criteria, technology requirements, and other critical information, may be located in that same area of the course, if not on a dedicated page. The syllabus is the first document or link you should read before proceeding any further.

Because you will be navigating the course outside of a traditional classroom, it is important that the navigation is well-organized and clearly labeled to alleviate any potential confusion. Ideally, you can enter a course for the first time and immediately navigate to the introductory area without getting lost in the menu. If this is not your experience or you have trouble finding information, ask for help. If you are confused by the organization of the course, other students may be confused as well so reach out to your instructor for help.


What is the difference between organization and structure? Well, if organization is how a course navigates, then the structure is how it runs. For instance, well-structured courses often require regular engagement via assignments, quizzes, discussion boards, or any combination of those. The course topics should be strategically sequenced to support the overall learning objectives. At the same time, engagement activities should be paced in a way that requires you to log in and work regularly.

In your next online course, analyze how the content and activities are structured. Is the content presented chronologically or by theme? How many quizzes are you scheduled to take compared to the number of papers you will be submitting, and how are they spaced apart? You should be able to see a clear pattern and plan accordingly. Most importantly, you will need to adapt to the structure of different course types as you can expect courses in different disciplines (e.g. English, Math, Biology, etc.) to have different structures.

Learning Objectives

Learning objectives are the core around which course lessons and assignments are built. They are short, clear statements that describe the knowledge and skills that you should develop as a result of your class participation and subject mastery. Learning objectives are the knowledge and skills you should gain and be able to apply by the end of the semester.

In most cases, instructors will design their courses with the end in mind—that is, they will develop the learning objectives first and then create the lesson materials. Your instructor is able to produce a cleaner, more streamlined course because they have already decided on what knowledge and skills they want you to learn. As a result, the faculty member can develop lesson materials that will support those learning outcomes. As a student, you will find learning objectives helpful because they answer the questions “why” and “how”. Why is this activity important? How does it align with my future career? It’s helpful to understand why you are being asked to do certain activities and assignments, so make sure you review the course learning objectives. You should be able to find them in your syllabus.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, pre-planning a course by considering the organization, structure, and learning objectives in advance is the first step in ensuring that all online courses at the Alamo Colleges share the same level of quality. Faculty work hard to provide you with a positive user experience, appropriate pacing, and reasoning as to why completing assignments and assessments are critical to your future success!

For more information

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About AlamoONLINE

AlamoONLINE represents the range of opportunities for students pursuing degrees, certificates, or other offerings delivered 100% online from Northeast Lakeview College, Northwest Vista College, Palo Alto College, San Antonio College, and St. Philip’s College.

At our Alamo Colleges, a 100% online degree, certificate, other offering, or Transfer Advising Guide (TAG) has all courses offered fully online and does not require students to come on campus or to an external site except for required proctored exams or to participate in a clinical, internship, cooperative education, or practicum site.