What Makes a Good Online Course?

November 2, 2020

Part 2: Clear and Consistent Communication


The term “course design” can be confusing. People commonly associate the word “design” with how something looks—in other words, its layout, graphics, and overall visual appearance. But at our five Alamo Colleges, quality course design goes much deeper, focusing more on function than aesthetics. In this case, the clarity and frequency of an instructor’s communication are critical components of course design. It establishes expectations, keeps you up-to-date, and encourages open lines of dialogue.

Why is clear and consistent communication so important in an online course? There is the opportunity to ask questions in a face-to-face environment as they occur to you or request verbal clarification about something you don’t understand. However, online learning relies heavily on email, message boards, announcements, and written instructions. Each of the five Colleges trains faculty to teach online and prepares each instructor to preempt confusion by integrating clear, concise communication into their course. But what does clear and consistent communication look like on a practical level?

Clear expectations

Clear expectations should be integrated into the course in several ways. The first is through the course syllabus, which provides an overview of important dates, assignments, participation requirements, and school policies. This information is critical because it lets you know your obligations to complete the course successfully. For instance, participation requirements will detail how often you are expected to log in and engage in the course—as well as the consequences of failing to do so. The course syllabus should be available to you on the day the course opens.

Grading rubrics are another example of clear expectations. Rubrics are unique to each assignment in the course, and they may be located on each assignment page. The rubric describes the research, writing, and presentation standards that your submission must meet to earn the maximum number of points. Ensuring you have the information you need to complete assignments successfully is part of quality course design. Remember, it is important for you, as the student, to communicate when instructions are not clear. Faculty members and your classmates benefit when you help by asking questions if clarity does not exist.


A second indicator that a course is practicing clear communication is through the use of announcements. Throughout the course, the instructor should communicate consistently with you and your classmates by providing announcements that can be found at the top of the homepage. At a minimum, the announcements should be posted every week. However, your instructor may choose to post announcements more frequently, so it’s essential to log in at least 2–3 times per week to ensure you don’t miss important updates, reminders, or changes in the course.

Communication frequency

Finally, clear and consistent communication includes a firm response time from your instructor. Your instructor may state that answers to student emails will arrive within 24–48 hours except for weekends and holidays. The instructor gives you the guidance you need to plan the best time to send an email and receive a reply. Because you know the expected response time, you should not wait until the last minute to send a message, especially if you are requesting information or help. Similarly, your instructor may provide virtual office hours, so make sure to take advantage of that time.

Just because you aren’t in a physical classroom doesn’t mean you are learning by yourself. At the Alamo Colleges, quality online course design promotes clear communication to create an environment where support is available via clear expectations, regular updates and announcements, and virtual office hours so that you can focus on learning and completing your course.

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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.