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MSU Denver Online Course Design Standards


Excellence in academic practices is one of MSU Denver’s strategic priorities with online and hybrid online courses playing a significant role in the experience of learners. Nearly half of MSU Denver students take online or hybrid course making up a quarter of the university's credit hour production. Because online and hybrid courses are held to the same rigorous standards as those taught in the classroom, the faculty-lead Peer Review for Online Course Excellence subcommittee developed online course design standards to guide course development and continuous improvement. These standards are applicable to courses developed in collaboration with the Center for Teaching, Learning and Design instructional designers or for instructors working on their own to develop a new course or assess an existing course. The following principles were kept at the center of the committee’s effort. 

  • Emphasis on MSU Denver’s unique values: MSU Denver is first and foremost a community of educators and learners, and faculty are devoted to learning. For this reason, courses are instructor-owned, instructor-led, and specific to their experiences and teaching styles – in fact, this is what sets us apart from other institutions. Likewise, our learners bring a wide array of perspectives and educational experiences to the classroom, and our courses must invite contributions from, and foster learning for, those with unique and varied starting points into any course.  
  • Efficient courses make for effective teaching: Effective course design makes courses easier to teach, and equally easy for learners to navigate. Each unnecessary click, hidden deadline, unspoken expectation, or confusing tool can be the cause of instructor frustration or withdrawals 
  • Consistency across the learning experience: Standards establish consistency in both instructor design and learner experience expectations. By providing required and recommended standards, the committee seeks to ensure each course is comparable in quality to any other, and that learners receive an equitable experience as they move from course to course across programs. 
  • Focused course revisions: Established standards help identify specific areas for improvement within courses. 
  • FlexibilityStandards balance the need for consistent benchmarks with the need for flexibility to accommodate the wide range of course types, teaching styles, and learning expectations. Numerous examples throughout the standards provide instructors with options on how they may meet each standard 
  • Meeting standards based on instructor-identified pedagogical outcomes, and not an assessment of teaching quality: These standards are not an assessment of teaching quality but rather a guide to assist instructors in meeting identified pedagogical outcomes, those in university syllabi and enhanced outcomes created by individual instructors. 


Click here to see the course design standards in Sharepoint or the drop downs below.

Course Technology 

We are stewards of learner information and privacy. Used well technology can enhance the learning experience, but used haphazardly it can breed frustration around the user experience, additional costs, and learner privacy. 






Use of Learning Management System 

Use the university-supported learning management system (LMS) as the hub for the course. To ensure easy and consistent course access, student privacy, and the minimization of learner costs: 

  • Use the LMS as the starting point for the course which ensures learners know where to begin in all MSU Denver courses 
  • ???All data protected by FERPA should remain exclusively within the LMS?? 
  • Use a variety of technologies 
  • Ensure textbooks/ebooks/online tools function and actively link within the LMS 
  • ???Include all privacy instructions for resources and technology outside the LMS?? 
  • ??Choose technologies designed to minimize costs to learners 
  • ?*Use the MSU Denver University Template? 


Accessible courses benefit everyone (if you’ve ever read a captioned video on mute, you understand).  






Build courses for all learners in alignment with accessibility requirements. Ensure the course adheres to federal and state compliance guidelines and best practices for accessibility, including:  

  • Caption videos, use ADA appropriate colors, and consider ADA standards for other visual elements 
  • Provide vendor accessibility statements for all required technologies 
  • Provide alternative formats to access multimedia content 
  • Provide accessible text and images in files, documents, LMS pages, and web pages 
  • Comply with current Accessibility Guidelines 
  • Learners may require accommodations even when courses are built with accessibility in mind. Contact the MSU Denver Access Center immediately when a learner identifies a needed accommodation 



Collaborative & Active Learning 

At MSU Denver, we value teaching above everything else, and that means the instructor’s expertise, voice, and guidance permeates every aspect of the learning experience. Examples when an instructor's voice and expertise are not prominent include use of publisher material without providing context, no opportunities for interaction, and learners left alone to struggle through materials without support or regular feedback. 





Meaningful Discussions 


??Discussions are meaningful when they are aligned with course learning outcomes and provide opportunities for critical thinking.?  


Consider including one forum where learners can ask and answer class-related questions and one for non-class-related questions. Post frequently asked questions in the course. 



??Structure learning activities to foster learner-instructor, learner-learner, and learner-content interactions and ensure expectations are clearly stated. ? 


Strive to design a learner-centered classroom where active learning and engaging activities are present. 



Third party and publisher resources provide valuable reading materials, videos, and assessments, but these resources need to be brought to life through context and application. Include your perspective on third-party materials. 

Building on What They Know 


Connect what learners already know about the topic to what they will learn. Recalling prior knowledge should help provide context for learners and get them excited about the learning ahead of them. 

Additional Resources 


Foster learner interest by helping them go deeper with optional web resources. For those who want to learn more on their own, provide links to web sites that you think will be helpful. Conversely, provide links that will help those struggling with a topic. 


LinkedIn Learning under Learning Enrichment in the Student Hub provides endless videos on a number of topics. It will support learners interested in going beyond the course as well as assist those who need help. 

Experiential Learning 


Offer opportunities for learners to engage in activities that draw on applied or lived experiences whenever possible.  


Using interactions and assessments that are narrative-based, life-relevant, or historical-based allows learners to connect their lived experiences with course content. 

Course Structure & Design 

Learners are taking numerous courses designed in different ways, and it is frustrating when expectations are unclear or left unstated. To decrease the time and cognitive effort to understand course expectations, explicitly state what is expected and how each element supports or builds on other aspects of the course. 






???Structure the course in a well-organized manner, and make it easy to navigate: 

  • ?Keep terms and labels consistent throughout the course? 
  • ?Include a central location for learners to gain information, and ensure due dates can be found in course content, course calendar, and/or the assignment listing? 


??Appropriately pace the workload and distribute it throughout the course. ? 

Learners should be able to intuitively get from place to place within the course. 


Divide content into learning modules, appropriately labeled, and presented in a logical manner.  


Instructors typically divide these learning modules into modules, chapters, etc. Example 1Example 2 


Create a course alignment map. Example 


To increase continuity between online courses and to efficiently build the course, use the *University Template.   

Credit Equivalency 

Online courses need to maintain the same number of contact hours and learner expectations as face-to-face courses so that a three-credit hour course requires equivalent learner effort regardless of delivery type. To consider if your course meets these expectations, visit the Alternative Instructional Equivalencies Guide.  


Module Introductions 


Introduce modules with an overview of the topic. 


Provide learners with an explanation of what to expect and think about as they encounter media, readings, and activities. Explicitly describe how learning objectives align with materials, activities, and assessments. 

Add primers to learning materials (media and readings). The purpose of these primers is to: 

  • Gain their attention 
  • Clarify the purpose of the material, how it will benefit them, and how it aligns with the objectives 
  • Prepare them to learn by stimulating existing knowledge 


Include instructions about activities and assessments. These instructions provide the learners with: 

  • Expectations for completion 
  • Clear explanations of alignment between the activity and the materials and objectives Example 

Module Objectives 

??Clearly state and post course learning objectives for each module 

  • ??W?rite them in easy-to-understand language 
  • ?Include them in prominent course locations 
  • ?Ensure the learning objectives or competencies are suited to the level of the course? 


Your objectives should emanate from your course’s learning outcomes and detail the specific tasks that learners will be able to complete. Example 

Connect Objectives and Activities 

Connect learning objectives and learning activities. 

Use your objectives and outcomes to determine your learning activities.  


Be consistent. For example, if one of your objectives states that learners will discuss a topic, make sure the activity involves active discussion. Example 

Connect Objectives and Outcomes 

Connect assessments to objectives and outcomes. 

Use your objectives and outcomes to determine your assessments.  


For example, if one of your objectives states that learners will evaluate a topic, make sure the assessment has an essay question that asks them to evaluate.?Example 

Clear, Concise Expectations 


Clearly write content and lessons. 


Ambiguity will result in confused learners and a lot of emails. If instructions aren't clear, they don't have you in front of them to ask clarifying questions. 



Post exemplary learner assignments. Examples help them understand?the differences?between quality and non-quality work.  


If these are not available from past learners (with permission), consider creating them.  

Evaluation Criteria 

???Provide specific criteria for the evaluation of work and explain the connection between evaluation and the course grading policy.? 


?Ensure you include: 

  • ?Clear expectations for writing and communication 
  • ??Assessments that are sequenced, varied, and suited to the level of the course? 
  • ?Multiple opportunities to track their learning progress 
  • ?Timely feedback? 


Rubrics are criteria for grading non-objective tests and assignments. They let learners know exactly how they will be graded and take most subjectivity out of grading. 


You can create rubrics for individual assignments, or in the case of discussion board postings, a generic rubric that applies to all posting assignments. 



Chunk information for learners. Written, audio, and video material should be divided into shorter “chunked” sections.  


Each chunk should take 5-15 minutes to complete. Audio and video content should be no longer than 15 minutes. 

Copyright Use 


Refrain from using copyrighted materials illegally. 

If you are unsure as to whether you are violating copyright law, seek permission to use the copyrighted material. 



Check that all web links are active. 


Classrooms that invigorate participation from each learner benefits every learner and instructor. We strive to create courses that are welcoming, respectful, supportive, and invite full participation. 





Universal Design 

Incorporate universal design standards. 

Strive to create learning environments and resources that are: 

  • Diverse – provide information in more than one format. Providing text, audio, video, and hands-on learning options gives all learners a chance to access content in ways best suited to them. 
  • Actionable and expressive – give them more than one way to interact with the content and to show what they’ve learned. For example, they might choose to take a test, give an oral or visual presentation, or do a group project 
  • Engaging –?find multiple ways to motivate learners. Sustain their interest by creating assignments that feel relevant to their lives and let them make choices which encourages agency 

Learner Feedback 


Gather course feedback from learners throughout the semester in order to improve the course and create a learning environment specific to each group of learners 


Feedback provides you with ideas on how to improve the course and gives them an opportunity to affect their own education and co-create the learning environment.  


Provide opportunities for learners to contribute to their learning environment and for the instructor to learn from them. This increases their agency and allows them to contribute to knowledge in the course.  


Examples include social annotation of the syllabus, learner-learner evaluation, learners-created rubrics, mid-semester feedback forms, and choice in types of assignments 

Diverse Learning Opportunities 


Ensure that content challenges diverse learning styles and provides opportunities to acknowledge different ways of knowing and learning. 


Multimedia assists in meeting the needs of audio, visual, and kinesthetic learners. Audio narrations, podcasts, videos, pictures, charts and graphs, and simulations all enhance learning. Example 1Example 2   


For ways of knowing and learning, think about the opportunities learners have to learn in both collective and individual ways; to learn from peers and experts; and to use their own experience in addition to course material as evidence of competence and mastery. 


???Integrate content reflective of their identities and provide opportunities for them to learn about ideas and communities different from their own. Include experts, research, literature, and other material from non-dominant, marginalized, and oppressed communities.?? 

Inclusive Language & Images 


Use inclusive and varied language and images throughout the course in alignment with the university mission to serve all learners. See resources provided for examples of inclusive languagepeople first language, and different ideas to include within your class.  

  • Respect the language learners prefer regarding their name, pronouns, and the communities to which they belong  
  • Use inclusive images that reflect learner identities 
  • Define and explain terminology, acronyms or jargon that are particular to your field or community 
  • Be aware of your own biases (both explicit and implicit) by assessing your use of language and images present in your course. Check your course for the perpetuation of stereotypes and othering of marginalized communities   
  • Include resources at MSU Denver for English Language Learners and how you will support ELL learners in your course 
  • Understand microaggressions and how to address them in online communities 
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