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Principles of Best Practice in the Design and Delivery
of Online Education at Howard Community College

Course Design

Principle 1: The course website is clearly organized and easy to navigate, and the course web pages are easy to use.  

  • The course homepage is organized in a logical, simple way. 
  • The page design is simple and professional looking. We discourage gimmicky images and unusual color schemes.
  • A course description/syllabus and assignment schedule are posted. We provide modifiable templates for both of these.
  • Each course unit/module follows a consistent format from assignment to assignment, so students become familiar with a routine and know how to navigate these course units/modules easily. We provide a unit/module template that is modifiable for a variety of assignments. 
  • Online classroom functions — such as chat, bulletin board, assignment folders, email, and course material pages — are used appropriately for the task

This principle is based on the assumption that the instructor knows the Canvas course platform and its capabilities and how best to use its tools. Each online faculty member must complete both Canvas technical training and training in online pedagogy. 

We have posted on the DL homepage under Faculty Resources a series of templates: a course description and a course syllabus, an assignment template, an course module template, and a netiquette statement.  These templates relieve faculty of the necessity of doing document design while assuring that faculty address major issues of best practice. They are html documents, ready to load in a course site once the faculty member has filled in the information that is specific to his or her course. 

Principle 2: The online course meets the same objectives as the on-campus sections of the course.

  • Course activities address the same objectives as on-campus course activities.
  • Course requirements/assignments/activities are equivalent in difficulty and depth to those in the on-campus sections of the course.
  • Students are evaluated on the same objectives with the same emphasis and level of difficulty as the on-campus sections.
  • Each course unit/module gives students specific, detailed instructions for completing course assignments, including deadlines and criteria for evaluation. The unit/module learning objectives, learning activities, and assessments are aligned.

We provide a unit/module template that is modifiable for a variety of assignments. 

Principle 3: Technology is used effectively and appropriately for the discipline and the needs of students.

  • Instructor uses a mix of technology and resources that is appropriate for the discipline and the task.

Principle 4: The course description and other course materials let students know what to expect.  

The course description clearly defines and explains course goals, performance objectives, grading and evaluation criteria, and grading rubrics, and indicates the relative emphasis on facts, critical thinking, analysis, reasoning, and so on. It also indicates if the course is self-paced or not and if any on-campus meetings or tests are required. 

We provide a course description template for the public pages on the HCC homepage as well as templates for the course description and syllabus on the course homepage. The latter templates are modifiable for various types of courses. 

  • The course includes an orientation module and/or a course description that accomplishes or includes the following:
    • Teaches students to navigate the course website. Refers to the Student Guide to Canvas that is linked on the Canvas log in page.
    • Includes the HCC Netiquette statement. We provide this statement in html format ready to load on a course site. It is available on the Faculty Resources page in the DL homepage.
    • Defines and communicates the rigor of a college-level course.
    • Makes sure students know that they are responsible for their learning. Discusses the roles of students in the interactive online environment. Refers students to the “Is Distance Learning Right for You?” page
    • Defines and explains course goals, performance objectives, grading and evaluation criteria, and grading rubrics, indicating the relative emphasis on facts, critical thinking, analysis, reasoning, etc.
    • Clarifies if the course is self-paced or not
    • Clarifies if any on-campus tests are required. (This should also be done on the public page/course description on the www server.)
    • Defines the instructor's role in the course and states instructor's guidelines or procedures for maintaining communications with students
    • Informs students of email and voicemail response time (e.g., within 24 hours, twice a week, etc.) so the instructor is managing student expectations. Differentiates types of inquiries and faculty response time.
    • Posts office hours, telephone numbers, and so on.
    • Indicates the amount of writing required, if any.
    • Indicates availability of course resources and reference materials.
    • States expectations regarding quality and quantity: communicates high expectations.
    • Explains general course assignment procedures.
  • The course syllabus or the course description material
    • Provides an overview of the assignments, which are detailed in the unit/modules. 
    • Indicates expected time requirements (hours per week) for successful course completion.
    • Indicates required frequency of course responses, chats, and threaded discussions.
    • Indicates if/when the student’s physical presence on campus will be required during the semester (proctored tests, presentations etc.).
    • Includes anticipated agenda (calendar) and due dates.
    • Clearly defines assignments.
  • Each course unit/module gives students specific, detailed instructions for completing course assignments, including deadlines and criteria for evaluation.  We provide a unit/module template that is modifiable for a variety of assignments. 

Course Delivery

Principle 1: The instructor encourages student-faculty contact and interaction.

Frequent student-faculty contact is the most important factor in student motivation, intellectual commitment, and personal development. Feedback from faculty is an important factor in online student success and satisfaction. 

The following types of activities show that the instructor maintains contact with students.  The instructor

  • offers an alternative form of contact–phone calls, fax, face-to-face;
  • establishes virtual office hours: times when you are available for online chats, phone calls, or email;
  • acknowledges initial receipt of students’ email with an automatic email reply;
  • differentiates types of inquiries and instructor response time (receipt of message, personal question, content question, assignment feedback);
  • informs students that infrastructure problems (server, etc.) are beyond the control of the instructor and may impact response time;
  • creates course assignments that build in feedback and communication (see principle 3);
  • creates an online community;
  • makes an effort to find out basic information about students;
  • refers to students by name;
  • conveys enthusiasm for the subject (suggestion: use emoticons);
  • lets students "sit in" on physical class or work one-on-one with them.

Principle 2: The instructor gives prompt feedback.

The instructor role is key, as it gives the students help in assessing their knowledge and competence.

The following types of activities show that the instructor gives prompt feedback to students. The instructor

  • responds with frequent email: with answers to questions, comments about lesson/unit content, giving directions and information;
  • returns tests, papers, assignments, etc., within one week;
  • holds virtual office hours for students to discuss their graded work;
  • posts or sends grades regularly;
  • acknowledges all student questions;
  • uses quizzes/questions that require students to review the content (self-check or automatically graded online);
  • differentiates types of inquiries and his/her response time (receipt of message, personal question, content question, assignment feedback);
  • uses grading rubrics to elucidate his/her evaluation of student work;
  • posts outstanding student work at the course website and explains what makes it good;
  • provides models of assignments (e.g., a model student essay or journal entry) to demonstrate your expectations;
  • follows up on feedback via email or phone call if students do not respond initially to feedback.
Principle 3: The instructor emphasizes time on task. 

Learning takes place when time is used effectively and actively.

The following types of activities show that the instructor emphasizes time on task with students. The instructor

  • clearly defines and explains course goals, performance objectives, grading and evaluation. criteria, and grading rubrics, indicating the relative emphasis on facts, critical thinking, analysis, reasoning, and so on;
  • establishes deadlines for assignments;
  • lets students know how much time it will take to do assignments;
  • outlines the steps in completing each of the assignments;
  • uses quizzes/questions that require students to review the content (self-check or automatically graded online);
  • builds in a reward system of points for all student work.

Principle 4: The instructor encourages student cooperation.

Cooperative learning characterized by interaction, personal responsibility, collaborative skills, and group processing enhances learning.

Here are some suggested ways to help develop student-to-student interactions:

  • create assignments that require students to respond to peers' work/assignments;
  • use techniques for fostering student cooperation:
    • peer reviews,
    • bulletin boards,
    • chats,
    • group projects,
    • study groups, and
    • team learning;
  • encourage links between students: 1) exchange of student phone numbers and emails, 2) interviewing and introducing one another;
  • ask students to complete a personality questionnaire for the formation of compatible and effective learning/study/work groups (http://polaris.umuc.edu/~rouellet/learning/);
  • ask students (if appropriate to subject) to provide peer feedback on assignments. 

Principle 5: The instructor encourages active learning.  

To maximize learning, students must interact with the material they are learning, write about it, relate it to past experiences, and incorporate what they are learning into their world view.

The following types of activities show that the instructor encourages active learning. The instructor

  • encourages student questions, input, feedback (if the course material is appropriate); and clearly states that all points of view are welcome and respected;
  • becomes involved in class discussions;
  • regularly sends general messages to the whole class;
  • follows up on students who are not participating;
  • asks students to state what they expect to learn in the class;
  • asks students to provide and critique URLs that enhance learning;
  • asks students to teach their classmates;
  • asks students to develop/create learning activities and projects;
  • encourages opinions as well as facts;
  • asks students to critique other students’ work;
  • asks student to reflect on their performance, their progress, their problems, and their process.  What have you learned (in your own words)?  Why is this new knowledge important?
  • uses open-ended questions to encourage extended and wide-ranging dialogue;
  • uses quizzes/questions that require students to review the content (self-check or automatically graded online);
  • follows up reading assignments with discussions, simulations, or applications to case studies/scenarios;
  • selects real-world, relevant, and practical assignments that allow students to apply and practice the concepts learned;
  • offers frequent short assignments/quizzes or other frequent "in-progress" feedback opportunities;
  • establishes replies and responses as important values of online discussions, through tone, modeling, and grade weighting.

Principle 6: The instructor respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

Helping a student to recognize his own learning style can improve a student's learning. Recognizing the learning styles of others can increase a student's repertoire of learning strategies.

The following types of activities show that the instructor respects diverse talents and ways of learning. The instructor

  • asks students to complete a learning style assessment questionnaire at the beginning of the semester;
  • designs more than one method of assessment and demonstration of student achievement; allows students to choose from different possible modes of project presentation, established up front in a learning contract between instructor and student;
  • encourages students to use the web and other resources/media to master course content by incorporating web-based assignments into your curriculum and reading assignments;
  • recognizes that distance education and online classes are not the preferred or best learning environment for some students; refers students to the “Is Distance Learning Right for You?” page online.
  • is sensitive to possible cultural differences, especially communicating with students for whom English is a second language;
  • provides (if possible) alternatives to reading text, such as audio explanations of complicated material.

*These "Principles of Best Practice in the Design and Delivery of Online Education at Howard Community College" reflect the work of the HCC online faculty advisory group, which includes Jude Okpala, Conseulo Stewart, Patricia Van Amburg, Mary Alice Jost, Barbara Cooper, Marie Westhaver, and Virginia Kirk. The "principles" evolved from several sources, including the well-known Chickering and Gamson Standards of Best Practice in Education and the Standards of Best Practice compiled by Mary Helen Spear of PGCC and Christina Sax of UMUC and presented as part of the MHEC-funded Faculty Online Technology Training Consortium. 


Student Profile - Maribel