Building Your Online Classroom Shell: Level 3: Lessons and Assignments

If you’ve been following this series of posts about building an online course by design, you’ve framed your course, selected your materials, chosen your assignments, written your syllabus, and established the frame of your online course. In this post, you will be adding your lessons (the material you want them to engage) and the activities you want them to do. Other blog posts explain how to write and deliver dynamic online lectures, how to write valid quizzes and exams, how to use reading journals to foster engagement with the text, how to use reading guides to promote analysis, and how to support robust conversation in discussion boards.

By now, you have set up unit folders, identified the unit thesis and learning objectives, and created folders for lessons and activities.We begin, then, with Level 3 tasks: adding the lessons and activities.

Whereas I previously recommended that you do all the Level 1 and Level 2 work (setting up Units, then folders within the units) in a course before focusing on the details within a unit, at this point, I recommend doing all the remaining work of a particular unit before moving on to the next unit. For example, I have 6 units in my Sociology of Disaster course, and once I have the folders in place, I add all the readings/videos/podcasts and then immediately create the activities. Why? Because I want to make sure that the activities I use in that class (quizzes and discussion board posts in which they begin to work out the ideas for their final paper) are directly addressed in the lesson.


Above, The Little Schoolmistress (after 1740) by Jean-Simeon Chardin shows a young woman and a child leaned over a desk together, reviewing a piece of writing.


Video lectures by you

  • As long as they need to be and no longer
  • Typically one concept per video
  • Closed captioned in ways that are ADA compliant (So don’t put graphics or words on the bottom lines of your slides to)
  • Use a script if it helps!
  • Students don’t need to see your face talking to them. Shrunk down in a corner, it is distracting. And if you don’t have visuals to show, don’t use a video; use a podcast.
  • Your slides should be highly visual (graphs, charts, illustrations, photos, etc–and all cited and used according to fair use laws); if they include only words, consider ditching them. (The exceptions here would be when it’s very important to see the words, such as if you are teaching a foreign language class or a course on linguistics or poetry.) If the slides don’t illustrate what you are saying, don’t use them.
  • If you use slides, provide students with a copy of them so they can take notes directly on them. Again, if your slides are only for you to use while you lecture, then use a podcast. (Many students listen to, rather than watch, lectures with slides anyway, only reviewing the slides that the lecture indicates are important.)
  • When you add it to the Unit Lessons File, include the total time and a brief synopsis; if by another source, include questions that students should think about as they listen.


  • Record your own when there is no need for visuals.
  • If you use others, be sure to indicate to students if any material isn’t safe for work or children. (This is also true if what you are lecturing about isn’t safe for work or children, but I assume you’re less likely to use profanity than a non-academic podcaster.)
  • When you add it to the Unit Lessons File, include the total time and a brief synopsis; if by another source, include questions that students should think about as they listen.


  • If using open source resources, include links or a PDF–or both.
  • If using articles available online through your library, include the actual article, not just a citation. Even though students should be able to locate the source themselves, many will not do so.
  • Include an estimated read time for books and articles.
  • Include the abstract from academic articles so students know what they are about to read before they even open it.
  • For especially difficult readings, consider including a reading guide that helps students  analyze what they are reading; this is not your notes over the reading but a guide to help them recognize key points, supporting evidence, and the structure of the argument.
  • Be sure to follow the rules of fair use. Model ethical behavior by respecting the creative work of other scholars by not copying entire books and putting them online for students; if you think the book is valuable enough to include in a class, make sure the author gets paid. This is especially important since so many rising scholars do not have tenure track jobs, despite writing worthwhile books.

Other videos:

  • Select additional videos judiciously. If you are using them to reinforce information taught elsewhere, ask: Does this simply repeat what has been taught, or does it present it in a new way? Even if it presents it in a new way, be sure to label it optional for students and tell them that it reviews a topic presented elsewhere.
  • Avoid online lectures written and delivered by other scholars unless they are renowned or they are appearing in your class in some other way (like a colleague who participates in a discussion board Q & A after students watch the lecture). Students quickly realize that you aren’t offering them something that a motivated autodidact couldn’t do if you show them TED Talks and Khan Academy videos.


Along with writing and recording lectures, designing activities for an online class demands a lot of time. I recommend that you do them hand-in-hand. For example, if you are designing a quiz that covers content from the recorded video lecture, a chapter in a textbook, and a newspaper article, read each one and, as you read it, write the quiz question. This prevents the frustrating student complaint But that wasn’t covered in the course material because, yes, it was.

Quizzes, exams, timed essays, untimed essays, research papers, presentations, discussion board posts, and all kinds of other evidence of student knowledge production and skill mastery can be used in an online classroom.

When you add them to your online class,

  • Allow unlimited submissions on assignments that students can draft and redraft (such as an untimed essay or a presentation); otherwise, students will realize that they made a mistake or want to improve their effort and email you to ask you to disregard their first submission and accept a second one. Encourage them to revise their work as often as needed (without your feedback) until the due date by allowing unlimited submissions.
  • Allow multiple attempts on quizzes and exams; otherwise, students will experience tech problems and ask for you to re-set their attempt. Avoid the hassle of this–and the problem of deciding if you believe them–by always allowing two attempts. Record the most recent, not necessarily the highest, score to discourage high-scoring students from re-opening the exam a second time and taking photos of questions to share with classmates.
  • Don’t make anti-cheating measures more burdensome for online students than you would F2F students. If you don’t check IDs as you pass out exams in a F2F class, then don’t insist biometric measures online. If you don’t assign any graded wwll ork to be done in class (for example, if you assign only papers), then don’t assign proctored work in your online class. Yes, you will have to meet accreditors’ expectations about cheating prevention, but you have a lot of leeway in how you do it.
  • Give students the chance to practice any tech required for high-stakes assignments on low-stakes ones first. Before you ask them to do a quiz over an assigned reading, have them take a low-points quiz over the syllabus, for example.
  • Make all assignments due at the same time on the same day. I recommend Sundays at 11:59 pm. Fast turnaround time for graded work is important in online courses because students don’t have the opportunity to get instant feedback from you in the classroom. If you make deadlines on Fridays, you would need to grade over the weekend to get work back to them in a timely way. Make it due on Sundays, then grade Monday morning.
  • Don’t use plagiarism detection software. It’s unethical because the companies that provide it collect student work to add to their repository that they analyze future work against. See the irony? Their whole business model is based on stealing student writing. Use good pedagogy–like a rich question bank and novel questions that require students to make use of original course content–to fight cheating.
  • Consider gating assignments, so that students cannot submit future work unless they do an earlier assignment. If you want them to create an annotated bibliography, begin with a lesson and quiz over citation or how to use the library. This helps prevent cheating (because they start work on the bigger assignment long before it is due) and leads to better student work (since they are practicing the skills they need for the larger project on smaller ones).
  • Use weighted grading rather than points, so if you need to remove something from the syllabus, your whole grade scale isn’t thrown into disarray.
  • Make grades invisible to students in your gradebook until you finish grading the whole class’s work. Otherwise, you will grade Anna’s work and Zeke will immediately email you to demand why his work hasn’t been graded yet.

In my next post, I’ll explain how to add the final touches to an online class.

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