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Seven Key Aspects of a Quality Online Course

by Brian Ditmer, Instructional Designer

Studies have shown that a high-quality online course will exhibit all, or many, of seven key elements (Johnson and Aragon, 2003.)

Addresses individual differences

We know that students learn in various ways, be it visual, auditory, social sharing or other manner of learning. Almost everyone can learn from any of these methods. But each person is different in what provides the ultimate learning experience.

Motivates the student

Motivation isn't just about getting the student's attention. An approach that provides confidence and a feeling of being part of the learning environment results in a student that is motivated to learn. When it comes to motivating a student, essential aspects are relevancy of the content, satisfaction with the course, and confidence in the student's ability to learn. (Keller and Suzuki, 1988.) As important as this is in any learning, an online course must be proactive in providing much of this.

Avoids information overload

Try to avoid providing too much information in too short a time. This can cause information overload which can make learning difficult and potentially confusing. Psychological studies show that most people can manage up to seven pieces of new information at a time (Miller, 1956). "Chunking" the learning into small segments will provide the opportunity for students to more effectively retain what has been presented.

Creates a real-life context

Whenever possible, provide the information in terms of real-life use. Relate the content to experiences. Tell stories. Encourage the students to do the same by having them think about the application or presence in their own lives. Your own experiences are often a great way to do this.

Encourages social interaction

In terms of online learning, social interaction fits well in discussion boards. But that's not the only way to encourage social interaction. Group activities and projects, a class wiki and synchronous sessions such as Blackboard Collaborate are just a few of the ways social interaction can be nurtured.

Provides hands-on activities

Hands-on activities are ideal for online learning. Just be careful of the extent and ability to complete the activity. Examples can be observation and reporting, building something, researching something, or designing something. A variety of activities address universal design principles in any course.

Encourages student reflection

This is another reason to chunk your course segments. Doing so provides time for the learner to reflect, draw conclusion, make differentiation and relate the learning to real life. Other ways this can be done are course wikis and well-developed discussions. Taking it further, journals and blogs allow expression of reflections. These are just a few examples of the essential aspects. There is much more - and perhaps in reading, you have thought of how these things can apply to your course.


Johnson, Scott D. and Aragon, Steven R., An Instructional Strategy for Online Environments, New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 2003, 100, 31-43.

Keller, J. M., and Suzuki, K. "Use of the ARCS Motivation Model in Courseware Design." In D. Jonassen (ed.), Instructional Designs for Microcomputer Courseware. Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum, 1988.

Miller, G. A. "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two." Psychological Review, 1956, 63, 81-97.


The Worldwide eLearning Instructional Design (ID) Team consults in collaboration with faculty and course developers to create quality online courses. The ID Team is well-versed in the best practices of instructional design, universal design for learning, educational technology, and issues such as compliance with the American Disability Act and copyright regulations. ID Team members are available for consultation by appointment: contact us via email or phone, (806) 742-7277, if you need further assistance.