Molecule shapes simulation: phET, University of Colorado at Boulder,

In this post I argue that using existing online resources rather than re-inventing the wheel will save a good deal of instructor time compared with creating everything from scratch.

This is the fifth in a series of 10 posts on designing quality online courses. The nine steps are aimed mainly at instructors who are new to online learning, or have tried online learning without much help or success. The first four posts (which should be read before this post) are:

Nine steps to quality online learning: introduction

Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 1: Decide how you want to teach online

Nine steps to quality online-learning: Step 2: Decide on what kind of online course

Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 3: Work in a Team

A condensed version covering all the posts in this series can be found on the Contact North web site: What you need to know about teaching online: nine key steps‘. There is also a version in French: Ce que le personnel enseignant doit savoir sur l’enseignment en ligne: neuf étapes clés

Moving content online

Time management in online learning is critical. Faculty often spend a great deal of time converting their classroom material into a form that will work in an online environment but this can really increase your work. For instance, PowerPoint slides without a commentary often either miss the critical content, or fail to cover nuances and emphasis. However, I’m going to suggest that while some of this work cannot be avoided completely, you can cut down on ‘conversion time’ by using existing online resources.

In Step 1 I recommended rethinking teaching, and not just moving recorded lectures or class PowerPoint slides online, but developing materials in ways that enable students at a distance to learn better. Now in Step 4 I appear to be contradicting that by suggesting that you should use existing resources. However, the distinction here is between using existing resources that do not transfer well to an online learning environment (such as a 50 minute recorded lecture), and using materials already specifically developed for online teaching.

Use the existing institutional technology

Before discussing content, if your institution already has a learning management system such as Blackboard or Moodle, use it. Don’t get drawn into arguments about whether or not it is the best tool, at least when you are beginning. Frankly, in functional terms, there are few important differences between the main LMSs. You may prefer the interface of one rather than another, but this will be more than overwhelmed by the amount of effort trying to use a system not supported by your institution. LMSs are not perfect but they have evolved over the last 20 years and in general are relatively easy to use, both by you and more importantly by the students. They provide a useful framework for organizing your online teaching, and if the LMS is properly supported you can get help when needed. There is enough flexibility in a learning management system to allow you to teach in a variety of different ways. In particular, take the time to be properly trained in how to use the LMS. A couple of hours of training can save you many hours in trying to get it to work the way you want.

The same applies to synchronous web technologies such as Blackboard Collaborate or Adobe Connect. I have my preferences but they all do more or less the same thing. The differences in technology are nothing compared with the different ways in which you can use these tools. These are pedagogical or teaching decisions. Focus on this rather than finding the perfect technology. Indeed, think carefully about when it would be best to use synchronous rather than asynchronous online tools. Blackboard Collaborate is useful when you want to get a group of students together at one time, but such synchronous tools tend to be instructor-dominated (delivering lectures and controlling the discussion). However, you could encourage students working in small teams on a project to use Collaborate to decide roles or to finalize the project assignment, for instance. On the other hand, asynchronous tools such as an LMS provide online learners with more flexibility than synchronous tools, and enable them to work more independently (an important skill for students to develop).

Use existing online content

The Internet, and in particular the World Wide Web, has an immense amount of content already available. Much of it is freely available for educational use, under certain conditions (e.g. acknowledgement of the source – look for the Creative Commons license usually at the end of the web page). You will find such existing content varies enormously in quality and range. Top universities such as MIT, Stanford, Princeton and Yale have made available recordings of their classroom lectures , etc., while distance teaching organizations such as the UK Open University have made all their online teaching materials available for free use. Much of this material can be found at Apple’s iTunesU.

In the case of the prestigious universities, you can be sure about the quality of the content – it’s usually what the on-campus students get – but it often lacks the quality needed in terms of instructional design or suitability for online learning (for more discussion on this see Keith Hampson’s: MOOCs: The Prestige Factor; or OERs: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly). Open resources from institutions such as the UK Open University or Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learn Initiative usually combine quality content with good instructional design.

Where open educational resources are particularly valuable are their use as interactive simulations, animations or videos that would be difficult or too expensive for an individual instructor to develop. Examples of simulations in science subjects such as biology and physics can be found here: PhET ,or at the Khan Academy for mathematics, but there are many other sources as well.

But as well as open resources designated as ‘educational’, there is a great deal of ‘raw’ content on the Internet that can be invaluable for online teaching. The main question is whether you as the instructor need to find such material, or whether it would be better to get students to search, find, select, analyze and apply information. After all, these are key ’21st century skills’ that students need to have.

Certainly at two-year college or undergraduate level, most content is not unique or original. Most of the time we are standing on the shoulders of giants, i.e. organizing and managing knowledge already discovered. Only in the areas where you have unique, original research that is not yet published, or where you have your own ‘spin’ on content, is it really necessary to create ‘content’ from scratch. Unfortunately, though, it can still be difficult to find exactly the material you want, at least in a form that would be appropriate for your students. In such cases, then it will be necessary to develop your own materials, and this is discussed further in Step 7. However, building a course around already existing materials will make a lot of sense in many contexts.

What are your colleagues doing?

Another often invaluable resource is the material your colleagues have developed for their courses. If several of you are teaching related courses, it is likely that they will have material, such as a graphic of equipment or a video clip of an experiment, that would also be relevant to your own course. Indeed, if several of you are developing a program, then there is considerable scope for working collaboratively to develop high quality materials that can be shared.


Teaching online offers you a choice of focusing on content development or on facilitating learning. As time goes on, more and more of the content within your courses will be freely available from other sources over the Internet. This is an opportunity to focus on what students need to know, and on how they can find, evaluate and apply it. These are skills that will continue well beyond the remembrance of content that students gain from a particular course. So we need to focus just as much on student activities, what they need to do, as on creating original content for our courses. This is discussed in more detail in Steps 6, 7 and 8.


1. How original is the content you are teaching? Could students learn just as well from already existing content? If not, what is the ‘extra’ you are adding? Is this accommodated in your online course design?

2. Does this content exist on the web? Have you looked to see what’s already there?

3. Are you avoiding using institutionally supported technology, such as the LMS or synchronous tools? If so, why? Have you tried to find out whether they will in fact do what you want?

4. What are your colleagues doing online – or indeed in the classroom, with respect to digital teaching? Could you work together to jointly develop materials?

5. Have you had any formal training in using the institutional LMS or synchronous technologies?

If you feel that your online course is too much work, then maybe the answers to these questions may indicate where the problem lies.


Step 5: Master the Technology




  1. Hi Tony, I agree with you that the most beneficial resources for students will be those that are interactive and veer away from a traditional lecture format. I also like the idea of having students collect and evaluate a sample of the “raw data” that is available on the internet, and find those sites that will be useful to them. Do you think that more universities will offer the content of some of their courses online, and will this have an effect on the academic weight that a traditional degree may carry?

    • Thanks, Ben.

      Universities are already moving many of their courses online. In Ontario for instance 15% of all course enrollments in Ontario public universities were online in 2010, and online enrollments are increasing by 15-20% per annum in Canada and the USA. Contact North estimates that there are now just under 1 million online course registrations in Canadian post-secondary education.

      However, the big move over the next few years will be into hybrid learning (less classroom time, more online), which will impact a little on the fully online course enrollments.


  2. Hi Tony, I am a teacher at South Island Distance Education School, and I am currently developing an online German Language course. I learned about your blog Nine Steps on Online Learning in my studies at VIU, and I can especially relate to Step 4. I use a free online German Language program developed in Germany, and that gives me more time to spend on designing thoughtful assignments and focussing on the students needs. All of the nine steps are very helpful for my course development, thank you.


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