Parts of a Course Builder Course

The primary parts of a course created with Course Builder are as follows:

A single course consists of a series of units with individual lessons and activities. The course can have any number of graded assessments scattered before, between, and after the units and lessons. It can also have one or more formally-set up avenues for social interaction for the students.

For a quick description of the flow a student typically experiences in a course, see Course Flow for Students. For a description of the design process we think is effective, see Design Process.

The rest of this page discusses the four main parts of a course in more detail.

Course content and delivery

To make the content more digestible, consider grouping course material into a number of units. Each unit contains a series of lessons and possibly activities related to a particular topic within the content covered by the entire course.

In the Power Searching with Google course, one unit is about interpreting search results; another is about checking the reliability of the content of those search results. Each of those units consists of about five lessons and about five activities. For these units, course staff creates and releases the lessons and activities ahead of time. While the material is available to students, course staff interacts with students through the participant community mechanisms.

For a unit that consists of a series of lessons and activities, we found that around five lessons and four activities is a good length.

A lesson is a coherent and relatively small chunk of information. In Power Searching with Google, we chose to create each lesson as one video and a text version of the same content. Your lessons do not have to have both parts. For more information, see Lessons.

An activity is an ungraded assessment, used to provide feedback to students on how well they understand the lesson. Activities typically contain optional hints. For more information, see Assessments and activities.


  • Make short videos, preferably 3-5 minutes.
  • Include closed captions in your videos.
  • For the text version, take the time to clean up the transcript.
  • When deciding what content to include, design for the average student. To accommodate other students, consider including background or advanced material in forum posts (if you want discussion and maybe answers) or in Google+ or blog posts (if you just want to broadcast the information).

A very different type of unit is online office hours where the students submit questions ahead of time and the course staff answers those questions in real-time using a Hangout On Air. Depending on your course, you may have some students interacting with the course staff over video for the Hangout On Air.

For online office hours you have a fixed date and time when the course staff broadcasts a session for students to watch and interact with.

If you have a very small course (fewer than 10 people), you can use a Google Hangout for your session.

A Google Hangout is a video chat that can have up to 10 participants. In a Google Hangout, all participants can share what’s on each person's screen, collaborate in Google Docs, view presentations and diagrams together and speak to each other. If your course is small enough, this is a great way to go. If your course is large, you may still consider having your students break into small groups for interactive activities with each other over Hangouts.

If your course has many more than 10 students, you can use Hangouts on Air to create a live experience with your students. With a Google Hangout on Air, you can post a live session with your instructors and any guests you chose. You post the Hangout on Air to your YouTube channel and to your Google+ stream.

Tip: If you do a Hangout on Air, consider using a live captioning service to help students who are hearing impaired or whose primary language is not the language used in the Hangout on Air.

For all of these unit types, instructors make course content available to students at scheduled intervals throughout the course. Once available, the content continues to be available until the course ends. That is, lessons are not available for only a few days; students can go back and redo lessons at any time throughout the course. In Power Searching with Google, soon after online office hours took place, the course staff posted a video of it. So even if students missed the office hours, that material was still available.

Releasing course content at scheduled intervals has one perhaps unanticipated benefit. Many students tend to work on content relatively soon after the content becomes available. For that reason, questions about course material tend to cluster near the release of that material. Because other students are thinking about the same material, they are more likely to be interested in getting involved in discussions about the material or in answering questions.

These are only some possibilities for how to model units. You may discover other ways to do things that suit your material better. For example, instead of all of the teaching being pushed from the course staff, you may decide to break your students into small cohorts and have those cohorts work on material together. You could provide them with lessons and activities to start from and then have them use Hangouts of their own for group study.

Assessments and activities

In Course Builder, an assessment is a test. Assessments can either be graded or ungraded. Ungraded assessments are also called activities.

When you create your course using Course Builder, you supply the code with the information needed to grade assessments.

Graded and ungraded assessments essentially support the same types of questions:

  • Multiple-choice with one correct answer
  • Multiple-choice with more than one correct answer
  • Fill-in-the blank
  • Go and do something. These are questions that do not have prepared answers and instead invite the user to engage in some action. For example, in Power Searching with Google one of the questions was "When was the last historic earthquake in your area? Share your answer in the forum."

Telling the experimental code how to grade multiple-choice questions is straightforward. Telling it how to grade fill-in-the-blank questions can be trickier. You need to be very careful both in your wording of the question and in what you include about the correct answer. “Go and do something” questions do not require an answer, so you don’t have to include anything about the answer.

An activity typically covers material only from the lesson that the activity immediately follows. You use them to let the students assess their own understanding of the material in that lesson. An activity does not affect a student’s final score in the course.

When you create a question for an activity, you can provide the following information:

  • The correct answer to the question, so the code knows what to tell the student.
  • A hint about why incorrect answers are incorrect. The hint should point the student to the correct answer.
  • The correct answer and explanatory information.

Graded assessments typically cover material from several units and lessons. You use them to rate students’ performance. Before and after assessments can also help you gauge the effectiveness of the course.

With Course Builder's experimental code, you have control over how many graded assessments you provide and how each of those assessments counts in the final scoring for a student’s grade.

Because you use a graded assessment to rate performance and measure success, your practical choices are:

  • Only let students take a graded assessment once. In this case, you can tell your students which of their answers are incorrect.
  • Let students take a graded assessment multiple times. In this case, do not tell them which answers are incorrect. (If you do, then they'll have no difficulty getting 100% when retaking the same assessment.)

If you choose to allow your students to take the same graded assessment multiple times, consider still giving the students some feedback about what they did wrong. To do this, map each assessment question to the corresponding unit and lesson within the course. Then immediately after submission of the assessment, show students the score and list the lessons to review to improve their score.

Social interactions

Another critical component of a successful course is student participation. Online office hours and asking questions of the experts are some examples to elicit participation.

For large online courses, the size of the audience means that it is impractical for the course staff to answer all of the questions and to enter all of the discussions posed by all of the students. Instead, you can set up avenues in which the students can participate not just with the instructor but also with other students.

The most common types of social interactions are:

In addition to these things that you set up, students may create additional interaction mechanisms, perhaps an email alias for students interested in a particular aspect of the course material or weekly in-person meetings for students living close to each other.

Administrative tasks

Of course, as with any class there are various administrative aspects to creating an online course. Two of the major ones are managing student registration and collecting and analyzing data to see how well your course does.

For a full list of tasks needed to create a course, see Create a Course.