After you have defined your plan, it’s time to start developing. It’s extremely tempting to just dive in and start recording videos and writing assessments and so on. But if you do that, you can create a course that doesn’t make sense and that doesn’t satisfy your primary goal or any of the supplementary objectives you planned. That said, even though we recommend you do initial development without using the technology, there are aspects of the final delivery method that should influence your development strategy.

In the first parts of development you need to expand on the information you determined during the planning phase. After that, you get down to deciding precisely what you want students to learn and how you’ll get them to do that.

Phase 1: Building out the plan

Before you start creating the content, revisit the following three areas from your initial, high-level plan and build them out further:

  1. Clarify your goals and non-goals for the course
  2. Clarify your assumptions about your students
  3. Write clear, specific objectives

Add specifics and detailed descriptions to your high-level, initial plan. Keep in mind that your audience may be larger and more diverse than you initially expect, depending on how open you make your course.

  • Remind students that they can replay the videos or even skip them.
  • Remind students that they can repeat activities as many times as they like.
  • Provide text versions of the lessons. This is key, especially if any of your students are not native speakers of your language.
  • Don’t make the primary objectives either too easy or too hard. If there is advanced material you think would be great for some of your students, design your course so that information is optional. If there is background information that you think some students may need, again make it optional. Placing optional questions in the forum is one approach.
  • Find a way to provide extra, more challenging questions for advanced students.
  • Find a way to provide background material for students who might need a little extra help getting started. Putting background material in a Google+ post is one approach.

Phase 2: Define your course metrics

You should determine what data you will collect and how you will use it to evaluate the difference you have made with your course and how to guide future improvements to your course. You should also determine how you will evaulate your students' progress and use that to evaluate your course.

Using assessments: Assessments let you rate students' progress and provide valuable feedback for future versions of your course. You'll need to decide if you want assessments and if you want them to be graded or not. Keep in mind that grading matters to students, so they will want to know how the grading works and they will care passionately about getting a high grade.

  • Be very concrete about the outcome you want in your assessments. For example: “Students will know the answers to this set of questions.” You then create the lessons so that they enable that outcome.
  • Make your assessments compelling and challenging but not daunting or frustrating. You want the assessment to assess students’ progress, not to scare them away from the rest of the course.
  • Remember that your audience may have a wide range of familiarity with the online world. Make sure that the mechanics of doing the assessments does not interfere with the content of the assessments. You want to assess the student's knowledge of the content, not how facile he/she is with opening browser windows or using different types of user interfaces.
  • If you want to use graded assessments, decide how those assessments affect the final grade. For example, assume you have two graded assessments, one in the middle of the course and one at the end of the course. If you count the first assessment as 35% of the final grade, the final assessment as 65% of the grade, and you require at least a 70% combined score to pass the course, then if a student misses the deadline for the mid-course assessment, that student cannot pass the course. Is that what you want? And are you ready for the reaction from students that decision entails?
  • Don’t reuse assessments from one iteration of the course to another if scores matter to you. Once the course goes live for the first time, its content, including the assessments, is on the web. People will repost and share them. If you give the course again, many of the students may have already seen the assessments from the last time you taught the course.

Measuring reach and engagement: You can collect data measuring the number of people you reached and how engaged they were by using Google Analytics to track visitors to your course. Common questions answered by reach and engagement data include: How many students registered? How many completed each unit and each lesson? What countries did the students come from? Was there a difference in course performance based on location?

Tracking students' happiness: You can use surveys to measures student attitudes towards the material and feelings of satisfaction. They can answer questions that will tell you how satisfied they were with what they learned and whether they think they will be able to use the material. While not objective, happiness data is an important indicator of the success of your course. Even if a course was objectively effective, if your students hated it, they are not likely to recommend it to their friends. Consider sending different surveys to people who registered but didn't finish the course than those who did finish it.

Deciding what data you want to evaluate early on makes it more likely that, as you continue to the develop the course, you will remember to collect the information necessary to do those evaluations. Do not wait until after the course has launched; it might be too late by then.

Phase 3: Outline and create your course

Sequence and organize your content into digestible chunks. Online courses typically follow a semi-synchronous course flow. (For more information, go here.) Consider the following questions as you determine the progression of your course: Is there an overall flow to the material that makes logical sense? What dependencies are there in your content? Are there steps that students must learn before other steps? Are there concepts that they must understand?

A lot of your development time will be spent in this step. For help with one way to create a detailed outline, see From Objectives to Outline.

  • During your first lesson, consider making it clear to students what the course flow will be. Tell them when units will be released, what deadlines exist, during what hours course staff will be monitoring the discussion forum, and so on.
  • As much as possible, make each of your lessons standalone so that students can successfully access them, even if they progress in a different order than you anticipated.
  • Be consistent in lesson format. For example, first define the topic of the lesson, then say why it's important, give a demonstration of the topic, talk about it a bit, and finish with another demonstration and a short conclusion.
  • Keep most lessons approximately the same size so your students know what to expect. For online consumption, your material should be in smaller chunks than for live classes. Keep videos 3-5 minutes in length.
  • Your videos can talk about fairly complex notions. If they do, be sure to back them up in other ways. For example, add tips before the activities and have multiple activities that point out the differences that cause the complexity.
  • Because community is such an important part of an online course, consider putting hooks into your discussion forum from your lessons. For example, have students do an open activity and post the results to the forum, to discuss with other students.

Phase 4: Validate your content

Before you go to the effort of writing text, recording video, and coding activities and assessments, check with others that what you plan to teach will accomplish your goals. It’s best if you can check both with experts in the area (to make sure you don’t have any mistakes) and with representatives of your audience (to make sure what you have makes sense to them).

It can be hard to remember what not knowing something feels like, especially if you're an expert on the topic. This is why it’s so important to validate your content with people who are representative of your audience.

Make sure to keep your content legal. This may sound obvious, but laws for what you can do in a live classroom can be different from what you can do online. Also, laws regarding what you can show in a video or talk about in an online forum vary from country to country. Make sure you check any applicable laws before publishing any of your content.