Organizing your Course for the Online Space

Because students in online courses navigate so much of the content and activities on their own time, it is important that the goals that they are aiming for are clear and they can see how the content and what they are asked to do are connected.

Featured Resource:  What students want in a Canvas Site
What students say about Canvas sites that work for their learning and tips about how to make your site more useful for your students.

Communicating with Students

Indicate to students ahead of time (if possible) how you intend to communicate. Explain how you expect students to contact you and/or course TAs, the time frame when they can expect responses, and the availability and preferred format for office hours and individual student support requests. Also, consider how you will coordinate with TAs.

There are several options for messaging your students, either individually or as a class. It is especially important in an online course to be clear about how you will send important announcements and information, and how students can get in touch with you. Choose one or two methods to use consistently throughout the semester, and try to include that information in a central place, such as the syllabus or homepage of your Canvas site. This will help students know where to look for information, and set their email and Canvas notification settings to fit their courses.

Some options:


Delivering materials, resources, and lectures

Canvas allows you to post materials, communicate with students, assign tasks, and grade and provide feedback. If you are new to Canvas, get started here.

Posting documents and resources.

  • Documents, problem sets, homework or readings,  and links can be added to your Canvas site. You can choose to embed files and links in Canvas Pages, as well as within Discussions and Assignments.
  • Materials can also be posted Canvas Modules, either directly (for files or links) or within pages and assignments.  Modules organize your materials sequentially and make it easy for students to find them.   If using Modules, don’t forget to publish modules when you are ready for students to access the material. You can learn more about modules from the tutorial video.

Video lectures.

  • To record a lecture, use Panopto. This tool is available in Canvas and allows instructors to record themselves speaking (with or without slides or documents). Review the Panopto guides on uploading videos and recording screencasts to get started. Students will be able to access your recordings from the Class Recordings menu item in your Canvas course. You can also turn on automatically generated captions for students. This will help all students to access the material.
  • If you typically use a whiteboard or chalkboard in your teaching, you can explore these whiteboarding tools that work with remote teaching technologies.
  • If you are using Zoom or BlueJeans, you can also record using these tools. To integrate videos from Zoom or BlueJeans into your Canvas course, either 1) the Zoom or BlueJeans meetings directly in your Canvas site through the Zoom or BlueJeans integration and record to the cloud (any recordings will appear in the Class Recordings section of Canvas), or 2) upload existing video files to Panopto in the Class Recordings section of your Canvas site. Look here for further instructions on creating Zoom meetings within Canvas, and options for storing lecture videos.
  • You can also embed pre-existing videos directly into Canvas, upload existing videos into Panopto, or embed links to videos on your Canvas pages, discussions, or assignments. Note: Canvas storage space is limited; your Panopto account has more storage space. Uploading any videos to Panopto will preserve Canvas storage space for other files and documents.

Canvas Organization

Canvas is a powerful tool for distributing materials, communicating expectations, assigning tasks, and providing grades and feedback. There are many different ways to organize materials in a Canvas site, but the following guidance is based on student feedback on what they look for in Canvas sites

Be sure to communicate to your students how they should use the site, including where to look for materials, assignments, and due dates. Consider setting aside some time in the first few days of your course to show students how you plan for them to navigate your site.

Consider using Canvas modules to organize your course materials and tasks. Canvas modules help students work through tasks and ideas step by step, and can integrate everything from links to assignments. Modules can be organized around specific days, weeks, or main conceptrs, whatever is the best fit for your class. You can also control when a module is available to students, and require students to complete specific steps before starting an assignment.

Planning for learning across a module allows for:

  •  More regular engagement:  Students should engage with the course material regularly.  Often folks plan for students to do a small part of the learning multiple points each week.  This something might be watching a video or it might be attending a synchronous session.  Building a schedule helps students stay on track because they  know what they are supposed to be doing.  Regular engagement also makes sure they connect with the material and their classmates often and so helps build community).
  • More focused live sessions:  Some of this work online can take the place of class meetings (so recorded lectures count as attending class). This helps reduce Zoom fatigue but also makes sure that when you have as many students as possible there for class you have a reason to have them together.
  • More time for practice: It may help to think of the components of your class as giving students material and then the opportunity to practice the skills or types of thinking that you want them to do with that material.  
  • Each module can build to a small assignment or activity that helps the students progress toward your goals These assignments can serve a number of purposes:
    • Students can pull together what they’ve learned in the week (so a short low-stakes quiz or short paper)
    • Students can apply what they have learned to novel situations (so perhaps a case study or online simulation)
    • Students can submit a section of a larger paper or project.
  • Gives students discrete tasks with deadlines to keep them on track and focus their attention on what they should be learning. In fully online learning environments, breaking up content into short segments that have a clear purpose helps align goals with the work students do, and focuses students’ attention and learning. This is especially true of courses that meet infrequently. Students may need to do a lot of self-directed tasks on their own time, and breaking the process down into steps helps students keep track of what they're doing, and where they're headed.

Help Students See the Purpose of Assignments

Your course assignments have a purpose, and guiding students through that purpose can prevent students from focusing too much on "getting done", and missing key connections and ideas.

  • Explain the connection between any assignment you give and your goals to your students. For example, how will completing the reading ahead of time help students do well in the course? What should they aim to know and understand when completing the reading? This will help students understand the purpose of the work so they don’t see it as busy work.  But it will also help them focus.
  • Give students feedback that is focused on your goals and that arrives in time for them to improve on the next assignment.