Best Practice

Designing for Distance Learners

One of the posts on this site addresses putting a course on-line for the first time. Where students are located – whether close to campus or at a distance – is an important factor in the design and delivery of an online course.
In this post I will deal with a number of practical implications of offering on-line courses to distance/blended learning students.   

As another post says, knowing your target learners is key.  First of all, while there are many exciting “bells and whistles” features that can be incorporated into online material, it may be best to stick to more basic functions and tools if there is a likelihood that some of your students may struggle with decent broadband access and/or with technical know-how.

The various supports available to distance students also need a little thought, and an awareness that is on-going and not just at design stage. It might seem obvious that there is little point in telling on-line students to “pop over to Exams/Admissions/Fees” if the students are not campus-based  but I once saw a lecturer post marks for a distance learning course on his door!   While students can of course access many of the university services online or by phone, it is good to remember that access and familiarity to these services is different for these students.

Similarly such students can’t just pop into the  library. In addition, the library may not have reciprocal arrangements with a student’s local campus library so care needs to be taken regarding accessibility of literature – are you going to make readings available online? If so, check out the copyright faq on this website. Allow time to organise this. 

Some sort of an introductory session is helpful for students new to an online course/programme.  (Note: The instructional design team are currently building an induction for all online students and if you have suggestions for it please contact  A discussion forum can be useful here. If you also intend using a discussion forum as a formal assessment method, then consider having a separate, clearly marked forum for general queries. 

There can be a marked difference in expectations and experiences of students who are taking just one or two online modules as part of a more traditional offering and those taking an entire programme on-line.  Significant prior advice, very clear and often repeated instructions, a clear schedule scaffolding the delivery and a reasonable level of support and communication is especially required in this scenario.



JISC: Online Learning

Centre for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan: Strategies for Online Teaching

Illinois Online Network: Online Instruction – Important Points to Consider