Three “Look-Fors” for Rigorous Online Courses


This post originally appeared on ASCD Express, a regular ASCD Publication focused on critical topics in education. This article appeared in Vol 7. Issue 9, the focus topic being effective school turnaround models and practices. View Original >


Those of us working in online education tout how innovative online education can be, and yes, there are many innovative components to online learning: traditional structures of time, space, the Carnegie unit, and what is considered the classroom are either reframed or broken. By default, online education can lead to some innovative practices, but there is no guarantee of rigorous curriculum.

When I look at curriculum in many online courses, I see many promises and many disappointments. Many courses still mimic the same “sit, get, and give back” mentality. Even a fun and engaging performance assessment can mask the fact that there is no rigor. More important than cool tech tools, online courses should attend to three requirements for challenging curriculum: engagement, collaboration, and construction of knowledge.


We need to think about engagement not simply as a singular part of an equation, but also as a complex combination of factors, including management, curriculum and pedagogy.

Conrad and Donaldson, in their online education staple Engaging the Online Learner, say that project-based learning and constructivist principles framed in a collaborative environment lead to engaged online learners.

They write, “Engaged learning is focused on the learner, whose role is integral to the generation of new knowledge. In an engaged online environment, each learner’s actions contribute not only to the individual knowledge, but to the overall community knowledge development as well.”

After you’ve set the stage for engagement, check out the book by Boss and Krauss, Reinventing Project-Based Learning, to align your curriculum with the best technology.


If we want 21st century learners, then we must put them in an environment where true collaboration is a requirement. I am disappointed when I look at an online course and the only sort of collaboration I see is sharing ideas or work on a discussion board. Sharing is a great first step, but creating something new as a team is better.

Instead of just an individual report on a world religion, why not also have students collaborate in a group to create a podcast debunking common misconceptions on a religion. As Sir Ken Robinson says, “Collaboration is the stuff of growth.”

Online courses should balance group assessments and individual assessments. Through this, the individual is held accountable for the learning targets, and the group is honing a 21st century skill, solving problems, coming to consensus, and learning from each other to create something together.

Create this structure for your students and then explore the cool tools that can help your students collaborate to create.

Construction of Knowledge

Although activities and lessons can work on basic skills, these should be formative, not summative, and should be filtered through the larger task that requires construction of knowledge. Students should be creating something new with the content or skills being taught, creating something for a problem or project that has a complex and open-ended answer.

Instead of having students create a brochure or poster about germs, have students come up with a plan to limit the spread of viruses and bacteria for the school. Students will still be required to learn about the content of germs, but they will have to use that information to solve a problem that has a complex and open-ended answer.

In Sync

These three components promote one another. Challenging assessments that require construction of knowledge require students to collaboratively solve problems and require the teacher to use engagement to promote collaboration and keep student interest.

These components are your quality indicators when you are looking for the best online curriculum.


  1. Good post. i would add that content should go far beyond knowledge and comprehension. Engaging students in higher order thinking skills moves a course past simple reading and responding to multiple-choice tests.

  2. Online education is now very common in universities. I think online courses really challenge a person because they are expected to complete the work without a lot of encouragement.

    • I am finding a need for organization and self-discipline in order to learn online since I’m easily distracted, my memory and concentration are also challenges I need to overcome, but I found the article very interesting, since I believe in collaborating with others to identify and solve problems. Great content.

  3. Came across your post through UniversalClass. I enjoyed it very much and found it quite informative and very well said. Thank you!

  4. found this to be very informative and gave me a few ideas to assist me in my learning process.

  5. The 3 components for the success of an online course appear to require the efforts of both dedicated students and a dedicated instructor. The instructor has the task of creating “the glue” that makes the process work, and the student is required to be a part of “the team”.

  6. I agree with the statement by Patricia Hanna on April 9, 2014 but, I consider that the instructor’s task is more that of a catalyst then “the glue” in order to facilitate the open ended learning process.

    • Comment

  7. This is my first online course. Reading these links is both informative and helpful.


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