Module Design Planning

I’m a great believer in having a well-thought out design for online courses. Not enough people seem to share this view unfortunately, despite there being many good ways of doing this in an effective, planned way.

The detail of a course design can be formally captured in a Module Design Planner (MDP) or any other equally simple tool that explains the specific concepts of the pedagogy and offers guidance to the authors of learning content.  Such a tool helps with the management and development of the content required for a module, outlining the scale and scope of the authoring task ahead.

The content for an online module has to be deliberately sourced.  It may come from a publisher, be authored internally, come from an OER, or wherever.  There will be a number of sources of content which, in turn, will have to be assembled and turned into a complete, integrated, seamless and fully featured online delivery product.

The MDP acts as a framework for the content sourcing, authoring and the subsequent development process.  It will contain details of the:

  • syllabus
  • learning objectives
  • topic titles
  • academic content
  • other resources and activities.

It will help a development team and the authors to:

  • plan the required work
  • negotiate contracts with publishers
  • source any other articles/case studies
  • address any constraints and specific development requirements
  • assess the length of the syllabus.

The preparation of an MDP for authors should be carried with awareness of other guides, including for example:

  1. Gagne’s ‘Nine events of instruction’ framework which can also be applied at both topic and module level.
  2. UCL’s ABC learning technology toolkit used early in the design process, to help ensure that the optimum tools are chosen for activity requiring support.

Structuring the MDP

Content authors should consider various types of activity when preparing an MDP and should share the same language as other authors and developers.  Some of these shared terms and activities are summarised below.  Note that this is illustrative, not a prescription!


Module Learning ObjectivesModule Learning Objectives should arguably be a central component of an online pedagogy, but they are optional. If used, 8 to 12 are recommended.
LOs provide the context for measuring success, providing assessment feedback and managing progression and retention. Crucially, they provide students with a clear indication of the nature and structure of the module, hence an understanding of what they will gain from studying it.
Essential ReadingMost undergraduate and postgraduate modules use one or more core textbooks – generally from a commercial publisher – at their heart, to provide the key academic theory for the module. These are Essential Readings. Rights will need to be negotiated with publishers, particularly to allow the embedding of the text directly into the topics for seamless context.
Additional ResourcesAdditional Resources may be used to provide both supporting and alternative views to the academic content. Additional Resources are not required reading but any journal articles or case studies should be easily accessible via the university library online.
ePortfolioA module can culminate in an ePortfolio for assessment, for example utilised in a project-based module or as an optional outcome of a module. ePortfolios can be used to enable students to demonstrate their knowledge, competencies and skills as part of required coursework.
Competency FrameworkA Competency framework can help define which skills and competencies developed through the course of the module should be assessed.


Topic Subject AreasAll module Learning Objectives must be covered in the module Topics.
Authors should decide what each Topic will cover and what order they will follow. The structure of a Module could be:
  • Each module to consist of 10 topics.Each Topic to equate to 10 – 12 hours of study and, on-campus, would span one week within a 30-credit module.A Topic can cover multiple, but small subject areas.Larger subject areas can be covered over a number of Topics, e.g.
    • Topic 2: The theory of everything Part ITopic 3: The theory of everything Part II
Topic ObjectivesEvery Topic should contain a number of local Topic Objectives – written with the use of verbs that are dynamic and impactful. 3 to 6 Topic Objectives are sufficient.
These should relate to the module Learning Objectives but should be more detailed and specific at this Topic level. For example, module Learning Objectives might include:
  • M1. Gain a thorough understanding of the key theories in the subject
  • M2. Develop critical thinking skills
And some of the Topic Objectives for a given Topic might be:
  • T1. Understand and apply Theory X
  • T2. Understand and apply Theory Y
  • T3. Analyse the relative merits of X and Y and identify when each might be appropriate.
where T1 and T2 map to module Learning Objective M1, and T3 maps to M2.
ActivitiesWhere possible, use a variety of activities throughout the module to help students to engage with the content, test their understanding and receive appropriate feedback. UCL’s ABC provides sound guidance here. Activities should have added educational purpose and there is a rich variety to consider, for example:
  • Reflection – to solicit evidence of competent or critical thinking. Reflections may be used alongside Reasons and Alternatives as part of gathering evidence of critical thinkingAutomatically assessed questions, like multiple choice, multi-select and drag and dropSelf-assessed essay or case study type questions, where the student is asked to assess their answer against a model answerDiscussion forumsOnline tutorialsePortfolio updatesCollaborative eventsInformal peer-to-peer feedback.
Reflections and most question types can be included directly inline within the content, for instant use and feedback, though they may also be separated out into specific formative quizzes.
ResourcesA variety of resources that can be used within a module to support the academic content and to engage the student. These may include:
  • Video, e.g. video snippets, interactive video quizzes, or narrated slide shows
  • Podcasts and/or Vodcasts
  • Interactive learning components, e.g. Applets
  • Presentations, e.g. PowerPoint summaries
All such resources should have a distinct educational value, particularly as custom development can be expensive.
Summative AssessmentSummative assessments can take many forms but should map to the list of learning outcomes. Materials included in the topic should adequately prepare the student for any submission.


Topic Objectives to Learning ObjectivesTopic Objectives should always map to module Learning Objectives, and hence to Learning Outcomes – as these are what the student is assessed against. This is an essential component of formative assessment exercises, as it allows progress against both the schedule and module Learning Objectives to be monitored.

Preparing Topics

When following an online pedagogy authors must think of the content of the topics as an alternative to a traditional weekly lecture and tutorial session.   In such a setting students must be able to fully learn and prepare themselves for preparatory tasks, homework activities and summative assessments.  Learning materials must cover a given topic in sufficient depth. 

Following the trail above, where our evolving pedagogy has chosen course components broadly in line with those experienced on-campus (e.g. a text book, tutorial quiz question, past papers) there is one key substitution – lectures.  In our pedagogy the substitute for lectures is the purpose-written Study Guide, which can obviously contain many interactive elements and videos to spice it up.  What we have done is avoid simply having videos of poorly delivered lectures, which is an option but we are trying to provide a quality online experience.

So, there are two key components to the topic content:

  1. A Study Guide, or Topic Narrative, that acts as the ‘voice’ of the tutor, guiding students through the key concepts that they must recognise and master in order to succeed in the assessment of the module.
    This pedagogy is focussed on students recognising and understanding the key concepts in a course.  Think of there being a ‘field’ of concepts.  The job of the Study Guide is to ensure that students steer the student through this field of concepts so that they find then, understand them and – with the use of a digital personal portfolio of reflective activities – leave evidence of that understanding.  Think of these as ‘gateways’ in the learning, with students being steered through all of them and allowed through when the concept has been learned.
    The topics should contain various aids to understanding, for example: pointers to theory (e.g. a chapter from an essential textbook); videos to explain and elaborate the key concepts; reflective activities (ideally backed up with reasons and alternatives in an RRA approach) to stimulate and capture evidence of critical thinking.
  2. The Core Texts, or Essential Reading, are typically publisher texts that have been sourced and embedded within the topic content. The Study Guide, or Topic Narrative, should be used to link to this body of theory where appropriate, particularly in a way that reinforces the explanation of a key concept.

The following tables summarise what might be considered at this topic preparation stage.


Formative Self-assessmentA wide range of assessment options are available. Formative assessment exercises should include answers, appropriate feedback (including links back to the essential reading), and further guidance where possible.

There is a temptation to focus on multiple choice questions, but there is a very wide range of options that can be used to provide more appropriate tests of understanding.
Concept ‘Gateways’Every module contains a number of key concepts that a student must master. Identify well-known problem areas, or essential areas of understanding, and develop specific and focused activities to assist with these. These activities could take many forms, for example: simple reflections; short cases; collaboration and teamwork tasks; short video presentations. Try to create multiple alternative ways to understanding them – their importance merits the extra effort.


Topic NarrativeThe Study Guide and academic content (Essential Readings) from published sources will form the bulk of the material for the topics.
The Study Guide should not simply summarise the textbook content but should explain how the readings and activities are linked or related to both previous work and to the module learning outcomes. It is a Guide, not a summary, so should:
  • introduce the topic area and the types of activities involved
  • provide a clear roadmap with links into the main body of the text
  • introduce each reading or activity to ensure that the student understands what they are expected to do and to achieve.
Videos and TranscriptsVideo lectures can be used, but they can be lengthy, dull and hard to index back into. Videos can be highly effective, but ideally should be short (less than 5 minutes), very topic-focused and of high quality. There are many, very good quality short videos online (e.g. If videos are produced in-house then they should follow this lead.

Due to accessibility requirements, all videos need text-based transcripts. Invest in them as they provide an immediate study mode alternative for all.


Map Learning Activities
Module Learning Objectives
An online delivery should monitor the students’ progress and understanding against the module Learning Objectives. To enable this to function:
  • all formative assessment questions, and any learning activities in the topic narrative, should be mapped to one or more module Learning Objective. In formative assessment exercises, quiz questions should be given simple ‘weights’ against one or more objective, e.g. 30% against LO2, 70% against LO7.
  • optionally, all major sections of the essential readings (e.g. chapters or topics) can be similarly weighted. This enables the generation of progress feedback graphs and randomised mock-examinations – always popular just before exams.