Course Structure & Communication

Welcome to Week 1

Framing: Course Structure and Communication

Why do we need to pay attention to our online course structures and communication?

Designing an online course adds a layer of complexity to course design because we are also reimagining the ‘classroom’ (Major, 2015). A specific schedule slot or assigned physical space no longer defines the learning environment. Instead, our classes operate in e-time, or “teaching and learning events that occur at different times and do not require learners to be online at the same time” (Stein & Wainstreet, 2017, p. 23).

Without the predictability of space and time constraints, students may find themselves navigating multiple learning environments with radically different platforms and expectations. Variability among these environments, including sudden changes or lack of a clear course structure, can feel like “unexpected turbulence on an airplane” (Pacansky-Brock, 2017, p.24). Weak course organization may inhibit student establishment of routines and promote student anxiety about their progress—all barriers to student engagement before the class has truly started!

A caring instructor is frequently cited as a primary motivator for student learning and engagement. In an online environment, ‘caring’ may be reflected in online presence. Flower Darby, author with James Lang of Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes, describes the importance of presence and how it is reflected in online classes:

Flower Darby: Establishing and Maintaining Presence from ACUE on Vimeo.

What barriers and challenges do we need to think about when it comes to building online course structure and communication?

  • In a time of trauma, stress and anxiety dilutes our ability to focus or quickly process information—even if we have been told something multiple times. Even with repeated messages and ‘landing spots’ for information, students may find it difficult to filter information when they are consumed with concerns outside a course itself. Design for simple but layered communication and anticipate how you will respond during typically busy or stressful moments over the semester.
  • Time is navigated in different ways in an online learning environment. Time for instructors and students in online courses is both more flexible and fragmented (Major, 2015). Students can process concepts over days and then engage with learning activities when it is most convenient to their schedule or work habits. Likewise, instructors can facilitate discussions or create learning activities without worrying about the next class arriving. The other side of flexibility, however, is more fragmented time. Learning may feel like it is happening ‘more slowly’ because we and our students engage in smaller but more frequent chunks of time. A course needs to be clearly mapped so that students can engage easily at any time. Furthermore, we need to create manageable plans for instructor presence and communication that do not overwhelm our other responsibilities.
  • Engagement in a course begins with students trusting us and their own ability to navigate the learning environment. Trust comes from a place of care, but also from designing for equitable learning experiences. The seemingly small, everyday elements of our courses, including our interactions with students, communicate our beliefs about individual learning and success. Dr. Frank Harris III and Dr. J. Luke Wood present five equity-minded practices for online teaching that can inform your course structure and communication, but also other elements we will be discussing in the weeks ahead.

    Note: The first 30 minutes of the recording provides background about equity-minded and culturally affirming online teaching practices; the rest of the recording offers specific ideas for each equity-minded practice until a Q&A session begins at the 1:06 mark)

    Organized learning environments help students establish routines. Student routines become the first step in supporting engagement because they help minimize distractions (‘where is that link?’, ‘where is the assignment description?’) and reduce anxiety over expectations (‘when is this due?’, ‘when can I expect a response to my question?’). Anticipate communicating the same information across multiple areas of your online learning environment.

What can we do to build online structures and communication using UMW-supported tools?

  • Strategy #1: Create weekly modules.
    screenshot of Canvas module
    Example of weekly module in Canvas course

    Use the Canvas Modules function to create a weekly menu of course content, assignments, and activities that opens on a regular day and time. Build weekly modules around a consistent framework. A framework could be as simple as pages that contain:

    • Overview video
    • Learning materials
    • Learning activities
    Include a weekly task list in your module (either on your Overview page or as a separate page in the weekly module) to summarize what students need to do and when. An organized online course is accessible for all students. “Website Accessibility” offers concrete strategies for designing and evaluating platform accessibility as you build your modules and pages in Canvas; the chapter also provides information for WordPress.
  • Strategy #2: Use multiple communication pathways regularly and consistently. Be clear with students about when you check messages and how soon they can expect a response. You do not have to be available 24/7 to be a responsive instructor, but you do need to follow through on the expectations that you share with students. As you debate communication options, learn how accessible different platforms are for students. “Accessible Presentations and Methods of Delivering Instruction” has general guidelines for communication and notes the accessibility features of several popular platforms, including non-supported tools (e.g. Google Meets and Google Hangouts). Select a limited number of online communication tools to use with your class. Consider pairing your purpose for communicating with the audience range of a tool:
Who do I need to reach? Why do we need to communicate? UMW communication tool options
Individual student Private concerns or questions about course progress
  • UMW email
  • Canvas Conversations
  • 1:1 Zoom meeting
  • Phone
Individual student Assignment feedback
  • UMW email
  • Canvas Conversations
  • 1:1 Zoom meeting
  • Screencast-O-Matic
  • Phone
Small group
  • Feedback on assignment
  • Project check-in
  • UMW email
  • Canvas Conversations
  • Canvas Discussion
  • Zoom meeting
Whole group
  • Public, course-based questions
  • Changes to course
  • Assignment or class reminders
  • Canvas Announcements
  • Canvas Discussion (general Q&A thread)
  • Zoom meeting
Whole group
  • Sharing content
  • Assignment overviews
  • Screencast-O-Matic
  • Canvas Modules or Pages
  • Zoom meeting
  • Strategy #3: Build in communication strategies that utilize the full community and encourage peer interactions. Each week set up an ‘Ask the Class’ discussion thread in Canvas. Anyone in the class can respond to the questions posted about that week’s concepts or assignments. Monitor the responses for accuracy—you can post the ‘thumbs up’ icon for on-target answers.
  • Strategy #4: Orient students to your online learning environment.
    screenshot of Canvas module
    Example of Getting Started or Week 0 module in Canvas

    Set your students up for success before the semester begins by offering a ‘Getting Started’ or ‘Week 0’ module. This module introduces you to the class and orients them to the course’s organization and expectations. Include a discussion thread for introductions so that everyone can begin to meet before class begins.

Now that You are Focused...Take a Shot!

You've read some background and seen some models so here are a few activities that you can try for yourself. If you haven't set up a Canvas course shell (a "sandbox") to practice you can follow these directions to set one up. If you need some help getting started on the activity you can click on the "Resource Guide" button below each activity. This will bring you to a page with a description of the steps as well as links to Canvas resources.

  • Activity: Create a weekly module template in Canvas and copy for each week.
  • Activity: Create a ‘Getting Started’ or ‘Week 0’ module in Canvas to introduce your students to the course.
  • Activity: Explore your communication options using UMW-supported tools and determine the communication channels you will use in your course.


  • Darby, F., & Lang, J. (2019). Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Major, C.H. (2015). Teaching Online: A Guide to Theory, Research, and Practice. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Pacansky-Brock, M. (2017). Best Practices for Teaching Emerging Technologies, 2nd edition. New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Stein, D.S., & Wanstreet, C.E. (2017). Jump-Start Your Online Classroom: Mastering Five Challenges in Five Days. Sterling, VA: Stylus Press.
  • Grimes, A., & Smith, D. (2020). Access for all: Creating partnerships at the University of Mary Washington. Fredericksburg, VA: University of Mary Washington. Retrieved from