Redesigning Your Course for Online

Redesigning Your Course for Online


The default structure of an in-person course works to keep a course present for instructors and students: it won’t fall too far out of our minds if we know we must occupy a common physical space two or three times per week. Most of us have also been socialized to learn predominantly, if not entirely, in face-to-face environments, so we take their organizing structures for granted. 

In online environments, keeping a course present can be more difficult. It can be easy for students to forget to log in, and to feel isolated when they do, as though they have been left on their own to work through material independently. In order to create a dynamic, present course that fosters a sense of community for instructor and students, it helps to intentionally design and foreground the ways that you will interact with students, the ways that students will interact with one another, and the ways that students will interact with the course material.

CoI framework

Use the three perspectives below to reimagine your existing syllabus and/or course plans. Click on each presence for a deeper dive.

  1. Instructor presence. How will you, as the instructor, be present to students in the remote course? This includes interacting with students in the learning environment, providing timely and personalized feedback, and performing direct instruction.
  2. Social presence. How will your students perceive each other as real human beings experiencing the course together as a community? You can create opportunities for students to interact with each other via discussion groups, study pairs, collaborative assignments, and informal digital spaces such as a “student lounge” discussion forum. 
  3. Cognitive presence. How will you and your students construct meaning? More so than in a face-to-face environment, it is important to deliberately structure and clearly communicate opportunities to think about course material, explore ideas, contextualize and integrate those ideas, and/or test and apply them. Cognitive presence is enabled by effective teaching and social presences.

Why should I use these presences as lenses?

These three presences comprise a conceptual framework called the Community of Inquiry framework. In applying this framework to actual online courses, research has shown that the intersection of the three presences has a strong positive influence on students’ experience in their online courses. Deep learning requires each presence.

Examples and what to look for

Instructor Presence

Take a moment to reflect on your instructor or teaching presence in your typical face-to-face context. What are the things that reassure your students that you’re present as an instructor and that you care about their learning? Your strong organizational skills? Strategic use of gestures? Improvisation in response to student questions? Witty banter? Which of these strengths are difficult to convey in an online context? What elements of your personality come through? Consider deliberately planning how students will know you are there with them in the course at every step along the way. Active instructor presence can be created when instructors adopt roles that amplify, curate, aggregate, filter, and model (Cormier and Siemans 2010).

If you already have a syllabus, look across the course components and learning activities and mark where your instructor presence plays major and minor roles. Some effective ways to translate these to the virtual setting include:

  • A well-organized course website. Can students intuitively navigate the course to find ways to communicate, assignments, and frequently accessed resources? Tip: ask a friend or colleague to look at your site and give feedback on its navigability and accessibility.
  • Weekly 2-3 minute check-in videos/messages that help students understand the organizational framework and major course ideas of the week, as well as get to know you as a person.
  • Regular feedback on discussion board posts. Will students see your comments on a daily, weekly, or irregular basis? What kinds of comments can they expect from you?
  • Synchronous, drop-in office hours. Leave a regularly occurring  Zoom meeting "open" for students to stop by, just like your physical office.
  • Instructional videos/podcasts/notes with your face/voice/handwriting. Even if you use external resources for content, consider recording short introductions of just a minute or two so that students see your face and hear your voice. Let your personality come through. For a lower bandwidth option, you can scan your handwritten notes to personalize the experience. Concise diagrams or concept maps with your unique style can be memorable. Authenticity is more important than high-production videos.
Consider these smaller interactions to support your teaching presence
  • Timely feedback.
  • Personalized interactions (e.g., responding to students by name, either synchronously or asynchronously: “Jerome, your comment really highlights the intersection of the two perspectives we read.”).
  • Redirecting student discussion when it gets off track. 
More examples of instructor presence

Social Presence

Think back to the last time you had an enduring virtual social experience. What made you feel connected to the other people? If you are a fan of multiplayer online video games or online discussion and support communities, this may be familiar. But for many people the idea of a virtual social presence is a new one. How will you invite students into the learning space? Will students communicate with each other in writing? Via video? Synchronously? Asynchronously? How often, and about what topics? When will the communication be focused on learning outcomes and when might they be focused on developing community? When students are not sharing physical space regularly, they may not feel part of a class community unless you are strategically and intentionally creating spaces for that community to develop. Consider building into your course timeline dedicated structures and opportunities for creating and reinforcing social presence. Some suggestions for building and maintaining social presence include:

  • Build rapport and model social interaction early in the course using icebreakers or a “getting to know you” video or audio recording. 
  • Set the expectation for regular interactions. Spread interactions throughout the semester so that they become routine. At least some of the time, make the interaction itself, not the content of the interaction, the primary point. This is especially important with written interactions, such as discussion board posts: if you are grading these for content, they are unlikely to have the kind of natural back and forth that most easily builds community.
  • Build in varied opportunities to interact. Beware of Zoom fatigue and the toll excessive screen time can have on mental and physical health. Aim for inclusive and equitable practices with regular check-in activities, and be aware of the ways that student-student communication can enhance or hinder other students’ experiences (e.g., if students make biased comments in a discussion board).
  • Identify and highlight which of your learning objectives rely on social presence (e.g., practicing discourse in discussion courses or working collaboratively for group work). Be intentional about how assignments can effectively integrate content and interaction. Use transparent assignments to help students see these connections. 
Consider these smaller interactions to support social presence
  • Include an occasional family pet cameo in your whole class correspondence.
  • Encourage students to respond to each other by name.
  • Facilitate mechanisms for students to form study groups (e.g., a discussion board, a Zoom room that is always open for them to drop in to study “together,” etc.).

Cognitive Presence

Cognitive presence has to do with the course material: how presentthat is, how coherent, connected, and engagingare the various kinds of learning you’re asking students to do? Generally speaking, most instructors with face-to-face experience find this aspect of planning an online course most obvious, and they feel comfortable planning for the cognitive presence. Remember, though, that in an online environment you may need to be more structured, intentional, and varied as you give students opportunities to learn course content or practice new skills, receive feedback on those processes, and iteratively move toward understanding. You will have fewer opportunities to “read the room” and check understanding, and it may be more difficult to pivot if an approach isn’t connecting with students. As a result, plan frequent, deliberate, and flexible ways to check in with students about their learning. Fortunately, not only is cognitive presence in the virtual classroom supported by instructor and social presence, but also many strategies for effective teaching and learning you already use translate to this context:

  • Use multiple representations to teach new concepts and ideas. Readings, videos, activities, discussions, assignments, and so forth should all reinforce one another and give students multiple opportunities to make meaning of and construct their knowledge of the course material.
  • Give frequent, varied, and low-stakes opportunities for students to get feedback on their work. This might come in the form of assessments that you give individual feedback on, but it may also involve self or peer feedback, as well as instructor feedback to the full class. The important point is to give you and your students many chances to see how they’re doing as they progress through the class.
  • Use principles of transparency to make assignments and instructions as clear as possible to students.
  • Make sure students are actively engaging with the course material. Students make strong contributions to cognitive presence when they ask questions, participate in knowledge co-creation, and give feedback to each other. This can happen in a variety of online formatsdiscussion boards, synchronous meetings, reflective writing, and office hours.
Consider these smaller interactions to support cognitive presence
  • Ask students to write informal reading responses or contribute discussion questions.
  • Use exam wrappers or assignment reflections to build students’ metacognitive awareness.
  • Use classroom assessment techniques such as minute papers, concept maps, and clearest/muddiest points to give you and your students quick feedback on their learning.


Using the three presences above as a lens on your existing syllabus will help you identify which aspects of your face-to-face course will easily make the move to online and those that require re-thinking for the remote context. 

Additional Resources

  • c3Design: Created by the CTE, a highly interactive online learning environment designed to guide you through the iterative, dynamic, and scholarly process of learning-focused course design. You can currently work through the program independently and reimagine your next course—whether it's face to face, hybrid, or online.
  • Creating Well-Paced, Socially Connected Courses: CTE self-guided workshop designed to be a compact remote learning experience that addresses common barriers for instructors who are accustomed to in-person teaching.
  • For self-guided step-by-step design process for online courses, try:
  • To read more about evidence-based online teaching, we recommend Online Teaching At Its Best by Nilson and Goodson. The eBook is available online through UVA Library.
  • For tips on balancing instructor presence and workload, we recommend reading Managing Instructor Presence and Workload, Boosting Student Engagement.