Hybrid/Online Course Development

Instructional Design

Rigorous instructional design is important for creating successful online and hybrid courses, which often require more intensive planning than face-to-face classes. This is especially true if it’s your first time teaching in this instructional mode.

Graduate Center students may find themselves assigned to teach online or hybrid courses in a number of ways. You may be approached by a department chair and offered the opportunity to teach in these modes, and receive support in developing your course. You may be recruited specifically to teach online/hybrid courses. You may be applying for a position where teaching in such modes is expected of you. Or, you may be told, right before the semester, “oh, by the way, your course is completely online. And it starts tomorrow!”

Spending some time thinking through how to design courses for multiple instructional modes will benefit you no matter how you’re coming at the question of hybrid/online instruction. The primary challenge of these courses is that there are fewer built-in opportunities to gauge student comprehension in-person, so creating an organized and well-structured course is of heightened importance. Once you have a structure in place, it becomes easier to carve out time and opportunities for you and your students to improvise.

The following offer suggestions about how to strengthen course and assignment design to increase the likelihood of a successful, engaging, and rewarding online or hybrid course.

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Building Your Course Around Learning Goals

When you clearly communicate learning goals to students, not only are assessment and course design made easier, but students have a map a heightened sense of what’s expected of them in the course. Backward planning from learning goals can help a faculty member devise the structure for the class, and identify moments within it where different kinds of activities make sense.

Learning goals are more than teaching goals. These guidelines can help create strong learning goals (but also be sure to check with your department to see if there are course-specific goals that you should keep in mind):

  • learning goals should describe actions that students will be able to perform upon completing a course. Therefore, they differ from descriptions of what we intend to teach.  
  • when composing learning goals we should think not just about what we want to cover in the course but also about how we will know that students have learned the things that we want to cover.
  • Vague goals should be reformulated to be as specific as possible.
  • If you are going to assess student learning goals separately, then list them separately.
  • In writing student learning goals, consider using active verbs that make clear when a student demonstrates the ability to do something related to the course.  For a suggested list of verbs see: https://www.baruch.cuny.edu/facultyhandbook/documents/Bloomverbsrevised.pdf (note that the verbs “understand” and “know” are discouraged).

The learning goals you define may be informed by the mode of instruction you intend to use. For example, here is an excerpt of learning goals from an online Introduction to Psychology course. The goals specific to online instruction are italicized.

  • Identify ethical issues in psychology and psychological research.
  • Demonstrate critical thinking about behavior and mental processes.
  • Demonstrate effective written communication using an online forum.
  • Develop time management strategies appropriate for meeting course deadlines.
  • Demonstrate ability to use online tools for completing weekly work, managing self-progress, and taking part in virtual dialog and exchange.

Here is another example, where the goals are categorized:

  • Grammar and Mechanics of Writing: After completing this course, students will be able to observe sentence boundaries, punctuate correctly, vary sentence structures, and employ the conventions of standard English.
  • Hybrid-specific: After completing this course, students will be able to change their writing style when writing in different rhetorical modes and social contexts, including online environments, and take audience and occasion into account when writing.

It can help you to articulate what skills you assume students have already mastered when they enter your class, including technological skills, by defining what a student needs in terms of both access and knowledge in order to successfully complete your class. You can then create a clear plan for how students who do not have those skills can catch up.

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Scaffolding Your Assignments

Often students are confused about what faculty expect of them, and this is true of classes in every mode of instruction. In face-to-face classes, this confusion often becomes readily apparent in the room to mindful instructors, but it can be harder to detect online. Careful assignment design clarifies the expectations and effort you expect of students in your online or hybrid course.

Here are some guidelines for scaffolding assignments that will offer you multiple opportunities to intervene in your students’ knowledge-making process.

  • Construct tasks that give students practice before assessment.
  • Tie low-stakes and high-stakes assignments together to build upon each other in a gradual progression.
  • Consider workflow: ask yourself what assignments from face-to-face classes might be better accomplished online. For hybrid classes, design online assignments that prepare students to take full advantage of the time the class spends meeting in person.
  • Articulate for students the reasons for assignments, the method of assessment, and the grading process.

Maintaining Engagement

Many faculty who teach online or hybrid courses have concerns about maintaining a sufficient level of student engagement throughout the semester. How can these courses be set up to maximize opportunities for engagement?

  • Be mindful of the personality, aesthetics, and usability of the online spaces you deploy in your courses. You want your space to be inviting and functional.
  • Be intentional with the information architecture of your online spaces; consider building a site map before developing your course site to get a bird’s eye view of how the content flows together, and work to eliminate wasted clicks that take students further away from the content or spaces with which they should be interacting.
  • Build your course site in a way that doesn’t attempt to do too much at once.
  • Clarify what kinds of communication will happen in which spaces, at what times, and with what expectations.
  • Give students multiple, various, and persistent opportunities to express themselves and engage.
  • Maximize opportunities for students to create communities of their own in the online environment. You can do this by helping students create study groups, fostering group work, and encouraging students to find ways to connect with one another between assignments, including in face-to-face contexts.  
  • Repeatedly model examples of the kinds of scholarly and intellectual work you expect from students, through comments on blog or discussion board posts, and by promptly responding to student inquiries.
  • Consider having a consistent deliverable due the same time every week. Predictability helps students establish a routine.
  • Faculty presence in online and hybrid courses nurtures student engagement. Be involved in the online environment by commenting on student work, referencing when you meet face-to-face, or, for fully online courses, finding ways to let students know that you are engaged with their work.

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Creating Accessible Online and Hybrid Classes

In traditional classes, students with physical, psychological, or learning disabilities receive reasonable accommodations. The legal requirement and ethical imperative to create accessible classes holds for all online and hybrid classes.

All faculty must be mindful of and vigilant about questions of accessibility in their courses, which has a significant implications for choices around educational technology. Your campus likely has an office that provides services for students with disabilities (see our Navigating CUNY guide —https://tlc.commons.gc.cuny.edu/navigating-cuny-2/ — for links), but that may or may not have expertise in educational technology and instructional design. This is understandable; ed tech is a rapidly changing field and sometimes it’s impossible to make certain tools completely accessible to every student. For instance, students who are visually impaired may not be able to view videos, and students who have auditory impairment may not be able to listen to audio files. This doesn’t mean that faculty should strike audio and video from their pedagogy. With mindfulness and ethical commitment, faculty members can make sure their courses and assignments are accessible, and that students with special needs get the support that they require in order to participate fully in the course.

The following suggestions, compiled by Kathryn O’Donoghue of Suffolk Community College, offer guidelines for accessible instructional design.


Universal design helps instructors create courses that are accessible for all students through flexible, varied, and thoughtful curriculum development.

Faculty can practice Universal Design principles by:

  • Presenting key information and knowledge in multiple ways
  • Providing students with varied ways to access the information,
  • Creating multiple options for assessment of knowledge, and
  • Maintaining student interest using varied pedagogical methods.

For more on universal design, see: http://www.udlcenter.org/.


Assistive technology helps many students with disabilities achieve their educational goals. The following list offers guidelines for creating materials that these technologies recognize.

  • Software applications for visually impaired students can read course materials aloud. However, screen readers cannot recognize PDF files which contain text that is an image.
  • Whenever possible, create course materials in Word, then, if desired, create a PDF from the Word document.
  • When creating documents in Word, use styles in Word to organize materials in a course document hierarchically. For example, apply the style “Heading 1” to first level headings, “Heading 2” to sub-headings, etc. This way, screen readers understand the most important information and convey it to visually impaired users.
  • Use the Navigation Pane under the View tab in Word to review the outline of your document and make sure that the headings organize information in the best way.
  • Use Arial, Helvetica, or Verdana fonts, which are easily recognized by screen magnifying applications for visually-impaired students.
  • Use high contrast colors. For example, instead of bright yellow text on a kelly green background, use white text on a dark green background.
  • Use alt tags to describe images.
  • Word makes it easy to create an alt tag for an image. Right or Ctrl+click on the image, select format image, then type a short descriptive phrase under the “alt text” option.
  • This link —http://www.adobe.com/content/dam/Adobe/en/accessibility/pdfs/accessing-pdf-sr.pdf —  to Adobe Reader’s accessibility guidelines offers more advice on creating accessible PDF files.
  • When adding links in your document or website, rather than writing “click here” offer a description of the link.
  • When using multimedia, offer alternatives for students who might not be able to view or hear the media.
  • When creating videos for class, create a script that you follow so that a transcript can easily accompany the video. If possible, add captions to the video.

Be aware that some software and applications are not easily accessible for students with disabilities. For example:

  • Google Docs, while an excellent collaborative writing tool, is not as accessible as other programs. When using Google Docs, you can follow this tutorial from Michigan State University, to insure your document is as accessible as possible:http://webaccess.msu.edu/Tutorials/google-drive.html
  • Many online course materials from textbook companies and Massive Open Online Courses from well-known providers, while compliant with federal guidelines, may not be readily accessible for students with disabilities.

While faculty cannot anticipate every potential learning alternative for students, creating course materials easily recognized by widely-used software programs for students with disabilities and utilizing universal design principles increases the likelihood that the online and hybrid course will be accessible to all students.

The federal government has published a brochure detailing educational institutions’ responsibilities to their students with disabilities:http://www2.ed.gov/documents/news/section-504.pdf

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The Syllabus

The syllabus lays out the schedule, establishes policy, clarifies expectations between faculty and students, offers assessment criteria, and provides a map for the class. Certain additional details should be included in a syllabus for an online or hybrid class.

  • When and where your hybrid class will meet for its face-to-face sessions.
  • How the online time will be structured.
  • What technologies will be used, and what additional fees or skills these technologies require.
  • What your expectations are for students in terms of participation and technology.
  • Contact information that includes at least one way for students to communicate with you asynchronously and digitally.
  • Guidelines for interacting with peers.
  • Where to find your course’s online space.
  • Detailed assessment criteria.
  • Accessibility statement. Include on your syllabus a statement about reasonable accommodation.
    • For example: “If you have a learning, sensory, or physical reason for special accommodation in this class, contact the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities (insert contact info) and please inform me of the accommodation.”
    • Also consider including on your syllabus the skills and knowledge that you expect students to have mastered in order to succeed in your class.

Minimum Technology Requirements

Students should be told if there are minimum technological requirements necessary to participate in an online or hybrid course. You may even want to email students soon after they have registered for your course to ensure they are aware of the requirements.

Examples of requirements include:

  • A reliable Internet connection.
  • Regular access to a laptop or desktop computer with a current operating system.
  • Working knowledge of how to use word processing software and web browsers.
  • An active college email account that is checked daily
  • A CUNY Portal account.
  • Access to Blackboard.
  • A CUNYFirst account.
  • Off-campus access to the library’s online databases.

Some online or hybrid classes will require students to:

  • Have access to a web camera.
  • Use social networking sites (including but not limited to Facebook, Twitter, and social bookmarking sites).
  • Purchase or learn additional applications.

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Anticipating Problems

Back-up your work

Just as students can’t always get to campus on time due to events beyond their control, course websites might be unexpectedly unavailable, internet connections might be weak, and computers might crash. When working online, back work up frequently.

  • Save files: When composing blog, social media, or discussion board responses, save them in a word processing file or text file (Text Edit on a Mac or NotePad on Windows).
  • Keep consistent track of student work. Save important assignments to a local drive. This also helps with assessment, targeting struggling students, and maintaining engagement.
  • Keep your files organized in folders by class, and within those folders by units of the class. Your work will quickly pile up, and establishing a system for easily locating materials you’ve produced for your coursework is immensely valuable.
  • Regularly backup your files to an external drive or cloud storage.
  • Encourage student support networks
    • Try to spend some time at the beginning of the semester helping students build networks and contacts among others in the class.
    • Encourage students to exchange contact information with a few classmates who share their schedules. Ideally, these contacts will have the same schedule (for example, if Jane Doe does most of her work after midnight, then she should try to find peers who will be up at this hour, too).

Anticipate Problems and Cut Them Off

While we can’t always divine when problems with the technology will emerge, we can reasonably expect that at some point we’ll run into issues such as server downtime, mistyped URLS, and email confusion.

Try to anticipate when things may go wrong in your online learning environment and circumvent crises before they happen. The following bullet points offer some suggestions for how to do this.

For example, imagine a major assignment is due the Friday before a holiday weekend. If the server of your course site experiences glitches, or dozens of students post their work at the same time, the site may crash, causing anxiety in students and a headache for faculty.

  • Encourage students to submit their work early. You may even consider offering some incentives for doing this, or staggering due dates by group or individual.
  • Have an alternate plan for collecting such assignments in case of tech problems.
  • Give students time to learn new technologies.
  • Pay attention to emails from your campus or web host about scheduled server and site maintenance so that you can work around them.
  • Try to be available online when assignments are due to troubleshoot problems. Encourage students to communicate with you via a forum online about difficulties they encounter. Chances are that other students have experienced the same challenges.

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Identifying Modes of Instruction

CUNY has designated the following codes that define how much online time you can allocate in a class. Students will see these codes in CUNYFirst when they register for classes.

P = In-Person. No course assignments and no required activities delivered online. Note: this designation does not mean that digital tools won’t be required in the course.

This is the default mode of instruction used when no other information is given to CUNYFirst about the course. If you have a significant amount of work delivered online or digitally, or if you plan to augment or replace any class sessions or out of class work with digital or online tools, then you should list your class as Web-Enhanced (“W,” see below)

W = Web-Enhanced. No scheduled class meetings are replaced, but some of the course content and assignments, as well as required or optional activities, are online.

In practice, most courses probably fall under this category, but this needs to be clarified to your department and the registrar so that it can be listed properly in CUNYFirst.

PO = Partially online. Up to 32% of scheduled class meetings are replaced with online activities or virtual meetings. Between twenty minutes to fifteen hours of required online work per semester could replace time spent in the classroom.

H =  Hybrid. Between 33% and 80% of scheduled class meetings are replaced with online activities or virtual meetings. Between twelve to thirty-seven hours of required online work per semester will replace time spent in the classroom.

O = Online. More than 80% but less than 100% of scheduled class meetings are replaced with online activities or virtual meetings. Between twenty-eight to forty-six hours per semester will replace time spent in the classroom.

FO = Fully online. 100% of scheduled class meetings are replaced with online activities or virtual meetings. All of the class work, including exams, is online.

Note that a major difference between O and FO is that in an Online class, the final exam can be given in person, but in a Fully Online class, the exam must be given online.

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Clarifying Modes of Instruction in CUNYFirst

Each academic department is responsible for sending course descriptions, with mode of instruction clarified, to the appropriate dean’s office, which forwards them to the registrar. The registrar then puts the information into CUNYFirst. However, students might not realize what taking an online or hybrid course involves, and they probably do not know what the “modes of instruction” mean or where to look for the codes when they register for courses on CUNYFirst.

Faculty can and should clarify the requirements of their online and hybrid courses by including with the course description on CUNYFirst a brief note that tells students what technology they will be required to use, how much class time will be replaced with online instruction, and how the online format will be different from in-person instruction. Faculty might also include any special software or skills that the course requires.

Example 1: This section is a hybrid course, with 50% of the class happening face-to-face in the classroom and 50% taking place via online learning activities. Questions? Email the instructor.

Example 2: Please note that approximately 33% of this course will consist of online video lectures. You will need a solid internet connection either at home, or take the time to watch the video lectures in the computer labs on campus.

Faculty should be sure to check CUNYFirst after the course has been listed to make sure that the information is correct. If there is a problem, contact the scheduler in the appropriate dean’s office. Faculty may also consider sending registered students an explanatory email well before the start of the semester.

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