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Anatomy of an Online Course

Registering for your first online course can be a little daunting. Maybe you aren't sure what to expect or what the requirements will be. An online course, like a traditional face-to-face course, is a collection of materials, resources, and tools designed to help you achieve specific learning objectives.

Online courses are similar to face-to-face courses in many ways. Often, online courses are conversions of traditional courses, retaining the majority of the original structure, organization, and content. Existing content is reformatted in order to make it available to you online. For example, instructor lectures can be video recorded and sideshows can be uploaded for you to view. Quizzes can also be administered online using software that times your work and randomizes the questions.

The biggest differences between online and face-to-face courses involve communication and time. You may be used to attending a course at a specific time each week – going to a classroom and interacting with the course materials, instructor and your classmates during this reserved time. Online courses utilize various synchronous and asynchronous technologies to allow for communication and interaction. If your online course does not require you to meet synchronously on a regular basis your work in the course will be ongoing. You will need to schedule time on your calendar to complete course activities and assignments before they are due.

There is a growing trend to design and evaluate courses specifically for delivery online. These courses incorporate innovative technologies and instructional strategies, as well as traditional content. Let’s take a closer look at the basic components of a typical online course: Navigation, Administrative Documents, Study Materials, and Assessments.


An online course is often presented within a Learning Management System (LMS) requiring you to login via an account your school provides. The LMS not only organizes your courses and course content, but also allows you to submit assignments and communicate with your instructor and classmates.

The LMS and navigation are critical components of an online course. They provide access to everything you will need for course completion. These systems provide both a framework for the course and navigation tools for accessing all of the materials listed below.

Administrative Documents

Syllabus – The syllabus is your guide to the course, providing the course description, information about your instructor, and details of the course. These details may include textbook information, learning objectives, and a list of course assignments. Course policies are also often part of the syllabus. Review this syllabus example for more information.

Rubrics – Rubrics are becoming more popular in higher education. They provide you with specific guidelines and criteria for each assignment so that you can better prepare for them and understand what is expected. Take a look at this example rubric for a term paper or essay.

Grades – The course will include a way for you to track your progress, receive feedback from your instructor, and view your assignment grades.

Administrative documents can be found in both online and traditional courses. They serve the same purpose in each – to inform you of the course requirements and expectations. In addition, online courses provide you with a way to electronically view your grades.

Study Materials

Presentations – Online courses use a wide array of methods to provide you with course content. You may encounter some of the following: recorded lectures, video presentations, slide presentations, podcasts, audio recordings, and slide shows, as well as images and other graphics.

Activities – In addition to the presentation of information on screen, you will be required to engage in other activities such as:

  • reading articles and textbook chapters,
  • completing practice exercises, and
  • participating in class discussions. Participation in class discussions or seminars may also be used as an assessment (see below) and assigned a grade.

Presentations and activities of all types can be found in both online and traditional courses, although the formats may be different. These materials and interactions are designed to provide you with the knowledge and experience you need to achieve the learning objectives. They prepare you to complete the course assessments.


The course will include assignments that you will be required to complete and submit for a grade. Your work is evaluated by your instructor, often with a grading rubric, as a means of determining whether or not you have achieved the intended learning objectives for the course.  Learning assessment can take place in many ways:

  • weekly quizzes,
  • mid term and final exams,
  • essays and papers, and
  • presentations and projects.

Online discussion boards can also be used to assess your learning.

The ways in which you prepare, submit, and receive feedback for assessments may be different in online and traditional courses, but the purpose remains the same –

assessments provide an evaluation of your learning.

Explore and Ask Questions!

This is not an inclusive list of course components. Your online course may have fewer components or additional ones. These differences may be due to a number of factors such as the type of course, your academic program, the course instructor, and the number of course credits.

Take advantage of any orientation modules, handbooks, and tutorials your school offers. These materials have been carefully developed to introduce you to the course navigation and help you get comfortable with the format before you get started.

Once you are enrolled in your course, be sure to contact your instructor if you have any problems accessing or viewing parts of the course or if you need clarification about any of the activities or assignments. Becoming a successful online student takes practice. Don't hesitate to get started!