Planning for Online Instruction

Leading an online course has its own challenges. This resource aims to support teachers as you prepare course material, lead your online class and assess your students’ work.

Table of Contents


Based on 20 Tips for Teaching an Accessible Online Course by Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.

Some of the suggestions below are based on the concept of web accessibility. Because we want all of our students to be able to engage in the content we create, web accessibility is an essential aspect of digital curriculum design. Being mindful of the below tips will help us build digital bridges to learning rather than accidental barriers for our students regardless of ability or disability.

To learn about accessibility in general, watch this video: What is Digital Accessibility? (NYU).

Use large, plain, high contrast, and simple fonts on uncluttered pages with plain backgrounds.

Use fonts like Arial, Verdana, and Helvetica. Do not use cursive and fancy fonts. Avoid bright lettering on light backgrounds and dark lettering on dark backgrounds to ensure your text is high contrast and accessible to those with color blindness. Chunk your writing to improve readability for all students.

Use clear, consistent layouts and organization for presenting content.

Be uniform in your design and stick to one style. 

Use built-in layouts, designs, and accessibility tools in your learning management system (LMS) and documents.

Pre-built layouts and templates in your LMS (such as Schoology, Buzz, Canvas, and Blackboard) and document editors like PowerPoint, Word, Slides, and Docs are likely already accessible.

Use descriptive wording for hyperlink text.

Rather than “click here,” or just a long URL, use a descriptive title (such as “Unit Two Body Systems Vocabulary”) for link text.

Formatting links in this way will improve navigation for screen reader users and the readability of the document for all readers. For most editors, highlight the text and then click the link icon to add the hyperlink to it. Most Learning Management Systems (LMS) such as Schoology, Buzz, Canvas, and Blackboard have a built-in link tool. 

Ensure that video and audio files have captions and/or transcripts.

Closed captioning and transcripts make video and audio content available to students with hearing deficits. Additionally, students in noisy environments or with poor speakers can utilize these tools to improve their understanding of the material. Look for the “CC” icon in the video player when selecting video content.

If you use your custom videos, consider uploading them to YouTube to auto-caption or add a transcript document. Additionally, consider keeping video content short or break up content with activities and knowledge checks. Doing so will help maintain student attention and improve knowledge retention.

Ensure that images that will augment and improve learning.

Utilize the description/alt text box when uploading/linking images. For complex images such as charts or graphs, offer an in-text explanation of the content.

This will assist students who can not visualize the image in their understanding. Also, if the image link becomes broken, students will have a backup for understanding the content. Most LMS will offer this as an option when you add an image to a page or assignment.

Avoid flashing or spinning GIFs and other decorative elements.

These can potentially trigger seizures.

Use built-in Heading and List tools

Do not increase font size by hand to create headers, or create lists by hand using dashes. Using the tools built in to your document editor will will improve readability and navigation for screen reader users. In some document editors, this will create a table of contents to help all students navigate the document. The consistent styling of utilizing built-in headers and lists improves readability for all students.


LMS have a headings dropdown built into their text editors for creating pages and assignments. Look for this option on the top bar of the text editor in your LMS.


In most LMS, the list tool is built into the top of the text editor for pages and assignments next to the header tool.

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Communication and Building Relationships

Model positive communication skills with students.

Communicate regularly, and in multiple formats, with supportive, inclusive, and positive course announcements, direct messages, phone calls, text messages, and emails.

Set the tone for the course as an inclusive and safe learning environment for all students by modeling positive digital communication tactics. As you work with students to troubleshoot technology in a new learning environment model, use a growth mindset in your communications with students.

Provide opportunities for you and your students to get to know each other.

Invite students to participate in activities and conversations where they share who they are as individuals, such as an “about me” slide in a class introductions slide deck. This will help inform you of student interests and cultural backgrounds to build relationships and better-individualized lesson content.

Communicate with students frequently on their progress and understanding of the content.

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Process and Planning

Provide clear and easily understood course expectations as the first resource in the course.

Reinforce expectations throughout the learning experience. Topics should include: how to submit work, Timelines, grading policies, plagiarism policy, etc. 

Include a daily lesson structure: Detail time spent on direct instruction, time spent in group work, and time spent on individual practice. Provide students with ways to troubleshoot. Set clear expectations using learning targets and transparent assessment rubrics.

Utilize backwards design for digital lesson planning.

Start with your content standards after selecting essential criteria in your content area. Ask yourself, what do you want your students to be able to do after completing the lesson? Work backward from the lesson goals.

Do not assume all students and parents have a high degree of technical expertise.

Plan to scaffold vital technical skills and provide guidance and tips on utilizing classroom tech. 

Add new tech tools slowly with assistance on how to use them. Plan to accommodate students who may be experiencing technical issues.

Sample tech support document: How to Join a WebEx Meeting From Your Chromebook

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Instruction and Pedagogy

Represent content in multiple ways.

Consider using a combination of text, video, audio, or games when presenting content in the course — for example, add a video demonstration to a set of text directions.

Recruit and sustain student interest

Tie content to student lives, offer collaborative opportunities, choice and voice in learning activities, build community, and associate content to real-world scenarios.

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Differentiate how students express their learning for assessment.

Use multiple tools for the construction and composition of learning representation.

Provide clear and detailed feedback on assessments.

Be sure students understand why they received the grade they did, regardless of how they scored.

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Classroom Management

Discuss digital citizenship and safety early and often with students.

Integrate the concept throughout the course aligned to related curriculum topics when possible.  For example, discuss vetting sources with students when a course task requires online research. If students collect images for a project, give instructions on how to find images that are OK for reuse and how to provide the artist attribution accurately.

The THINK acronym is a guide for approaching conversations in person and online. The source of the THINK acronym is unknown, and it likely predates social media. It may be based on Herbert J. Tylor’s Four-Way Test, a business ethics code. The goal is to help people have kinder and more reflective conversations.

Consider norms and procedures for your webinar/live lessons before your first meeting with students.

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