Converting an existing course to an online course: where do you start?

Online onderwijs, waar begin je?

Where do you start as a teacher in redesigning your existing course into an online variant? Hanne ten Berge and Ineke Lam (Utrecht University) wrote a step-by-step plan and share tips such as 'start at the end' and 'Keep It Simple'.

In principle, the following also applies to the development of an online course: start at the end, the learning objectives. In the learning objectives you formulate what a student should know and be able to do after the course. Then determine which learning activities fit the learning objectives and what you as a teacher have to do to help the students learn. Finally, you make a choice for the method of assessment (formative and / or summative). To convert an existing course to an online variant, you start from what is already there; the existing learning objectives and course manual.

Constructive alignment

We have previously explained the relationship between learning objectives, assessment methods and learning activities (see the teacher portal of Pharmacy UU  [in Dutch only]). This model is known as ‘constructive alignment’ (Biggs, 1996). Watch a video with an explanation about this. 

What should a student know and be able to do after the course?

Start by examining the learning objectives of your course. And think: can these goals remain unchanged or not?

Take a critical look at whether your learning goals can still be achieved

Current conditions may require adjustment of the learning goals by the elimination of parts that require travel or contact with others (fieldwork, lab work, observation, conducting surveys, etc.). For example: recognizing rock layers in the landscape can be done on the basis of more information sources than just a photo at the student’s disposal. And instead of conducting door-to-door surveys, you can have students conducting a questionnaire online using the snowball method or use an existing data set, but then the learning objective must be adjusted because students do not collect data themselves.

Also take a critical look at your learning objectives in connection with the workload that students are currently experiencing. Is the part of the course necessary if you consider that teachers and students experience extra work pressure due to the (home) circumstances? 

Subsequently, it is important to ask yourself with which test form you can best find out whether a student has achieved these goals. Think about the test form before you adjust the rest of your course. The course activities must guide and prepare the student for the final test (if any). The final test, if applicable, therefore provides logical learning and practice activities for the course period, also in the form of formative tests (i.e. aimed at giving feedback on the learning process and not for a grade). There is a good chance that the test you normally use is now no longer suitable because all education takes place online. Taking a large multiple-choice knowledge test with the help of Remindo (summative) becomes complicated, because the test must take place remotely, at the student's home. Online proctoring is not yet organized within Utrecht University in such a way that testing can be done at home. Please note: if you adjust the test format and thus deviate from the OER, contact with the director of education is necessary. He may have to submit it to the Board of Examiners.

Tip: View our knowledge dossier for information about tests in an online setting [in Dutch].

Designing online learning and teaching activities

Once you have determined the learning objectives and test methods, you will need to consider what the students will do in the course and what you, as a teacher, need to do for this; the learning and teaching activities.

Your course meeting will now have a different function and arrangement than at a regular class. The following image shows one way that a more or less "regular" meeting might look like when you convert it to an online session. This can be helpful in thinking about and shaping this transformation process.



Try to stick to the scheduled times as much as possible, at least for the synchronous activities. Especially now, students greatly benefit from and need structure, and you can assume that they already have the timetable in their agenda and are available at the scheduled times. See how you can best use the time scheduled for this course to achieve the learning objectives. You do not have to stick to 2 hours of lectures followed by 2 hours of seminars or practicals. Plan (within the scheduled time) several short blocks with other activities in between that ensure processing of the subject matter. And/or replace working synchronously (all at the same time) with working asynchronously (each in their own time) where possible. And if you do use the full scheduled time, schedule multiple breaks for longer meetings (two hours or more) and allow for variation in the working methods. If there are few or no synchronous activities, try to ensure that you can be reached in an accessible way. For example, indicating to first-year students that they can email you for questions is often not considered easily accessible by them. Sometimes students might not know that they have questions, then for example a (synchronous) consultation hour per week works well. Students then hear questions from others and the answers.

Keep It Simple

And finally, we advise you when transforming a course to an online variant for the first time: ‘KIS (Keep It Simple)’. Do not push yourself to learn and embed six new applications; students will not appreciate this either.


Would you like to talk about your course after reading this article? Via a professional consult UU-lecturers can get free educational advice. Please contact us via Do you have any more questions about the tool mentioned in the article, then contact our colleagues of Educate-it.


With thanks to Marlies van Beek and Liesbeth van de Grint of Educational Development & Training for their input.
An image of the difference between the structure of a face-to-face meeting and an online meeting by Triam Float inspired us to creating our own variant.

Module (Re)design your education in times of corona

Do you want to work on the design of your distance learning in MS Teams with guidance from advisers and with mutual exchange with fellow teachers? In the coming months we will offer this module in a group. 

More information