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Online activity design

Your online course will need to have a variety of learning activities that help students become familiar with the content and subsequently practice and apply that content. These might include videos, readings, live virtual sessions, practice quizzes and problems, discussion forums, group tasks and more. As you begin to select and develop these activities, there are a few things to help guide you through the design process.

This video provides guidance on major considerations for planning indivudal learning activities in an online course and offers examples of how to increase interactivity with content and student-student interaction. You can also access the slides.

Considerations for designing an online activity

Purpose of the activity

Typically, when designing instructional activities, you should plan by unit or module because encompasses all the content, skills and practice students will need around a particular concept or skill. Each activity in the unit serves its own purpose in helping students achieve the learning outcome. For example, some activities might serve to provide information on theories, definitions, processes, etc. while other activities focus on the practice and application of these. Together, this collection of learning activities gives students what they need to understand, practice and apply the related content through a series of activities that build on knowledge and skills progressively. Therefore, it’s important for each activity to determine the purpose in the learning process. Which learning outcome will the activity support? What is the goal of the activity?

Following theoretical frameworks on instructional design, it is important to keep in mind that instruction should follow a general flow in the types of tasks and activities. In general, instructional activities should be sequenced in the order of:

  1. Introduction of the Topic
  2. Presentations of Content
  3. Practice Activities, and
  4. Application Activities.

As you design your activity, it’s important to consider where you are in this framework in order to select the activity best suited for the phase of instruction.

3. Type of interaction(s)

Moore (1989) presented a basic framework of the three basic kinds of interaction in an online learning environment, and Soo and Bonk (1998) later added a fourth kind of interaction to call attention to self regulation in the online environment. With the development of digital environments, an online course presents unique opportunities to provide interactions in courses that are not always possible in face-to-face courses. However, these interactions must be deliberately planned. To take advantage of the online environment, be sure to include as many opportunities for learner-learner, learner-instructor as possible, and learner-self where appropriate.

Most activities in an online course  - if not all - are focused on the content. However, oftentimes strictly learner-content activities are more passive and not interactive in nature. It is certainly much easier in an synchronous  (or "live") session to build in interactivity with polling questions, spontaneous question and answer, and break-out rooms. However, it can be much more difficult to add in interactivity in asynchronous activities when trying to introduce and communicate content.

In addition to presenting content, part of the responsibility of the instructor with learner-content interaction is to ensure that students have sufficient opportunities to practice. The research is clear on this: distributed practice is essential for learning to occur, so make sure there are sufficient opportunities for students to engage with the content in an active way.

Activities that promote learner-content Interaction include: short ungraded quizzes after a reading/video, interactive videos (using a tool like EdPuzzle), activities that engage the student while watching a video or reading, such as: Guided Notes , Advance OrganizersTranslate ThatAnalytic teams,  Sketch NoteLecture Wrappers.

In traditional classrooms, many types of interaction are spontaneous, but many learning management systems to do not easily allow for organized spontaneous interactions between students. This is why it is extremely important to plan for these as part of your online course.

While general online discussions can promote student interaction, it is recommended to design group activities with a goal and specific protocols (see examples here). Students can also work together on collaborative documents or group assignments and projects. Peer feedback activities are also very effective way of increasing social presence while also promoting peer learning.

Without question, interaction between students and their instructor is important. In an online course, it won't always be possible for personalized one-on-one interaction with students, but instructiors can use some suggestions (see Feedback section below for more information).

Soo and Bonk (1998) proposed an additional model of interaction, that of the learner with themselves. They identify these kinds of interactions as a kind of “inner dialogue” as learners reflect on their learning and the strategies they use to learn and engage with the course activities. This is an important kind of interaction for building meta-cognitive skills. Unless prompted students rarely reflect on their learning or the strategies they use to learn in a course. Therefore, it is important to deliberately design activities to help promote reflection and self-regulation.

Activities that promote Learner-Self Interaction include: the Minute paper and exam wrappers, which can both be adapted for the online environment.

Opportunities for feedback

Students want and need feedback on their learning. In online environments, there are a variety of opportunities for students to get feedback from the instructor and from their peers. Keeping marking time down while still giving students opportunities to practice can be a balancing act.  It can be tedious to provide feedback on every single discussion forum and other online activity, but not all feedback has to be one-on-one. For example, you can post sample answers to questions for certain kinds of assignments at the end of the week for students to self check. This might include videos of instructors walking through answers or an annotated document. In a discussion forum, instructors can provide a summary of feedback to the group after reviewing all contributions (in the form of either text or a video). When doing this, be sure to highlight a few students' responses as you discuss the points.

Other activities, such as online quizzes can provide automatic specific feedback to students based on their incorrect answer to a question. Depending on which answer they choose in a multiple-choice or true/false questions, instructors can provide specific explanations to common misconceptions and links to resources for each specific question. For short answer or essay questions, you can also give a feedback prompt to help students determine if their answer was complete: "If your answer includes _________, then you are on the right track. If you left out any of these, review___________." (Nilson, 2017).

Finally, do not overlook peer feedback. Many students find it very helpful to get feedback (Cundell & Sheepy, 2018). In particular, students can benefit from getting feedback on assignments, or parts of an assignment before submitting the final draft. In this case, it is advised to provide a structured framework for students to guide feedback.

The following provides examples of different learning activities that can be used for the different phases of instruction. Note that while the links document the activity used in a face-to-face class, all of these can be adapted to the online environment using Forums, collaborative documents and other feature. For help adapting these activities to your course, please contact the CTL at

Instructional Phase


Example Tasks & Activities


The purpose of the introductory phase is to:

1)    Activate the schema and establish what students already know about a topic

2)    Pique students’ interest

3)    Set expectations

  • Using stories and anecdotes to activate the schema
  • Creating Advance Organizers to find out what they lready know about the topic
  • Doing  a Background Knowledge Probe, Survey, or (Moodle) poll
  • Discussing their knowledge/ experience with the topic in a Discussion Forum

Presentation of Content

Although it is a traditionally passive phase of instruction, consider ways you can make content more interactive.


Practice activities should target their understanding of the content and performance skills and focus specifically on new knowledge and skills (focus on integration with other knowledge should be reserved for application activities). They should start out simple but be sufficiently challenging while becoming increasing more difficult and complex.



Students engage in activities that integrate newly acquired knowledge and skills with previous knowledge to complete authentic tasks. The goal is for students to practice using the new knowledge and skills in tasks that mimic or relate to real-world applications.


As you develop individual activities, consider:

  • How does the task align with the Learning outcome? Does the activity require (or help build up to) the level of thinking identified in the Learning outcome?
  • What kinds of support mechanisms can be used (cues, hints, prompts, examples, models, templates, etc.) to help students complete the task?
  • How will you provide for multiple means of presenting content and expression of learning?
  • How can feedback be built-in to the activity?
  • How can student interaction be built-in to the activity?

As you develop the group of learning activities for a unit or module, ensure that you:

  • Provide sufficient modelling of skills (i.e. worked examples, frameworks for advanced higher-order thinking, etc.) and have scaffolded practice (smaller tasks that build to more difficult and/or complex)
  • Do not rely too heavily on synchronous (i.e. real-time) activities, as this may pose challenges for some students.
  • Provide variety in the way content is presented and learning is expressed. Do not rely too heavily on one mode of learning, but rather vary the modes. For example, provide a mix of videos, readings and graphics, and allow for multiple modes of expressing learning (i.e. a video, text, sketch, mind map, infor graphic, etc.). Where possible, provide both “read” and “watch” options for a particular concept, idea or theory.
  • Provide sufficient opportunities for students to engage with the content before any kind of formal assessment.
  • Provide sufficient opportunities to receive feedback for the targeted skill or concept.


Cundell, A., & Sheepy, E. (2018). Student Perceptions of the Most Effective and Engaging Online Learning Activities in a Blended Graduate Seminar. Online Learning22(3), 87-102.

Moore, M. G. (1989). Three types of interaction. American Journal of Distance Education, 3(2), 1–6.

Nilson, L. B. (2017). Online Teaching at its best: Merging instructional design with teaching and learning research. John Wiley & Sons.

Soo, K. S., & Bonk, C. J. (1998). Interaction: What does it mean in online distance education? ED Media & ED-Telecom. Frieburg, Germany. [link]

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