About Online Learning

Additional Resources

What Is Online Learning?

Online learning is a course delivery format that enables students to study, complete degrees, and connect to the University from wherever they are. It makes use of the substantial resources of digital technology to deliver course content at a distance. Well-designed courses and programs take advantage of the science of learning to use multimedia materials, interactive technology tools, self-assessment strategies, and student-centered instruction to meet the needs of students who either do not have the luxury of learning in traditional classroom settings or who do not thrive in scheduled face-to-face class environments that often privilege one-time-only aural learning.

Online learning can take several different forms: 

Synchronous v. Asynchronous Online Classes. Async: Work on your own schedule, Sync: Collaborate Web meetings, Combined: Integrated Design
  • Asynchronous. There are no scheduled course meetings between the instructor and students, although students could meet at mutually convenient times in office hours with the instructor, in study groups with peers, or in assigned classroom groups to complete projects. Instructor-led activities and instructional materials equivalent to the contact hours of a face-to-face course are provided in a way that students can access and engage at the days and times of their choice while meeting established deadlines for work. These courses are listed in Self-Service Carolina as 100% Web Asynchronous Instructional Method, and they have a W or PC in their section number. 
  • Synchronous. These courses meet on a regular schedule using the Blackboard Collaborate Ultra Web conferencing program inside the Blackboard Learning Management System (LMS). Students and instructors can log in from wherever they are and interact live to engage with course content. It is important to note that Web meetings do have an increased cognitive load (the amount of mental effort required for the task) as all participants need to monitor audio, video, text, and/or chat, in addition to the course content and activities being discussed. See About Flipped Classroom Design for strategies for delivering some instruction before the synchronous meetings to help streamline and focus the goals of the synchronous sessions. These courses are listed in Self-Service Carolina as 100% Web Synchronous Instructional Method, and they have a V or PCV in their section number.
  • Combined Synchronous/Asynchronous. Combined synchronous/asynchronous online courses gain some of the scheduling flexibility of asynchronous classes while maintaining the connection and scheduling accountability of synchronous courses. They meet less often than fully synchronous courses, typically once or twice per week, and provide asynchronous instruction and learning activities for the remaining equivalent contact hours. These courses are listed in Self-Service Carolina as 100% Web Mix Async & Sync Instructional Method, and they have a VM in their section number. 
  • HyFlex. These courses provide students multiple choices of the way they wish to participate in the course during any given course session. Students may participate asynchronously (log in on their own schedule), synchronously online (log in for a scheduled virtual class meeting), or face-to-face (come to class). The HyFlex designation means that the course is designed for online asynchronous learning first, including meeting accessibility standards for video captions and alt text on images. Then instructors add ways for live sessions to enrich and enhance posted course materials and assignments by adding a live social element to the learning. The students' mode of attendance is up to them and they cannot be penalized for choosing to attend in one format or another. Students can often expect to have online assigned work of some sort to correspond to every class meeting if they choose to participate asynchronously during any given class meeting. While students have the flexibility to choose which way they will attend, the faculty members are required to attend face-to-face and remotely (i.e. blended two-way delivery) for every class session. These courses use the FLEX instructional mode in Self-Service Carolina. 

Table of flexibility, preparation, organization, and accessibility for different online teaching modes

Why Design an Online Course?

Because online, asynchronous courses allow students to access the materials on their own schedule and to review those materials as often as they need, online learning can increase opportunities for student engagement and flexibility of learning and relearning, and can provide multiple types of feedback and interaction. There are also the benefits of increased access, savings, and skills. Students who cannot attend courses in person due to work, family, or travel restrictions still have the ability to earn a credential through online learning. This not only improves access and opportunity, but also eliminates the costs that would be incurred for time lost on the job, childcare, and/or travel. Online students have the added benefit of learning not only the content but also the skills required to navigate the virtual environment and increase their tech ability, a marketable skill in today's world.

Online programs and courses extend Upstate’s reach to students who otherwise would not be able to complete a degree through a traditional course or program schedule. USC Upstate offers a total of 15 online and hybrid programs that allow our students to complete a USC Upstate degree in the way that best meets their needs. Over 10% of USC Upstate students are enrolled in fully online programs, and nearly 33% of our students enroll in at least one online course each semester. Online education is particularly valued by non-traditional students who are balancing work and family obligations. 21.4% of USC Upstate students are over the age of 25, and a third of them are over 35 years of age.

Course Design Considerations

USC Upstate delivers online courses through the Blackboard Learning Management System (LMS). An LMS provides a single location for hosting course content, providing access to interactive graded and ungraded course activities, connecting students to their instructors and their peers, and sharing grades and feedback in a secure, private online environment. Blackboard is fully integrated with identity authentification, privacy, and security tools used throughout the University of South Carolina System. The Blackboard LMS coordinates with Self-Service Carolina for enrollments, Starfish for ongoing grade and progress monitoring, and Multifactor Authentification for secure log in. Its Grade Center and Blackboard Collaborate Web conferencing tools meet standards for FERPA compliance, and the Ally Alternative Formats and Accessibility Ratings help ensure that our courses meet or exceed the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Blackboard Student App further increases access for smartphone users.

See the Steps for Designing an Online Course below for more details.

Online Teaching Certification Policy

All faculty hired during or after Fall 2011 must be certified to teach online through the USC Upstate Online Teaching Certification Course (either facilitator-led or self-guided) prior to teaching an online course. Faculty members who have earned certification to teach online at a previous institution may request an exemption from the Office of Distance Education. The facilitator-led course is for faculty who would like support and practice building course content in the Blackboard LMS. The self-guided course is for faculty who are familiar with the Blackboard LMS and other technology tools, and who can learn to apply principles of online teaching and online course design tools without assistance. Click on Resources below for detailed certification course information.

Steps for Designing an Online Course

Step 1: Understand the Student Experience of Online Courses at USC Upstate

Developing familiarity and comfort with Blackboard features is the first step to preparing to design and deliver an online course. Understanding the student experience of an online Blackboard course will enable you to develop a clear, consistent, organized, and accessible course and it will clear away any unnecessary barriers between you, your students, and your course content and activities. Enroll in professional development opportunities from the Center for Academic Innovation and Faculty Support to develop your online skills.   

Step 2: Organize Course Learning Outcomes and Course Content into Learning Modules or Units

Use Backward Design to identify your course learning outcomes, the assessments you will use to measure student learning, and the activities and resources students will need to achieve the desired outcomes. Then, divide the learning into smaller units by week, by unit, by learning module, by major assessment--whatever you like. Map the lessons, content, concepts, skills, learning activities, low-stakes formative assessments of progress (such as reading quizzes or discussions), and major assessments associated with each unit, and establish a plan for organizing your materials in clear, uncluttered, and consistent ways throughout your course. 

If you are teaching in a program that offers many online courses, consult with your chair or dean to ensure that your online course will make consistent use of any program-wide design guidelines. For instance, if all other Department of Education courses use the Announcements menu item as the course entry point, yours should, too. If all RN-BSN courses in the Mary Black School of Nursing have a tab for the student nursing handbook, yours should, too. Students cite a consistent organization and course design as a key to success in online programs. 

Step 3: Build Major Assessments of Learning and Provide Scaffolding for Students to Succeed

Successful online courses need to do much more than provide textbook references and video lectures, then test students a few times a semester on their learning. Because instructors cannot measure learning progress just by seeing students' faces in class (even in synchronous online courses where you can see the students), online courses require a variety of frequent, regular summative assessments to support students' learning. How will an online student know if they misunderstood a key concept from your video lecture in week 2 if you do not ask them to use that information until the test in week 4? And how long will it take to backtrack to correct that misconception after the fact? 

For each major assessment of learning, students should have several smaller, low-stakes opportunities to practice, test out, reflect upon, apply, and engage with other learners about the knowledge and skills they need to accomplish the major tasks. For instance, if students will need to produce a research paper at the end of a three-week learning unit, they could participate in a class discussion where they propose their research questions, complete a quiz about evaluating sources and standards of credibility, work in groups with related research questions to produce a shared annotated bibliography in a course blog, submit a two-page literature review for grading using a rubric, complete another class discussion about a course-related question in which they are required to cite evidence, and then, finally, turn in the research paper. This way, they can compare their ideas and perspectives with those of their peers, see models of responses from both you and their classmates, get targeted meaningful feedback from you about essential skills needed in the major paper, and finally bring together everything they have learned to produce their own, original work. 

Step 4: Design Your Content Strategies and Create Instructional Materials

Now that you know what you want them to learn and how you will lead them to successfully demonstrating their learning, you can build the course content to deliver the information and guidance for building the skills they need. Usually, faculty find it easy to identify the lesson topics students need to learn. In this step, you will determine how you will choose to deliver your instruction about those topics. 

  • Will you create a narrated PowerPoint for each lesson? With or without embedded quizzes?
  • Will you record yourself delivering a video-based explanation--maybe switching between your Webcam and a whiteboard where you solve problems or draw figures? 
  • Will you create study guides and handouts to frame and guide students through textbook materials and/or multimedia content you include in the course? 
  • Will you write text- and image-based lesson synopses, integrated with your own lectures and open educational resources in video formats? 
  • Will you assign students to produce peer-teaching presentations to accompany your own materials and ensure accountability and investment within the course? 
  • Will you use some combination of one or more of these strategies? Maybe try one of your video lectures per unit, plus a study guide, two external videos, a PowerPoint of lecture notes, and a student presentation.

Identify the strategy or strategies you will use, list the materials you need to find or create for each unit, then start creating using tools and resources available through USC Upstate or through third-party tools within Blackboard. Request a consultation with a learning experience designer in the Center for Academic Innovation and Faculty Support to get support or help identifying tools for your instructional design.  

Step 5: Prepare Your Communication and Feedback Strategies

Effective communication, instructor presence, and timely and meaningful feedback are the most important factors in determining student satisfaction and success in online courses. Plan your communication and feedback strategies before the semester begins, so you can execute a clear, consistent plan as you go through the term. 

  • Will you send weekly announcements via email and within the Announcements tool to the whole class? 
  • Will you build rubrics for all or most assignments, then instruct students to check the rubrics to aid their learning? 
  • Will you give text-based, audio-based, or video-based feedback on students' assignments? 
  • Will you set up Remind or another service to allow communication with students via text? 
  • Will you send individual email updates to students every 3 or 4 weeks? 
  • Will you require one-on-one online conferences once per term?

Build information about your communication and feedback procedures into your syllabus and/or welcome letter to help set students' expectations and to create a welcoming environment where students know how and when they can reach you and when they will hear from you.  

Tools for Implementing Online Learning
  • Follow your Academic Unit Guidelines for Distance Education and Online Learning
  • Read "How to Be a Better Online Teacher" by Flower Darby or check out her book, Small Teaching Online from the Center for Academic Innovation and Faculty Support library. 
  • Our best resources are gathered together in one place in our self-guided courses. Feel free to enroll and use them as an ongoing resource for your teaching.
    • Teaching Online @ USC Upstate. Major content areas focus on the Community of Inquiry model of online learning, and strategies for developing instructor presence, cognitive presence, and social presence in your courses. Guides and links to USC Upstate tools, policies, and support resources are also included. SELF-ENROLL or email academicinnovation@uscupstate.edu to request to join the course. 
    • Remote and Online Communication Principles for Teaching and Learning Success. Focused on the tools you need to communicate effectively with students at a distance, this self-guided course introduces the theory and practice of creating a welcoming online course environment, maintaining an engaging instructor presence, fostering an interactive learning community, providing meaningful and timely feedback to support growth mindset, and delivering an inclusive, equitable, and accessible online course. SELF-ENROLL or email academicinnovation@uscupstate.edu to request to join the course.

For faculty members who are new to teaching online and new to using the Blackboard Learning Management System, our facilitator-led Online Teaching Certification Course (offered 4 times per year) introduces you to the theory and practice of online learning, while providing you support as you build sample course materials in your own Blackboard "Sandbox" course. Find the registration link for upcoming sessions on the CAIFS main page