Editor’s Note: The web is a visually rich and
interactive medium for communication, teaching, and learning. Needs
assessment, instructional design, visualization (including sound) and
interactivity impact effectiveness of learning.
Tips for Developing Media-rich Online Courses
S. Junaidu and J. Al-Ghamdi
September 26, 2002
This paper examines the salient features of online
courses necessary for effective learning. It focuses on the major
milestones encountered when developing media-rich online courses. Issues
of concern and their implications are highlighted at each development
milestone. Tips are provided based on the practical experience of the
authors in online course development. The paper includes a case study to
help developers estimate the time investment required for developing
multimedia-intensive course contents.
From the literature, the phrase ‘online course’ seems
to mean different things to different people. For our purpose, the
describes an online course:
A multimedia-rich course delivered completely
online. It engages the learner interactively, actively and effectively.
The course should be multimedia rich in the sense
that it should contain text, animations, voice, and possibly video clips.
The online course should be comprehensive enough such that it can be
considered a replacement of the tradition face-to-face method of teaching.
It should be a self-contained learning package with concepts adequately
illustrated and explained in voice narrations. The course should provide
sufficient interaction with the learner in order to give a ‘human touch’
to online learning.
The remainder of this paper is structured as follows.
The following section outlines the salient features an online course
should have for effective learning. Section 3 presents the major
milestones in online course development and highlights what needs to be
done in each milestone in order to realize the salient features outlined
in Section 2. Section 4 discusses course management issues after
completing and deploying the online onto a learning management system. A
case study is provided in Section 5 indicating how much time online course
development may require. The paper concludes with a summary and
acknowledgement in Sections 6 and 7, respectively.
1. Salient course features for effective learning
This section presents important characteristics that
should be reflected in course contents in order to make learning
effective. While these issues may apply to both traditional face-to-face
and online courses, they are especially important in an online learning
environment. As we discuss these issues we point out how we addressed them
in the three online courses that we developed.
Puts learners into perspective
Before beginning course development, online course
developers should have a clear understanding of their target audience, the
learners. We should know learners’ level of motivation, current knowledge
level, their language skills and computer literacy. This will keep an
online course developer focussed towards developing better instructional
material with a minimal chance of causing boredom and frustration.
We teach in English in our university where English
is not the first language of the students. This requires us to put extra
effort in contents presentation and transcript writing. We base our
students’ current level of knowledge on the knowledge units of
pre-requisite courses of our online courses. Our audience analysis reveals
that our target students are highly computer literate with 98% owning
Spells out learning contract clearly
The course rationale, measurable objectives, learner
responsibility and learning outcomes should be clearly spelt out. Grading
policies and related matters should also be highlighted early enough.
Students should know what they are expected to be able to do after
graduating form the course. From our experience [Junaidu, 2002], time
management issues are especially important for effective online study.
The first unit in each of our online courses is
devoted to spelling these issues out clearly for the students. On the
first day of the semester, we give the students a broad introduction to
the course structure and organization giving them a battery of study tips
based on the course’s graduate students’ experiences.
Covers course contents adequately
Without proper planning, online course developers may
find themselves overwhelming the learners with material. All knowledge
units to be covered and their extent of coverage must be carefully stated
and course contents developed accordingly. Course contents must be up to
date and appropriate choice of examples should be made to enhance the
realization of the set learning outcomes.
Computer science, our teaching subject, is a fast
changing field, like many other specializations. We have to keep ourselves
current, as course developers, to ensure that we prepare and present
course contents that incorporate the latest technologies. This will give a
relatively longer lifetime to our online courses before revision or
redesign becomes necessary.
Contains sufficient motivating elements
Probably the most critical factor in learning is the
motivation of the learner [Macromedia, 2001]. As online course developer,
you must ensure that online learners are properly motivated. You should
include instructional elements that catch and hold learners’ attention.
Attention is like a flashlight in a dark room; we observe the details of
objects in the bright beam but notice less about objects in the dim
We incorporate graphic images, which serve as
metaphors, alongside newly introduced concepts with a view to catching
learner’s attention. We also use small pop-up screens, in a measured way,
to indicate when certain important events occur, like reaching the base
case when executing a recursive program.
Illustrates concepts adequately
Studies show that combining various media can
increase the receptiveness of the human senses (Durand, 1997), shortening
learning time and improving results. An online course should make use of
multimedia elements (animations, sound, graphics, color etc) to illustrate
and explain important concepts. Multimedia allows a variety of learning
styles and preferences to be accommodated. This is where the online author
can really appeal to learners’ intuition and, potentially, do better than
what can be done in the traditional face-to-face method of instruction.
Animations are one of the central vehicles for
realizing learning effectiveness in our online courses. Although
animations require high time investment to be built, their effectiveness
at enhancing learning is worth the time investment. We built animations
that take only about ten minutes to preview but take about 15-20 hours to
Engages learners actively
There is a general belief that “interactive
engagement methods” enhance the effectiveness of teaching [Dannenberg,
1997]. Interactive engagement methods include: collaborative peer
instruction, problem sets, tests and quizzes, computer-based simulation,
and model building.
In addition to the rich media used to explain
concepts, each lecture unit of our online course consists of an average of
two interactive quizzes within it and a set of review exercises at the end
of it. Our courses are deployed and delivered using WebCT, a rich learning
management system, supporting a number of ways of achieving real-time
interaction and assessment.
Provides regular feedback
In addition to intra-presentation feedback, an online
course should provide feedback to learners through facilities provided by
course delivery tools like e-mails, discussion groups, chats, online
quizzes etc. Other means of assessment are projects, written assignments,
case studies, and essay questions all coordinated using the delivery tool
Regular assessment and feedback is necessary to
assess whether learning has taken place and to identify problems early and
institute corrective majors quickly.
Our college has also supplied the facilitators of our
online courses with Web cameras (Web Cam). These Web Cams are attached to
the facilitators’ computers so that the students can see the facilitators,
from remote computers, as they provide real-time feedback to students’
We give three surveys to the students to get input on
the effectiveness of our courses. Three surveys are given; one at on the
first day of the semester, one in the middle and the other towards the end
of the semester. These provide useful seeds for improving our courses.
Addresses originality issues adequately
Online course authors may find ready-made animations
or video clips that they can incorporate into their course contents, if
their authoring tool permits. Appropriate written permissions should be
sought and acknowledgements or references should be given to all material
for which the author is not the originator.
In our online courses, most animations were developed
internally using our authoring tool, Macromedia Authoware. In a few cases,
we incorporate external animations, in the form of Java applets, into our
2. Course Development Milestones
We now identify and discuss the major steps in the
process of developing media-rich online course contents. At each of these
steps or milestones, we highlight the issues involved, mention some of the
choices available to the developer, implications of the different choices
and proffer practical suggestions.
Developing an online course can require a total
re-engineering of an existing course and course contents, for the online
course to be valid for a relatively long time. That is, syllabi may need
to be redesigned or reviewed and course contents redeveloped. The task is
not just that of mere transfer of our existing ‘dusty course contents’
into electronic form but requires bringing the course up to date and
mimicking, within the online course contents, certain classroom learning
This task, therefore, requires a multitalented team
of a content expert, a visual designer, a programmer, a multimedia and a
presentation expert. Sufficient time should be allotted to the design of
the course content, choice of examples, animation elements and the general
flow and smoothness of the course contents.
With proper design, content experts can reach more
students in less time, raising the likelihood that students will have
access to the best instructors [Dannenberg, 1997]. An important byproduct
of well-designed online courses is that the concept of ‘bad instructors’
can be eliminated totally.
Our online course development team members work
closely with each other to the extent that we assumed all the various
specialties of a development team. For example, all members contributed in
the content development process. We conduct weekly meetings during which
individual members present a two-lecture-worth material they prepared.
This affords our course contents the thoroughness of a team view with the
attendant benefit that subsequent tasks follow smoothly since each member
has sufficient knowledge of the course contents. The alternative approach
of assigning certain tasks to specific specialties may save time but will
lack the team view advantage and its associated benefits.
Choice of authoring tool
The second important milestone in online course
development requires the choice of an authoring tool. An authoring tool is
a software environment used for developing, implementing and deploying
learning contents. At this stage we need such a tool to translate our
design and prepared content into the learning experience we envisioned.
Obviously, the choice of an authoring tool will be dictated by many issues
including [Macromedia, 2001]:
Where the content will be delivered
Kind of media to be incorporated
Level of interactivity needed
Level of students’ data tracking needed
How much content to produce and maintain
Authors’ technical skills
Based on the needs, expertise and budget of your
development team, these considerations will help you choose authoring
tools most suitable to your purpose. For example, if your online course is
to be delivered completely on the Internet with complete logging of
students’ activities, you will need authoring tools that support the
creation of relatively small applications with low bandwidth requirements.
For detailed tracking of students activities the online contents must be
deployed on a learning management system that supports the necessary
In the early phase of our online course development
we experimented with applications, like Microsoft PowerPoint, FrontPage,
Comtasia etc and realized that they are limited to support our needs for
media-rich online course development. In the end, we settled on
Macromedia’s suite of authoring packages. Each tool in the suite can be
used to develop online course contents covering all aspects of animations,
data tracking etc at an intermediate level. Advanced aspects in particular
tasks are better done using the tool in the package specifically designed
for that task. For example, Macromedia Flash is best when developing
content for delivery in low bandwidth communication channels.
Research has shown that learners learn more
effectively when they are engaged in doing things [Anderson, 1985].
Interactivity in online classes is more crucial because of the absence of
face-to-face contact with the instructor. Learners will learn most
effectively when their learning environment causes them to have continuous
high-levels of interaction.
As we have mentioned earlier, animation decisions are
best made at content preparation time. Before implementing these
decisions, we have to have an appropriate presentation template. That is,
a presentation template should be designed to contain a modest number of
navigational elements. This may require a visual design specialist to
design page layouts, specify colors, design navigation buttons and icons,
create logos and other emblems, and to draw the most important graphics
for the content [Macromedia, 2001]. Such a specialist must have a keen
design sense as well as mastery of the authoring software for producing
high-quality electronic artwork that looks good and downloads quickly.
The first page of each of our lecture units includes
a hierarchical menu structure with hyperlinks to provide for fast
navigation through the course material. By providing a rich navigation
model, we enable learners set their learning pace and select their
learning style by taking the course in a sequential, top-down, bottom-up,
or exploratory order. Results of our questionnaires on our online courses
indicate that learners are in constant need of having more control on
navigation through course material.
The chosen authoring tool should provide a convenient
environment for creating animations internally. We make use of Macromedia
Authorware to develop most of our animations internally. The advantage is
that we can have any level of control over the animation elements as we
desire. Alternatively, developers may choose to import external animations
and video clips into their presentations provided the authoring tool
supports incorporating external multimedia elements. Although this may
save time, it may not give developers the right granularity units of
control that they may desire.
Another dimension to interactivity in online courses
is that since online learners must monitor their own progress, we must
help them by building in plenty of opportunities for them to do so. We
include an average of two interactive self-test exercises in each lecture
unit to achieve additional interactivity. This helps learners monitor and
evaluate their accomplishments. We note that quizzes and practice
exercises should be authentic; they should reflect the course learning
goals, provoke learners to think and require learners to apply knowledge.
Although animations can be very effective,
presentations should be kept simple, short, precise and straight to the
point. You should design and present material to teach but not to impress.
For example, although the use of images and interactive animations are
essential elements in online courses, they must be used in a measured way.
Presentation elements that dazzle the learner without conveying or
teaching much should be avoided.
The next milestone is to do with the presentation
transcript. There is an important relation between the material displayed
on the presentation window and the voice narration. Content presentation
can be in the traditional slides format or in an electronic-book style
where the voice narration is identical to the display material. Our online
courses are implemented in the traditional slides format. Even though our
display material consists of bulleted points of major items, results of
our course surveys show that about 25% of the students attempted to study
from the printable slides alone. We therefore feel that presentations in
the form of electronic book style will not be as effective as the slides
format. Furthermore, even in the slides format the voice narration must
contain additional information that adds value to the displayed material.
The next question is, is a written presentation
transcript necessary? From our experience, a written transcript is
necessary for a smoother and, consequently, better quality voice
narration. This is especially important when the target students, or a
reasonable percentage of them, are deficient in the language skills. In
that case transcript must be written with more care so that words are
selected carefully to facilitate learning.
The level of details with which transcripts are
written depends on who will eventually do the recording. If the recording
is to be done by the writer of the transcript or by another person also
familiar with the course contents, then the transcript will be
straightforward. If, however, the recording is to be done by someone with
no content expertise, then the transcript must be more elaborate
indicating where emphases are needed etc.
After wring the presentation transcript, the next
issue is the selection of an appropriate sound editor. The chosen sound
editor must support the production of editable sound files from the
recorded material. The sound files will need to be edited to properly
interleave animation elements with the corresponding voice narrations
explaining the animations. In the early part of our course development we
tried tools like the MS Windows’ sound recorder, MS PowerPoint recording
facility, Comtasia, CoolEdit etc. We settled on Sonic Foundry’s Sound
Forge for our recording purposes. Sound Forge produces .WAV files that are
then converted into shockwave format to reduce the size of the sound
files. Lately, we have been recording our voice narrations using AT&T
Natural Voices’ text-to-speech engine. This requires learning a new
language, XML (eXtended Markup Language), in order to add markups to
control the speed, tone as well as add custom pronunciations.
An important and tedious issue to handle with regards
recorded sound files is the issue of synchronization. That is, how do we
ensure that we interleave voice narrations with text and animation
elements in a way that ensures complete synchrony between them? One choice
for us was to use functions provided by Authorware to place break points
within a sound file to ensure synchronization. To get this right, one will
have to run the piece, record the time needed to play before a break and
then use the appropriate Authorware function to specify the play duration.
This is very tedious and difficult to get right. Furthermore, this method
of synchronization is not susceptible to content modification; adding or
removing contents or explanation requires changing the synchronization
Having gone through this process, we discovered that
is it much easier to subdivide the sound files into smaller files, one for
each animation or text unit. For example, we have a separate sound file
corresponding to each bulleted point in the presentation slide. Although
this will lead to a multitude of files especially for graphics with
animations, the pay-off with regards to synchronization is invaluable.
Synchronization in this case requires simply interleaving a pair of text
or animation unit with its associated sound file in the Authorware
flow-line of the presentation.
Finally, we observe that for recorded material to be
uniform and free of variation, we recommend the creation of a multimedia
laboratory, where possible. This will standardize the recording platform
and provide a conducive environment for doing this job well. We faced
problems with inevitable background noise and varied sound support on the
different computers on which the recording was done.
The final milestone in our online course development
process is packaging and deployment. Right from the stage of choosing an
authoring tool, we would have decided where and how our course content
would be delivered. We may choose to deliver on CD, on the intranet or
over the Internet. Whatever was our choice we need to package our
developed content for delivery using the software that delivers our
content most successfully.
We use the streaming technology of Macromedia
Authorware to package our courses both for CD delivery as well as for the
Internet. This technology includes a Web packager that enables us to
package all libraries and external media internally into our piece. We can
also package our piece so that it is completely stand alone without
requiring a Web browser to run. Alternatively, we can package our piece so
that our piece can be run using Web browsers. In this case users need a
Web Player plug-in that is freely available from Macromedia’s Web site[ii].
When publishing for the Web Player, we can break our compiled piece into
segments of appropriate sizes. Depending on the speed of our network
connection, we can customize the size of the segments for faster download
from the Web server. There is also an option of using Authorware’s
advanced streamer that can profile learners’ pattern of viewing the course
material and downloads contents ahead of time probabilistically and
After packaging and deployment, the remaining task is
that of course management that we now discuss.
3. Course Management
At this stage, the online course content is now
published on a learning management system. We should select such tools
that provide a rich set of options that enable us to manage delivery of
course material appropriately. For example, WebCT and Blackboard, the
learning management platforms licensed in our university, provide means
for monitoring interactions, students’ tracking, online quizzes and exams
and for handling other course administrative matters.
In addition, WebCT and Blackboard contain course
survey tools that we can take advantage of in order to get feedback on the
online course. Online course developers should conduct surveys to analyze
the usability of their system, its efficiency, how its meets learners
satisfaction etc. This is an important exercise because online courses
rely on continuous and periodic improvements and learners’ surveys are one
of the best ways of getting such input.
4. Time Requirement: A Case Study
Our case study is based on a single lecture from one
of our online courses. The case study lecture is on introduction to
recursion. This lecture is a representative of our lectures in that
its animations requirement is modest. The main purpose of the lecture is
to introduce students to recursion, the runtime stack and how the runtime
stack is used to implement function invocations.
The lecture consists of three examples of simple
popular recursive algorithms. These are the Factorial function, a string
reversal algorithm and the Fibonacci function. The animations for the
first two algorithms are very similar: each illustrates the step-by-step
execution of the program, creation and placement of activation records on
the runtime stack and also how the contents of activation records change
and how they are disposed as recursive calls return. Figure 1 shows a
snapshot of our animation page for the Factorial function.
Factorial Function Animation Snapshot
The blue rectangle, open at the top, in Figure 1
represents the runtime stack growing upwards. Each brown rectangle
represents an activation record, a workspace for a function call. Each
activation record consists of a copy of the parameter with which the
function called, an expression indicating what value would be returned and
where execution will continue when the function returns. Note that if we
require the students to observe how an item changes during the execution
of the program, we must make that item as a separate animation element and
associate it with a corresponding voice narration that explains it. For
example, to show how the expression
in the second activation record when the function returns, we must make
fact(4) a separate unit to
illustrate how it changes when the method returns.
The case study lecture belongs to the second online
course we developed. That means the timing in Table 1 is based on that of
a developer with modest experience in the use of the authoring tool. The
implication is that with less experience, the time requirement may be
more. Another variable to consider is the extent of animation in the
content to develop in addition to the authoring expertise of the
Approximate time required (hours)
Transfer to Authorware
Recording and synchronization
Time Requirements for a Single Lecture Case Study
Content preparation is based on the
prepare-present-evaluate-prepare cycle discussed earlier. Transfer to
Authorware is the time required to transfer the completed lecture material
into the Authorware presentation template. Each lecture unit consists of,
on average, two interactive quizzes with an average of four questions.
There were three interactive animations in the case study created entirely
using Authorware as we highlighted earlier. It took about five hours to
write the complete presentation transcript for the case study lecture.
Recording and synchronization issues took the next greater part of the
time, after animations, for this lecture. With a recording expert, the
time needed to re-record poor quality voice narrations may be saved.
5. Summary and Conclusions
A central issue in online course development is
quality of design. Good audience analysis, proper content design, concepts
illustration, rich and continuous learner interactivity are necessary
pedagogical elements for effective online learning. Detailed and careful
planning should be made to ensure that the online course covers the course
knowledge units adequately and without overwhelming learners. Organization
of course content should reflect both global and sequential aspects of
course contents. Course materials should be up-to-date.
This paper presented the essential features a good
and effective online course in this paper and discussed detailed steps
that are followed when developing a media-rich online course. In each of
the course development milestones, we highlight the issues to be
considered and alternative choices available to the developer. We briefly
discuss the consequence of each choice in terms of its advantages and
disadvantages. We also highlight what choice we made in our online course
development projects and why those choices were made.
We discussed the important role of learning
management systems for leveraging course communication, monitoring and
evaluation. Regular surveys are necessary using learning management
systems and results of those surveys serve as seed for future course
An important investment in online courses is that of
time. We have presented a single lecture case study to provide prospective
online course developers with a feel of how much time it takes to develop
media-rich online courses. The figures shown in our case study are a
conservative estimate and can be more or less depending on the nature of
the course contents.
This research was carried out under the auspices of a
University project in the King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals. We
acknowledge the foresight of the University authority for funding such
We acknowledge the efforts of our colleagues in the
Online Project with whom we have shared ideas and whose other engagements
could not enable them partake in the writing of this paper.
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Developing an Online Data Structures Course using Authorware. To
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Started with E-learning, Macromedia, Inc., 600 Townsend Street, San
Francisco, CA 94103.
- [Durand, 1997]. Lernen Auf Abruf. (Learning on
Demand). Wirtschaftswoche No. 42 dated 9.10.97, 179.
- [Dannenberg, 1997] Dannenberg, R.B., and Capell
P., Are Just-In-Time Lectures Effective At Teaching? School of
Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA 15213, USA.
- [Anderson, 1985] Anderson, J.R., and Reiser, B.J.
The LISP Tutor, Byte 10, 4:8-14, April, 1985.
About the Authors
is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science. He received his Ph.D. from
St. Andrews University, Scotland in 1998. His areas of interest include
parallel computing, computer networks and e-Learning. He has been a
faculty in the Information and Computer Science Department of King Fahd
University of Petroleum & Minerals since 1999. He has been co-leading an
online course development team for the last 14 months.
Contact Sahalu at
Jarallah AlGhamdi is the Dean of the College
of Computer Sciences and Engineering at King Fahd University of Petroleum
& Menials. He received his Ph.D. in Computer Science from Arizona State
University in 1994. He worked in research in software engineering and in
particular in software metrics. He worked in computer science curriculum
development and is working in e-Learning extensively in the past two
Contact Jarallah at
This is the definition adopted by our Academic Development Center for
awarding grants for online course development.