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Multimodal Learning

Conquering the Content: A Step-by-Step Guide to Online Course Design

Conquering the Content: A Step-by-Step Guide to Online Course Design. Smith, Robin M. John, Wiley & Sons, Inc. (2008).

Reviewed by David R. Rawlinson, J.D. 
Multi-modal Online Faculty Fellow, Central Washington University

This book provides practical suggestions and tools for both new course design and/or existing course modification. I like the author’s modular approach to the topic, especially the discussion of assumptions regarding face-to-face and online course delivery and assessment. Overall, this text provides an effective “blueprint” to help content experts create effective constructs for the delivery and assessment of knowledge via online courses.


For those that want to produce an online course for the first time, the most important information is contained in the first chapter. The author, Robin M. Smith, goes to great lengths to stress the importance of designing online courses from the students’ (learner) perspective rather than the teacher’s (teaching) perspective. Describing the online classroom as an “Altered Learning Environment”, the author posits the need to create a “…clear pathway of learning for the students.” 

The learner-centered environment of an online course has a number of facets:

  • Self-selected. Students choose when to come into the course and work…
  • Time. Students may work at the time of day when they are at their best.
  • Place. Students can choose a place where they can concentrate well…
  • Pace. Web-based learning students can move quickly through parts they understand, go slowly through parts they don’t understand, and repeat sections as needed.
  • Around-the-clock access. Students can access the course content when you are not available.

In chapter one, the author continues to discuss differences in how content is presented in a face-to-face (F2F) course versus online courses, using concepts and terms such as “Chunk-ability”, “Repeat-ability”, “Pause-ability”, and “Understand-ability.” Finally, Robin M. Smith covers the faculty member’s role, distinguishing between development and design activities, and facilitation and teaching activities in courses.

The remaining chapters provide guidance on course creation to facilitate updates, assessment design, course organization from a student perspective, student study-skill effectiveness improvement, best practices, and navigation issues for online courses.

Recommendations for the first time online educator:

Read the first chapter dealing with differences and similarities between online and F2F courses.

  • Design the course from the students’ point of view
  • Review the forms provided in the appendices, which provide insight and practical mechanisms associated with the design and implementation of online courses
  • Scan through the chapters, using information from individual chapters based on your progress in the online course design process

Chapter Summary

Chapter One

  • Addresses how the learning environment is altered for Web-based learners versus F2F learners
  • Addresses the effect this difference imposes on content design

Chapter Two

  • Demonstrates how to create a course that can be organized to facilitate updates

Chapter Three

  • Addresses assessment issues and focuses on designing assessments before the learning mechanisms are created

Chapter Four

  • Focuses on organizing your course from a student learning perspective, not a teaching perspective

Chapter Five

  • Discusses fundamental brain research principles and describes “chunking course content” to improve students study-skill effectiveness

Chapter Six

  • Shares best practices and addresses peer review of web-based courses

Chapter Seven

Focuses on navigation issues of online courses

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