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Principles and Frameworks

In addition to the support resources listed in the previous section, you may be interested in exploring some of the guiding principles and frameworks of online course development. Here are a few avenues for further exploration.

Community of Inquiry

The Community of Inquiry framework details three kinds of presence that online teachers should cultivate in their courses:

  • cognitive presence – actively making meaning and learning the course content
  • teacher presence – the instructor’s thoughtful design of the learning experience and guidance provided for students as they learn
  • social presence – the course participants’ self-presentation and expression of their humanity, identity, and community membership

Here is a brief video that introduces the community of inquiry framework: Watch here.

You might also be interested in this short piece on teaching presence from the Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning through Research at Northeastern University: “Teaching Presence” in the Community of Inquiry Framework. Also, here is a short piece on cognitive and social presence from Indiana University Online: Types of Presence: Cognitive and Social Presence.


Review the online course or course plans you have developed for presence.

How do your modules integrate cognitive, teaching, and social presence through your course? Where does your course have room for improvement according to the community of inquiry framework?


Backward Design

Understanding by Design is the set of principles developed by Wiggins and McTighe which requires course designers to start with the end in mind and work backwards from there. Thus, the framework is often called Backward Design. You begin by establishing course goals and objectives, then determining assessments that would collect acceptable evidence that students have met the course objectives. Finally, you create learning activities that will help students acquire the knowledge, skills, and mindsets that will lead to success on the assessments. All of the elements of the course are aligned to work towards the course goals and objectives.

The Vanderbilt CFT has a teaching guide on Understanding by Design that you might find helpful. Read that here.



Review the online course or course plans you have developed for alignment.

Are your course goals and objectives clearly articulated and listed in the appropriate modules so students will know what their learning targets are? Do the assessments collect evidence that students have met the learning objectives? Do the learning activities prepare students for success on the assessments?


Universal Design for Learning and Accessibility

We touched on the concept of access and universal design for learning (UDL) in Part 1 of the CDR. You can revisit that here.

UDL is an approach to teaching that seeks to remove all barriers to learning and provide multiple access to points to course content, activities, and assessments. The goal is that no learner be left out of the course design due to difference or disability.

Accessibility is a term that refers to the ways a course does or does not facilitate access to different learners. For instance, an audio-based course with no written transcripts would not be accessible to Deaf learners. Images without alt-text or verbal descriptions would not be accessible to visually impaired people. Accessibility generally refers to how a course is accessible to disabled students, however it can also apply to learner limitations. A course that requires 3 hour f2f or video meetings from 3-6pm one day a week would not be accessible to parents of young children who need to pick up their children from school and take care of their needs in the evening. A course that meets in an enclosed space without proper ventilation would not be accessible to immunocompromised learners.

The Vanderbilt CFT has a teaching guide called “Creating Accessible Learning Environments” that you will find useful for exploring these concepts. Find that guide here.

For Brightspace-specific accessibility information, see the Brightspace at the CFT support page on accessibility.



Review the online course or course plans you have developed for accessibility.

Does your course provide different access points to account for learners with disabilities or limitations? Where can you provide multiple content formats or assessment strategies to ensure every learner is included in your course design?


Inclusivity and Equity

Inclusive, equitable teaching seeks to ensure that all students have a sense of belonging in the classroom and have an equal opportunity to succeed in the course. What does that look like in an online course? According to the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, this requires instructors to evaluate several components of the course including:

  • the course content;
  • your prior assumptions and awareness of potential multicultural issues in classroom situations;
  • your planning of class sessions, including the ways students are grouped for learning;
  • your knowledge about the diverse backgrounds of your students; and
  • your decisions, comments, and behaviors during the process of teaching.

The above list is from Saunders and Kardia’s (1997) guide Creating Inclusive College Classrooms, a recommended resource.

The Vanderbilt Center for Teaching has several resources on inclusive teaching including a teaching guide. You can read that here.

Recently, CFT Assistant Director Joe Bandy put together a guide with several faculty contributors called “Inclusive and Equitable Teaching Online”. You can access that here.



Review the online course or course plans you have developed for inclusivity and equity.

How does your course value student voice and allow for student agency? Do your learning activities foster an inclusive, respectful community? In what ways are you as the instructor explicitly addressing issues like anxiety and bias?


Student Motivation

Eccles’ (2000) Expenctancy-Value framework explains that student motivation increases when:

1) students perceive that success is possible and within their control, and

2) when they perceive the task they are doing as valuable.

Hulleman et al. (2016) add in a third factor: cost. If students perceive that the cost of success would be high, that lowers their motivation.

This blog post by CFT Associate Director Cynthia Brame goes into more detail on motivation principles. Read it here.



Review the online course or course plans you have developed for motivation.

Have do your online course modules communicate task value to your students? How have you created a clear, feasible learning path? Have you removed barriers to learning whenever possible?

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