Free Course Outline Template - Plan a Good Online Course

You have decided to create your first online course. Great! Now what?

“To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.”

— Leonard Bernstein, composer and conductor

Often, training professionals and university lecturers come under pressure to deliver online courses within a short time frame. A good course plan is crucial in maintaining quality while achieving tight course authoring deadlines.

What is the importance of planning your online course before building it? 

A course plan lays out a clear pathway for linking your content to your learning outcomes. In other words, a course plan helps your learners to achieve their goals through your content.

By planning your course before building it, you will have a map that prevents you from getting stuck on a single module or straying too far from your original goals—saving you valuable time in the process.

In this blog post, we’ll demonstrate how you can create your own online course plan in a short amount of time.


1. Use our course design template.

To help you get started, we have created a course design template that you can copy on Google Drive.

Course Design Document MockupGet the course design template on Google Drive
We recommend designing your online course around the learning outcomes. At OpenLearning, we typically start each course with a Course Design Document which links each activity to a specific outcome. 

You will be using a simple course design template that mentions these items:

    • Module Sets
    • Modules
    • Pages
    • Learning outcomes

The module sets, modules, and pages make up the “content” of your course (e.g. videos, text, audio, sharing activities, quizzes). The learning outcomes are the “goals” that you want learners to achieve through your content.

The main goal of this template is to create a birds-eye view of how your content will support your learning outcomes.


2. Link your content to your learning outcomes.

We’ve already written about why learning outcomes matter and how to write them. Here’s a quick primer for the purposes of this blog post:

For example, in a course on Business for Bakers, the learning outcomes might be:

By the end of this course, learners will be able to:
    1. Summarise the basics of starting your own baking business (LO1)
    2. Critique bakeries based on their business plan (LO2)
    3. Develop a business plan for your own baking business (LO3)
Let's focus on the first learning outcome. In our example, a three-page module guides learners to achieve this learning outcome. Each learning activity is described under “What will learners do on this page?”. Here is how it looks:


Business for Bakers Course Design Doc SampleSample course design document on 'Business for Bakers'. Click here to access the live document.

At the start of the module, learners are asked to share an image of their favourite bakery and what they like about it. Then, they are asked to give their opinion on the elements involved in running a good bakery business. The module ends with a video and a short-answer question on the actual elements of a business plan. 

This module uses an active learning method called Test Then Show (read more about 'Test Then Show' here) which has been simplified for our needs. By testing the learner's prior knowledge, then showing guidance around the topic, the module helps the learner to achieve the goal of "summarising the basics of starting your own bakery business (LO1)".


3. Identify your module sets, modules, and pages.

Your course content can be arranged into three levels: Module Sets, Modules and Pages:

Modules and Pages Hierarchy

Here is an example from inside a course. The module sets are distinguishable by the chevron ( > ) next to them.

Small Module Sets Modules Pages copy

    • Module sets can contain many modules. This is an advanced feature that allows you to add an extra layer of structure to your course.

    • Modules are the major topics of your course which can contain several pages.

    • Pages are where you can add and arrange content, media, and activities.


In our 'Business for Bakers' example, there is 1 module set, 1 module and 3 pages. They are:

Business for Bakers Module Sample

  • Module set: Learning Activities

      • Module: Basics of Business for Bakers

          • Page 1: My Favourite Bakery

          • Page 2: Running a Bakery Business

          • Page 3: Elements of a Business Plan

This is just the first module in our sample 'Business for Bakers' course. Additional content can be arranged into as many module sets, modules, and pages as desired.

4. Seek examples from other online courses on how to arrange your course content.

Here are some popular arrangements used by creators in higher education, training, and corporate learning:

Example 1: Project-based learning for a self-paced online course on AR/VR

Module Example 2

In this example, the course has 2 module sets:

  • Learning Activities - contains modules for learning about AR/VR
  • Let's Get Working! - contains modules for completing the final course project

You can read more about how these two module sets interact in this explainer article by the course creator, or join the course yourself to check it out!

Underneath the two module set tabs, you may notice a few other tabs such as ‘Groups’ and ‘Announcements’. These tabs are listed by default in all OpenLearning courses, but can be hidden if needed. Besides the default tabs, you can also add your own tabs on the left-hand side: for example, '#inspire' is an additional tab.


Example 2: Time-based learning for an online course that meets up once a week

Module Example

This is a course where the learners meet once a week for a face-to-face lesson. 

It has 4 module sets (one for each week). Each week has 3 modules: the 'Pre-Lesson Materials' module contains the pages ‘Reading List’, ‘Notes’ and ‘Test Your Knowledge’ which are accessed online before attending the class. The 'During the Lesson' module is completed in class, while the 'Homework' module is done at home. 

Another way of representing this structure is:

Week 1:

  • Pre-Lesson Materials
    • Reading List
    • Notes
    • Test Your Knowledge
  • During the Lesson
  • Homework

Those are just two ways to arrange your course, but you can get creative with your own course plan. Just be sure to explain how to navigate through the course to your learners.

To see more examples from other courses, try enrolling yourself into any of these 10 courses. Take note of how you feel as a learner in other courses: is the course fun? Does it have an interactive, vibrant learning community? If yes, is there a pattern between the content and the course learning outcomes? These are the patterns that you can use in your course, as well.


It’s time to create your course plan!

Given all of the moving parts in an online course, it's easy to slip off-track without a course plan. You may not have all of the details of your course right now, but you can use the course design template to kickstart your learning design process. 

You can also use our pre-built page templates to create more pages at a quicker pace while utilising social constructivist learning philosophy! Find out more about page templates on the OpenLearning Help Community

We hope you enjoy using our free online course planning template to outline your course. Stay tuned for the next part of the series, where we will explore activity design in further detail.


The OpenLearning course design template helps you to design an online course that helps learners to achieve their learning outcomes. It is available for you to make your own copy on Google Drive. 

Get the course design template on Google Drive

Topics: Course Design Tips Download

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