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Adapting Your Face-to-Face Course to a Fully Online Course: A Guide

Are you wondering how to effectively move your face-to-face course online? Need strategies for getting started? This guide will provide suggestions for adapting the design of a face-to-face course by focusing on online capabilities, considering the intentional integration of technology to support teaching and learning, and emphasizing learner-centered and inclusive practices. 

Though this page will help you get started, the CTL encourages Columbia instructors to enroll in the Hybrid & Online Teaching Institute, an online offering that guides you through adapting your courses from face-to-face to online or hybrid formats. We also encourage TAs and Teaching Fellows to enroll in Supporting Hybrid & Online Learning & Teaching (SHOLT), a self-paced course designed to help graduate student instructors in support roles develop effective teaching practices in online and hybrid courses.

For individual support, we encourage you to engage in virtual office hours with CTL staff, or contact the CTL to schedule a consultation at ColumbiaCTL@columbia.edu.

An Intentional Approach to Teaching Online

Online course design is more than transferring content online or replicating face-to-face classroom sessions. Instead, it involves redesigning content for an online environment; rethinking course goals, assessments, and learning experiences; integrating technology intentionally; and putting structure and support in place to promote self-directed learning. While this may initially seem overwhelming, there are many resources available to support you in this work–included in this guide–and the CTL is here to help in your development of online course materials.

As you begin adapting a face-to-face course to an online environment, there are some key elements to consider to maximize student learning. In their Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips, Boettcher and Conrad (2010) identify five characteristics that distinguish online courses from face-to-face courses: 

  • Shift in faculty role – moving towards coaching and mentoring students, creating and curating online learning experiences and facilitating interactions. Find out more on our First Steps for Moving a Class Online page.
  • Asynchronous interactions – providing students opportunities to interact with content, peers, and you (the instructor) in their own time to supplement what is being done in class synchronously. Find out more on our Asynchronous Learning Across Time Zones page.
  • More active learning – encouraging learners to be more active–doing more thinking, writing, reflecting, and interacting with peers–to improve their engagement and learning; students also take on more responsibility for their learning. Find out more on our Active Learning for Your Online Classroom page.
  • Greater flexibility – embracing learning resources and spaces that are more flexible, and encouraging students to play an active role in sharing and contributing to content resources. Find out more on our Inclusive Teaching and Learning Online page.
  • Ongoing assessment – facilitating assessment that is varied and continuous, with low-stakes assessment throughout and frequent discussion posts that allow instructors to get to know their learners. Find out more on our Teaching with CourseWorks and Teaching with Zoom pages.

These characteristics inform the suggestions throughout the rest of this guide, though we encourage you to come back to them independently and consider how you might adopt, adapt, or revise them for your own online teaching contexts.

Plan for Online From the Beginning

While there are many decisions to be made in designing an online course, it is an opportunity for you to revisit your course goals, to think anew about the content you are choosing, and to get creative with how to structure the learning you want for your students: Will you create videos? Use online materials? How can you best represent your course content and learning goals within a learning module structure? What are some of the ways you will be able to engage with your students in the online spaces? As you plan your course with these new ideas in mind, you can consider how to make your communication with students effective, supportive and clear. Don’t feel like you have to do everything at once, be realistic about how much time you have as you consider the changes you want to make.

To help you begin to tackle these decisions, we have provided a variety of reflection questions to guide you through the redesign of your course. Consider the following questions and how they may inflect the transition of your course to its online format.

Reflect on your current practices:

  • What are your experiences with online teaching and learning? If applicable, how might you draw on lessons learned from your experiences teaching remotely? 
  • What is your familiarity with CourseWorks (Canvas) and other Columbia-supported tools for teaching and learning? How have you used these in your face-to-face courses?  

Plan for your online course context:

  • Who are your online learners? What are their needs and expectations? What are their experiences with online learning? What devices, equipment, or bandwidth do students have in order to access course materials and fully engage in the course? 
  • What are the expectations of your department and school for online teaching and learning? 
  • What support might you be able to draw on as you are teaching your course (e.g., TAs, departmental or school resources, IT support)?

For more, explore our First Steps for Moving a Class Online and Inclusive Teaching and Learning Online pages.

Review Your Existing Syllabus

Much like in a face-to-face course, the syllabus for an online course provides the big picture for learners to guide them through the course and help them plan their time, efforts, and lives (Boettcher and Conrad, 2010). While the syllabus for an online course includes many of the components of a face-to-face course (i.e., course description, goals and objectives, assignments, course materials), a syllabus for an online course also features goals and objectives that are appropriate for the online teaching and learning context; a course schedule that organizes content, activities, and assessments into accessible modules; explicit instructions to keep students on track; and guidelines for communicating and interacting effectively online (often referred to as netiquette). Some course policies and procedures that you may revise or add for the online context include participation guidelines, discussion guidelines, academic integrity, and technology support resources. 

To begin revising your existing course for the online format, review your course goals and objectives for the face-to-face version of your course, and consider how realistic, appropriate, and relevant they are for an online version. 

Reflect on your current practices:

  • What are the learning goals of your course? 
  • What are your approaches to teaching a face-to-face course (e.g., lecture, discussion, demonstrations, etc.)?

Plan for your online course context:

  • Which of your course learning goals will need to be revised for the online context? Since online teaching can take more time than teaching face-to-face, what learning goals or content would be prioritized in your course? What could your course do without while still meeting your learning goals?
  • How can these goals best be achieved using online tools and teaching methods? What adjustments might you make to your course based on the needs of your online learners? How might you adjust your teaching approaches?

For more, explore our First Steps for Moving a Class Online page, Blended Learning resource, or enroll in the Blended/Hybrid Learning Essentials self-paced course.

Rethink the Structure and Content of Your Course

In Online Teaching at Its Best (2018), Nilson and Goodson argue that “good design leads students to a destination.” As you plan your online course design, consider chunking content into meaningful segments with clear directions that provide pathways to progress through the course and promote student learning (Smith, 2014). Organizing your online course into these digestible modules or units that include a sequence of course content, activities, and assessments for students will help drive students towards achieving the learning objectives. To help get you started, determine how many modules are needed and ensure that the module objectives are aligned with course objectives. Using the CourseWorks Modules tool is one way you can set up this structure on your course site and make the course structure clear to students.*

Students learn new material more easily when cognitive load is minimized, and this can be achieved by “packaging information for the most efficient processing” (Nilson and Goodson, 2018: 80). To better reorganize your course and its content, consider what course materials are absolutely necessary to help your students learn online. This may mean identifying what course materials can be reused from the face-to-face version, what will need to be expanded or curated from existing digital content (audio, videos, images, web links, articles, etc.), what will need to be created (see the CTL’s resource on Teaching with Do-It-Yourself Video), and what will need to be made into accessible formats (see the CTL’s resource on Accessibility in Teaching and Learning). Materials should be relevant and organized in a logical sequence so students know how to move through the course. 

With these course materials now formatted for online, you will next need to provide clear instructions and guidance for students on how to engage with course content (anticipate the questions that students might have and be explicit) and an estimate of how long they should spend on each module, which will help students to keep up and plan their daily lives. Additionally, considering the tone and communication strategy used to guide students through the modules will help motivate them to complete all tasks. 

Reflect on your current practices:

  • What course content, activities, and assessments did students in your face-to-face course find particularly challenging? If reusing some of these materials, how might you build in extra ways to support your learners? 

Plan for your online course context: 

  • What content must be included/is essential for students to engage with? What accessible formats will be included? 
  • What is the best way to sequence and organize the course materials? 
  • What will a typical week of learning be like for your students? What should they expect in terms of time commitment, due dates, and time on asynchronous tasks? What would you include in a learning module? How would you introduce the module, its goals, purposes, and activities (e.g., through short text, audio, or video introduction or mini-lecture, or discussion post)? 

* Check with your school, department, or program to see if there is a design template that is used for online courses. Using the template provides consistency for students in terms of navigation methods across their courses. 

For more, explore our Active Learning for Your Online Classroom, Asynchronous Learning Across Time Zones, Teaching with CourseWorks, Teaching with Panopto, and Teaching with Zoom pages; Accessibility in Teaching and Learning and Blended Learning resources; or enroll in the Blended/Hybrid Learning Essentials or Introduction to CourseWorks (Canvas) Online self-paced courses.

Reconfigure Course Format(s) 

Online course formats can include, asynchronous, synchronous, or a blend of the two.* 

In a synchronous online format, you and your students are all online at the same time and interactions occur live during regularly scheduled meeting times. Technologies used in the synchronous classroom include videoconferencing and live chat, which facilitate interactivity, social experience, and opportunity to address questions in real-time. 

In an asynchronous online format, students engage with course materials and complete tasks, activities, and assignments on their own time. This provides students with flexibility and control over when and where they engage with course content, and is helpful for teaching students learning in different timezones (see the CTL’s resource on Asynchronous Learning Across Time Zones for more information).

Blending these two formats can help vary and make more accessible the content and concepts of your course. Considering how these two opportunities for learning–inside and outside of class–supplement each other will help you make the most of your and your students’ time.

* Check with your school, department, or program to see if there are expectations on course format. Align course format delivery accordingly. 

Reflect on your current practices:

  • In what ways have you used synchronous and asynchronous online delivery in your face-to-face course? How might you expand on your experience with technology-enhanced courses?

Plan for your online course context: 

  • What course format(s) will lend themselves best for the type of course? 
  • How will you communicate the differences between and importance of these formats to your students? How does varying formats help make learning more accessible for your students?

For more, explore our Asynchronous Learning Across Time Zones, and Active Learning for Your Online Classroom; Blended Learning resource; or enroll in the Blended/Hybrid Learning Essentials self-paced course.

Reimagine Your Assessments

Providing multiple points of assessment, timely feedback, and opportunities for self-assessments help students progress toward achieving the course learning objectives (Pallof and Pratt, 2008). Assessing student learning can include online discussion, assignments, low-stakes quizzes, peer review opportunities, e-portfolios, journals, and projects. Regardless of the methods selected, online learners will benefit from clear instructions, explanation of expectations, and knowing the criteria that will be used to assess their work (e.g., using rubrics can help students as they work on an assessment and help instructors and TAs provide feedback). Additionally, careful attention to the design of authentic assessments, assessments that ask students to work on open ended real-life tasks (Conrad and Openo, 2018), that align with course learning objectives, will help learners with academic integrity, as well as conversations with students about academic integrity online. 

Reflect on your current practices:

  • What are the assessment methods used in your face-to-face course? What is your approach to giving feedback in your face-to-face course? 
  • How do you currently involve students in assessment (e.g., self-assessment, peer review, etc)?

Plan for your online course context: 

  • What online assessments would align with your revised learning objectives? What CourseWorks tools could you use for assessing your learners (e.g., Discussions, Quizzes, Assignments) and to provide feedback? 
  • What opportunities for authentic “real world” assessments that promote academic integrity could students be asked to complete? 
  • How might you involve students in course assessment (e.g., peer review, self-assessment, providing feedback on assessments)? 

For more, explore our Teaching with CourseWorks, Inclusive Teaching and Learning Online, and Creating Online Exams pages; the Guide for Inclusive Teaching at Columbia; or enroll in the Introduction to CourseWorks (Canvas) Online self-paced course.

Redefine Classroom Community and Student Engagement for Online

The classroom space and feel is quite different in an online classroom, and considering what community and engagement ought to look like in these new environments is essential to student learning. A large part of helping students become comfortable in this new space is to reflect on your expectations for students and consider how these expectations might need to change to better facilitate online learning.

Poll, Widen, and Weller (2014) identify six online best practices to consider addressing in your adapted syllabus. The first three focus on building social presence, and the last three focus on engaging students.

  • Build an eCommunity
  • Clarify online expectations and objectives
  • Create a student-centered environment
  • Identify and employ the best online tools for interaction
  • Promote the exchange of ideas and information in the online classroom
  • Provide timely, relevant, and actionable feedback

Building social presence–a feeling of immediacy, intimacy, and proximity that is essential in facilitating online learning (Wei and Chen, 2012)–may come more easily in a face-to-face classroom than online. Online, we do not naturally get to know each other or have the opportunity to catch up before class, so community building needs to be done intentionally and transparently with students. 

Reflect on your current practices:

  • What do you do in your face-to-face classroom to build community? How can you structure your online classroom to give students a similar experience? 
  • What expectations do you set for students in your face-to-face classroom? How well do these transition to the online classroom? What changes need to be made to those expectations to better facilitate online learning?

Plan for your online course context: 

  • What opportunities will students have to get to know you and each other during class time (e.g., icebreakers, dedicated time to share and catch up) and outside of class (e.g., sharing introduction videos, ‘water cooler’ discussion boards)? How will you make these opportunities relevant to your course?
  • What challenges do you foresee in connecting with your students? How might you use out of class time (e.g., office hours) to help build these connections?

Engaging students in online learning requires interactivity, encouraging us to consider how online tools and environments help or hinder student engagement with content, instructors, and each other (Wei and Chen, 2012). The following questions will help you better define what these interactions should look like in your online classroom.

Reflect on your current practices:

  • Considering the activities you have chosen to match your learning objectives and prepare students for course assessments in your face-to-face class, which of these activities or student interactions can be translated from face-to-face to online? What new activities are available now that students are learning online?
  • What types of activities do students currently complete individually (e.g., reading assignments, viewing or listening to streaming lectures or presentations, analyzing or solving problems, responding to online discussions, completing online quizzes, researching and sharing resources) and collaboratively (e.g., presentations, projects, peer review)? Which of these activities are most important to still do during online class meetings and which can be moved to an asynchronous format?

Plan for your online course context: 

  • Which tools and features could be used to achieve the desired interactions (e.g., chat, virtual office hours, online discussions)? What directions do you need to give to students to help them understand how to appropriately use these tools?
  • What expectations do you have for student technology (e.g., microphone, webcam, mouse, smartphone), internet connectivity, or digital competencies (e.g., ability to use certain multimedia software or web tools)? What support is available to students who may need assistance in meeting any of these expectations before and during your course (from you, the department, or the school)?

For more, explore our Inclusive Teaching and Learning Online, Asynchronous Learning Across Time Zones, Virtual Office Hours, and Teaching with Zoom pages; the Guide for Inclusive Teaching at Columbia; or Accessibility in Teaching and Learning and the Digital Literacy Competency Calculator resources.

Select Technology and Digital Tools Based on Online Teaching and Learning Needs

There are many tools and technology solutions available to support learning and increase accessibility in your remote classroom. A good place to start is to consider integrating tools supported by Columbia and your school, department, or program. 

Reflect on your current practices:

  • What instructional technologies and tools have you used in the past and for what purpose (e.g., to share content and supplemental course resources, to communicate, to engage, to assess your learners)?

Plan for your online course context: 

  • What digital tools that you are familiar with will support the course learning objectives? Are these tools supported by Columbia or your school, department, or program? What supported tools are candidates for improving the learning experience for your students?
  • What support is there for you to learn and use these tools (e.g., from your department, school)? What support is there for your students to learn these tools?

Need assistance? The CTL provides pedagogical support for instructional technologies including Audience Response System Poll Everywhere, CourseWorks, Edblogs, Mediathread, Panopto, among other technologies through virtual office hours and consultations. To schedule a consultation please email ColumbiaCTL@columbia.edu


Boettcher, J. V., & Conrad, R. (2016). The online teaching survival guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips. Jossey Bass.

Conrad, D. and Openo, J. (2018). Assessment strategies for online learning: engagement and authenticity. Edmonton, AB: AU Press. 

Creasman, P.A. (n.d.). Considerations in Online Course Design. IDEA Paper #52. IDEAedu.org.

Darby, F., & Lang, J. M. (2019). Small teaching online: Applying learning science in online classes. Jossey-Bass.

Lehman, R. M., & Conceição, S. C. O. (2010). Creating a sense of presence in online teaching: How to be there for distance learners. John Wiley & Sons.

Major, C.H. (2015). Teaching online: A guide to theory, research, and practice. John Hopkins University Press. 

Nilson, L.B. and Goodson, A. (2018). Online Teaching at Its Best: merging instructional design with teaching and learning research. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (2008). Assessing the online learner : Resources and strategies for faculty. John Wiley & Sons. 

Poll, K.; Widen, J., and Weller, S. (2014). Six Instructional Best Practices for Online Engagement and Retention. Journal of Online Doctoral Education. 1(1): 56-72. Retrieved from Loyola eCommons, English: Faculty Publications and Other Works. 

Smith, R. M. (2014). Conquering the content : A blueprint for online course design and development. Wiley & Sons. https://conqueringthecontent.com/bh/ | Jossey-Bass website book material downloads

Thormann, J., & Zimmerman, I. K. (2012). Complete step-by-step guide to designing and teaching online courses. Teachers College Press.

Vai, M., & Sosulski, K. (2011). Essentials of online course design: A standards-based guide. Teachers College Press.

Wei, C. W., Chen, N. S., and Kinshuk. (2012). A model for social presence in online classrooms. Education Technology Research, 60, 529-545.


Resources available to support your online course design:

Columbia Online: https://online.columbia.edu/

Center for Teaching and Learning 

The Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) offers a variety of programs and services for instructors at Columbia. The CTL can provide customized support as you plan you design your online course through implementation.

Office of the Provost

The Provost Teaching and Learning Grants provide support for faculty who are developing innovative and technology-enhanced pedagogy and learning strategies in courses. In addition to funding, faculty awardees receive support from CTL staff as they design, redesign, deliver, and evaluate their hybrid or fully online courses.

Additional Resources 

From the Columbia University School of Social Work’s Online Campus:

Webinar series to support faculty who are new to teaching online: recordings and resources

Quick Tips for Online Instruction: The Basics (Baez, Marquart, Garay, 2020)

Preparing to teach your first class online in Zoom (Garay, Marquart, Baez, 2020)