Principles for designing and teaching fully online courses at Oxford

Purpose and context

This document offers guidance to departments, faculties, course administrators and academics who are preparing to launch courses fully online. The principles presented here focus on factors that are especially important when there is no in person contact with students and complement existing guidance around flexible and inclusive teaching. They include examples of good practice that already exist at Oxford, to suggest ideas and share lessons learned.


  1. When students cannot meet course staff and their peers in person, orientation activities and continued support of the non-academic aspects of the learning experience must be built in as a core aspect of the programme, to enhance student’s sense of belonging and maintain motivation.


  • The Department for Continuing Education has a standard induction for all its online short courses to ensure students who may never have studied in this mode before are prepared for online learning and have met their tutor and other learners. Online courses also contain a virtual “common room” to allow space for off-topic discussions.
  • The Blavatnik School of Government Masters in Public Policy programme (offered fully online in TT and Blended in MT) provides a recording of an introductory Teams chat between the co-directors, and invites students to introduce themselves via the discussions tool in Canvas.
  1. When online spaces form the total learning experience, well organised courses in the VLE and materials with clear instructions and guidance around expectations and requirements are essential.


  • The MSc in Applied Linguistics for Language Teaching is a fully online programme with students from various international locations. The lecturers created a student experience in Canvas that ensures consistency and maintains high levels of student interest. The activities include a ‘starter’, a ‘main course’, a ‘desert’ and an ‘after-dinner mint’ - the last being an optional enrichment activity.
  1. To maintain student engagement online it is important to include well designed learning activities with opportunities for feedback. This ensures students are actively involved in their learning and with chances to test their understanding, rather than passively reading/watching content.


  • The MPLS online Maths Bridging programme uses quizzes to allow time-poor students to diagnose what they do or don’t know already, and thus focus their study efforts on areas where they need the most help.
  • The peer assessment in the Blavatnik School of Government MOOC acted as a key element linking all the other interactive activities together to motivate and engage students. Feedback showed that students enjoyed the peer assessment as they were not only assessed by other students but also learned how to provide feedback to others.
  1. Students studying remotely are in less predictable environments. Designing content that can be studied in flexible ways will maximize their success.


  • The Postgraduate certificate in Nanotechnology provides materials online that can be studied at any time and offers a mixture of structured collaborative asynchronous activities that help student groups studying across time zones, supported by regular synchronous tutorials to allow students to work through issues in real time with their tutor.
  1. With an entire course delivered through a computer, providing variety in the modes of content delivery e.g. reading articles, watching videos, interacting with simulations will enhance student engagement.


  • The eLearning Wildlife Conservation Course is an export of the WILDCRU (Wildlife Research Conservation Unit’s postgraduate diploma in International Wildlife Conservation Practice to an online interface. It uses a rich mix of content delivery methods to provide a stimulating experience.
  1. Designing, building, testing and running a fully online course requires additional resources and support, the extent of which should not be underestimated. Course teams will need help in areas such as media production, copyright clearance, quality assurance, extra teaching resource and more.


  • Opportunity Oxford paid teaching assistants to provide feedback to students on assigned tasks.
  • The MSc in Sleep Medicine is a fully online programme offered by the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences. They established a course design team to carefully plan and quality assure all their learning materials and activities, including recorded lectures and topics for discussion during real-time webinars.


Further help

Additional information around specific teaching scenarios and Flexible and inclusive teaching is available on the Teaching remotely webpage. You can also contact us and we can put you in touch with a learning technologist and/or educational developer who can provide consultation on your specific requirements.

Resource type:
Teaching level:

Teaching Remotely Service Desk