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Planning is the most important first step in any course design. Since learner needs are central, planning begins with a clear purpose for the course, with careful consideration of the target audience and context. We must start with the end in mind, whether our course is a short, stand-alone course, or a course that spans a number of modules or even years.

There are challenges and potential when designing learning. Some of the learning you plan for will happen. Some may not. But there is also learning that you do not plan for that will happen. Planning is an iterative process and needs to be revisited throughout the design process.    


  • This Saide Curriculum Development Guide will help you to think about the factors to consider when designing a curriculum (259KB, 3 pages).
  • This Saide Planning Process Tool (33KB, 1 page) will help you to think about a planning process at the level of course design.
  • This Open University Learning Design Initiative Narrative Case Study describes how a blended learning approach was used to create a module map for a short course in social work (284KB, 3 pages, CC-BY-SA).
  • This Saide resource provides questions to help you think about what is involved in Cyclical Planning (33KB, 2 pages).

Context and Target Audience

The contextual needs of each learner drive learner support in course design. The target audience profile is clearly identified at the course level and fed through to the materials development level (see section 3.1 of this Guide:  Where do we start?)


  • A group of course co-ordinators considered the implications of the target audience on the design of a BEd distance education programme. They came up with this Saide resource for their programme: a table describing the Target Audience Implications (31KB, 1 page).


The way in which the programme is structured is crucial for guiding learners along the learning pathway. Once the decisions about the overall structure of the course have been made they will help to inform decisions about how to structure and sequence the content. We talk more about this in section 2.2 of this Guide.

In distance education we also need to think about how we structure the course so that there is a supportive balance between self-study, contact time and assessment. This is crucial to being able to provide structured feedback and support to learners.

Salmon’s 5 Stage Model (2000) helps us think about a structure for designing online courses. The Salmon model offers us five categories for thinking about a structure:

  • Access and motivation.
  • Online socialisation.
  • Information exchange.
  • Knowledge construction.
  • Development.

Importantly, Salmon’s model illustrates (in Stage 1) the need to structure in opportunities for learners to become familiar with the skills that are required to, literally, navigate through the learning pathways. Without these skills it will be difficult for learners to access the teaching and learning process you have designed.


  • This Saide annotated Course Map example can be used to design a learning pathway that connects the objectives/outcomes, the content and the assessment tasks (89KB, 6 pages).
  • Saide's Course Outline Template (32KB, 1 page).
  • This is the University of Leicester’s Course Map Template  (page 2 contains a completed example) (55KB, 2 pages).
  • The Saide Delivery Model for Support document is an example of how to find a supportive structure for a blended distance education course (104KB, 1 page).
  • You can see Salmon's 5 Stage Model on the All Things in Moderation website or order the ’E-moderating’ book. As you read, think about how this could help you structure one of your own courses.

Design Review Questions

Now that you have thought more intensively about planning in general, think about these questions:

  • Which aspects of planning for your course made a huge difference? Which aspects were time consuming or resource intensive?
  • What aspects do you need to add or change in your planning process?
  • How did each of the different phases influence the final course? What would you like to do differently when you design a course in future?