Getting Started

When it comes to the layout and structure of online courses, there is no mandatory template that all courses must use.  Each course is unique in one way or another, so you may find it slightly confusing on your first login to a course shell, but you can usually gain a quick understanding of how a course is structured with a little exploration and experience.

Watch(2min): Learn more about how courses are structured.

Course Content Areas

You may find that your courses have different menu structures depending on how your instructors designed the course. No matter how the course is structured the content areas are typically used for the same purposes. Let’s take a look at each of the most common areas that you are likely to encounter.


Announcements: The Announcements area is almost always included in course shells, and is typically the first page you will see every time you log in to your course. Your instructor will likely use the announcements area for any time-sensitive notifications that need to be shared with the class, such as an approaching or rescheduled deadline, a class cancellation, or grade postings.

Course Information: Typically home to the syllabus, textbook information, course policies and calendars.  This area may sometimes be named “Syllabus,” “Course Info,” “Information,” etc. This is often where you will find important information about the course, how it will run, and what expectations your instructor has set for the semester.

Faculty Information/Contact Information: This is where you will find contact information for your instructor, including email addresses, phone numbers, and office hours.  Some instructors may opt to instead place this information in the Course Information area. If you need to contact the instructor or ask a question that is too personal to address on the discussion board, you’ll find all options for contact here.

Course Content/Course Documents: Here you will usually find the bulk of the content that instructors share with you in the course, such as text-based, Powerpoint, or video lectures, articles, videos, web resources, and various other types of instructional materials.  Content may also be loaded into content areas such as “Readings,” “External Links,” “Articles,” etc. Not only will you find most of the materials that you are meant to read, watch and listen to in this area, your instructor may also include assignments, tests, and discussion board prompts here as well.

Assignments/Tests/Quizzes: If your instructor does not include activities in the Course Content or Course Documents area, you will likely find your assignments and tests in standalone content areas. If used, you’ll need to access this area to find assignment descriptions, turn in papers, and take tests.

Discussion Board: The discussion board tool is the most common form of communication in an online course.  Similar to a web forum, discussion boards allow you to share ideas and reply to others when real-time communication is not possible or convenient.  While there is no standard discussion board policy, instructors usually require you to post on several days each week to keep the discussion active. Discussion boards typically take the place of the conversations you would experience in face-to-face courses, and will likely be evaluated for the participation portion of your grade.

Tools: The Tools area lists links to several course tools, including email, Collaborate Ultra, Zoom, journals, blogs, wikis, and the course roster.  Click this button on the course menu to review the complete list of tools available for the course. You may need to use this button to access virtual office hours, log in to a real-time presentation, or send off an email to your instructor.

My Grades: This is where you will find grades for individual activities and assignments, along with your total score for the course.  Instructors may also include feedback through text-based comments and file attachments. You’ll need to click here to find out how you did on your term paper or if you’re on your way to getting that A for the semester.


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