2.5 Web-based and Online Courses

(last updated 08/20/21)


COCI working groups began a review of policies in relation to online instruction in 2002 and 2004, focused on questions of how to assess instructional quality when components of courses that would traditionally have involved face-to-face interaction between instructors and students were replaced by “technologically mediated” formats. In spring 2006, COCI further considered the issues, and implemented policies and guidelines for online courses, including additional review parameters and required post-implementation review, based on the recommendations of the working groups.

Across 2018 and 2019, COCI revisited these issues to develop a set of internal assessment guidelines as well as proposal requirements to more accurately reflect current instructional practices. The main changes implemented under the new guidelines are a move away from a simple classroom/online binary in categorizing courses, and implementation of a more differentiated set of instructional format choices in different dimensions of each course (e.g., lecture, discussion, lab). This is required in course proposals and to be reflected in a transparent and accessible manner in the online course catalog. 

Effective Fall 2020 COCI no longer requires departments to include the following when proposing courses with online instructional components:

  • A “W” prefix in the course number.
  • A completed “Supplemental Questions for Online Course Approval Requests” questionnaire.

Further, COCI no longer holds the following rules regarding courses with online instructional components:

  • There is a threshold at which departments must justify substituting synchronous instructor contact with asynchronous online work.

Courses approved under the previous policy will be maintained as approved. It will be incumbent on departments to modify their online courses, as they see fit, to adapt to these revisions. COCI encourages departments to update courses to remove the “W” prefix whenever possible to reduce redundancy of courses, decrease confusion for students, and promote consistency across courses. There are components within the formats and in the course catalog to make it transparent when a course is scheduled in an online setting or a mixture of in-person and online instruction (See Instructional Formats section).

Best Practices

During the initial implementation of its online course policy, COCI generated a set of best practices based on its analysis of annual assessments as well as from reviewer feedback. The following is a set of recommended guidelines for an instructor and department to consider when devising a course involving significant online instruction:

  • Plan for the substantial amount of initial development time an online course can require. Many instructors have reported needing hundreds of hours of course development time and upwards of thirty hours of ongoing work per week during the semester. Many instructors also report that they often revised upwards of fifty percent of an online course after the first offering.

  • Consider what role third-party providers can play in developing and implementing an online course. Few departments have the unique resources needed for creating and maintaining online courses. There are both on- and off-campus vendors that have the expertise and tools to provide support. On campus, the Digital Learning Services (DLS) and Educational Technology Services (ETS) are two units that can provide support. With any such option, be sure to verify in detail what technical support will be available to instructors and students.

  • Think carefully about the pedagogical advantages and disadvantages of web-based and online courses vis-à-vis traditional formats, and how these different modes of instruction will affect the learning experience as well as instructor and GSI workload. Alternative modes of engagement (e.g., moderated discussion lists, synchronous web-based discussion sections, email, chat rooms) often become more important with online instruction and require more instructor attention. Address in your syllabus your expectations for engagement and how student progress will be monitored.

  • As part of a commitment to “truth in advertising”, be sure that the course syllabus and related information provide a clear account of the requirements and expectations for student engagement in online and classroom instruction. For example, consider including a grid in the syllabus that documents how much time per week is spent in online discussions, viewing online lectures, and similar activities versus traditional classroom-based lectures, discussions, or off-line work. As part of this, the syllabus should make clear any non-UC online platforms or third-party applications that a student will need to access in order to participate in the course. Note that a similar breakdown of instructional formats will be required for the course proposal itself.

  • Think carefully through the specific methods to be used for monitoring student progress, evaluating performance, and assigning grades. This could involve a series of assignments for online submission, synchronous online assessments to be completed at a fixed time and date, or the incorporation of an in-person final examination in an online course, etc. Give some thought for the particular issues regarding academic honesty that may be an issue with a course in a largely or exclusively online format. As part of the syllabus, be explicit about how participation is assessed in web-based instructional environments.

  • Be prepared to fully support the proposed online course in relation to GSI and additional instructional resources. Since GSIs frequently conduct office hours and discussion sections remotely, they become the “voice” of the class to students. Having a knowledgeable and accessible GSI is often paramount to student engagement and success. It is also important that the expectations of GSIs be reasonable and be carefully thought through in advance (and, of course, that both designed and actual GSI workloads abide by relevant labor policies).

  • Consider the role of the proposed online course in relation to the department’s broader catalog of courses and program requirements. Is this a “one-off” course that supplements the catalog of department offerings, or will it become a critical component of the major/degree/program? Will this online course satisfy major/degree requirements? Will the online course serve as a prerequisite for other courses? In all of these respects, what relation is the online offering envisioned as bearing to existing courses in conventional formats?

  • Consider course structure, goals, and outcomes in relation to the anticipated student clientele. The clientele for online courses often includes a mix of UC Berkeley students and visiting students. Think about potential adjustments to be made to account for such a mixed clientele as opposed to the predominantly UC Berkeley student population of conventional course offerings on campus.

Criteria for Review

Regardless of whether an instructor of department opts to address the best practices listed above, what follows below will be mandatory for course proposals incorporating online instructional formats:

Face-to-face Instruction vs. Online Instruction

To serve the purposes of consistency and transparency (for students, staff, and other departments alike), COCI requires that the course proposal include a clear accounting of the amount of synchronous instructor contact that a course includes. The CMS course proposal form includes a section to indicate the instructional formats being used (e.g., lecture, discussion, final examinations). As with any course proposal, this breakdown in format choices must be accompanied by a detailed narrative account of assignments, class schedule, and the interrelation among various course components in relation to the course’s overall academic goals, along with the rationale for the choices of instructional format. In particular, this narrative must give a clear account, where relevant, of a) which course components are conducted synchronously and which asynchronously, and b) which course components are conducted online and away from campus versus those that require presence on campus (or the physical location of the course in case of study abroad and similar courses). For example, a course may be predominantly instructed online, but require that students come to campus during Final Exam Week to complete the final assessment. Any such requirements must be transparent in the syllabus.

On the question of synchronous versus asynchronous, it must be made clear which days and times, if any, students must be present in an online forum (e.g., discussions or group meetings). If there is no structure of synchronous course components, there must be a description of specific checkpoints or deadlines to support students completing the course within the term. In this regard, the proposal must take into consideration the workload and availability of the primary instructor and supporting instructional staff to meet the course demands.

Midterm Exams, Final Exams, and Related Alternative Final Assessments

Since online examinations pose some particular concerns relating to academic integrity, the following must be included, where relevant, in the course proposal. For assessments conducted distantly and/or asynchronously, there must be an accounting of what measures are to be put in place to ensure the academic integrity of the examination process. This would include a clear description of any requirement for students to engage proctoring services or other third-party services (and thereby potentially incur fees beyond those collected by the University) in order to complete the assessment. For assessments in largely or primarily online courses requiring students to be present on the Berkeley campus at a particular time and date, this information must be made clear in both the course proposal as well as in any syllabi, or other supporting documents, as noted above.

If the instructor does not wish to conduct a final exam in accordance with SR 772, the instructor must follow procedures for final exams as outlined in section 2.1.3. Instructors will need to coordinate with Classroom Scheduling and Management in the Office of the Registrar to offer a final exam if a regular classroom has not been assigned for the semester.

Instructional Formats

With the clarification approved effective Fall 2020, COCI affirms that a single course may be approved with multiple configurations. These may include purely classroom instruction, purely online instruction, or some combination. As with any substantial changes to a course, a change to the instructional format requires COCI approval. Once approved, it will be the responsibility of the department to schedule the course in accordance with the approved version. The Office of the Registrar will continue to monitor and enforce scheduling configurations according to approved course components.

In spring 2006 COCI approved two new instructional formats, WBL (Web-Based Lecture) and WBD (Web-Based Discussion), which were available for scheduling beginning fall 2006. These formats were discontinued in Spring 2021 and will be removed from courses as they are updated. Instead, any online course components should be indicated in the Flexible Scheduling Formats section in CMS. 

See section 2.2.4 for further information on all approved instructional formats.