Recommended Guidelines for structuring your online course

The Unit-Module-Topic (UTM) Model

Faculty member with a puzzled lookConfused as to how to organize your online course to be equivalent to a face to face three credit hour course? You may ask yourself, how do I know I am covering too much or too little?   Well, there are course organizational guidelines based on the 50 minute session, the minimum unit for seat time in a college brick and mortar course which may be useful to you as you develop your course (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2009).

In a semester, classes usually meet for 15 contact hours and online courses usually do not have frequent online synchronous class sessions. In the distance learning environment, topics become the essential element of instruction. Topics are structured into modules equivalent to a 50 minute session. Modules in turn are organized into units comparable to a one credit unit.  The Unit, Module, Topic (UTM) model is highly recommended when planning and developing a 3 credit online course (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2009).

The Unit, Module, Topic Guideline for organizing an online course

• Each semester credit = 1 unit
• Each unit = 3-5 modules
• Each module = 3-5 topics
• Each topic = 1 learning outcome (Simonson, 2009, p.155)

Following this formula, an online 3 credit college level course has 3 units, 12 modules and 36 to 48 topics. There should be a learning outcome for each topic.

So, what is considered a unit?

An unit is a major subdivision of a course content (Simonson, 2009, p.155) For example, let’s take a course: Teaching and Learning with Technology (Lever-Duffy, McDonald, & Mizell, 2003)

Unit 1-Technologies for Teaching and Learning
Unit 2-Applying Technologies for Effective Instruction
Unit 3-Technology in Schools: Changing Teaching and Learning.

Modules: Each module is a subdivision of a unit.

For example: Let’s take Unit 2-Applying Technologies for Effective Instruction (Lever-Duffy, McDonald, & Mizell, 2003)

Module 1- Personal Computers in the Learning Environment
Module 2- Digital Technologies in the Classroom
Module 3- Administrative Software
Module 4-Academic Software
Module 5-networks and the internet

Topic: Important supporting idea that explains, support or clarifies a module. IMPORTANT: A topic could be an assignment OR a lesson.  For example, topics in Module 1 – Personal Computers in the Learning Environment could look like this:


  • Computers and Teaching- Reading
  • How does a computer work- Assignment
  • What do I need to know about software- Reading
  • What do I need to know about hardware- Reading

Please keep in mind these are suggested and recommended guidelines and that you must use discretion as to how closely you may want to follow these. These guidelines were developed by scholars an practitioners in the field of education and technology (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2009)

Lever-Duffy, J., McDonald, J. B., & Mizell, A. P. (2003). Teaching and Learning with Technology. Boston: Pearson.

Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2009). Teaching and Learning at a Distance. Boston: Pearson.

Leave a Reply