The Course Shell

photograph of several employees of the U.S. Forest Service Eastern Region constructing an accessible trail through the woods of Franklin Lake

Constructing an accessible trail at Franklin Lake campground. Photo by U.S. Forest Service, Eastern Region. Image in the public domain.

Creating Your Course Wireframe

Sculpting “The Hunt” figurine. Conor McMullin. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Just like a metal framework or armature is often used to define the structure of a clay sculpture, so too is a course content framework used to define the structure of an online (or blended, or face-to-face) course.

By breaking down, or segmenting your course into learning topics and sub-topics and arranging them in the sequence to be taught, you create the course wireframe around which you can build learning materials and activities.

To start, create a list of the concepts or skills embedded within your course learning goals and objectives. In other words, think what component knowledge (facts, concepts, and principles) and skills (processes, procedures, and strategies) would help your learners attain the overall goal.

Next, place your content segments (learning topics and sub-topics) in sequence. What should be taught first? What should be taught immediately after that? And so on. To help you think through the sequence, it can be helpful to create a visual representation such as the one below. You can certainly create your content sequence as a bullet point list if you prefer. The image below was created with a free mind-mapping tool called

The G Suite app “Jamboard” might also be helpful to you in creating a visual representation of this activity. Jamboard is an electronic white board with a movable sticky notes feature. Prefer paper? Good ‘ol index cards will do the trick -- anything you can move around would be most helpful.

Here is an example of a course segment sequence using a bullet point list. Click on the document's thumbnail below to review the entire document, or you can follow this link:

Once you have “chunked” your course content in this way you can begin to transfer your topics and sub-topics to labels in your Canvas course shell, thus creating the course wireframe.

The Canvas Course Shell

In Canvas, a unit of learning is represented as a module. Modules are the spaces in which you will focus on a particular chunk of the course content and organize and communicate weekly learning activities and assignments to your students. A unit of learning can be defined by any length of time that fits best with your course but one week is typical. You will notice that the template inserted into your Canvas course shell was designed with 8 weekly learning modules. You may need to add or delete modules depending on the duration of your course or how you define a unit of learning.

You can add “pages” to your modules. Pages hold instructional content while modules are the organizing structure. So, if we take the course sequence example and transfer its topics and sub-topics to module and page labels in the Canvas course template, the first 2 modules of the course would look something like this:

Once you have added pages to a module, you can open them and add your instructional content -- like adding clay to your wireframe to build your sculpture. The following video tutorial will demonstrate how to work in modules and pages, add other kinds of items, and orient you to the Canvas course template.

Your Trail Guide

For guidance and support on the path to developing your online course, we encourage you to use Open SUNY Course Quality Review (OSCQR) every step of the way. OSCQR helps ensure quality in online course design through its standards and robust repository of helpful resources and examples. More about OSCQR can be found at

Specific quality standards related to your course shell, or course content design and layout, can be found here:

OSCQR standards 16 - 28

Continue on to learn about Cognitive Presence.