Instructional Design

Evergreen Online Course Materials

By Zachary Fruhling

An important part of maintaining online course materials is keeping them up to date. Over time, an online course can become out of date as textbooks are updated, current events change, or new research occurs within a particular field of study.

Sometimes the motivation for updating online course materials is pedagogical: It’s clearly important pedagogically that online courses reflect current research and developments within any particular field. Other times, however, the motivation for updating online course materials is merely practical: It doesn’t matter in principle, for example, whether a textbook chapter on a particular topic (say, supply and demand in an economics textbook) is Chapter 2 or Chapter 3; the chapter references in an online course just need to match the actual textbook. If those chapters are rearranged in a new textbook edition, the course will need to be updated accordingly.

Other types of purely pragmatic updates to online course materials include things like repairing or replacing broken web links as external web resources are removed from the internet or relocated to a new web address. These purely pragmatic course updates take time and resources. And while they are important, they do not, strictly speaking, serve a pedagogical purpose, merely a pragmatic one.

When creating online course materials, insofar as possible and without sacrificing anything genuinely important pedagogically, the goal should be to create what is known in content development circles as “evergreen” content, namely content that remains viable for a long period of time without becoming out of date and hence requires little to no maintenance. You can think of evergreen content as being universal in scope instead of being tied to contingent or time-bound things like current events or textbook editions.

As an instructional designer or educational content developer, there are a few simple things you can do to make sure that your content is as evergreen as possible:

  • Avoid or minimize references to specific textbook chapter names, chapter numbers, edition numbers, and page numbers.
  • When teaching a concept, aim to create the most canonical and universal narrative possible instead of continually referencing a textbook. Avoid phrases like, “As it says in your XYZ textbook, ….”
  • Use hypothetical but realistic examples instead of examples from current events.
  • Alternatively, use examples from past or historical events that are likely to be recognized as relevant and important for the foreseeable future.
  • Structure your online course materials to be as modular as possible to make it easy to selectively update specific portions that require updating while leaving the rest of the materials intact.
  • For file-based resources such as PDF articles, PowerPoint files, and Word documents, consider hosting copies of the files directly within your course’s Learning Management System, instead of relying on links to externally hosted files, to minimize the risk of broken links.
  • Similarly, consider linking to an archived version of online articles and web pages through the Internet Archive, again to minimize the risk of broken web links in your course. (See my previous article on how to link to archived web resources: Recovering Broken Web Links and Resources with Archive.org.)

While there can be good pedagogical reasons to create online course materials that are closely tied to a particular textbook or to current events, in reality many topics and concepts can be taught in the abstract and in a more generalized fashion. For example, introducing the general topic of supply and demand in an online economics course can be done very effectively without reference to a particular textbook edition and without reference to time-bound current events. This ability to abstract and generalize, to create content that is universal in scope instead of contingent on external factors that fluctuate, is crucial to creating evergreen educational content with a long shelf life.

At the institutional level, evergreen online course materials are simply more cost-effective than time-bound materials. They require fewer resources to maintain since, by definition, they do not need to be maintained as often. For instructional designers and authors of online course materials, whether you choose to create evergreen-content or time-bound content can be a matter of saving or creating course maintenance work for yourself, or for others.


Zachary Fruhling is an instructional designer, online educational content author and developer, educational technologist, philosophy instructor, poet, and podcaster with nearly 20 years of experience in higher education and educational content development. See Zachary's website at www.zacharyfruhling.com.

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