Designing and planning your online course with Trello

John Owen
John Owen
Jul 7, 2020 · 7 min read

In this post, I share a process for capturing the outputs of a learning design approach, which results in a visual, digital storyboard that also acts as a tool for managing the development of your online learning materials and activities.

The aim of this post is to demonstrate how the process works and how it can help with designing and planning courses. I deliberately omit technical details but hopefully provide enough information to show how the tools can be used. If you need more technical detail or would like help getting set up, please get in touch.

This approach could be particularly useful for anyone planning a shift to online or blended learning in the coming months. The process and tools work for any mode of delivery and can be scaled from a topic or sub-topic level up to the design or re-design of a full course. If you are collaborating with colleagues or students on your course design, the approach should provide an accessible, transparent and productive environment to help get your course ready in time for delivery.

The approach uses 3 cloud-based apps -

  • Airtable, a spreadsheet/database app to capture and store information
  • Zapier, an automation tool used to move data captured through Airtable into organised Trello cards (tasks)
  • Trello, a collaborative, visual project management app to manage and organise the tasks in a visual, collaborative way

All 3 apps offer a free version which should be suitable for most needs. Zapier is limited to 100 automated tasks per month, which should be suitable for most scenarios.

Learning design

The process works well with learning design approaches such as Clive Young and Nataša Perović’s ABC method, where the range of (learner focussed) learning types identified through ABC workshops can be represented digitally.

You should have ideally completed an ABC workshop (either face-to-face or online) before commencing with this process. Alternatively, the workshop could be incorporated into this process, with Trello effectively replacing the storyboard design.

As many ABC participants have commented, one of the real benefits comes from the conversations with course teams and students around the learning design, therefore it’s important to keep this as a key part of the process, regardless of the mode of communication.

The addition of structured theories such as Blooms Taxonomy are also easy to incorporate into the process to provide additional ways to think about and quality assure the learning materials and activities.

How it works

The example below is set in the context of a 15 credit online distance learning course unit of a master’s programme. The course unit contains 10 topics.

The process is focussed on getting the information identified during the learning design process into Trello through a structured Airtable form. Once in Trello, each piece of information can be edited, adapted, assigned to colleagues and tracked, all in a transparent and collaborative way.

You will need an account for each of the 3 apps — Airtable, Zapier and Trello (I have no financial connection to any of these companies and am not benefitting in any way through recommending them).


Airtable is set up and structured using several tables to capture the main details for the course, including —

  • Course level ILOs (Intended Learning Outcomes) — The main ILOs for your course
  • Topics — A list of the course topics (10 in this example)
  • Topic ILOs — the topic level ILOs for each topic of your course
  • Tasks —for storing tasks (learning content or activities) identified and defined through the learning design process and organised by topic

An Airtable form is used to capture the data for the Tasks table. Airtable forms are very easy to set up and are based on the Grid View structure. See an Introduction to Airtable Bases for a quick overview.

An example of the Airtable form for adding tasks to the Tasks table:

Airtable form

An example of the Airtable Tasks table — each row represents a task added through the Airtable form:

Airtable Tasks table (Grid View)


A Trello board is used for the managing project (see the Getting Started with Trello guide).

The board consists of a series of lists which represent the structure of the course unit. In this example, each of the 10 course topics is set up as a separate Trello list.

This example shows a Trello board with 5 lists for the first 5 course topics:

The 6 learning types used in ABC Learning Design (adapted from Diana Laurillard’s Conversational Framework) are defined using Trello labels, selecting the correct colour for each learning type.

6 Learning Types
  • Each topic list contains individual tasks (called Cards in Trello) and is organised with sub-topic headings reflecting the structure of the course
  • Each Trello card is automatically assigned its associated learning type label (identified through the Airtable form for each task)
  • The title of each task and colour-coded learning type can be seen on the cover of each card. This provides a quick way of visually checking the balance of learning types across a topic and the course.
  • Clicking on an individual card opens up the card to reveal all of the detail captured through the Airtable form:

This information can be edited or added to directly within the Trello card if required.

Acceptance criteria are automatically added (through the Zapier integration) to each Trello card. The criteria are used to test the quality of each piece of learning material or activity — tick each box once that the criterion has been achieved/passed. This list can be added to directly within individual Trello cards or added to all cards through the Zapier integration.

Once the checklist is complete (by ticking all boxes), the Trello card turns green to indicate its completed status.

Checklist complete

This provides another visual way of checking overall progress for the development of the course.


Zapier is the magic that automates the transformation of the Airtable Task data into organised Trello cards. See the Zapier Getting Started Guide for more information.

You create automated workflows called Zaps, which run when something is triggered. Within the Zap, you specify the trigger and resulting action.

For the process described in this post, the Zap is triggered when a new task is added into Airtable through the form (the free version of Zapier runs every 15 minutes). The resulting action is the transfer of each new record in the Airtable Tasks table to a Trello card, which is placed into the correct Trello list and labelled with the correct learning type, along with any other information required and specified in the Zap.

Zapier integrates with over 2000 apps, making it a very flexible and powerful tool. There are hundreds of ready-made Zaps for popular apps and workflows which you can start using to automate all sorts of things.

Reflections so far

The example presented in this post is the first time we have applied the process and tools, although we have used a similar process on recent co-creation projects with students.

The two academics who are developing this course are new to online learning (and ABC Learning Design) but have commented on how useful the process and tools are —

So far I’m finding it really useful to guide through the process, particularly as I haven’t done anything like this before.

I really like the structure and that it links all of the components we need to be looking at together, that it’s colour coded so you can easily see that you are incorporating a variety of ‘learning types’ and that you can view your whole module and keep a track of where you are up to with development.

An Office 365 solution

If you have access to the full Office 365 suite, then this process can be replicated using —

This would provide a more integrated solution without the need for multiple accounts for the range of apps outlined in this post. I will be setting up the workflow using the Office 365 apps and will share the process soon.

EDIT: The recently announced Microsoft Lists, looks like it could replace Airtable in an Office 365 workflow and provide a more user-friendly option than Sharepoint/Excel.

I would be interested in hearing about your experience of these apps and workflows, particularly in the context of learning design for online and blended learning.

Contact John Owen —

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