January/February 2001 // Faculty and Staff Development
Developing Courses for Online Delivery:
One Strategy
by Ann Luck
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Ann Luck "Developing Courses for Online Delivery:
One Strategy" The Technology Source, January/February 2001. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Developing college courses for delivery on the Internet can be a daunting task. At some institutions, faculty are on their own, which often means that only "technologically savvy" faculty can participate in the growing trend toward online course delivery. The benefit of such an approach, on the other hand, is the level of faculty control over course materials. Technologically savvy faculty members can not only create online materials but also design the course exactly as they see fit. At the other end of the spectrum, we see commercial course development "shops" where teams of programmers, instructional designers, graphic artists, and the like work at record-breaking speed to produce online course materials, using content from contracted "content experts." While the rapid turnaround of these commercially produced courses is enviable, such an approach typically meets with outcries from the instructional design community and higher education faculty. Both groups fear that "factory-produced" courses are often little more than the equivalent of an electronic page turner with an exam at the end, lacking meaningful learning activities and interactions within a learning community.

So what happens in the middle? Penn State's newest campus, the World Campus, uses an approach to online course development that falls somewhere in between. The World Campus is a virtual university that employs information technology to deliver top-quality, Penn State-signature academic programs to adult learners worldwide. Here the course development process is a team effort, using the strengths and resources of Penn State faculty, instructional and instructional materials designers, technology and production specialists, and graphic designers. While the process of developing a course in a team environment is likely to be foreign to most university faculty, most at Penn State are quite pleased with the results. The Penn State faculty are able to concentrate on course content and the design of learning activities and assessment but can call on the other members of the development team for input in those areas that are outside of the faculty's expertise.

In this paper, I review the general process that the World Campus's Instructional Design and Development unit uses to develop cohort courses. It should be noted that course development is only one piece of the puzzle. To get a course ready for online delivery, a much larger team is needed, including people responsible for marketing, academic advising, registration, materials distribution, and program management.

An Overview of the Development Process

World Campus "cohort courses" (courses that will be delivered in a semester format, with groups of students taking the courses together) are typically developed in a two-semester time frame. As we walk through our development process, it is important to keep in mind that each member of the team has responsibilities for projects beyond the course at hand. For example, a faculty member who is serving as the content expert will also be carrying a traditional (but perhaps reduced) teaching, research, and service load; a lead instructional designer will likely be carrying a large number of course development projects on his/her plate at any one time, each in varying stages of development and complexity.

Since courses are developed by teams of individuals as described above, it is important to clearly delineate individual roles and responsibilities as well as target dates assigned to each task in the development process. This ensures that development runs smoothly and that key administrative units, such as the World Campus Student Services group, which registers and advises students and handles materials distribution, have the information that they need.

The first semester. The first semester is used to generate the raw content for the course. The majority of the effort expended during this semester falls on the course author. During that time, the course author works primarily with the lead instructional designer, meeting periodically to discuss the course and to review materials that the author has drafted. (The course author is a Penn State faculty member who has been selected by his/her academic college or department to serve as the content expert, bringing experience with the subject matter and effective learning strategies to the project. The instructional designer provides expertise in course design and development and adult and distance education. Instructional designers at the World Campus are required to have a Master's degree in a related field of study as well as prior work experience.)

At first, these meetings orient the course author to the World Campus and its course development process. The instructional designer is also oriented to the course by studying the syllabus and any other relevant materials, such as handouts or Web site URLs. The author(s) and instructional designer then lay out a general instructional design strategy for the course—the scope and sequence of course content, learning activities, and learning assessments—and begin to discuss how the traditional campus-based course might be adapted for delivery through the World Campus. Thus begins an ongoing dialogue on how to transform the traditional face-to-face course into an effective, high-quality distance education offering.

When appropriate, course authors, with the help of instructional designers, spend time gaining the technical skills and pedagogical strategies necessary to develop a distance education learning environment. In addition to one-on-one and group training, course authors access an online World Campus faculty development resource, called "Fac Dev 101," that is designed to introduce World Campus faculty to issues involved in authoring and teaching a course in a distance education environment. Moreover, World Campus course authors are given access to a collection of examples, templates, and other resources for use during course design and development.

Shortly after the first meeting, the instructional designer initiates an intellectual property agreement that will be signed by the course author(s). The agreement

  • sets up the time frame for delivery of materials;
  • identifies a signoff point for quality control (by the academic department);
  • describes the author's work as "work for hire" and indicates the amount of author compensation;
  • establishes University ownership of the particular expression of an idea but allows the author to quote up to 10% of the work without requesting permission. The author maintains ownership of course content ideas if they are expressed in a substantially different manner than in the copyrighted work;
  • identifies a date when course materials should be reviewed for currency; and
  • identifies a date after which copyright reverts to the author.

The lead instructional designer also works with the author to draft a course development schedule that outlines specific milestones and "due dates" for each component of the course development process. That document serves as an informal contract among all members of the development team.

Once the author(s) and the instructional designer have met a few times to discuss the course, one of the first tasks for the author(s) is to generate a detailed course outline. The purpose of the outline is to convey to the instructional designer the author's thoughts on the general plan for the course (thereby making sure that everyone is on the same page). The outline addresses what will be covered in the course, the author's vision of how the course will be delivered, and similar issues. It also provides a listing of general resources that students will need for the course and information about course goals and objectives, course requirements, the overall course structure, and lessons and topics. The instructional designer reviews the outline with the author, and they work together to refine the document. A "final" outline then is forwarded to the academic department head for approval.

Next, the author is asked to generate a set of sample course materials (e.g., sample lessons, sample exams with answer keys) as agreed upon with the instructional designer. The instructional designer reviews these materials and drafts a prototype (e.g., Web pages, PDF documents, print materials, stand-alone CBI) to illustrate how the resulting World Campus course might be presented. The prototype then is shared with the author(s) to determine whether refinements to the initial instructional design model are necessary. Once a model is agreed upon and refinements are made, the sample content is forwarded to the academic department head for approval.

With a detailed course outline and sample course materials in hand, the lead instructional designer arranges a "course launch" meeting with all members of the course development team. At the meeting, team members are introduced to the course author and review an abbreviated development timeline and a course design document prepared by the lead instructional designer. This document outlines the proposed instructional design model for the course. The team also discusses design and development procedures (how materials will flow from one team member to the next). This initial team meeting is a key point in the development process, as the entire team influences the course design. Meetings can get quite lively as participants share ideas and brainstorm strategies.

For the remainder of the first semester, the author generates course content. Ongoing meetings are used to review progress, discuss issues that arise, or capture initial ideas for learning activities and assessments. These meetings generally involve only the lead instructional designer and the course author(s), but other team members often are included, depending on the complexity of the project.

By the end of the first semester, the course author(s) have generated all of the core course content, including "lectures" and learning activities and assessments, and identified a textbook, other required readings, and supplemental resources (such as online resources).

The second semester. During the second semester of the development process, the course development team finalizes the course materials and designs and integrates learning activities and assessment strategies into the course. This includes the development of the course welcome page site, a publicly accessible informational site for the course. The welcome page includes an online syllabus, a course checklist outlining the materials and technology that students need, information about the nature of the learning environment used in the course, and section-specific information, such as a detailed course schedule of activities and assignments. Much of the site is based on a standard World Campus template (see Exhibit 1 for an example of a welcome page).

The majority of the effort during the second semester is expended by the instructional designer and other members of the development team. In some cases, however, individual authors may take on a portion of the actual technical development. As the instructional designer works through the draft content and puts it into its final form, she/he incorporates comments, questions, and suggestions pertaining to issues such as course content, learning activities, and assessment strategies. "Marked up" course materials then are given back to the course author for review and revision. This is typically an iterative process, with team members exchanging materials and revisions multiple times as items are finalized.

Real vs. Ideal

The process described above represents the ideal. In reality, things do not always go as smoothly as one would like. The most difficult and important lesson to be learned is that the process is prone to a domino effect: if one key point in the development process fails (e.g., a deadline is missed), subsequent steps in the process will likewise be adversely affected. For individuals who are not used to working in a team environment, that lesson can be painful to learn.

So what is the key to success? While many factors contribute to the success (or failure) of a project, a team development process requires excellent communication among team members to ensure that things run smoothly. How that communication takes place will vary from team to team, based on the preferences of the group. The key is not how communication takes place, but rather that it does take place. Take, for example, a scenario in which a course author and instructional designer decide to require students to use a non-standard piece of commercial software in a course. If this decision is not discussed with World Campus Technical Support in advance of the course opening, there will not be adequate time for technical support staff to learn the software in order to support the students effectively.

At the World Campus, we have found that the majority of course development pitfalls can be avoided if everyone on the team is aware of what is going on. That communication extends beyond the core development team to a broader group of people who support the course during its delivery. With more than 155 courses being offered through the World Campus in a given semester (as of August 2000), it is hard for everyone involved to keep track of every detail for every course! To help with the communications process, for each course the World Campus offers, an implementation meeting is held before the course is opened for registration. That meeting includes key staff from World Campus Student Services (including Technical Support) who advise, register, and support students during course delivery. At that meeting, the staff work through a formal "Activity Sheet" that outlines key logistical facts and features pertaining to the course. It is a final opportunity to make sure everything is in order and that everyone present is well-informed about the new offering.

Once a course has been developed and opened for enrollment, the development process is not complete. Every course goes through various stages of formative and summative evaluation. Minor revisions are made each semester (an estimate of 25% of a course is revised after its first offering, 15% after the second offering, and so on), and substantial revisions are planned as well at intervals that vary depending on course content. (For example, courses that cover "high tech" content might require substantial revisions every year, whereas courses that address more static content might be revised only every three years.) The original development team typically is involved in all course revisions. In some cases, however, faculty who possess technical skills may be able to make minor revisions on their own.

The payoff for the course development process has been well worth the effort of all involved. Student experiences in the World Campus have been studied through individual interviews and end-of-course online surveys. Self-reports of learning gains indicate that students view the World Campus as an effective environment for learning and as a welcome aid in meeting their goals. For example, results from the Spring 2000 survey indicate that 91% of respondents were "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with the amount of new knowledge; 95% "agreed" or "strongly agreed" that their courses helped them meet their educational objectives; and 91% "agreed or "strongly agreed" that their courses helped them meet their professional objectives. Areas for improvement identified through the survey were ease of use of technology (81% "satisfied" or "very satisfied") and interactions with fellow students (71% "satisfied" or "very satisfied").

Penn State's Center for the Study of Higher Education has engaged in an ongoing study of the faculty experience of teaching in the World Campus. Data from faculty interviews indicate that faculty members have been satisfied with many aspects of their participation, particularly high levels of student-faculty interaction and positive spill-over into their face-to-face teaching. However, the same faculty members have pointed out two aspects of their experiences that were less than satisfactory: perceptions of an increased workload and a traditional institutional reward system that undervalues online teaching and stresses alternate priorities. An additional factor, the collaborative/shared authority work environment in which course development takes place, was identified by some respondents as an incentive and by others as a problem. It is this author's belief that the latter is due to the fact that traditional course development typically involves only an individual faculty member, who has sole control over the pace and structure of the development process. The process of developing a course with a team of individuals in a collaborative/shared authority work environment may be a new experience for these faculty members.

The process of developing online courses undoubtedly will vary from one institution to the next due to differences in staffing, resources, and time—things will not always work out as planned. But having a strategy in place helps guard against reinventing the wheel and helps ensure a smoother development process. In an environment that is changing as rapidly as distance education, having a standard course development strategy in place is useful in training an ever-growing staff.

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