How to Apply a Team Based Approach to Online Course Design

As part of a series on instructional design, this post describes how teams can effectively and efficiently develop online courses.

HiResAdopting a team approach to course design particularly for online courses is becoming a prerequisite at education institutions. As courses become massive, blended or online as part of an institution’s online strategy, there is a need to expedite and standardize the process of course design. In the midst of researching for this instructional design blog post series, I realized most descriptions of the process of course design don’t address the multiple roles and expertise needed for the online delivery format. In this post I’ll focus on a paper, Colorado State University-Global Campus [Puzziferro & Shelton, 2008] which provides an excellent strategy for a collective course design approach applicable to higher education. There is another report I highly recommend for readers interested in a team design approach—MOOCs of Edinburgh 2013 Report #1. This summary is collectively written by the professors of University of Edinburgh that developed six MOOCs for Coursera.

There is a significant literature that supports the idea of team-based online course production that predates the explosion of massive open online courses. Additional reports on course design strategies have surfaced as MOOCs become more mainstream. It appears that MOOCs because of the scale, inherently require not only a team-based approach to course development, but to the instructional aspect of the course once it is launched.  Yet a team approach to curriculum design for K-12 and higher education may be met with resistance by some educators. This approach is representative of the paradigm shift in education—a focus that shifts to learner-centered model. Not only does the instructor have to adapt instructional practices, but course creation practices as well. Fortunately there are numerous reports and papers that outline strategies and frameworks for educators to consider.

Team Challenges
A collective approach to instructional design can be most challenging. As mentioned, there may be resistance in education environments where teachers and/or faculty have traditionally had exclusive control of their curriculum and instructional materials in their face-to-face classrooms. This is understandable. But when transitioning or developing a course for the online format, this lone-ranger approach is not feasible. A highly functioning team can produce quality, rigorous courses that are effective for supporting learners in reaching learning objectives.

Team Roles
The roles for the project will depend upon its scope though common roles include, course developer or instructional designer, media coordinator, course platform technicians, copyright librarian, just to name a few. The article by Puzziferro & Shelton includes a chart of roles and responsibilities (p 127), though there are additional roles given the advancements in technology and course offerings that have transpired since the publication of the article.

Screen Shot 2013-06-05 at 12.40.46 PM

Image of the Active Mastery Learning Model implemented at CSU-Global Campus. Details found in paper by Puzziferro & Shelton

Team Design @ Colorado State University-Global Campus
A model for developing high-quality online courses describes the team-based process implemented at CSU-Global Campus in 2008 just prior to the launch of the school’s online campus.  The paper describes an instructional learning model used called Active Mastery Learning, and though I haven’t used this model, it’s worthy of review.  What is more instructive in this paper are the strategies and advice given for collective instructional design. Section IV, The Course Development Process: Defining Team Roles, and section V. Organizing Workflow and Establishing Deadlines provides comprehensive guidelines and strategies for effective teamwork.

“One overarching goal of this course development model is to provide ample instructional design, media development, and other resources and support. As Oblinger and Hawkins [16] point out, online courses are no longer content-driven; rather they are complex, technologically mediated learning experiences that require high-level instructional design, multimedia expertise, and technology skills that few faculty possess.”   [Puzziferro & Shelton]

Highlights from article: “In our model, we recommend a single faculty member working with the instructional development support team to minimize the potential academic conflict, and recommend a stronger leadership role for the Instructional Technologist.
Listed below are several essential factors mentioned that contributed to successful team work at CSU-Global Campus. I’ve added a few factors based on personal experience with team course design:

  • A commitment [which may be significant] of institutional resources, time, and equipment
  • A common goal and vision of the completed project
  • A cohesive team culture
  • Strong support from the institutions’ leadership
  • Leadership designated with the project
  • Working with deadlines and due dates on key deliverables
  • High level of communication/project management
  • A project management  tool via a web 2.0 application is helpful i.e. a Google Doc spreadsheet, or a project management tool such as Basecamp.

Though I’ve just skimmed the surface on team course design, I’ve included several links to resources for readers that may want to delve deeper into this topic.  In my next instructional design post, I’ll begin tackling the practical application methods of course design. Please share here any other articles or insights you may have a team course design. Thanks.


7 thoughts on “How to Apply a Team Based Approach to Online Course Design

  1. Laura Gibbs

    Wow, I really disagree: there is absolutely nothing about resistance to team-based design that means someone is resistant to learning-centered courses as you say here. Ouch. The whole reason I resist team-based design is BECAUSE OF STUDENTS: if the other people on the team never teach, sometimes have never taught, and do not know the students (which is often the case… and, at my school, almost always the case), it seems to me they are in the weakest possible position to make real contributions to student-centered learning design. They are good at cookie-cutter, technology-driven design, and that is the OPPOSITE of learner-centered design.
    Insofar as I need help with library resources, copyright, media production, the LMS, sure, I go ask for that help (just like classroom teachers go ask for help with those things, as they also ask for help with classroom equipment, etc.). But getting help with content has little to do with real course DESIGN, much less student-centered course design which usually involves some degree (preferably a large degree) of students creating the content.
    But, like I said, this team-based approach inevitably puts content first and students second, even a distant second. And that’s natural when people on the team have no contact with students on a day to day basis. Even worse is when these designers treat faculty as if they are just subject-matter experts… when, in fact, we ARE the “student matter experts,” far more than people who don’t teach for a living. I know my students. I’m really not interested in someone who doesn’t know my students designing the course for them.
    So, yes, of course team-based design is obviously required for massive online courses (and chalk most of those up as massive failures). A team-based approach is NOT required for normal-sized online courses, not any more than it is required for normal-sized courses in the classroom. And, I would argue, treating technologists as course designers is not even desirable because it dilutes the students’ presence in the thoughts of the people designing the course. I think about students FIRST, technology is a distant second.


    1. Debbie Morrison Post author

      Hi Laura,
      Nice to hear from you! An experienced faculty member that is proficient in technology, the LMS and social media tools, online teaching as well as their topic of expertise is a rarity :); and it’s in these instances that a team approach is helpful for course design. I have found that there are faculty with limited technical expertise, and they do need support in areas of how to engage students in the online learning space etc. Some faculty I’ve worked with that are new to online, are not familiar with discussion forums for example or features available within the LMS. When a new faculty member transitions his or her course to online for example, they do not have the experience or background to know his or her students; they essentially are starting from scratch.

      I wrote this post two years ago, and at that time there was perhaps more resistance to team-based designed than there is now 🙂 – (I was updating the links in this post – I’m guessing that the link to this post shows up in your RSS feed).


      1. Laura Gibbs

        Oh my gosh, I did not even notice the date. Somehow or other it did pop up, and I didn’t even think to look at the date. But that’s what is great about blogs: they can suddenly come to life again and we get to revisit an old question. I must have missed this one completely the first time because, as you can see, I feel very passionately about this and would have commented for sure the first time!

        And here’s the thing: what’s easier — to teach a technologist what teaching is (impossible: you can only learn how to teach by actually teaching, IMO)… or to teach faculty what they need to know about technology, LMS, copyright…? Admittedly, teaching faculty is not fun (students are way more fun to teach!), but that investment in faculty pays off because the faculty DO teach the students (at least for now…), and the tenured ones anyway are there for the long term. If they are not doing a good job, we need to investigate the cause and find solutions. This team-based thing just sweeps it under the rug, as if the faculty member’s attitude EVERY DAY in teaching the course were not a part of the design.

        I totally believe in bringing in professionals to do administrative stuff and carry out specialized jobs (I am getting awesome support from our OER specialist in the Library, for example)… but administrators and related specialists, classroom equipment managers, etc. are NOT designers of a course, even if they are a big help.

        Course design, classroom and online, demands INTENSE awareness of students and their needs… and if our faculty are not as aware as we want them to be, then we need to focus on that (but professional development at my school is pretty dreadful…), instead of hiring staff who are supposed going to fill that gap (but who, by definition, cannot: they are not in touch with students either!).

        All IMO of course. But strongly held opinion based on over 10 years of watching the wrong investments in development at my school yield little to nothing of lasting value…


  2. Pingback: How to Apply a Team Based Approach to Online Course Design « New Images of Education

  3. jmetcher

    Thanks for the article Debbie. We’ll be hearing a lot more about this as institutions have to modify their current “cottage industry” models to cope with their MOOC commitments.

    It’s also worth pointing out that there’s a strong case for team development even before we consider scale or online delivery. The subject matter expert who is a gifted educator is a rare beast indeed. Education design and group facilitation are different (although related) skills. Once we add in the requirement for technology and multimedia skills the notion that we can sustain a whole sector based on sole practitioners becomes laughable.


    1. Debbie Morrison Post author

      I agree. A team approach is absolutely needed for almost all courses as we move towards multimedia materials, open educational resources, and using learning management platforms on top of the new tools and methods. There is no one person that possesses all of the skills needed to create an effective course in a reasonable amount of time. Thanks for reading and commenting. Debbie



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