Behind-the-Scenes: Creating an Online Course


Online course designers

Staff from (L-R):  Excelsior College’s Center for Online Education Learning and Academic Services (COELAS) instructional designers: Susan Woerner, Debbie Clemens, Erin Blauvelt and Peter O’Brien.

In a campus-based setting, classroom instructors typically teach and modify courses. However, in an online environment, courses are created in collaboration among instructional designers, subject matter experts, faculty and other professionals who work together to design new courses and revise existing ones.

Instructional design encompasses fields such as education, graphic design, technology, and psychology. At Excelsior College, each instructional designer is assigned to develop or revise up to 20 courses per year. They also want to make sure courses are accessible for students with disabilities.

Excelsior Life met with instructional designers Susan Woerner and Erin Blauvelt, along with assistant dean of online learning, Jennifer McVay-Dyche, to explore how online courses are created and learn about methodologies, misconceptions, and standards.

Excelsior Life: What does it take to become an instructional designer?

Woerner: Most instructional designers are lifelong learners themselves and have an avid interest in how people learn. This translates into helping make the learning process more effective for students.

Once in this field of study, I think many designers find different things interesting, according to their inclinations and what they’ve learned through academic coursework. So while the field is focused on learning, it expands to encompass many other fields such as education, graphic design, technology, and psychology.

Academically, most instructional designers have master’s degrees in instructional design or technology along with curriculum development. As for experience, most instructional designers also teach.

Excelsior Life: How do instructional designers get started on this career path?

McVay-Dyche: Instructional designers get started in a variety of ways. Sometimes, they make a transition from teaching or training; sometimes, they take on elements of instructional design as part of another job and then develop an interest in the field; other times, they will start out working with technology and then decide to bridge that knowledge with an education degree. Instructional design as a profession is still relatively new, so the career path is still being charted.

Blauvelt: Looking back, I can now see my interest in instructional design started at a young age. In high school, I used to help my uncle, who was an art teacher, with workshops for K-12 teachers in graphic arts and computer programs.  We used interactive presentations and tutorials we created with various forms of software.  My interest in using technology to teach grew from there.  In college, I helped develop a scenario-based hybrid course (part face-to-face, part online). I also was a teaching assistant for this course and others.

Excelsior Life: What experience is needed in developing courses?

McVay-Dyche: Each of our instructional designers brings at least 5 years of experience in developing courses for Excelsior College or other higher education institutions.

Excelsior Life: What does it take to create an online course? Who is involved in creating one?

McVay-Dyche: It takes a team! Here at Excelsior we have a team of individuals, each with a specific role,  assigned to each course.  The team consists of a subject matter expert (SME), a faculty program director (FPD), and instructional designer (ID), a librarian, and an instructional development specialist (IDS).

We also have resources to consider. As the SME, FPD, and ID develop the course, they may choose to incorporate multimedia such as podcasts, videos, tutorials, interactivities, simulations, or even games. It takes time to research existing multimedia. It takes even more time to build from scratch. When we need to build a multimedia element from scratch, we use a variety of software programs such as Raptivity, SoftChalk, or Storyline.

Excelsior Life: What types of elements need to be incorporated to address diverse learning styles, abilities, and backgrounds?

Blauvelt: It is becoming more important to develop courses accessible for students with disabilities. At Excelsior, we incorporate a number of elements in our courses to make accessing and participating with content more user-friendly for students with a disability, whether it is physical, cognitive, social or behavioral.

Excelsior Life: Are there industry standards a course developer needs to follow, before a course is launched?

Blauvelt: The field of instructional design has many models. Excelsior has chosen to follow Quality Matters standards when developing courses.

McVay-Dyche: We also try to follow universal design standards that encourage developing instructional materials that are accessible for students with visual or auditory impairments, cognitive disabilities, or language impairments. Universal design benefits more than just the student with a documented disability; it also supports students with varied learning preferences and environmental situations.

Excelsior Life: Is there an average length of time it takes to develop a course?

McVay-Dyche: Our typical course development process is six months long. The first four months involve the SME, FPD, and ID working collaboratively. The team uses Word documents and the Blackboard course environment to exchange documents and materials.

An additional two months are spent programming the course, reviewing, tweaking it, and preparing it for a premiere. We do have shortened course development schedules, but it is pretty intense to develop and design an online course over four months, so further reduction of that time is not as common.

Excelsior Life: What is a common misconception of online course development?

McVay-Dyche: One common misconception is that designing online courses is as simple as transferring what you do in the traditional, face-to-face environment to a website or learning management system. This is especially common for brick and mortar schools that are still exploring online education. Fortunately, Excelsior College has a history of meeting students outside of the traditional model, so we don’t have to work through that misconception here. That really changes the course development process, inviting collaboration, innovation, and student-centered education to the table.

Blauvelt: While it’s not quite a misconception, instructional designers don’t necessarily need a background or knowledge base in the subject that we are working in.  More often than not, we are working with a subject area new to us.  Our professional preparation and education in instructional design allows us to take on a student or novice perspective to the course content, while also recommending best practices for engaging students online.