Course Development and MOOCs - II

Taking the online, offline

January 12, 2015

In my first post I looked at the evolution of a new role in light of MOOCs, the course developer. In the second, I will explore the contrasts between instructional design and course development, and the ramifications of these contrasts for teaching and learning in higher education.

To do so, I conducted interviews of individuals in course development roles at four different higher education institutions. These eight individuals sat down with me for 1-2 hours each, and I used semi-structured interviews to explore their roles, responsibilities, and qualifications. All course developers worked for higher education institutions that were members of the edX Consortia.

The field of instructional design and distance learning has been around for decades. Corporate and university trainings were often created with the needs of the institution in mind, providing tailored professional development to employees within an institution or university to overcome scale or distance (Kirschner).

In addition, instructional designers, often based out of university Information Technology departments, were consulted by university faculty to aid with the integration of technology into classrooms and curricula (Paloff). Traditional to the field of Instructional Design were models such as the Quality Matters Rubric (Quality Matters Rubric) and the ADDIE model, which outlined the process of creating, implementing, and evaluating quality instructional design products, and are still widely used points of reference in the field.

As mentioned in my prior post, with the emergence of MOOCs came the emergence of a widely used, yet rarely defined role: course developer. Now I must consider another question; how does the course developer role differ from the traditional instructional designer?

Others have explored this question. Most assessments, however, are focused on cases where instructional designers intersect with the creation of MOOCs (Jacobs, Penn State University) or take a descriptive role of course developers in one institution (Nuernberg, Carin, Perrier), rather than exploring the role of course developer more broadly or as its own entity.

My findings point to a few additional themes. Prevalent among my interviews were self-descriptions as both instructional designers and course developers: while the developers I interviewed often held both responsibilities, the majority distinguished these roles, identifying that they held both simultaneously.

Here is how the course developers themselves described the differences:

  • Instructional Designers aid professors with the integration of technology into instruction.
    Instructional design centers on adult and professional learning as it is a role that distinctly aids university faculty with the integration of technology into curriculum or classroom. In addition,  any work that serves as professional development in online spaces for university employees (in this context), was instructional design and will be considered as such for a long time.
  • Course developers partner with professors to repurpose and develop content and curriculum.
    Herein lies an important distinction: Course developers should be considered co-instructors with college professors, rather than simply aiding professors with classroom technology. Course developers work in teams with those faculty who teach traditional residential higher education classrooms to think about how course content will be received and transferred online to the MOOC space and other forms of online learning.
  • Team-based instruction and course development often go hand in hand.
    As course developers are traditionally employed by the same university at which the course they transition to the edX platform is taught in a classroom setting, course developers are uniquely positioned for collaboration in instruction and curriculum design, as well as further aiding the integration of technology-based curriculum into residential classrooms.

Of these themes, one of the things I find most striking is the centrality of teamwork: as course developers work alongside university professors to create instructional content, they open up the possibility for a new definition of teaching in higher education--for the first time, instruction and content is created in teams, and not isolated to the work of an individual professor.

This is also distinct from the relationship between teaching assistants and university professors in that it fosters extended collaboration and discourse on course content, not just instruction and pedagogy.

Online courseware provides emerging opportunities for instructors to reconsider both the content and pedagogy of their lessons, and to build with educational partners means to share knowledge with a broader base of learners.

These considerations in mind, I believe that institutions considering entering this space should carefully consider their own methods for curricular development, as well as the individuals they would bring in as course developers: teams should be formed with an eye towards collaboration in the creation of online courses, rather than towards the re-purposing of residenidential materials for an online space. Such collaboration will lead to the best student experience, and a bright future for higher education online.

Ellen Brandenberger is a Master of Education Candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Technology, Innovation, and Education program. Ellen’s work examines the intersection between learning, design, technology, and access.She conducted the project as a capstone for Justin Reich’s course Massive: the Future of Learning at Scale at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. In addition to her studies, Ellen works as a research assistant at Harvard University.


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