Trial and Error: Online Course Development, Better Together

Instructors at Central Michigan University team up to construct online courses, creating peer pressure to meet deadlines and encouraging collaborations within and across departments.

November 8, 2017

The Institution: Central Michigan University

The Problem: Online course development at the institution was driven by templates and checklists. Instructional designers, who served as project managers, missed deadlines for completing new online courses 90 percent of the time, because they frequently had to wait on audiovisual departments, librarians and graphic designers to provide technical resources. Courses took an average of 145 days to get from concept to completion. The institution produced 36 courses per year on average, and few of them were distinctive.

“Every course looked like every other course, regardless of the discipline,” said Jeremy Bond, interim director of elearning at Central Michigan, during a presentation last week at the Educause conference in Philadelphia.

Instructional designers had also developed a reputation on campus for completing repetitive tasks that instructors preferred not to tackle, such as creating folders in the learning management system and printing documents. Bond describes the dynamic as a “conversionist mentality: here's my stuff, put it online.”

Mingsheng Dai, manager of Central Michigan’s instructional design unit, said faculty members often got distracted from online course development duties by research and grading, leaving instructional designers like her to chase after them. Peer review of online courses was particularly time-consuming, as Dai had to track down disparate instructors.

“It’s something [that was] put on their plate above and beyond what they’ve already been doing,” she said.

The Goal: Administrators hoped to find an alternative to the traditional one-to-one model of online course creation, in which a faculty member is paired with an instructional designer. They wanted to give faculty members a more active role in creating courses, speed up the process and fully utilize instructional designers.

“I was raging about how I cannot pay ID $70,000 to $80,000 to upload files to an LMS. This is a waste of an educated person's time,” Bond said.

The Experiment: Administrators knew faculty members felt frustrated and isolated by the online development process, though Bond said they all agreed that instructional designers were valuable. After taking a look at other institutions’ approaches, Bond and his team landed on a faculty cohort model in which six to eight instructors joined together and met every other week in a 12-week time frame. During that time period, each professor developed one online course with the help of the group. The instructional design team provided substantive assistance and design input during the process.

Unlike at other institutions with faculty cohort models, where instructors gathered to create a single course, each instructor in the cohorts at Central Michigan was manager for their own online course.

Another new element under this approach was the designation of one of the instructional design team members as a course production services coordinator, or CoursePro. That person had been in a support role for the three instructional designers on staff, making her a natural choice for the new role, Bond said. That person’s responsibilities include facilitating faculty members’ requests for documents, folder creation and other administrative tasks that burden instructional designers’ ability to be creative. The CoursePro has received as many as 100 requests per month at peak times during the cohorts, Bond said.

What Worked (and Why): Bond said in the first year of the new model, which launched with a pilot in fall 2016, the institution added 71 online courses. And over the course of three 12-week cycles in spring, summer and fall, the institution can now produce between 108 and 120 courses per year. In addition, the courses are more varied and faculty driven than they were before, and they’re being churned out much more efficiently -- an average of 2.4 days ahead of schedule.

“The results exceeded my wildest expectations,” Bond said. “I could have been given a thousand years and I could not have come up with some of the things that were handled so much better.”

The changes come in part because of what Bond and Kathryn Dirkin, assistant professor in the department of teacher education and professional development, called peer pressure: instructors are more likely to work to meet deadlines and goals when they know they’re being judged alongside a team of their peers.

Instructors also have structured opportunities to share knowledge and resources, whereas before they relied on instructional designers to seek assistance from other departments. Designers, meanwhile, can now collaborate closely on video projects and other multimedia, rather than getting buried in menial tasks, Dirkin said.

Dai agreed. She said the faculty cohort model has given her more time to work on substantive design duties and allowed her to spend less energy emailing faculty members and other stakeholders to remind them about deadlines.

“I can focus more on the meat,” she said.

Some cohorts are made up only of faculty members from a single department, while others blend instructors from multiple departments, such as one that included representatives from communication, music and history, among others.

The latter makeup has facilitated interdisciplinary discussions, according to Bond -- the communications instructor shared ideas about curating course content and hosting discussion boards that others could apply in their distinct pedagogies, for instance.

“If not for that particular interdisciplinary cohort, these are faculty who may have never met, let alone shared strategy,” said Bond, who selects instructors for some cohorts and outsources those decisions to program directors in others.

Mixing faculty members with and without online experience also creates a valuable idea exchange, according to Michael Mamp, an associate professor of fashion management and design and director of his department’s online degree program. Professors with online course development experience, like him, can offer tips and best practices, while new faces can offer new ideas that, Mamp said, “I wouldn’t know about if I weren’t sitting in the room talking about them.”

While most cohort meetings happen face-to-face, the first cohort of professors in business information systems met over WebEx because they were working remotely. The success of that initial conference established that cohorts could collaborate from different locations if necessary, according to Bond, though most choose to meet in person.

What Didn’t Work (and Why): The university’s three-person instructional design team initially struggled to keep pace with the faster production cycle. Even as its members appreciated the opportunity to work on more substantive assignments, their workloads quickly grew unsustainable. In response, Bond assigned two consultants from the institution’s teaching and learning center to take on some of the designers’ responsibilities.

Some faculty members weren’t immediately on board with Bond’s proposal because they remained skeptical of the value of online courses and didn’t see the faculty cohort model as an appreciable improvement, according to Mamp.

But Bond said he worked hard to convince them that the model would be successful. More than 85 instructors have now participated in 17 faculty cohorts over three cycles (fall 2016, spring 2017 and fall 2017), according to Bond.

“This move to cohorts represents a major shift, and the new model itself continues to evolve,” Bond said. “Adapting to change is always the most challenging.”

Dai thinks the faster turnaround for online courses has a possible downside: instructors get to spend less time massaging elements that could be refined. “Some courses could be better if they were given a little more time,” she said.

An initial concern about outsourcing some technical components to the CoursePro was that instructors wouldn’t acquire necessary skills for navigating and utilizing the learning management system to maximize student success. Instructors who haven’t completed LMS training are now required to prototype their first LMS module on their own before they can place CoursePro requests, according to Bond.

Dai said she misses being in the loop on the peer-review process, which now takes place among the cohort, requiring less email correspondence with the instructional design team. And she remains conflicted about whether online courses should look and feel the same from program to program, as they used to more often, or differ depending on an instructor’s priorities, as they tend to now.

What’s Next: Bond thinks the cohort model has reached peak productivity, though he plans to bring a model similar to CoursePro to other areas of the process, and to gather data from faculty surveys that could inform future adjustments. Bond has yet to discuss those ideas with his staff, though.



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