Contrasting Approaches to Online Course Development

Three common approaches to online course development are compared and contrasted herein for a higher synthesis.

These are

  1. 1-1: A highly individualized and creative approach to course design where a faculty member (aka “Subject Matter Expert” or SME) partners 1:1 with an instructional designer (aka ID) who helps them build a unique course that best suits their goals, teaching styles and the needs of their students.
  2. ID Consultant: A middling approach where SMEs are brought in as consultants.  The ID then takes the content given to them by the SME and creates a course from it, drawing on a set of predetermined activities that have been proven to promote student learning and have the practicalities already worked out. The course is then often handed off to a number of adjuncts who teach the course as is, with little (or no) ability to edit it.
  3. Design Your Own: A minimalist approach, where faculty are left on their own to design online courses, sometimes with training and support, sometimes not.


Before setting ourselves to the task, some observations are in order.

The general problem with onsite to online transitioning is that while professors don’t teach in a vacuum, their highly idiosyncratic styles—which are generally hidden behind closed classroom doors—become public once the doors are virtually flung opened. That scares people.

Ensconcing their materials and methods in a learning management system (aka LMS) makes them immediately more referenceable, even if the only intent is to augment an onsite class with the affordances of online technologies. The progression of making the course (1) blended, (2) strictly online or (3) MOOCified not only makes it increasingly more public, but raises both the level of scrutiny AND the effort. This is also due in part to a tightening of the schedule of course deployment. You can no longer show up—chalk in hand—and do your schtick. There’s no winging it—most everything has to be uploaded in advance.

In fact, I’ve done studies to quantify the effort (using COCOMO methodologies from software engineering) and found that it takes up to 3 times the effort to digitize and promulgate the first run of an online course. Up to 3 iterations of the course before reaching the turning point where development effort transitions to maintenance effort. Maintenance entails less effort than traditional ground-based delivery. Many professors don’t have the stamina (due to either dispositions, technical competencies, external constraints or collateral responsibilities) to “get over the hump.”

The Distance Education (DE) “Effort” Curve depicted in the following illustration shows a green line for the relatively constant effort expenditure for a traditional onsite course. The blue curve represents the expenditure for an online course. Note that the expenditure for online courses rises and falls above the green line for (on average) the first three iterations of the course. The red asterisk represents the break-even (B.E.) where subsequent iterations require less expenditure than onsite delivery. The Creation phase entails learning tools, methods of delivery, and architecting of the course shell. The Maintenance phase requires only minor tweaking to keep the content current.


Having worked with subject matter experts (SMEs) as an instructional designer (ID) and been a professor myself, I’ve had experience working with all three models of design.

That said, we turn to an analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of the three designated approaches to course building.

The 1:1 Approach


The 1:1 approach lends itself to a high level of customization and accommodation to the pedagogical style of the faculty member/SME. Close engagement between the SME and the ID is a good thing. The ID can look at the SME’s onsite approaches to content dissemination, submission aggregation and assessment and adapt them in ways that exploit the affordances of technology mediated instruction (whether onsite, blended or online). In so doing, the ID can apprise the SME of alternative (and sometimes better) ways of teaching and assessing students.

The ID can also function in the role of a psychologist—part of the “help desk” persona associated with their role is to offer assurances to timid or recalcitrant faculty.


This is perhaps the most labor intensive approach to development, and the ID is most directly subjected to the SME’s constraints, like time, interest or true competence.

A larger problem with 1:1 approaches is that the idiosyncrasies of the professor’s style are merely projected into the online venue, rather than enhanced, corrected or brought in line with the institutional reference points for the look and feel of a course. Some IDs, being at-will employees, are afraid to suggest changes to tenured faculty.

Moreover, not every professor is actually fit for public viewing. The scene in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest where Jack Nicholson convinces the local police that a bunch of escaped mental patients are math professors exemplifies the worst-case scenario.

A lot of early xMOOC courses have a variability that indicates their having been developed this way. A danger of 1:1 is that it engenders a 1-off. LMS look and feel may smooth this at the presentation layer. The instructor’s content is assimilated, and resistance is futile. Behind the scenes, however, the dynamics of running a course are much the same.

The ID Consultant Approach


ID Consultant approach adds a little wiggle room in the development process. The ID can take the methods and materials of the SME and run with them. With the added flexibility, the ID can impose their expertise in pedagogy and technology, and serve-up a polished course that conforms to the look and feel of the institution’s corporate web-presence. Moreover, the utilization of a common framework, such as unit or modular organization, standardized navigation, and mandated design motifs—improve the usability and marketability of the course as a product in the increasingly competitive education marketspace.

One would also assume that giving the ID more ball control would shave time off the production game. Apart from their skills and expertise, they are subject to more business-like schedule and workflow constraints that economize the process. Faculty are free agents, and being more “task” than “time” oriented (over 90% of professors are Meyers-Briggs ENTP) they often add lag-time to the work breakdown schedule (“Detailed-WBS” in COCOMO terms).

Putting the ID in control can thus improves the efficiency of course development.


Increasing the level of detachment between the ID and the SME engenders many of the problems systems analysts encountered in the software engineering world when the waterfall model of development prevailed. Back then, the only encounters with SMEs were in the beginning Analysis phase and at the end in Deployment (i.e., the extreme points).

The 1:1 approach naturally lends itself more to organic incremental development processes.

Of course, in the ID Consultant approach, incremental development—entailing numerous cycles of ID-SME revue of evolving prototypes and consequent refinements—can and should happen.

The problem is that IDs tend to have lots of courses on their plate, and their approaches often devolve into embedded-style development. As a consequence, the “course” becomes more of a plugin to the institutional LMS and is implemented using standard widgets that might not conform to the preferences of the teacher.

That, in my experience, is the biggest bone of contention among faculty subjected to the ID Consultant approach.

The Design-You-Own Approach


This methodology harkens back to the pre-Horace Mann “wild west” days of education. History repeated itself in the 1990s with the emergence of the LMS and institutional mandates to offer online courses. Methodologies were less refined, and most of us in the guise of professors or IDs, were doing one-offs.

The early adopters were the innovators who drove the education industry and developed what have become standards of practice. Most of the resources, activities and language of online course development came about in this period. It’s reflected in the look and feel of today’s LMSs, which don’t differ that much in feature sets.

So, the principle advantage of the Design-You-Own approach is the leeway it offers bleeding edge faculty to innovate and inspire.

Mary Washington University most notably subscribes to this approach. An account of this is given in the book, Abelard to Apple. At the time of its writing, Mary Washington didn’t host an LMS. Instead, they encourage use of open source tools and repurposing of social media venues for instruction. The sorts of Internet media students used before they showed-up on campus, and the things they’re likely to continue using after graduation. Professors cobble-together their own point of presence, with on-demand support of the IT department.


The downside is that with the acceptance of online education and its concomitant standardization, it’s harder to do your own thing. It’s important that courses comply with accessibility mandates and conform to institutional look and feel. Resources are rarely allocated for individual use in the online arena like they were in the old days, when it was a struggle to incentivize faculty to undertake initiatives.

You can no longer be a renegade in this arena. You need institutional supports. Let’s face it, we don’t want to think about the bursar or registrar functions, buildings and grounds, or marketing. You need the institution’s charter, accreditation (state or national) and licensure to offer for-credit courses. It helps to have the institution worry about security, maintain the data center, provide high bandwidth, equipment, studio space, production assistants, etc.

My Preference

I singularly argue for the middle ground ID Consultant approach. Most faculty need a lot of help getting an online course off the ground and rarely demonstrate high levels of competency using technology mediated communication and media authoring tools. Moreover, in the learning object model (objects-integration-programming), I’m sad to report that hardly any of them can manage the programming aspect.

As mentioned above, the world is more complex these days, and institutional styling, branding, consistency in LMS navigation, look and feel, hosting, work breakdown scheduling and staffing, are critical drivers of success.

There will always be a place for start-ups and innovators, but the industry has matured and it takes a well resourced team to compete. There should be wiggle room in institutions for 1:1 and maveric individual approaches at the extreme points, but tuition revenue is contingent on the number of course deployments, enrollment volume and public perceptions of quality. As an institution, Harvard has the leverage of brand name recognition. Most of the rest don’t.

Implications for the Future of Education

I agree with Clayton Christensen’s prediction that the education marketspace is being disrupted, and that a significant number of brick and mortar institutions will fail in the next 15 years as a consequence of the economies of the online revolution. I see this already happening in my home state of Connecticut, hearing first-hand accounts of several local Tier-2 and Tier-3 state and private institutions that are millions in the red (6 to 50). Even the state is currently almost $1 billion in debt.

There will always be a place for Tier-1, resort-style, residential colleges and universities. They have, however, been priced out-of-reach for the masses. Take some time to watch the 2014 documentary Ivory Tower for perspective on this.

There will always be a place for onsite learning via music ensembles, clinical laboratory apprenticeships, and sports. There is still in force an onsite physical “education” requirement at many institutions. What are all those gym teachers going to do? (After all, to quote Woody Allen, “Those who can’t do teach—those who can’t teach—teach gym.”)

But the majority of brick and mortar institutions are already infusing ground-based classes with digital resources and LMS functionality. Online approaches are augmenting everything we do onsite.

The Higher Education Bubble, with over $1.5 trillion in student debt and rising costs, will ultimately burst. It’s already succumbing to the online revolution, with more students enrolled in online courses and more online course offered world-wide.

I see onsite offerings ultimately re-commoditizing education and broadening its reach.

Thus, our ultimate objective should be attainment of sustainable solutions that increase quality and access to education, while countering the rising costs for our constituents—the students.

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