The Online Course Development Factory: Instructional Design Lessons from the Manufacturing Industry

While the pedagogical creativity inherent to creating an engaging online learning experience should not be understated, an equally important aspect of online course design is the production workflow. The creation of any product, whether tangible or intangible, has constraints of time frame, checkpoints, and quality control, all of which are important aspects of online course design as well. In this sense, the creation of an online course is akin to manufacturing a product in a factory, which is a useful analogy for understanding the practical considerations of creating an online course.

Factories typically have one or more assembly lines, which may or may not be automated, with later stages of assembly or construction being dependent on the successful completion of earlier stages. If a piece of machinery breaks down at an early point in the assembly line, the rest of the assembly line feels the effects. In manufacturing this means fewer products made, and money and time lost while attempting to get the assembly line up and running again. Online course design, too, can be thought of as an assembly line, with various contributors and stakeholders being responsible for different stages. For example, the course writer may be responsible for the authoring of the initial draft of a course, or a portion of a course, while an instructional designer or editor may be responsible for reviewing the course writer’s work for style, formatting, pedagogical soundness, and so on. Other stages might include academic approvals, course building, and QA testing:

The Online Course Assembly Line: Ideation, Authoring, Reviewing, Revisions, Approval, Course Build, QA Testing, Launch

It is worth noting that the development of an online university course usually has a hard deadline with the launch of the course for a specific academic term, so that the course is complete and available for students when a new term begins. But in reality, because of the assembly-line nature of online course design and building, the initial authoring of the course must usually be completed well in advance of the actual building of the course in a Learning Management System, and in advance of the other development stages such as QA testing, course copies and enrollments, and so on. One of the biggest challenges in working with course writers in the development of online courses is in helping them understand that their authoring work is only an early stage in a much longer, multi-step process consisting of the initial authoring of the course, reviews and revisions, course building and QA testing, and so on. For academics who are not used to thinking in terms of manufacturing, assembly lines, or hard deadlines, this can be a shift in thinking that may need occasional reinforcement.

Like any good assembly line, there should be frequent quality control checkpoints along the way. On an assembly line in a modern factory, these quality control checkpoints may be automated, using various types of sensors and precise measurements to check the integrity of previous stages of manufacture or assembly. In online course development, however, it is often up to the instructional designer working with a course writer to establish intermediate checkpoints along the development of a new course, with a review and possible revisions following each intermediate deadline. Drawing upon the model of an assembly line in a working factory, one of the simplest things you can do as an instructional designer working with course writers is to establish these intermediate deadlines and quality control checkpoints, and to make it clear that the purpose of the intermediate deadlines is to correct any issues early, while still in the authoring stage, to minimize the effects of any potential issues at a later stage in the overall development process.

The fairly linear nature of the overall course development process shown above should not be confused with a strict waterfall development model in which each subsequent stage remains largely in the dark until the completion of a previous stage (sometimes with unpleasant surprises for those responsible for each subsequent stage!). The purpose of establishing intermediate deadlines and quality control checkpoints during a course’s development is to avoid the pitfalls of a waterfall development model, the intention being to identify and correct quality issues at any point in the development process, the earlier the better, not only in the final QA Testing stage.

Course writers and instructors sometimes resist thinking of their work in terms of an assembly-line product development model. After all, course writers naturally want to create unique and pedagogically creative learning experiences (as we instructional designers want them to as well!), not soda cans rolling off a production line. In reality, the sweet spot is the intersection of the unique pedagogical creativity that course writers and instructors bring to their work, and the practical constraints of time frame and necessary steps in the overall development process:

Venn Diagram: Pedagogical Creativity and Practical Considerations

From a practical, getting-things-done standpoint, it’s important for course writers to know that the quality of their work and meeting their intermediate deadlines directly impact the success of subsequent stages of the course development process. It’s also important for course writers to know, however, that practical considerations of an assembly-line development process do not constitute a threat to the creativity or pedagogical effectiveness of the course they are creating.

At its core, there is nothing revolutionary about adopting the following core principles as part of the development process for online courses:

  • Everyone is responsible for completing his or her portion of the overall development process in a timely manner, including all intermediate deadlines and stages. Any delays in early stages of the development process, such as the initial authoring of a course or portion of a course, can have a snowball effect on the time frame of the overall course development process.
  • Quality control is not something that comes only at the very end of the development process. There should be frequent intermediate deadlines and quality control checkpoints at every stage of the development process, even if this quality control checking is performed chiefly by an instructional designer at the intermediate development stages.

With these basic development workflow principles in mind, it’s possible to turn a potentially chaotic course development process into a well-oiled content development machine that produces quality online course materials on-time and with the pedagogical creativity expected in today’s online course materials.

Zachary Fruhling is a senior instructional designer at HotChalk Inc. where he is responsible for the design and implementation of graduate-level online course materials. Zachary has over 15 years of experience in higher education, both in the classroom as a university-level philosophy instructor and in educational technology as a digital content author, instructional designer, and creator of interactive online course materials and media for a variety of disciplines.

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The Online Course Development Factory: Instructional Design Lessons from the Manufacturing Industry

by Zachary Fruhling
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