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Course Design & Production

In many ways, creating an online course is similar to writing a textbook. You’ll need at least a content expert, an instructional designer, and a web developer. You’ll need a clear process, including budget, timeline and design standards. The process can be both challenging and rewarding. This section is not a complete how-to guide for course development; it is intended to provide just a general overview of a typical process.

Course development is a major undertaking and must be considered carefully to ensure a quality educational product for students.

The Team

Effective course creation is always a team process. No one person has all the skills necessary to create a high quality course. Who do you need on your team? At the very least, you’ll need a content expert, an instructional designer and a web developer.

  1. A content expert: This might be a teacher or an outside expert who understands the content at a deep level. This person should have skills and knowledge that goes far beyond a typical teacher and preferably is familiar with multiple textbooks so that wise decisions can be made that don’t merely mimic any particular text. Content experts must also have a strong working knowledge of relevant state and national standards.
  2. An instructional designer: Instructional design does not mean basic lesson planning. Principles of effective instructional design are rarely taught in teacher preparation programs. Such skills are generally reserved for focused graduate programs. Your instructional designer for online courses is not a teacher, but rather someone who is experienced in the principles of design and the wide range of tools and techniques available in the online environment. The instructional designer works closely with both the content expert and the web developer to insure integrity of the content and design.
  3. A web developer: Effective course development goes beyond putting up a few files into the LMS. You’ll likely want to integrate a range of graphics, animations, videos, and sound clips to engage your learners and make the most of the online experience. The web developer understands principles of layout, file management, compression and other critical features that make the content efficient and usable. The web developed also needs to understand the W3 design standards to ensure that course comply with Section 508.

You might also wish to have the following team members:

  1. A project manager: Depending on the size and complexity of your project, you may wish to have someone assigned to oversee the course development and manage all aspects of the process.
  2. A content editor: The content editor is another content expert that checks and verifies the accuracy of the content expert’s work.
  3. A text editor: The text editor is a writing expert who ensures that the entire course is clear, readable, and written at the appropriate reading level.
  4. LMS manager: The LMS manager is the person in your organization responsible for maintenance and installation of the LMS. When it comes time to create your course shell and install the course in the LMS, the LMS manager will work with the rest of the team to make sure the final installation functions as designed, both technically and instructionally.

The Timeline

How long does it take to develop an online course? Although there is not a single, specific answer, usually you can figure about 12-18 months for a course equivalent to a full year’s content. Consider the following steps:

  1. Project approval
  2. Content research
  3. Content writing
  4. Instructional design
  5. Multimedia purchase or development
  6. Web development
  7. Installation into the LMS
  8. Preliminary approval
  9. Piloting with students
  10. Revision
  11. Final approval
  12. Launch

The Budget

Perhaps even more complex and variable than the timeline, the budget controls the pace, the size and caliber of the team, the amount of multimedia and ultimately, the quality of the course.

Some commercial companies spend as much as $250,000 or more to develop a semester course. Rarely is that feasible for those who wish to develop their own. By using Open Educational Resources (OER) and other readily available low-cost content, developers can reduce costs significantly.

These steps vary considerably in length, and some organizations may require additional approval steps. Not all programs choose to pilot courses with students prior to launch, but instead, consider the first time the course is offered to be the course pilot. Eliminating the pilot phase can save time, but may provide students with a sub-par experience. Of course, the quantity of content, complexity of multimedia, and level of quality all impact the pace of development. Increasing the number of team members can help speed up the process, but would generally require a larger budget.