This Is How We Do It: Part I

“How do you develop your courses?”  As the Saylor Foundation’s Content Development Manager, I field this question on a regular basis.  Its frequent recurrence has led me to realize that though we never intended to obscure our method, we have not been particularly transparent about this important aspect of our project, which, incidentally, has consumed the better part of my life over the past two years!  Over the next three blog posts, I am going to lay out our course design process in some detail.

Defining the Process in General Terms

I’ll begin by saying that we are constantly iterating upon our course development process, incorporating feedback from our professors and absorbing best practices gleaned elsewhere, while also expanding its scope to outline protocols for the development of new types of course content (assessments, assignments, prose excerpts, and—most recently—audio visual content and FAQs).  We are always looking to sharpen and improve, and I make a point of this with our faculty on a regular basis—we rely on their expertise and pedagogical know-how for many different program-related decisions, but especially for those pertaining to the design of our courseware.  I am often moved by their commitment to the project and seemingly boundless creativity in making these courses “work” in an online, unproctored setting.  But lest I stray too far in lauding their dedication, let me walk you through our standard course design process.

Designing the Areas of Study

We have carefully designed 12 areas of study (for now; more are in the works in the near future, including in the K12 space).  Earlier in this project, we had lead professors in each discipline conduct surveys of a range of programs around the country (from community colleges to the Ivy Leagues) and design curricula incorporating all of the standard courses students would expect to encounter in a traditional brick and mortar institution.  This means we’ve aimed, wherever possible, towards the middle; we are purposefully designing to the norm in order to be applicable to as many constituencies as possible.  This was a challenge, as our professors have vastly different opinions on pre-requisites, sequencing, and electives, many admittedly tied to their own areas of expertise and teaching backgrounds.  These areas of study are accessible from the left hand side of our home page.

Assigning the Course

Once we have an area of study in place, we review our professors and their qualifications (see here for a partial list of our professor consultants) in order to match them to our proposed courses.  The professor then reviews the assigned course’s situation within the overall major and weighs in on its placement and pre-requisite alignment.  If he or she has not yet done so, the professor completes an online training module (lovingly dubbed SAYLOR101) that walks him or her through the entire course design and development process.  The course primes the professor in the OER space (and all of its various acronyms and licenses), acquaints him or her with tools for finding openly licensed or open access content, introduces him or her to various templates and formatting guidelines, and provides basic instructional design training.

Conducting Course Design Research

With SAYLOR101 completed, the professor thinks through the design of his or her assigned course, prompted by a few basic questions outlined in SAYLOR101:

  1. What do you want students to know and be able to do at the end of this course?
  2. What materials/activities do you want to include in your course to ensure that students meet those goals?
  3. Given that this course will be posted online for students to progress through at their own pace, what special considerations need to be made?

Guided by these questions, the professor conducts a deep search for open content.  We encourage our professors to canvass the web for openly licensed materials, but also permit the use of open access content—as openly licensed content is frustratingly disaggregated and difficult to find, while open access content (i.e., PBS videos, TedTalk lectures, virtual museum exhibits, etc.) is often of such high quality that it would be a disservice to the student not to include it.  Though SAYLOR101 provides the professor with a laundry list of repositories and tools for finding content, we have our archivist, Sean Connor, assist the professor in this initial search.  Even with these instruments and resources at our disposal, I often find myself reminding our professors: “Nothing is better than Google.”

At this stage of the game, professors are also required to gather syllabi for comparable courses from a variety of institutions in order to inform themselves on how other practitioners have approached the challenge of course design.

A Closing Thought

I’m going to stop here today, as we’ve now worked our way through the important pre-planning and pre-design portion of the course development process—I’ll follow up soon with a post all about designing the blueprint and pairing that blueprint with online resources.  Until then!


Read more about our course development process in Part II and Part III of this series!

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