This Is How We Do It: Part II

In my last post, I announced that I would be explaining the Saylor.org course design and development process in some detail over a series of three posts.  We left off with a discussion of the course conceptualization, content analysis, and pre-design planning that go into our courses, and are now ready to pick up with the blueprint development stage.

Designing the Blueprint

With research completed, the professor now transforms his or her notes and resources into the shell or “blueprint” of a course.  A Saylor blueprint is a detailed learning taxonomy (a handy coinage we’ve learned from the Gates Foundation team) intended to render the content and progression of the course as transparent as possible for a student.  Speaking in practical terms, a blueprint is an MS Word document that contains prose introductions, learning outcomes, and an outline of nested units and subunits cataloging the high-level concepts, terms, and principles a student will need to master.  We encourage them to be as “granular” as possible in order to facilitate the pairing process and offer the student an at-a-glance understanding of the course’s scope and sequence.


We tell our professors that these blueprints should “set the stage for learning” throughout the course in a number of ways, but most ostensibly by presenting course content in a linear progression and aligning those topics with learning objectives.  In this initial design stage, we are adamant about articulating precise, measurable learning outcomes.  When well-designed, these outcomes provide a rough approximation of their criteria for success, and point to an obvious assessment method.  Though it has been something of a challenge to push for these outcomes in certain cases (many professors are unfamiliar with and even resistant to them as a principle of instructional design), we consider them the cornerstone of a well-designed course.  They should govern the decision of whether or not to include a particular resource or assessment within the overall scope of the course.  The proof is in the pudding: it becomes clear, as the course design process “bakes,” whether the outcomes are strong enough to support the course.

Once a professor has completed a first draft, the blueprint goes to the editing team for review.  We use a versioning process, passing the draft back and forth between the professor and the editing team until it has been deemed final.  At this point, the blueprint is uploaded to the site as a placeholder for the course.

Pairing the Course with Content

The professor now sets to work aligning the course structure with content.  This process can be challenging—some disciplines have very little content available, while others have a sea of mediocre content that needs to be vetted and evaluated.  The learning outcomes are intended to serve as a guidepost for this process—will the selected resources enable the student to achieve the course’s stated outcomes?  In addition to this general query, professors are asked to keep the following rubric in mind when reviewing any potential resource for inclusion in the course:

  1. Is the content accurate?
  2. Is the content approachable?  Is it delivered in such a way that the average college student would understand it, or is it overly technical/complicated in any prohibitive way?
  3. Is the content easily accessible?  Is the material easy to find on the page?  Is it easy to read/hear/see?  Is the video recording of sufficient production quality?

If there is a choice, we always encourage the use of openly licensed content, but such occasions are (frankly) rare.  In fact, we frequently encounter “gaps” in the course’s content, and, in these cases, temporarily mark those subunits as “missing content” with the intention of looping back at a later stage to create our own replacement material.

One important aspect of this process is the framing of resources.  We push our consultants to truly “scaffold” each resource not only with instructions on how to access and use the content, but also with reading questions, notes connecting a resource to those assigned earlier, glosses of complicated concepts, and so on.  This is the professor’s space to connect with the student and direct his or her attention to the content assigned.

The paired draft is cycled through the editing process until it is also marked –FINAL.  While awaiting edits, the professor is asked to complete a Course Submission Survey designed to gather information about the types of resources used, the areas that could benefit from additional content, and the professor’s overall take on the course and the strength of its structure and materials.

Meanwhile, the editing process often involves the work of multiple editors and professors, who assist in the refinement and articulation of the course and its resources.  Once marked –FINAL, two important processes kick off: exam development and permissions outreach.  (For more information on our permissions initiative, through which we request permission to host any copyrighted content to which the course links, please read here.)

Concluding Thoughts

Now, I know I’m leaving you with a real nail-biter—how does Saylor develop its exams?!—but I’ll pick up later this week with an explanation of our approach in the final installment of my “Saylor Foundation course design” trilogy.

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