Course Development

Tips for Success: Getting the Most from the Design Collaboration Process

10/18/18   |  
Christine Lewinski

Tips for Success written by Christine Lewinski, Ed.D, Director of Faculty Engagement 

Getting the Most from the Design Collaboration Process

Where should you start when transforming course content for an online learner? What is it like to work with an instructional designer? These are common questions that many have at the start of online program development. Here are three tips from what we’ve learned while helping universities prepare for success with online course development.

Tip 1: Be Ready to Turn Your Content Approach Inside Out

Inside out means taking a subject-centered design approach and inverting it to reveal a student-centered design approach.

Most of us have probably experienced subject-centered design directly. L. Dee Fink, well-known scholar of high-impact engagement strategies, discusses how a subject-centered course is typically prepared. From a set of objectives, a subject expert selects a text and decides which chapter titles match the objectives. A syllabus and assignments follow, supplemented by lectures and measured by exams.

The relative ease of designing a subject-centered course is offset by its major downside. A subject-centered course, Fink writes, “focuses on the organization of the information and pays little or no attention to how that information will be learned” (emphasis added, p. 61).  A lack of attention to learning can impact students in any modality but is most pronounced for students learning at a distance.  

Turn this inside out and you have student-centered design. Instead of a focus on how a professor will organize an effective lecture, the focus is on the sequence of concepts and practice that will help students build and sustain meaning. During course development, the conversation shifts from what you use to teach a lesson to what a student needs to do to learn a concept. Student-centered design is at the heart of building impactful online learning and teaching.

Student-centered design is at the heart of building impactful online learning and teaching.

Tip 2: Know Who is on the Guest List

Like any event, knowing who is attending course development meetings helps you to prepare. Content experts bring ideas about teaching; designers bring ideas about engagement. Arriving at a shared understanding of the course content and flow is the focus of the first few meetings.

With a goal to create a dynamic and effective online learning experience for students, let’s look at the Who? What? When? Where? and How? of the design process.

Content-experts come to the process with deep subject-area knowledge.


Content-expert and designer dialogue about how to introduce, reinforce and assess student learning.


Content experts meet regularly with the designer, often weekly.

Designers use expertise with Learning Management Systems and web design to build digital content.

Ongoing dialogue is the means to verify content alignment with outcomes.

Content experts and designers develop solutions to engage online learners, such as by modifying an existing learning approach or using technology to improve the access to and quality of the learning experience.

A team approach to course development helps to head off problems before they start by anticipating student questions and addressing gaps that would otherwise disrupt the learning process. As the proverb goes, “Many hands make light work.” Collaborative design helps avoid some of the invariable do-overs that happen while attempting to design a course on your own.

Collaborative design helps avoid some of the invariable do-overs that happen while attempting to design a course on your own.

Tip 3: Leave Room for the Spark

Backward design focuses on what students should know or do at the end of the learning experience. For many subject experts, the process sparks new avenues of thinking. The spark happens when practitioners—expert and designer—have real conversations. It’s the point when participation in course development goes from a process of sharing files to a conversation about the practice of learning and teaching.

To make the most of your course development process, consider these insights which have sparked design innovation through technology, personalized learning, and online pedagogy.

Fit-for-purpose technology tools

Learn about tools that build capacity to engage learners in new ways. For instance, what if the service-learning project isn’t limited to the immediate campus? What if the guest speaker can be from anywhere in your network? What if a geographically-dispersed group can create a successful class presentation? What if custom-developed multimedia can make a learning concept immersive? 

Differentiated learning paths

Think about the different ways students can gain competence. Personalized learning paths means giving more opportunity to challenge students who are getting the concept while providing forms of support for those that are not there yet. This may lead chunking information you once included in a lecture.

Online teaching pedagogies

Discover teaching in new ways. “Guide on the side” as the phrase is sometimes interpreted suggests the faculty member has a peripheral role. Many instructors realize being a guide doesn’t mean giving up authority. Teaching strategies are more nuanced and personal as students take on active content discovery for themselves (Kivujna, 2014). Varied means of providing feedback, probing questions, reflective activities, and uses of video to communicate with a class each represent forms of online teaching. Instead of covering content for a student, turn the focus to uncovering content with the students.

Instead of covering content for a student, turn the focus to uncovering content with the students.


Teachers often wonder if online learning can match up to what they do face-to-face. Many are later surprised that the experience of developing online content improves the way they teach on-ground. What makes a great online course? It has the same qualities of any great learning experience. Ambrose et al. (2010) suggest that it generates excitement to learn, practice, get feedback, and practice again as learners gain expertise in their chosen field of study. To get the most from the process, be ready to turn your content approach inside out, to understand the role of designer, and to be open to the spark of new thinking about learning and teaching.


Ambrose, S., Bridges, M. W., Lovett, M. C., DiPietro, M., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Josey-Bass: Wiley.

Fink, L. (2003). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kivunja, C. (2014). Do You Want Your Students to Be Job-Ready with 21st Century Skills? International Journal of Higher Education, 81-92. doi:10.5430/ijhe.v3n3p81