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Collaborative Course Design Helps Colleges Scale Online Learning

Cross-functional teams work together to create common courses and curriculum.

When it comes to adult learners, universities are trying to provide a more consistent, affordable education -- and they're doing so by creating a common curriculum and working with course design.

Faculty members typically design and teach different sections of the same course, which means the course expectations, grading and activities vary greatly depending on who's teaching. This model is hard to scale and creates an inconsistent learning experience for students.

As the University of Maryland University College shifts to a competency-based learning model this year, its leaders want to keep class sizes at 25 students so faculty members can continue mentoring them in a small-group setting. But faculty members will soon work off of a standard curriculum and a competency-based map, which keeps different class sections consistent, and allows the college to quickly add faculty members and sections to meet demand.

"Our scale is huge at the institutional level, but our educational experience is small for our students, and we want to preserve that," said Kara Van Dam, vice provost for the learner and faculty experience at University of Maryland University College, which hires adjunct faculty members who work in their career field during the day to serve adult and military students.

Cross-functional Teams

Collaborative course design brings together people with different skill sets who create a consistent way to teach students.

When designing a new course at Rio Salado College in Tempe, Ariz., a faculty chair chooses an adjunct faculty member who is student-focused, knows the content and works in the field. This adjunct faculty member works with an instructional designer to develop the course, and the faculty chair provides oversight and quality assurance.

Once it's developed, different instructors teach it across many sections. They provide feedback and suggestions if they see errors or outdated information, and they add their own flavor by posting course notes each week.

This model makes the learning experience more consistent at a higher quality and allows the college to keep class sizes between 25 and 50 students as they add faculty members to meet demand.

"That's kind of the non-traditional model, and it just really has allowed us to be lean and very responsive," said Shannon McCarty, dean of instruction and academic affairs at Rio Salado College. 

At ASU Online, teams of faculty members, instructional designers and technologists create learning experiences that help courses scale. A team of instructors designs a curriculum that reflects their diverse perspectives; technologists share guidance on developing a course platform; and instructional designers lend their experience in course design.

Disaggregated Roles

While the first two colleges approached scalability with more sections of smaller class sizes, ASU Online operates on a global scale; its large support team and technology platform are designed to reach as many students as possible. Its most recent venture — the ASU Global Freshman Academy — will bring the freshman learning experience to edX this year.

A combination of success coaches, tutors, faculty members, counselors and technologists allows each person to practice to the limit of their expertise and serves a broader collection of students at different price points.

The challenge with disaggregation, however, is that graders could disagree, which confuses students more, said Van Dam from University of Maryland University College. She doesn't see a reason to disaggregate the faculty role at her campus because the relationship that faculty have with students today is working well. 

Leaders at different campuses are keeping an eye on the universities that adopt these models to see what will happen. In the meantime, ASU Online leaders say this is a good way to extend faculty members' reach with disruptive technology and bring education to scale at an affordable price point for more students.

"The most important thing is respecting the team concept and understanding the role that various kinds of staff and professionals can play in helping realize the vision of the course," said Arizona State University's Adrian Sannier, who is the chief academic technology officer for ASU Online and a professor of practice in the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Engineering.