The Online Course Development Process

In contrast to a traditional face-to-face course, the development of an online course in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences is a collaborative effort joining the content expertise of a course author (or several!) with the education expertise of a learning designer. The course author is a Penn State faculty member who has been selected by his/her academic college or department to serve as the content expert, bringing experience with the subject matter and effective learning strategies to the project. The learning designer provides expertise in course design and development and adult and distance education. Learning designers typically have a master's or doctoral degree in education. Depending on the complexity of the course design, additional personnel may also be part of the development team, such as programmers, graphic artists, a videographer, etc.

Faculty who agree to author an online course should be prepared to:

  • Appreciate and use the instructional design process in creating an online course.
  • Work within a schedule and meet stated deadlines. This means that fully half of the course (including assessments and activities) is complete during the first semester of development. Alternatively, all of the content (not including the assessments and activities) will be complete by the end of the first semester of development.
  • Partner effectively with a learning design team in the development of the online course.
  • Create course materials and activities that consider the needs of adult and distance learners while addressing the needs of traditional students.
  • Be eager to share ideas and collaborate with others.
  • Possess excellent written and verbal skills.
  • Have the capacity to write in a conversational tone that is in the active voice (lively, engaging and incorporating humor where appropriate).
  • Appreciate the time and energy required to produce online course materials.
  • Be willing to learn and incorporate learning strategies to make content more engaging and effective.
  • Effectively develop course objectives and explain concepts, principles, procedures, etc.
  • Be accepting of feedback, constructive criticism, and new ideas.
  • Be comfortable with computer-based technology and willing to learn about new technologies.
  • Possess excellent organizational skills.
  • Manage time effectively, meet scheduled deadlines, and produce a completed course within a specified time period.
  • Be self-motivated with a strong interest in exploring new ideas and trying new things.
  • Comply with relevant accessibility, plagiarism, and copyright guidelines. 

This page provides a description of the standard course development process.

The First Semester

The first semester is used to generate the raw content for the course, either half of the lessons with their corresponding activities and objectives, or all of the lessons without such activities or assessments. During that time, the course author meets regularly with the learning designer, first to blueprint the course structure and assessment strategy, and then to review materials that the author has drafted. The information that is covered in these initial meetings is included in the New Course Questionnaire. The learning designer also works with the author to draft a course development schedule that outlines agreed upon milestones for each component of the course development process.

These initial meetings orient the course author to the online course development process. The learning designer is also oriented to the course by studying the syllabus and any other relevant course materials. When appropriate, course authors, with the help of learning designers, spend time gaining the technical skills and pedagogical strategies necessary to develop, and teach in a distance learning environment. They are also introduced to the issues involved in authoring and teaching a course online. Course authors are given access to a collection of examples, templates, and other resources for use during course design and development. One resource faculty find particularly useful is the collection of online courses available through the College's Open Educational Resources (OER) Initiative.

Once the author(s) and the learning designer have met a few times to discuss the course, one of the first tasks for the author(s) is to generate the Course Blueprint. The purpose of the blueprint is to convey to the learning designer the author's thoughts on the general plan for the course (thereby making sure that everyone is on the same page). The outline addresses what will be covered in the course, the general resources that students will need for the course, and information about course goals and objectives, course requirements, the overall course structure, the lessons and topics. Much of this is similar to a course proposal that is prepared for University approval, but with more detail. The document serves as an excellent conversation piece for the author and designer to use while developing the online course.

Next, the author will produce a sample lesson using whatever strategy s/he prefers. For some authors, this might take the form of a Word document. For others, recording their “lecture” in audio or video and then having it transcribed to provide the author with the “raw” content that s/he can then edit. Still others might already be comfortable authoring materials in an online environment and might choose to immediately draft content in that environment.

With a sample lesson in hand, the learning designer will then take the material and draft an online prototype of the lesson. As the learning designer works through the draft content and puts it into its online form, s/he adds comments, questions, and suggestions pertaining to the course content, learning activities, and assessment strategies. "Marked up" course materials are then shared with the course author for review and revision. This is typically an iterative process, with team members exchanging materials and revisions multiple times as items are finalized. Once both author and designer are comfortable with their initial prototype, the author proceeds to draft another lesson. The same give-and-take process is used between the author and designer to put the remaining lessons online, mark them up, and make any necessary revisions until all are satisfied with the resulting course.

Ideally, by the end of the first semester, the course author(s) have generated half of the core course content, including all student learning activities and assessment strategies.

The Second Semester

During the second semester of the development process, the faculty and designer team finalize the course materials, either concentrating on the second half of the lessons, or on the design and integration of student learning activities and assessment strategies into the course. At this point, they may engage additional team members if needed (e.g., for multimedia development, graphics, programming, technical editing). They will also finalize the other components of the course website, including the online syllabus and course orientation (which is a “lesson” that covers information similar to that addressed on the first day of class).

During both semesters, the effort expended is split evenly between the learning designer and the course author. The time it takes to complete the learning design of a lesson is roughly equal to the time it takes a faculty member to author that lesson.

Real vs. Ideal

The process described above represents the ideal. In reality, things do not always go as smoothly as one would like. The most difficult and important lesson to be learned is that the process is prone to a domino effect: if one key point in the development process fails (e.g., a deadline is missed), subsequent steps in the process will likewise be adversely affected. For individuals who are not used to working in a team environment, that lesson can be painful to learn.

So what is the key to success? While many factors contribute to the success (or failure) of a project, a team development process requires excellent communication among team members to ensure that things run smoothly. How that communication takes place will vary from team to team, based on the preferences of the group. The key is not in how communication takes place, but rather that it does take place on a regular basis. For more information, see "Expectations for Collaborative Course Development." 

Once a course has been developed and opened for enrollment, the development process is not complete. Every course goes through various stages of formative and summative evaluation. Minor revisions are typically made each semester, and ideally substantial revisions are planned, as well, at intervals that vary depending on course content. (For example, courses that cover "high tech" content might require substantial revisions every year, whereas courses that address more static content might be revised only every three years.) The original development team typically supports the course author in all course revisions. In some cases, however, faculty who possess technical skills may be able to make revisions on their own.

So what happens next?

The teaching of an online course is a topic for another document! But a good idea of the process of teaching a course online can be found in Managing Your Online Class.

Note: This document has been adapted from an article the author originally published in The Technology Source as: Ann Luck, "Developing Courses for Online Delivery: One Strategy" The Technology Source, January/February 2001. (

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