Specialists Central to High-Quality, Engaging Online ProgrammingDaniel Christian | Senior Instructional Designer, Calvin College
Do you want to offer high-quality, engaging, and sophisticated courses in your online and distance learning programs? Do you want to avoid offering courses that are highly commoditized and don’t reflect the mission of your college or university? Then you’ll need to build your own team of specialists. One person can no longer do it all.
Why do I say this? There are a few key reasons.
First of all, once you put anything online, numerous fields of expertise can potentially come into play immediately (depending upon the level of sophistication being implemented). These fields can include:
- User experience design
- Interaction design
- Graphic design
- Writing/editing proficiency
- Web design and production
- Copyright expertise
- Knowledge of providing accessible content
Then, if you want to raise the bar a bit higher and provide some interactive multimedia or increase the level of sophistication beyond text and graphics, other skillsets could come into play such as:
- Knowledge of creating and implementing digital video and digital audio
- The capability of providing animations and/or simulations
- The ability to write code (i.e., programming in a variety of languages)
- An understanding of game design
- The knowledge of implementing learning analytics
- …and more
Instructional Designers (IDs) are crucial members of such a team, helping build effective, high-quality online courses. These team members sometimes act as instructional technologists (bringing a strong knowledge of software, hardware, and other tools to the table), at other times they serve as project managers, and at other times they help faculty members think through the best ways to teach, organize and assess students on any given topic. Still at other times IDs can help implement competency-based education or develop micro-learning types of delivery formats; or they may collaborate with librarians, who can also play an important role on the team. The field of instructional design is vast and people fill different roles depending upon their strengths as well as the needs of the organization. So IDs can and do wear a variety of hats in and of themselves.
What’s more, though I don’t have data on this, the expectations of today’s students are likely impacted when they are used to experiencing Steven Spielberg types of sophisticated, high-quality productions. Getting and maintaining a student’s attention is not getting any easier, and if you can’t get a student’s attention, you have zero chance of getting the material into that student’s long-term memory. And “memory is the residue of thought.” 
Finally, faculty members are extremely busy within their own disciplines, continually seeking to enhance their own knowledge bases. Their time is also taken up by advising students, teaching, grading/assessing students, serving on a variety of committees, planning, preparing and more. They don’t have the time to develop all of the aforementioned skills—plus there isn’t enough time in the day to do so, even if they had the interest to develop all of these skills, which would be very rare.
All of this is not even considering the pace of technological change and how emerging technologies will impact the team members and skillsets required on your team. For example, will there be a need for the following team members in your not-too-distant future?
- Human Computer Interaction (HCI) Specialists: those with knowledge of how to leverage Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), and Mixed Reality (MR) in order to create fun and engaging learning experiences (while still meeting the learning objectives)
- Data Scientists
- Artificial Intelligence Integrators
- Cognitive Computing Specialists
- Intelligent Tutoring Developers
- Learning Agent Developers
- Algorithm Developers
- Personalized Learning Specialists
- Cloud-based Learner Profile Administrators
- Transmedia Designers
- Social Learning Experts
For all of these reasons and more, colleges and universities should not expect that one person can build an exciting, comprehensive, sophisticated online course by themselves anymore.
Now while it’s true that faculty members (and institutions as a whole) often draw upon the resources that major publishing companies or other third-party vendors can offer—i.e., using the teams of specialists that those organizations have already built—the potential danger with pursuing this strategy is that the end product is highly commoditized. What will make such courses distinctive? Or how will those courses closely adhere to and reflect the mission of a particular college or university?
Given all of this, there are still at least two potential issues with what I’m suggesting here:
1. How can your team(s) not become a bottleneck to the organization? How can they keep up the level of production that’s necessary to keep an institution’s curriculum up-to-date (that is, if the rest of the institution is even able to do so)? That’s a tricky question, as budgets continue to get tighter. The best answers that I can think of at this point involve properly resourcing such teams and instituting a solid degree of planning and project management (i.e., using phased approaches).
2. Will faculty members allow others to contribute to the creation and delivery of their students’ learning experiences?
The bottom line here is that creating high-quality online courses is getting increasingly complex—requiring an ever-growing set of skills. Faculty members can’t do it all, nor can instructional designers, nor can anyone else. As time goes by, new entrants and alternatives to traditional institutions of higher education will likely continue to appear on the higher education landscape—the ability to compete will be key. Eventually, not being able to compete will show up in declining enrollments and greater issues involving retention. Building and growing the skillsets of your team(s) can help your organization succeed and keep those things from happening.
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 Daniel Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School? (Jossey-Bass, 2009), 54.
 Daniel Christian, “Alternatives to traditional higher ed continue to develop,” http://danielschristian.com/learning-ecosystems/2015/05/29/alternatives-to-traditional-higher-ed-continue-to-develop/, (May 29, 2015).
Author Perspective: Educator