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Course Design for Competitive Advantage

As schools move more classes online, many turn to publisher-provided content. But to maintain their brand identities, schools need original material.

When COVID-19 triggered the world to go into lockdown, higher education instantly pivoted to delivering education virtually. Faculty making the switch had to learn quickly how to lecture online and administer exams virtually. Technology offered solutions in the form of web conferencing, lecture capture, and proctoring services. Technology also came to the rescue with entire courses—from texts to tests—provided by various external vendors.

But schools that relied on publisher-provided content soon faced a backlash. Some students initiated lawsuits because they did not feel they should have to pay high tuition to elite schools that were relying on the same content used by lesser-known and more affordable colleges.

After the pandemic is over, college and university administrators will need to ask themselves if degrees from their institutions merit the premiums that students pay. They will need to grapple with how their institutions maintain brand uniqueness beyond their mascots.

For AACSB-member schools, the issue is even more blunt: They will have to determine their ability to fulfill their visions and missions to “capture the university’s core purposes, express its aspirations, and describe its distinguishing features,” as specified in Standard 1 of the accreditation standards.

Institutions cannot provide unique curricula if faculty simply adopt generic third-party course content and assessment materials. But if schools want faculty to develop student-centered, mission-linked courses, then administrators must provide the mentoring resources that turn faculty into their own instructional designers.

Once faculty master instructional design, they will be able to revise all the courses they teach as they make a paradigmatic shift to student-centered learning. Consequently, they will be able to scale up their offerings quickly—and provide a source of competitive differentiation for their home universities.

Advantages of Instructional Design

Both of us have had some experience training faculty in instructional design. In a 2007 article, we discuss how we used the process in 2001 to create an asynchronous online MS in accounting when we were at the University of Connecticut (UConn) in Storrs. In 2015, we were both part of the effort at Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU) in Teaneck, New Jersey, to develop an asynchronous online master’s degree in digital marketing. Our goal was to build programs that would be resilient, absorb disruption, and provide longevity—outcomes prized by leaders within the business school community.

In both cases, we made the choice to invest in the faculty first before we began considering how to take advantage of the latest technological innovations. Since the programs were launched, approximately 20 faculty at UConn and 15 at FDU have opted to learn the instructional design process.

Institutions cannot provide unique curricula if faculty simply adopt generic third-party course content and assessment materials.

The return on investment for such programs manifests itself in a number of ways. Faculty who are mentored through this process:

  • become their own instructional designers, applying the skills they learn to their other courses and teaching modes.
  • transform their courses into distinct and comprehensive modules, which can be unbundled and repurposed for use in executive or continuing education offerings.
  • contribute to the scholarship of teaching and learning by publishing their course designs in the educational journals of their disciplines.
  • provide experiential learning opportunities that students can record in their portfolios as artifacts, which can be built upon or used to demonstrate abilities.
  • encourage the administration to invest in its talent as a way to promote new program culture.

Basics of Design

To be trained to think like instructional designers, faculty must work with an instructional designer to learn how to reverse engineer their courses. First, they document their courses through storyboarding, identifying their learning objectives and creating an operational definition for each objective. Next, they break down operational definitions into modules or chunks that include content and related activities to measure learning. Within each module, they list all the relevant elements, from readings to projects, and note which rubrics they will use to assess each one. In the process of learning these techniques, faculty members produce fully designed courses that they can teach.

All student work builds toward concluding course assignments—artifacts that students can keep in their portfolios as manifestations of their learning. We have seen students at UConn and FDU rely on these artifacts to narrow the focus of their majors and show proof of learning when interviewing for internships or jobs.

Once faculty have a solid and sustainable understanding of instructional design, their courses progress through additional iterations. With each revision, faculty might explore new ways to modify their courses—for instance, by drawing on open educational resources, protecting their copyrights, ensuring the information literacy of all students, and focusing on the accessibility of all content.

There are many benefits when faculty within a program undertake a learner-centered, team-based approach to course design. First, they can eliminate excess duplication and identify needed redundancies. If a program is mapped out in terms of the learning objectives for each course and the outcome for its modules, faculty will have improved clarity on how to allocate topics across the curriculum. These designed courses will also contain detailed outlines of the knowledge and skills students have acquired from prior courses. By specifying which skills are prerequisites, rather than which courses, schools will be able to design their curricula more holistically.

Second, such a process ensures that faculty, and their courses, undergo continuous improvement. Third, when faculty collectively engage in curriculum mapping, their collaborations will lead to more innovative and interactive course designs.

Faculty Incentives

Schools that want their faculty to undertake instructional design should seek out the right mentors. While these mentor designers should be comfortable with technology, they should be more focused on educational and learning theory. These instructors should be able to support faculty development and course design across all modalities, even those that use little to no technology.

While instructional designers typically work with faculty over a full semester, the goal is to gradually phase designers out of the process as faculty become more adept. Consequently, the school will realize a cost savings over time, in contrast to publisher-provided models in which administrators must rely on outside vendors to continuously design and redesign courses. Once faculty are trained, they will be better prepared to teach in any mode and make course adjustments iteratively as warranted by student feedback or assurance of learning requirements.

Schools with professor-created courses build their brand identities and create a competitive advantage.

To encourage faculty to learn instructional design, administrators could offer incentives such as a course development stipend or course release. We have also observed that, once faculty have gone through the process, they are excellent advocates for the benefit of this approach. Thus, for long-term success, it’s critical to give faculty opportunities to demonstrate and showcase their courses, especially to colleagues who teach within the same program. Faculty who have gone through the process also can provide meaningful feedback to their colleagues. They can share important information about the language, scaffolding, and pedagogy of instructional design.

In our experience, most professors are willing to learn instructional design—and perhaps even more willing now after their collective switch to online teaching during the pandemic. We also like to imagine a world in which PhD students learn instructional design as part of their doctoral programs. These future faculty members would have teaching skills equivalent to their research skills.

Differentiated and Resilient

Once faculty gain knowledge of instructional design, they gain perspective on the relevant use of technology. Not only do they learn how the learning management system (LMS) can support their course design, they are able to evaluate the potential of other kinds of technology—and they develop some skepticism about whether new tech is always better.

Even more important, faculty members create courses that are differentiated and resilient—unlike publisher-provided programs that are indistinguishable from offerings at other schools. When schools offer courses that are distinctive and high-quality, students will pay for them and the institutions that offer them will thrive. Therefore, schools with professor-created courses build their brand identities and create a competitive advantage.

This competitive advantage can be realized very quickly. A single instructional designer with a strong background in educational pedagogy and a good understanding of technology can mentor faculty to design three courses each semester. If these courses are rolled out sequentially, the school soon will be able to offer a wholly online program.

Additionally, as mentioned above, courses that have been redesigned exist as a set of unique modules. Assuming that each course has an average of three to five modules, a 10-course degree would result in 30 to 50 such modules that can be repurposed for use in the school’s other programs. That’s quite an expansion of options for one design effort.

Course design all begins with the simple question, “What do you want the students to be able to do at the end of the course that they couldn’t do at the beginning?” Faculty members draw on their own unique experiences to produce objectives and operational definitions that then disaggregate to unique content and outcome assessments. In the end, even if a faculty member is teaching a standard or core course, it has been individualized enough through this process to be different from other courses in similar programs. Thus, this process reflects the uniqueness of each university’s most important asset—its faculty.

Unique and Student-Centered

For too long, academia has been in a “pour-in-professor-and-stir” mode of online education. Publishers have provided standardized content, course design templates, texts, and test pools. Schools have simply deployed the materials into their own LMS shells and scaled up.

While the ease of this model is appealing for administrators, such a system is also problematic. For one thing, it allows students to share course-specific study resources and exam questions through platforms such as Course Hero and Chegg. More dangerously, it perpetuates competitive duplication. Schools engage in a race to the bottom instead of wresting their universities’ unique identities from a thick and thronged pack of identical options.

We tend to agree with Rich Lyons, who was dean of the Haas School of Business at the University of California Berkeley when he was interviewed in 2018. He noted that “only the schools that differentiate themselves—by the products they offer and the cultures they create—will continue to thrive in the face of all the forces that threaten to disrupt higher education.”

In the past, a university’s reputation rested on its research. Today, the quality of its teaching might be just as important in establishing its rank and status. Colleges and universities that train their faculty to design unique, student-centered courses will not only thrive—they’ll be the institutions whose programs far transcend the present state of online education.

David R Lavoie David R. Lavoie is the university director for the Center for Instructional Design at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, New Jersey. He is also formerly assistant professor-in-residence and director of instructional design and assessment for the University of Connecticut’s School of Business in Storrs.

Andrew J. Rosman Andrew J. Rosman is dean of the H. Wayne Huizenga College of Business and Entrepreneurship at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, Florida. He previously served as dean of the business colleges at Fairleigh Dickinson University and Long Island University (CW Post campus). He was the founding director of the MS in accounting at the University of Connecticut.