Our online course practices have changed. Have our policies kept pace?

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Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Latin, loosely translated as “Who guards the guardians?”

Recently at a statewide joint meeting of online learning officers and academic officers, a question came up: Who reviews online courses on a regular basis to make sure faculty are utilizing good and current practice in their course design? Both groups looked at each other, possibly assuming the answer was “Why, YOU do, of course.” The particular state will remain nameless, but I assume that this could happen anywhere.

Over the last 30 years, the practices used to design, develop and deploy online courses have evolved through a largely organic process. Today, many institutions provide training and support to faculty who are absolutely, without question, the subject matter experts (SME) in their disciplines. But if their discipline isn’t instructional design, the faculty member is well served if they can partner with a qualified instructional designer (ID). Where resources permit, even larger design teams, including librarians, graphic designers and video production specialists, may be assembled.

This article is provided by the Instructional Technology Council, an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges.

For the most part, these design teams work well – collaboratively, collegially and cooperatively. IDs strive for and thrive on positive relationships with SMEs. I’ve yet to issue boxing gloves and set SMEs and IDs to battling out issues of course design in an outbreak of fisticuffs. And I doubt I would ever have to, despite the thrilling spectacle that it might provide. But what if there is a difference of (professional) opinion?

More fluid collaborations

If the SME and the ID disagree on something related to the subject matter, the SME wins, automatically and irrevocably. As the dean who supervises the instructional designers, I would tell them to defer to the SME on all matters relating to the academic subject. I’ll probably never have to, but I would, if I did have to. And as the chief online learning officer for my institution (not my title, but my role) I’m sure that the chief academic officer would expect this as well.

But what if the shoe were on the other foot? Remember, I’m speaking hypothetically right now, but what if an SME refused to accept an ID’s professional expertise on matters purely related to instructional design? It seems unlikely that the SME would be told by their dean to defer to the ID.

There are some logical reasons for that. A few that come to mind, in no particular order:

  • There are gray areas of overlap between “design” and “subject.”
  • The SME (faculty) often have at least some instructional design experience, especially if they’ve been teaching online for a while, and at least some training, but the ID may have no experience in the faculty member’s discipline.
  • The faculty member (SME) is going to have to “live with” design decisions for at least a few semesters, while the ID will finish this project and move on to another one.
  • The faculty member, not the ID, will be the one who gets praised or criticized in the student opinion of instruction surveys that most schools use in some form or another.
  • Finally, let’s not forget the elephant in the room, collective bargaining agreements, institutional policies and academic freedom. They may also play a part in determining who has final say over course design. Ultimately, it is unlikely that best practices will trump union contracts or board policies. And yet, I very much got the impression that the expectation was for instructional designers to “guard the guardians.”

To be honest, if my IDs saw a figurative, impending train wreck of a course based on SME design choices, I would expect them to take some action. Likewise, if they had a valid and approved reason to be in an established course and saw something problematic, I’d expect them to again take some action. Because they are highly competent, trained professionals, I have reason to believe that whatever action they took would be appropriate.

Conversations on campus

But I began to question myself and the institutional structures and support that we provide. How confident are the IDs that they would be backed up, that their expertise would be recognized and that they actually have both the responsibility and the authority to address emergent issues in course design?

Upon returning to campus, I had a conversation with them about just these issues. I also looped in the provost.  It’s still a work in progress, but we’ll figure it out. If discussions like this one aren’t happening in your state or on your campuses, maybe it’s time to start having them. I was pleased to see that these discussions were “welcome collaborations” instead of “difficult conversations.”

About the Author

Martin Hoffman
Dr. Martin A. Hoffman, Sr., is dean of learning resources and a senior adjunct faculty member for Rowan College at Burlington County in New Jersey. He is currently serving his third term on the board of directors of the Instructional Technology Council.