Master Course Shell Practice: Redesign of institutional online course look and feel, alignment of core course content and delivery, and quality improvement

Author Information
Dr. Marija Franetovic
Dr. Richard Bush
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
Lawrence Technological University
Effective Practice Abstract/Summary
Abstract/Summary of Effective Practice: 

The Master Course Shell Practice recreated the way courses were developed, archived, and delivered. It involved the redesign of the institutional online course look and feel and terminology used for both the front end of the course and the course repository. All Master courses were redesigned to fit the Master Course Shell, which included other standard components such as a syllabus template, an orientation module, and uniformity within the weekly look and feel of modules. Each Master course was reviewed to include the core course content aligned to the course’s learning objectives. In that way, the Master courses could be reused with different faculty and also by more than one section.
The Master Course Shell Practice included redesign by the course developer and faculty member within a development shell prior to teaching, then the course developers moved the courses to the Master course, and then each semester the Master courses were pushed to active courses by IT. In terms of quality improvement, three times a semester course audits were completed and the course content and delivery reevaluated toward the end of the semester. The practice has improved the partnership between IT, course developers, faculty, and students, eliminated inconsistencies in processes, course design and course delivery, allowed faculty to focus more on teaching, and is ultimately believed to improve student learning and satisfaction.

Description of the Effective Practice
Description of the Effective Practice: 

Problem. The basic look and feel of courses, terminology as well as the core course content was continually being changed by different faculty and from semester to semester. Course developers, faculty, and students were challenged in accessing core course content and navigating courses. There were inconsistencies in how the faculty members were being trained and in course quality in terms of alignment to course objectives and in course delivery. The existing course development practice of exporting and importing courses resulted not only in messy courses but also in a lot of unnecessary time spent cleaning up courses and dealing with artifacts from past course iterations. And, the demand for online programs was increasing.

Solution. When reviewing the education literature, there was a lot of articles on standardization, universal design, and templates, however, there were very few references to the Master Course Shells practice. Using the Master Course Shell practice, a standard look and feel was implemented to the courses, which not only included the structure of the course and the course repository, but also the core content of each course. All existing and new courses were standardized in terms of a syllabus template, orientation module, presentation guidelines for theory presentation, core activities for practice, and an emphasis on aligned major assignments and assessments.
In addition to the initial redesign or design of new courses, courses were audited three times a semester against quality standards. Course developers worked with faculty on quality improvement based on course audit results and mid-semester and end of term student evaluations. Overall, the Master Course Shell practice conserved cost, resources, time and effort.
The Master Course Shell practice can be replicated easily but it does require a dedicated IT, course developer and faculty, a learning management system and server space, and approximately a school year for the full development and first iteration of the intervention. When reviewing education practices, there were a few universities and community colleges which had a similar practice in place, some of which are listed or mentioned in the references.

Outcomes. There were a number of positive outcomes. The course structure redesign and the emphasis on identifying core course content brought about standardization and streamlined processes. This, in turn, affected other instructional design processes such as the collaboration between IT, the course developers and faculty, bringing about a greater focus on course quality improvement. Due to the standard look and feel of courses, course developers could also assist faculty from different colleges and as such affect response times as well as provide high touch solutions to faculty and student inquires. Due to a greater emphasis on instructional design prior to teaching, faculty could afford more time to teaching and enriching the learning experience.

Supporting Information for this Effective Practice
Evidence of Effectiveness: 

The following data sources are varied, including documents, reflection, interview quotes, and survey data from ranking reports and evaluations. The data are also from multiple sources including reflection from course developer and administrator, adjunct and full time faculty quotes, and student evaluations. The time period for this practice involves a semester for testing and development during summer 2012, and a year of development and intervention including fall 2012, spring 2013, and summer 2013. Due to its relatively early stages of development, further research is planned, especially with regards to learning effectiveness, student satisfaction, and retention rates.

Learning Effectiveness. Since it is still at its early stages of development, conclusive evidence does not exist for learning effectiveness however there are plans to evaluate learning outcomes between a representative set of courses, including online and traditional, prior to intervention of the master course shell practice and after the intervention.

Scale and Access. Reflection from authors of this article is relevant to mention as one brings the course developer perspective and the other brings forth the administrator perspective. The authors of this article see the Master Course Shell practice as an effective way to develop, archive, and deliver courses. The working space is centralized while internal processes between IT, course developers, and faculty are more streamlined. Other universities are encouraged to adopt the Master Course Shell as it can improve practice in all Sloan-C pillars.

The following data indicate that a) institutional support and b) student choice for online delivery from LTU courses has steadily increased from the time prior to the intervention to the time after the intervention:
• In Summer 2013, LTU Online accounted for 21% of the university total credit hours produced whereas prior to the intervention in Summer 2011, it accounted for 15%.
• In Spring 2013, LTU Online accounted for 10% of the university total credit hours produced whereas prior to the intervention in Spring 2011, it accounted for 8%.
• In Fall 2012, LTU Online accounted for 8% of the university total credit hours produced whereas prior to the intervention in Fall 2010, it accounted for 7%.

Faculty Satisfaction and the other 4 Pillars. Representative quotes are listed below from full time and adjunct faculty surveyed for their feedback regarding the Master Course Shell practice. This data directly illustrates faculty satisfaction, and as a secondary data source points to practice effectiveness in terms of the other Sloan pillars such as learning effectiveness, scale, access, and student satisfaction. Faculty satisfaction includes but is not limited to satisfaction with support and course developers’ consultations, an appreciation of workload decrease while teaching the course such that they may focus more on teaching, and sharing of an effective practice for the benefit of student learning.

“Keep the Master Course Shell…it is a structure that is standardized for all courses and very helpful. It kept me on track while developing the course and it gave students a similar look and feel. It eliminates scrambled courses, getting lost, and keeps students focused.” – FA_I1.1

“We didn't have the Master Course Shell when I developed my first online course, and I found myself constantly rearranging and redoing material after discussions with the Course Developer. The second time I developed a course it was much easier because of the standardized organization of the Master Course Shell. The feedback I got from the first course initially was that the students were somewhat confused as to where they should look to find content. The second course's feedback was very positive right from the start. Using the Master Course Shell also helped me communicate ideas and changes with my Course Developer.” – FA_I2.1

“Having a Master Shell for the course is really necessary if the course is not taught every semester. It allows the instructor to focus on instruction by refamiliarizing theirselves with the well documented content structure instead of having to redevelop the basic plan of instruction. ” – FT_I3.1

“In the pre-course phase, the Master Course Shell allowed me to place my course materials in one place. When I taught the course, this allowed me to focus on the teaching aspect of the course and not on developing course materials. In the post course phase, the Master Course Shell allowed me to reevaluate my course materials with ease and to make changes in order to improve the effectiveness of the course." – FT_I4.1

"...not only does the instructor need to be knowledgeable with the subject being taught and with the technology used to deliver the instruction, but also need to have a good structured design for the online course. A design that is characterized with consistency and alignment of the critical elements of teaching, and illustrates uniformity with how a course is delivered. Such a design requires knowledge and experience that many teachers/instructors may not have. I personally did not have such skills and knowledge until I have worked with our Course Developer...we started our process by reevaluating the core content of the courses including outcomes, presentation/demonstration of information, practice/feedback of skills and knowledge, and assessment of the overall outcome...this provided the consistency and standards that allow for students to know where to go and what to do, which resulted in helping them to focus on learning. In addition, it will enable future instructors to focus more on the teaching the concepts of the course instead of worrying about how to use the technology to effectively present the contents to the students. Moreover, sharing the same objectives with the Course Developer and being able to exchange ideas and brain storm the issues while we were developing six Master courses resulted in a good solid academic relationship based on respect and trust." – FA_I5.1

Student Satisfaction. In terms of student satisfaction, there may be an indirect link between the Master Course Shell practice and our 2012/13 school year rankings. In the U.S. News and World Report, Lawrence Tech University ranked 6th nationally for online undergraduate education and 1st in the nation for undergraduate online engagement. This could be due to our efforts in redesigning the look and feel of courses, our processes of capturing core content, the improved consultations between course developers and faculty, which together created the opportunity for overall course quality improvement and enhanced student engagement.
For the past fall 2012, winter 2013, and spring/summer 2013, the average for our student evaluation completion rate has been 34%, which may indicate that students were willing to be engaged to fill out evaluations as compared to other universities with lower completion rates. A representative set of evaluations indicates that students reported being satisfied with their courses. A factor which may have negatively affected the response rate is that simultaneously we were piloting different evaluation software. There are plans to review student evaluation data in greater detail once the new evaluation software is in place starting fall of 2013.

How does this practice relate to pillars?: 

Learning Effectiveness. When redesigning or creating the course with the Master Course Shell practice, the faculty members and the course developers reevaluate the core content of the course aligning it to program outcomes and accreditation bodies. They ask the question as to what is ‘essential to know’ versus what is ‘nice to know’. The latter may depend on each semester and individual instructor. They also consider whether the course objectives align with the content presentation, course activities and course assessments. They review whether the most appropriate technologies are being used and how they may maximize student to student, student to faculty, student to content, and student reflection interactions.
The intricacies of developing a Master Course contribute toward the quality of course design, teaching, and delivery, which in turn are believed to influence learning effectiveness. LTU Online management courses utilize case studies and our architecture courses utilize the studio-model for online sessions. Our online science courses facilitate laboratory experience through simulations and creative approaches to experiments. Our online humanities courses utilize multimedia to enrich the learning experience and ask open-ended and reflective questions to engage students. Our online math and computer science and engineering courses’ students solve real-world problems and engage in team projects.

Scale. The Master Course Shell has allowed for more streamlined processes between IT, course developers and faculty. In its initial phase of creating the Master Course Shells delivered for fall 2012, spring 2013, and summer 2013 terms additional time was required. However, the time invested has already begun to yield more work cycles for enhancing individual course quality between the course developers and faculty members.
The practice is also scalable because now there are Master courses developed by subject matter expert faculty of record, which are in place and ready for whoever is teaching the course. In addition, scalability is also observed when each Master course may be pushed to however many sections of the course there are. The Master course is reusable from semester to semester yet flexible enough to account for updates and changes at the time of teaching and review. Though there is still room for improvement in terms of documentation, learning management system functionality, and processes in general, the institution as a whole has a more effective and efficient approach to developing, archiving, and delivering online courses.
Additionally, the partnering between IT, course developers and faculty members and students improved in terms of communication, coordination, and faster response times. For example, a course developer, with whom a faculty member is not working with directly, is able to assist faculty or students with greater ease because there is uniformity with how the courses are structured and delivered.

Access. Access is often evaluated with how many people can access the materials, the ease of access, and the resources available. In this case, the Master Course Shell practice is effective because the same core content is delivered to all sections of the course, which means that all students have access to the same core content learning resources. The IT department and course developers have the same centralized access to the development shells, Master Course Shells and active courses. Similarly, the course developers and faculty have the same centralized access to the development shell, used to create the Master Course Shell, and the active course shell.
With a uniform structure to the intuitive navigation of the course as well as standardized look and feel of the weekly learning modules, students may easily know where and how to access course materials. In addition, the Master Course Shell design includes an orientation module, which provides students with information of student success strategies for online learning and technology help guides. Within the learning management system, the students also have easy access to the library, tutoring, help desk and other student services. When reevaluating courses and providing support, course developers and faculty seriously take into account student evaluation data and feedback: They continually improve the functionality and reliability of the learning management system, university-used tools and methodologies, and resources available.

Faculty Satisfaction. Faculty report that having standardization in the look and feel and core content of the course prior to the course being taught allowed for them to focus more on the teaching instead of worrying about recreating course content and figuring out technology. The practice of redesigning or designing a new course in the Master Course Shell format requires development prior to the semester of teaching. In such a way, the faculty member and course developer can evaluate the course prior to deployment and work out any course design issues prior to the course being taught. In addition, course audits, which evaluate against the Master Course Shell practice, provide course developers and faculty with quality improvement needs regarding improving teaching presence such as weekly announcements, discussion board interaction, and grading feedback.

Student Satisfaction. The same structure of the course allows for students to know where to go and what to do, which in turn, helps them focus on learning. As students get used to familiar elements of courses, they themselves provide feedback in course evaluations if the same quality standards are not exactly followed. Instructors may focus on orienting students to the course, setting weekly expectations, bringing in timely real-world examples and creating a learning community. All of these strategies are encouraged through consultations with course developers through a) course audits, which support the Master Course Shell practice, and b) student evaluations.

Equipment necessary to implement Effective Practice: 

The equipment necessary to implement the effective practice would include the learning management system and the server space used.

Estimate the probable costs associated with this practice: 

The estimate of the probable costs associated with this practice would depend on:
a) the learning management system and server space used;
b) informational technologist(s) and course developer(s) wages, and;
c) at least a year of time for the full redesign (4 semesters – 1 for testing, and the others for fall, spring and summer courses).

Contact(s) for this Effective Practice
Effective Practice Contact: 
Dr. Marija Franetovic
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Effective Practice Contact 2: 
Dr. Richard Bush
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