April 23, 2017

Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 3: Work in a Team

In this post I argue that one of the strongest means of ensuring quality is to work as part of a team.

This is the fourth in a series of 10 posts on designing quality online courses. The first three posts (which should be read before this post) are:

Nine steps to quality online learning: introduction

Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 1: Decide how you want to teach online

Nine steps to quality online-learning: Step-2: Decide on what kind of online course

Why work in a team?

For many instructors, classroom teaching is an individual, largely private activity between the instructor and students. Teaching is a very personal affair.

However, online learning is different from classroom teaching. It requires a range of skills that most instructors, and particularly those new to online teaching, are unlikely to have, at a least in a developed, ready-to-use form. In particular, the way an instructor interacts online has to be organized differently from in class, and particular attention has to be paid to providing appropriate online activities for students, and to structuring content in ways that facilitate learning in an asynchronous online environment. In particular, good course design is essential to achieve quality as I have defined it (student performance as good as if not better than for classroom teaching). These are pedagogical issues, in which most post-secondary instructors have had little training. In addition, there also technology issues. Novice instructors are likely to need help in developing graphics or video materials, for example.

Another reason to work in a team is to manage workload. It can be seen that there is a range of technological activities that are not normally required of classroom instructors. Just managing the technology will be extra work if  instructors do it all themselves. Also, if the online course is not well designed, if students are not clear what they should do, or if the material is presented in ways that are difficult to understand, the instructor will be overwhelmed with student e-mail. Instructional designers, who work across different courses, and who have training in both course design and technology, can be an invaluable resource for novice online instructors.

Thirdly working with colleagues in the same department who are more experienced in online learning can be a very good means to get quickly to a high quality online standard, and again can save time. For instance, in one university I worked in, three faculty members in the same department were developing different online courses. However, these courses often needed graphics of the same equipment discussed in all three courses. The three instructors got together, and worked with a graphic designer to create high quality graphics that were shared between all three instructors. This also resulted in discussions about overlap and how best to make sure there was better integration and consistency between the three courses. They could do this with their online courses more easily than with the classroom courses, because the online course materials can be more easily shared and observed.

I recognise that for many faculty, developing teaching in a team is a big cultural shift. However, the benefits of doing this for online learning are well worth the effort. As instructors become more experienced in online teaching, there is less need for the help of an instructional designer, but many experienced instructors now prefer to continue working in a team, because it makes life so much easier for them.

Who is in the team?

This will depend to some extent on the size of the course. In most cases, for an online course with one main faculty member or subject expert, they will normally work with an instructional designer, who in turn can call on more specialist staff, such as a web or graphic designer or a media producer, as needed. If however it is a course with many students and several instructors, then the instructors should work together as a team, with the instructional designer. Also in some institutions a librarian is an important member of the team, helping identify resources, dealing with copyright issues and ensuring that the library is able to respond to learners’ needs when the course is being offered.

What about academic freedom? Do I lose it working in a team?

No. The instructor will always have final say over content and how it is to be taught. Instructional designers are advisers but responsibility for the course always remains with the faculty member. However, instructional and web designers should not be treated as servants, but as professionals with specialized skills. They should be respected and listened to. Often the instructional designer will have more experience of what will work and what will not in online teaching. Surgeons work with anaesthetists and nurses, and trust them to do their jobs properly. The working relationship between instructors and instructional designers and web designers should be similar.


Working in a team makes life a lot easier for instructors when teaching online. Good course design not only enables students to learn better but also controls faculty workload. Courses look better with good graphic and web design. Specialist technical help frees up instructors to concentrate on teaching and learning. What’s not to like?





  1. Thanks for this fantastic resource, Tony. I really appreciate your practical approach to designing an online course. All of the steps, except this one (Working in a Team), are steps that I can see myself accomplishing. Do you have any suggestions to get the benefits of the “team” aspect without actually working collaboratively with a team? Since I am working in a public school, the online courses are “farmed out” so to speak. Team members would be very difficult to obtain.

    • Hi, Wendy

      Yes, this is one aspect of the BC k-12 online system that is a little problematic, in that those responsible for ‘delivery’ are often completely separate from those that developed a course (the same of course is true for open educational resources).

      My comments about team work was primarily for those developing courses. I do have some concern that in the BC k-12 online system, those supporting existing online courses may not have a direct link to those that developed them. This should be part of the evaluation process for such courses.

      Indeed, it would not be difficult, using social network software such as Facebook or Twitter, to develop a community of practice among those hired to deliver online courses, so that they can share experiences and provide feedback to the ‘team’ that designed the course. This would be the way to get involved on a team basis, but it should really be the responsibility of those that designed the course.

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