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How Do Universities Design Online Programs?

Whenever possible, allow, encourage, or require the learner to be an active participant in the experience, rather than simply a passive receiver of information.

Jim Frey, Learning Experience Design Consultant at Jackrabbit LX

The global online education industry will reportedly grow from $107 billion in 2015 to $325 billion in 2025, tripling in size over the next decade. And in 2017 alone, the education technology industry received $8.15 billion in investments and generated nearly $200 billion in revenue. The edtech industry and online education as a whole are brand new fields. This is mainly due to advances in technology, such as the internet, streaming, and cloud computing. However, the concept has roots that date back centuries.

In 1728, Caleb Philipps put out an advertisement in the Boston Gazette for students who wished to learn shorthand script through weekly mailed lessons. A century later, Sir Isaac Pitman taught the same subject in the United Kingdom but included an element of interactivity. The new postal system, facilitated through the new rail system, made communication throughout the country faster than ever before, so Pitman began sending corrections back to his students by mail, thus creating the first distance learning system based on feedback.

Eric Paul Friedman

“There don’t have to be many differences [between in-person and distance learning] in terms of what you’re trying to teach and the objectives of the course. What ends up being different are the mechanisms by which the instructors and faculty are delivering the course and how the students are receiving them,” explains Eric Paul Friedman, director of digital learning at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Friedman recently joined the JFK Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC to build out its online education division. Before that, he spent over a decade leading online course design and delivery at Boston University. The university offered its first online program in 2002 and has since expanded its online education across more than 50 programs. Students can enroll and complete any number of graduate degrees and certificate programs, including a master’s degree in taxation law, a doctorate in music education, a certificate in data analytics, and more.

“Online course design and delivery was a thing 15 years ago, but it wasn’t as big as it is today. A lot of people were doing it in a rudimentary way,” he recalls. “I got excited because I saw what we could do. We could be doing this on a huge scale and getting really great material in front of people.”

How Has Online Education Evolved?

We have come a long way in 200 years. Most schools in the U.S. today include an element of online education. At the university level, schools provide online supplements to on-campus classes, hybrid (on-campus and online) programs, and even entirely online degrees. However, designing an online course is so much more than transferring what has worked in a classroom onto the web.

“There are some schools where they put a camera in the back of the room and they record the lecture. If you’re here in person, you’re going to get the in-person experience, but online students are passively involved,” explains Friedman. “If it’s not engaging and you don’t have the opportunity to engage with the instructor in a number of different ways—it’s just a canned thing you’re watching. It’s not a true learning experience.”

What is Instructional Design?

The crucial component of creating successful online education tools is in instructional design. Instructional design is the practice of developing learning mechanisms that best align with students’ needs. Instructional designers work closely with professors and subject-matter experts (SME) to help them translate their classes from the physical world and into the digital world.

“It’s hard for a professor or teacher to do this on their own,” explains Friedman, who has worked with dozens of professors, instructional designers, and distance learning teams. “I don’t think I’ll ever do an online course without an instructional designer.”

Friedman compares online course creation to writing a book. It is a long process that, for Boston University, takes six months from start to finish for a four-credit graduate course. There is a lot of collaboration between professors, instructional designers, and project managers, and some courses take longer than others. For example, courses in computer science, math, and engineering can take a bit longer than a course in humanities often due to the translation of the material into an engaging and interactive format.

Still, Friedman contends that the toughest part is sometimes just getting started, especially for those who don’t have much experience in online education. Before building a course, it is vital to ensure that a professor or SME is on board and understands the journey on which they are about to embark. Developing an online course takes time and professors often underestimate the workload.

“They were expecting to hand in their slides and chapters they wanted their students to read. We required them to build their courses from the ground up,” says Friedman.

How to Design an Online Course

The design of an online course has many steps and stages—from content creation to scaling a successful program—and it requires a lot of cooperation and collaboration between different people. An instructional designer typically pioneers the project; a professor builds out the content; a creative services team focuses on video and media production and interactive elements, and a project manager ensures that everything runs smoothly.

Most of the hard work is when instructional designers strip down and unpack a professor’s course. A good instructional designer will talk to the SME or faculty member to unpack everything that they do when they teach face-to-face. They help outline the lectures that professors present, the conversations they have with their students, the questions they ask, and the ways professors evaluate their students’ learning. Instructional designers do all this so that they can break down the critical learning systems happening in-person and figure out the most effective ways to do that online.

“Sometimes it’s immersive like clicking things, recording videos at different locations that have meaning to the course, or having online face-to-face real-time discussions. Other times, it just means reading the material,” Friedman explains. “It has to make sense online. It’s not just taking all of your lectures and PowerPoint slides, recording your voice over the slides, and having them watch them.”

The role of an instructional designer is one of the fastest-growing jobs in education, in large part due to the increasing demand for online and blended educational programs. For this reason, universities have created academic degrees focused on instructional design, which integrates technology and education.

Schools like Carnegie Mellon University, Penn State, Harvard University, and Stanford University have all implemented programs in learning design and technology (LDT); however, it is not essential to have a degree specific to this field. Often, instructional designers are former educators who have gained technical skills through online courses themselves.

Eric Friedman began his career at WGBH, Boston Public Radio, where he developed a multimedia library of classroom resources for teachers. He and his team built a learning management system using open-source software to deliver course materials to teachers to give them professional development opportunities.

Similarly, Friedman’s colleague, Jim Frey, had his beginnings in audio and radio media arts and production and moved into online education. In 2000, Frey began working as a content developer for an e-learning company, where he learned about the many facets of multimedia training and distance education. From there, Frey continued his career in online learning and started working as an instructional designer in higher education.

Jim Frey

“Learning is not a passive experience, and when the designed pathway simply pushes information at a learner, outcomes will not be as good as they could be,” says Frey, who now works at Jackrabbit LX as a learning experience design consultant. “Whenever possible, allow, encourage, or require the learner to be an active participant in the experience, rather than simply a passive receiver of information.”

As an instructional designer, Frey has led teams, faculty, and SMEs to design and build online courses and programs from the ground up. Over his tenure at Boston University, he guided faculty through the creation of 50 courses over 60 launch cycles.

These courses formed the crux of online and blended graduate degrees in social work, music education, art education, and international business law, in which hundreds of students are currently enrolled. He also pioneered the use of synchronous technology to enable role-play and support-group activities for the school’s fully online master’s degree in social work.

“When designed well, live synchronous sessions can be highly beneficial to learning and can provide a dimension to the experience that cannot easily be replicated in the self-paced asynchronous portion. But synchronous learning presents a myriad of challenges,” Frey explains.

Logistically, synchronous learning requires students and teachers to coordinate their schedules across different time zones. Technically, it requires them to have access to the technology needed for real-time video conferencing. And from a design perspective, it takes a lot more thoughtful and deliberate design that allows students to actually learn.

“It is better not to have a synchronous session at all than to ask learners to participate in an activity with little or no apparent benefit,” he says.

There are many technical questions to answer and issues to resolve when creating an online program. Some of the main questions revolve around which learning management system (LMS) to use and will it be able to handle all of the elements you wish to design into your program. Other questions involve the type of program and where it falls on the spectrum of asynchronous versus synchronous.

While many of these questions fall on the instructional designer, a lot of the answers come from a professor’s experience teaching the class face-to-face and knowledge of the subject. Ultimately, Frey maintains that the key components to developing a successful online program revolve around interactivity, designing for different learning styles, and providing context to the content.

“Content does not teach itself,” says Frey. “A well-designed learning experience recognizes this and consistently orients learners to where they are in their learning journey and why the journey is going or has gone in the direction it has.”

Over the last 15 years, the world of online learning has not only gotten exponentially bigger but also much more sophisticated. Gone are the days of flipping through watching PowerPoint slides with audio recorded over it. Today, students can take an online computer science course and learn how to write code by seeing how it looks in real-time and get immediate feedback from their teachers who might be halfway across the country or world.

“You can teach people in all corners of the planet—in their home, in the middle of the night, in their pajamas—it doesn’t matter,” says Friedman.

There is still so much more to explore—so much unearthed potential in providing access to education around the world, but also in learning how to best use the digital world in academia. For Friedman, the sheer reach of online education is most exciting.

“There’s a sense that we are actively trying to change the lives of people across the country through education,” he says. “I really want to be a part of the group that enrolls the first students from space.”

Laura Childs

Laura Childs is a versatile writer and media specialist living in London. She's a California native and has written about arts, culture, and tech in San Francisco. A self-proclaimed data nerd, she loves telling people's stories supported by research. When not writing, Laura teaches and practices yoga. You can find more of her work and get in touch at