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Creating an Online Master’s Program: The Players

As you start to develop an online master’s degree program, an obvious area of focus should be creating the online classes and course content. A team is required to get started, maintain quality, and undertake future revisions. An ideal team consists of a subject matter expert, instructional designers, a course instructor, a copy editor, quality assurance reviewers, and technology support. 

We start with the subject matter expert (SME), which is usually the professor who will teach the class. Then we have an instructional designer who will take the content and ensure it is loaded into the learning management system so students can easily consume the materials. If the subject matter expert is not teaching the course, a course instructor will also be involved in the process. Copy editing, quality assurance, and technical support must be interwoven throughout the course development process to achieve high-quality course design. The parties handling these aspects may be separate professionals or may be the instructional designers, depending on resources and development structure.

The asynchronous pieces of the course, those only offered online and not in real-time, are usually designed months in advance of the course’s delivery. This part takes intentionality and planning, typically using a course map and laying out each module or topic before teaching. Even when using synchronous learning tools in whole or in part, the SME should plan out the entire course prior to the start of the term.

Timeline management is essential for any graduate program when developing an online master’s degree program. Time must be built into the process to allow for review and building components into the online course. Similarly, faculty members are busy. A schedule, institutional commitments, and instructional designers are there to keep faculty accountable during the design process. 

Let’s take a closer look at the roles of each party in crafting an online master’s degree program.

Subject Matter Expert (SME)

The subject matter expert is selected and contracted by the university. These individuals may be full-time faculty with the institution, or they may be working professionals in a particular field. As an SME, this person brings their practical experience and substantive knowledge to the table during course development. 

A subject matter expert selects the appropriate material for the course to meet the course’s learning objectives and designated university and/or program goals. Materials that need to be selected include readings, media, practice problems, and discussion topics. Throughout course design, the SME decides which content will be delivered synchronously and asynchronously to students. 

It is common that the SME is also the teaching professor, which is highly recommended, at least for the first offering of the course. There are often small changes that will need to be made while teaching the course. The SME is in the best position to easily spot and address these minor revisions due to their familiarity with the course material and design.

Instructional Designers (ID)

Instructional designers are experts in the design of online content. These professionals guide the professor in the best way to present the content in an online environment. They provide pedagogical and andragogical design support and help with outcome-based assessment. IDs review course materials and design with an eye on learner-centeredness, accessibility, readability, and engagement. One of the best aspects of working with an ID is they can assist the SME in efficiently and effectively bringing their ideas for their content to life. 

Instructional designers ensure that the synchronous and asynchronous work together to create a cohesive experience for the students and the professor. Often, these professionals will work with the content to ensure Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance, avoid copyright issues, and address any potential Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) issues that may arise.

Finally, IDs assist the SME and university in creating consistent content that can evolve with time. Courses will need to be updated, and instructors may change. IDs help craft a course that can be taught interchangeably by faculty while ensuring the same high-level of academic rigor and student experience that is expected from the course.

Course Instructor

The course instructor is often referred to as the professor of record. This individual teaches the course during the semester. Professors who have not taught online before should take the time to work with the course prior to its launch date. Course instructors must focus on becoming familiar with online tools, the course structure, and the course goals.

Often, universities will have a faculty orientation course for professors. An objective of such a course is for the professor to have the “learner experience.” The professor views an online course as a student to experience the learning management system (LMS) in the same way as their students. As part of this process, they also learn how to be a professor in the online system. One of the keys to being an excellent online professor is staying in touch with students frequently and responding quickly, within 24 hours, to any student request for help or information. 

Copy Editing and Quality Assurance

The copy-edit and quality-assurance processes are blended into the overall course design process. Copy editing typically occurs prior to building the substantive material into the LMS. The goal is to only place content into the system that is structurally and mechanically sound. 

Quality assurance is generally one of the final steps in the course design process. After information is placed into the LMS by the ID, a quality assurance individual inspects the course’s pieces individually and as a whole to monitor consistency in presentation and student experience.

Copy editors and quality assurance reviewers may be professionals who are separate from the ID, although this is not a financially feasible option for all programs. In instances where separate professionals are not part of the team, the ID will typically undertake these steps of the process. 

At CAP Law online, the IDs working on a course are usually separate from the professionals assisting with copy editing and quality assurance. Anyone who has written a document knows that a second pair of eyes goes a long way. The extra layer of review provided by copy editors and quality assurance reviewers is invaluable because they consider the big picture. In the realm of online course design, these team members ensure consistency across courses and within a course. This consistency includes mechanics and grammar—copy editing— and structure and formatting—quality assurance. 

The reality is that the SME and an ID will be viewing and working on the material meticulously over a long period of time. They will become subconsciously blind to certain minor errors or inconsistencies. The fresh perspective offered by copy editors and quality assurance fills in any gaps or oversight.

Technology Support

Accessible and responsive technology support makes for a good experience for both the professor and the student. Experts in synchronous and asynchronous environments help immensely when the technology is inevitably not working properly. Quick response times to a course instructor’s inquiries enable quick response times to students. Technology support must account for efficiency in this chain of events.

When assisting a  professor or student with their technology issues, a touch of reasonableness goes a long way. Setting expectations of responsiveness and handling of technological issues for both the professor and the students is key to creating a stress-free experience. Students will become frustrated if they are trying to complete work and are unable to do so. Professors will become frustrated when they have students who are frustrated, or when they feel they cannot accomplish what they might otherwise be able to do in an in-person environment. Technology support ought to account for these hurdles and learn to address them clearly and quickly.

Course instructors should also incorporate policies into every online course that account for technology-based setbacks. For example, students need to know that if they cannot log on to the live class session, it will be recorded. Professors should inform students that if they cannot log onto the live session, they should wait for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, if the professor does not show, the students can leave and the professor can either make up the session or provide the lecture in a recorded format at a later time. Setting and communicating contingencies for the online classroom will make the course run smoother and create less stress for both the student and the professor.

Want to learn more? 

Creating an Online Master’s Program takes a team of experienced professionals. Our team at CAP Law Online assists instructors and enhances the student experience in a meaningful way. Our IDs and team of professionals bring innovation and quality to an online course in the ways discussed here and in others. Please get in contact with CAP Law online today to learn more.