Three devices with the words E-learning consistent on all

Why online faculty should use a Master Course Shell

Collaboration, customization, and consistency: What’s wrong with that?

Often times in higher education, faculty are asked to share their course content with other faculty members who teach the same course. Many people balk at the idea for the sake of holding tight to intellectual property. For example, on a campus where I currently work, there are 12 sections for Introduction to Communication; the course is a requirement for every student. Out of the 12 sections, two are online. No one—and I mean no one—uses the same content or teaches the course similarly. Each students gets a different experience and different content delivered a different way. There are different expectations from faculty who teach 12 different sections. Need I say different again? Does this help or hinder students?

When standardization makes sense

In some online learning programs, there is the concept of a “Master Course Shell.” Faculty in a program or who teach the same course get together and design a Master Course Shell that everyone agrees on. Then, at the beginning of a semester, each faculty member copies the content from the Master Course Shell to their live course shell, tweaking it a bit to personalize the course for their students. They may take out an assignment or two or add a discussion or rubric, but the textbook is the same and students across programs get a similar experience.

This can be done within a degree program as well. The University of Wisconsin – Superior has Graduate Education Online. Each course in the program has a Master Course Shell that faculty copy into a live shell. Each Master Course Shell is based in Universal Design for Learning, so students experience the same layout with each course. Taking this program from face-to-face to online has increased enrollment significantly and was a huge success for a floundering program.

Related: Universal design for learning: 3 aces up our IT sleeves

The copyright issue

Does this concept impede on faculty’s intellectual property? Well, no. Faculty can still add to the course after the original content is copied from the Master Course Shell. And if faculty hold the copyright to content, it should be stated within the course.

So does this help students? Well, yes. Students experience a lot of cognitive overload, which is what happens when too much information is given to a student too quickly, including trying to navigate course content that is different from the last course. If a student takes three courses a semester online in a program and each course is laid out differently with different expectations, then it can be confusing.

Consistency is the key to student success. Students also talk amongst themselves and seek out the courses that tend to be “easier” with one faculty member versus another. This has a ripple effect when some faculty have full classes and others do not.

I encourage faculty to try using a Master Course Shell. It is a good thing to collaborate on course design with your colleagues. You will find something better and build relationships not only with other faculty members in a program but with students who will see that everything can be equal and inclusive in courses.

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