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Reversing roles to create an online course.


A graduate student and an assistant professor forge a unique partnership utilizing experiential learning to create an online course and to find a way to attempt to answer the question of optimizing instructor time, student learning and quality course design. The partnership resulted in positive learning experiences for both individuals. Results from a survey disseminated within the learning management system at the end of the semester to assess student perceptions of course design indicated the course was well designed with a high degree of interaction among peers, instructor, and content.


Creating courses for the online environment can be an arduous undertaking and the demand tbr more is high. The design and development process requires numerous hours and intense creative effort on the part of the instructor who is already overloaded with the traditional "duties" of teaching, research and service. Time spent on creating courses to teach online is met with little reward. Individuals teaching online do so for the intrinsic reward and in recognition of students' needs and in many cases, without release time or assistance to properly prepare a course (Pachnowski & Jurczyk, 2003; Parker, 2003). As a result, the instructor and the student can become overwhelmed and frustrated with teaching and learning in the online environment. How can we optimize instructor time and student learning as we administer online courses?

Once the decision is made to teach a class online, time becomes a valuable asset and the once familiar concept of class structure becomes vague. Gillette (1999) suggested that when teaching online, instructors are required to wear many different hats in order to keep students engaged in their new learning environment; not only are they the course instructor, but an instructional designer and technical support. In addition to the challenge of multi-tasking these newly found "duties," instructors should also take into consideration the students' perceptions of online learning to help them succeed. The online classroom looks, feels and "acts" differently from the traditional one. Developing a community of scholars asynchronously who are now anonymous rather than synchronously presents a challenge for the instructor, and must be considered in the design process. Alternatives to the verbal and visual cues normally present in the traditional/synchronous classroom need to be replaced with alternative methods. It is important for instructors to build into their course design a method of obtaining student feedback beyond the traditional university summative evaluations to help determine from the students' point of view the effectiveness of the design of an online course. Ignorance of students' perceptions may result in learner resistance and/or failure to succeed (Blythe, 2001).

Purpose for Partnership

To help minimize the time and effort involved with designing and developing an online course, a graduate student and an assistant professor reversed their traditional roles of instructor and student. They worked together over the course of one traditional semester to create an online course to be taught during a two and one-half week mini-semester. The online format for a mini-semester was selected because of the high demand for more online mini-semester courses by graduate students at a primarily commuter campus. A course taken in a mini-semester is a fulltime commitment by the student, as they are not allowed to enroll in more than one course during the mini-semester. This approach served several purposes. The primary reason for this partnership was to provide a graduate student with the opportunity to learn the course content in the form of an independent study in order to fulfill a graduation requirement through experiential learning by becoming the course designer utilizing instructional design skills learned in a previous class. Secondary to offering the student an opportunity to learn the course material was to alleviate some of the pressure on the instructor to design and develop an online course for its first online deployment, and to also provide the opportunity to work with a graduate student in the design process as the client. Finally, the graduate student and assistant professor wanted to ultimately assess student perceptions of those enrolled of the course design upon completion of the mini-semester. The process followed by the assistant professor and graduate student to create the online course and the resulting course design will be discussed along with their experiences and lessons learned regarding the reversal of their traditional roles. While many institutions offer graduate and/or teaching assistants to their faculty, this is not the case in this situation, the graduate student earned remuneration in the form of a course credit. Results from an anonymous survey disseminated within the learning management system (LMS) at the end of the semester to the students enrolled in the course to assess their perceptions of the course design will be revealed.


Experiential leaning provides an individual with the opportunity to create projects of value. Students who participate in experiential learning are able to put to use the knowledge and skills learned in previous courses, recognize the relationships of the objectives taught from course to course within a program, and develop a clearer understanding of relationships to real world phenomena (McKeachie, 2002). Prior to this endeavor, the graduate student had taken a course in instructional design devoted to the development of instruction utilizing various models of systemic instructional design. The purpose of the independent study was to not only create an online course, but to also provide the graduate student with some practical experience by utilizing the instructional design skills learned by taking on the role of an instructional designer with the assistant professor as the client.

The course text, syllabus with course objectives, teacher-assistant access to the learning management system (LMS), Educator by UCompass, and some preliminary design ideas were provided to the graduate student/instructional designer by the assistant professor/client. While the instructor determined the primary objectives for the course in advance, the graduate student as the instructional designer was given the freedom to develop activities, assignments and assessments based upon those objectives. Weekly meetings were set up for brainstorming sessions to discuss progress regarding course development. Major content revisions were made via e-mail, and a timeline was developed to ensure that goals were being met. A true partnership was formed; both the graduate student and the assistant professor worked together to establish a quality design for an online course.

Course Design

Through the weekly meetings, it was agreed upon that the course should have an enrollment cap of 25 students to ensure prompt feedback from the instructor regarding student progress. The course was divided into two one-week segments with each Sunday designated as the due date for the previous week's assignments. The remaining half week was reserved for the final exam.

Educator has discussion thrums, chat rooms, e-mail, a course material management system, announcement page, online quiz and examination dissemination, student file exchange and uploading functionality. Similar to other LMS's, Educator is customizable and has the ability to "force" students to a particular section in the course when logging on. "Packets," another function of the LMS, were used throughout the design of the course. A packet is a type of learning object that allows the course designer to "package" together groups of related learning objects. A packet was created for each day in the course and every packet followed the same template; reading assignments within the course textbook and links to related readings, assignments and activities for the day to include discussion forum topics and points for each assignment and activity, and the due date for each item. When students logged onto the course, they were forced into a packet and provided with the day's assignments. It should be noted that students also had the ability to access packets from the previous days and had the ability to access packets for the rest of the week, hut not work into the second week. Students were able to exit the forced packet after viewing its contents. At the end of each week, students were forced into a packet containing an itemized checklist of the assignments due for the week. By Sunday midnight, access to course content for the week was turned off.

One of the results of the weekly instructional designer/client meetings was the implementation of virtual learning communities. The nature of many online courses revolves around discussion (Perrin & Mayhew, 2000). Students are required to sift through multiple threaded discussions and respond to those messages often feeling lost or overwhelmed within the mass amount of threads produced by all the students in the class (Perrin & Mayhew, 2000). This method is not only time consuming, but it can also tail to achieve what the instructor had initially intended--thoughtful reflection and meaningful discussions. The purpose of the virtual learning community was to foster an atmosphere of peer collaboration through discussion and reflection, not to overwhelm the individual with the pressure of having to read the multiple postings that can be generated throughout the semester in a class with many students. Each community was comprised of no more than five students with the instructor placed in each group. Communities progressed throughout the semester together; individuals were responsible only for the discussion within their group. The instructor monitored discussions to ensure equitable progression of thought processes within each community. When the instructor witnessed dialog dramatically different in one group, the information was posted in other groups to share new ideas and thoughts.

The remaining half-week designated for the final exam involved a community peer review of educational technology topic related research papers. Each member posted their paper for review and everyone was responsible for reading and posting questions about the research; over a period of three days, a question and answer session about the research papers ensued. A point system was designed to provide points for questions posted (a minimum of three questions was required), author's responses to questions, in addition to the overall grade to the research paper which the instructor graded. The authors believed that a face-to-face orientation on the first class day was important in order to introduce students to the instructor, their peers, the course content and the LMS. A mandatory first class day meeting was held in a computer lab on campus. The purpose of this meeting was to allow students to log on to the course and become familiar with the LMS functionality, provide an explanation of the course design and assignments, and to meet their virtual learning community peers before going online.

Experience of the Reversal of Traditional Roles

Assistant Professor/Client

The experiences regarding the reversal of traditional roles for the assistant professor/client were positive. With no release time to develop a new course for online deployment, this endeavor provided an opportunity to have assistance in properly designing and developing an entire course before the semester began. The graduate student's instructional design skills and knowledge learned in a previous class helped to ensure proper instructional design methods were used in the course design. Another advantage from this approach was having a course designed from a student's perspective and the ability to view a course from the "outside looking in." Instructors can have unrealistic expectations of their students in regards to assignments and activities in order to learn the course content. Through the instructional designer/client brainstorming sessions and the graduate students' past experiences with other online courses, a learning environment was created that felt more like a small classroom. The small number of students placed in the virtual learning communities and the dissemination of the assignments and activities in small, manageable, organized "chunks" of instruction provided an environment so as not to overwhelm the students in the learning management system.

One of the goals for the role reversal was to allow the graduate student/instructional designer earn credit in the form of an independent study which was centered around experiential learning. Utilizing student-centered methodologies such as experiential learning requires a shift in an instructor's perspectives about education (Rallis, 1995). It was easy for the assistant professor/client to give up the element of control in course design and have someone else share in the design and development process, and as a result of this unique partnership a far superior course emerged. An implication exists that all developers of instruction, online or otherwise, could benefit significantly from receiving an outside critique of their course design.

Graduate Student/Instructional Designer

The experience regarding the reversal of traditional roles for the graduate student/instructional designer were equally as positive. This opportunity allowed the graduate student to put into action theory learned in previous courses to build a foundation in the online course based upon a combination of her personal teaching philosophy, past learning experiences, and the concepts of Moore's (1989) theoretical framework of interaction in distance education. The graduate student/instructional designer did not have practical teaching experience and therefore relied upon past positive and negative experiences in other classes, both traditional and online, and from the knowledge learned throughout her graduate program to aid in the design of the course. Through her participation in online courses, she had been exposed to situations where the course design was confusing and more time was spent on trying to decipher assignments. As a result, she built into the design of this course ease of navigation, provided students with detailed information and guidelines regarding assignments, defined due dates, point allocation, and "help" notes to provide guidance on the LMS functionality.

Interaction among learners, content and instructor within online courses is important and was prevalent throughout the course. The graduate student/instructional designer's belief in the ability for individuals to reaffirm their knowledge and construct new meaning from the multiple perspectives shared within the community via peer interaction/communication was built into the design. Due to the shortened semester, asynchronous communication was the only form of communication selected. As a result, the discussion board was heavily used to help facilitate learning and interaction in the virtual learning communities. Finally, the graduate student/instructional designer created diversified daily assignments in order to keep students engaged. Because the content of the course focused on learning, instruction and technology, assignments were created to encourage learners to further explore and reflect upon the web tools and the features within the LMS, such as the chat room, email, and discussion boards that might be useful in their future classrooms.

Lessons Learned

Assistant Professor/Client

Lessons learned usually indicate there was an unforeseen problem and advice is provided on how to avoid the situation in the future. That is not the case in this scenario and this situation is unique in that the student was receiving course credit; however, there are potential risks involved. Namely, selecting a student with the technological skills, understanding of instructional design theory, and enthusiasm to take part in this type of endeavor. The student must be dedicated, serious, innovative, self-directed, and enjoy working in collaborative situations. It is recommended that guidelines be established outlining expectations in the form of a contract between the student and faculty member if this type of partnership is to be implemented. Also significant in this situation was the graduate student's exposure to instructional design theory. If instructional design, additional training and/or resources must be provided to educate the student students are to take part in the design process for online courses and have not had exposure to on instructional design and distance education. At many institutions, the concept of "release time" is not a reality. Developing a course or program that utilizes graduate students trained as instructional designers for course credit to work in tandem with faculty willing to teach online could be implemented. Graduate students would serve as change agents and train faculty on how to utilize the university's LMS to design a quality course in lieu of faculty being tossed into online teaching without 1) reward, 2) release time, and/or 3) assistance. Assistance from a graduate student/instructional designer potentially serves as all three.

Graduate Student/Instructional Designer

This partnership accomplished the original intent by the authors; provide a learning opportunity grounded in authentic experience to teach a graduate student not just the content in a course needed to graduate, but to enable her to synthesize programmatic material. Theory and content taught in previous courses became more than just reading material; it was put into practice. This experience helped to validate the graduate student/instructional designer's philosophy in three areas: The value of learning communities. Life-long learning is a challenge faced by learners in the Information Age; it is a task that requires determination and self-discipline. The role of the virtual learning community was not only to facilitate information exchange but to also provide a support structure for camaraderie and encouragement among learners. The value of diversity. As an international student, the graduate student/instructional designer is in strong support of diversity. The value of diversity relies on the experiences shared by individuals and the inspiration ignited through that sharing. The opportunity to contribute past experiences and knowledge via the creation of an online class was invaluable. The authors both learned from and inspired one another from this experience. The value of technology utilization. A variety of approaches to teaching and learning that instructors can take in an online learning environment were discovered. Having teacher-assistant access to the LMS enabled the graduate student/instructional designer to explore the functions usually only reserved for instructors, such as creating quizzes, exams, discussion groups and packets.

Course Content

And lastly the course content was mastered through the preparation of the materials for the online class. The course content covers the proper selection of methods and media for learning. Reading through the course material enabled the graduate student/instructional designer to make informed decisions about the course assignments and activities being created for her peers. Practical experience was gained in each aspect of learning, teaching, instruction, instructional design and their relation to one another. McKeachie (2002) states that "actual experience can link learning, thinking and doing ... field experiences will not only motivate students to learn current course materials but also increase their intrinsic interest in further learning" (p. 246-247). This experiential learning experience provided the graduate student/instructional designer with the opportunity to integrate knowledge and transform learning into practice.

Student Perceptions of Course Design

While the primary focus of this article is to discuss the experiences of the reversal of traditional roles between a faculty member and a graduate student in creating an online course, it is important to discuss the information gathered to assess student satisfaction with the quality of the design of the course. An anonymous, short, multiple-choice/open-ended question survey was developed and disseminated within the LMS at the end of the semester. Multiple choice questions with responses ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree, asked whether or not the methods and media used in the course helped the student comprehend the authentic learning content, practice critical thinking skills, transform learning content into personal knowledge, perform problem-solving skills, and interact with their peers and the instructor. The open-ended questions asked students to provide their opinions on the course design and to indicate what changes they would implement.

Student responses to the multiple-choice questions were overwhelmingly positive in response to the methods and media utilized in the course. All students either strongly agreed or agreed with the methods and media utilized in the course. Student responses to the open-ended questions indicated that the course expectations were clear and the online format and assignments provided opportunities for more collaboration, flexibility and meaningful learning. They believed that the overall design of the course was clean and easy to navigate, and their experiences within their virtual learning communities enhanced the learning experience. The following are a few comments from the students enrolled in the course.

 I really like the online course. I seem to get a lot more out of the
 class as opposed to face-to-face courses. There is more access to the
 instructor on a one-to-one basis. Students seem to be more willing to
 help each other in this class setting. I especially like the group
 work in online as opposed to face-to-face classes.

 All assignments are designed with students and distance learning
 study format in mind and fit individual schedules. I liked the
 organizing format of this class.

 This is my first course online and I have loved it. I enjoy the
 flexibility to work when I can and I learned a lot of technology
 skills that I needed to learn, I have really enjoyed the comments
 from my group members; they have provided very valuable information
 to me.

 I liked the discussion group forums and replies. Having to compose
 a thoughtful reply/evaluation or critique causes me to think about
 the item in question. When I read the replies, I had several new
 takes on the subject. My ending opinion broadened.


Results from the survey and open-ended responses from the students indicated that the goals the instructional designer/graduate student and the assistant professor/client were striving to achieve were successfully accomplished by reversing traditional roles. Minimal changes in the form of grammatical edits were made to the course created by the instructional designer/graduate student; therefore, feedback received by students regarding course design targeted a course created by their peer, a fellow graduate student. Feedback received from the students enrolled, indicated the course was well designed with a high degree of interaction among peers, instructor, and content. The graduate student truly learned the course content needed to graduate via course creation. And finally, in response to the question of how to optimize instructor time and student learning though the administration of online courses, the concept of release time and/or reward for course design was realized via the instructional designer/client relationship. Institutions of higher learning could utilize students with technological and instructional design skills to aid faculty in course development and potentially ease the many frustrations and/or fears experienced by faculty when developing an online course.


Blythe, S. (2001). Designing online courses: User-centered practices. Computers and Composition, 18, 329-346. Retrieved February 28, 2004 from, Academic Search Premier database.

Gillette, D. (1999). Pedagogy, architecture, and the virtual classroom. Technical Communication Quarterly, 8(1), 21-37. Retrieved April 5, 2004, from Academic Search Premier database.

McKeachie, W. J. (2002). McKeachie's teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory college and university teacher (11th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Moore, M. (1989). Three types of interaction. The American Journal of Distance Education, 3(2), 1-6.

Pachnowski, L. M. & Jurczyk, J. P. (2003, Fall). Perceptions of faculty on the effect of distance learning technology on faculty preparation time. The Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 6(3), Retrieved September 20, 2004 from ~distance/ojdla/fal163/pachnowski64.html

Parker, A. (2003, Fall). Motivation and incentives for distance education faculty. The Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 6(3), Retrieved September 20, 2004 from

Perrin, K. M. & Mayhew, D. (2000, Winter). The reality of designing and implementing an internet-based course. The Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 3(4), Retrieved September 20, 2004, from winter34/mayhew34.html

Rallis, S.F. (1995, Fall). Creating learner centered schools: Dreams and practices. Theory into Practice, 34(4), 224-229.

Leah E. Wickersham, Texas A&M University--Commerce Shau-E Eve Su, Texas A&M University-Commerce

Wickersham, Ph.D. is an assistant professor at Texas A&M University - Commerce in the Department of Secondary and Higher Education. Su, is a graduate student in the doctoral program in the same department.
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Title Annotation:online curriculum development
Author:Su, Shau-E Eve
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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