Instructional Design versus Building Online Courses

When we are given a tool that makes the development of online learning easier for the novice, we risk loosing the power of the design process. The temptation to open the course shell in Blackboard, for example, and start adding sections, items, folders, documents, etc. can be overwhelming. Add to this temptation the fact that the course is already being delivered in the classroom, why bother with design? Or, the belief that the if the classroom course is using Blackboard to host its classroom materials, then taking the course online is a snap, so why design?

Another perspective of design-versus-build has to do with skills. You can have an instructional designer that is not technically savvy (although in the online world, that is rare these days). And, you can have a tech-savvy developer who is not trained to be an instructional designer. So, if you are the person asking for a course to be built, are you asking them if they can design it first and then build it or are you asking if they can build what someone else has designed?

If you aren’t sure if you need an instructional designer or a developer or both, let me share with you some of what I do during the design process versus the development process so you can understand the process better.

Design Process

The strategies below are typical in the instructional design process but each instructor responds to them differently. Some need to see the environment so they can imagine their content online. I typically take them through some other courses to show them designs and instructional strategies used in other courses that I have helped to create. It gives them inspiration and ideas and allows them to feel comfortable that we will get there in the long run. Then we focus on design by doing the following:

  • No tech terms: I ask them to describe the activities without using a specific technology. For example, I ask them not say they want a wiki or a discussion. I ask them to describe the activity as if technology didn’t exist. Yes, a little extreme but it helps us design the most applicable activity for learning first and then figure out how to make the technology do what we want. There is usually more than one technology option for each activity designed. It is the pattern, however of activities and how they related to each other, that can narrow the technology options.
  • Design with MSWord and/or PowerPoint: I ask them to design and create their content, instruction, activity narratives, etc. off-line, so we can see how the materials look alone as well as in context with each other. I point out that they can more easily do spell checks, grammar checks, comment solicitation from colleagues, and content edits. Another advantage is they have a master copy of the content used to create the online environment. In the event there is a corrupt course shell or course item, it can be deleted and recreated without loosing all their hard work.
  • Prototype: Now it is time to jump into the technology. We are building but in design mode. We think we know how we want things laid out online but until they see their content online, one can’t be sure. I ask them to join me as we put one part of the course online. I use this time to talk about how to use the technology and to explore layout options. Once the prototype is set, a developer or the tech-savvy instructor could come in and simply implement the content design and course design set forth by the prototype.


Depending on how the prototype process goes, building the course can be done by the instructor, a technologist, me, or some combination of the three. I explain to the instructor that the process of building the course is taking the designed materials and their organization and placing them into the system using the model we designed with the prototype.


What is the difference between instructional design and building online courses? The answer is, they are different phases of the course development process.

Published by Cindy McCourt

I wear many hats: author, website planner, Drupal consultant, instructional designer, trainer.

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