January/February 2002 // Faculty and Staff Development
Effective Course Content by Design
by Randy Stamm and Bernadette Howlett
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Randy Stamm and Bernadette Howlett "Effective Course Content by Design" The Technology Source, January/February 2002. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

As one part of its mission, the Instructional Technology Resource Center (ITRC) at Idaho State University (ISU) assists faculty with the transition from a traditional (face-to-face) course to a Web-enhanced course. According to Byun, Hallett, and Essex (2000), faculty development specialists must pay close attention to the aspects of course development that are critical to the success of student learners. The likelihood of success is greatly increased when instructional design is integrated with the course's delivery tool. At ISU such integration is facilitated through the use of WebCT, the course management system (CMS) supported by the university.

By including both a delivery tool and a navigational structure, WebCT provides a framework conducive to effective instructional design. The content module (CM) in WebCT is the organizational tool by which course materials are supplied (see Exhibit 1 for an illustration of the CM format). The CM allows for both the hierarchical and the sequential construction of information, two of the four navigational structures recommended by Ruffini (2000). In combination with other tools, such as a bulletin board, glossary, and quizzes, the CM can be used to create an effective and flexible navigational structure (Friesen, 2001).

Creating successful course content within a CMS requires that the course learning outcomes drive the design and performance of the technology. For this reason, the course's designer must distinguish between Web pedagogy and Web delivery (Fraser, 2001). Web pedagogy refers to the theories and goals that inform the instructional design process and harmonize content, delivery tool, and audience. Web delivery refers to the vehicle through which content is made available, and it is most effective when informed by Web pedagogy. Online delivery, therefore, requires more than simply converting course material to a Web-ready format. While WebCT and other CMSs provide capable delivery tools, the difficulty of developing a complementary model of instructional design remains.

Meeting the Challenges of Instructional Design

Developing content for, arranging it in, and delivering it through a CMS is a challenging process due to numerous technical and design considerations. Of the instructional design models available, few have successfully adapted to the challenges of Web-assisted instruction. A systems approach model, such as the Instructional Design Model (IDM) developed by Dick, Carey, and Carey (2001), helps instructors to meet these challenges by approaching instructional design in steps. Widely used and referenced in academia and business (Gagné, Briggs, & Wager, 1992), the Dick et al. IDM consists of ten steps:

  1. Assess need to identify goals.
  2. Conduct instructional analysis.
  3. Analyze learners and contexts.
  4. Write performance objectives.
  5. Develop assessment instruments.
  6. Develop instructional strategy.
  7. Develop and select instructional materials.
  8. Design and conduct formative evaluation of instruction.
  9. Revise instruction.
  10. Design and conduct summative evaluation.

This model resembles ADDIE, a more traditional approach to instructional design whose acronym derives from the steps of the process it encourages instructors to follow: analyze, design, develop, implement, and evaluate. Analysis involves identifying the instructional problem, determining the needs of the learners, identifying topics of instruction, and considering the context of instruction. Design encompasses the writing of performance objectives and the creation of assessment methods. The organization and sequence of instruction as well as the identification of course materials are addressed in the development phase. Delivery of instruction and evaluation of its effectiveness serve as implementation and evaluation.

Despite the resemblance, the Dick et. al model offers a distinct advantage because it provides guidance through the design phase of instruction, which is represented in steps 6 through 8. Lacking the time required for analysis, most faculty members begin organizing course content almost immediately after deciding to offer a Web course. Step 6 provides explicit direction for organizing course content by calling for the creation of an instructional strategy. As noted by Dick et al., "[I]nstructional strategy is used generally to cover the various aspects of sequencing and organizing the content, specifying learning activities, and deciding how to deliver the content and activities" (2001, p. 184). The emphasis in step 6 on sequencing and organizing content provides the main motive for selecting the Dick et al. model. The ITRC recognized a need to provide faculty with a sound model that suits the limited amount of time they can dedicate to instructional design.

In order to avoid overwhelming faculty with the complexities of the Dick et al. model, the ITRC offers an instructional guide, the WebCT Ordinal Web Delivery Organizational Companion (WOWDOC), which provides a series of general questions and procedures for creating and organizing course content. Although the WOWDOC's ideas on instructional strategies mirror the model of Dick et al., its ideas are more easily accessible to faculty members. Rather than replacing models such as Dick et al., the WOWDOC is most properly seen as complementing them since it works best when based upon the results of an analysis phase.

Initiating the WOWDOC

The WOWDOC provides a map for instructional designers to follow in order to create, organize, and deliver content effectively. Its questions help designers develop a clear sense of both the instructional problem and its solutions; this understanding, in turn, helps instructors select strategies for creating and organizing content within the CM. Again, this approach is not unique to the WOWDOC. Baylor, Kitsantas, and Chung (2001) developed a similar instrument called the Instructional Planning Self-Reflective Tool (IPSRT), which is designed to foster self-reflection through the lesson-planning process for a traditional or an online course. However, while the IPSRT is useful for self-evaluation and monitoring of course planning, it is not designed to assist in organizing and developing instructional content.

Like the IPSRT, the WOWDOC uses reflective questions to guide the selection of instructional strategies. In turn, the reflective questions of the WOWDOC provide guidance about how course content will be processed, organized, and delivered in the CM. This guidance includes six steps for developing instructional strategies inside the CM:

  1. Identify the level of online involvement.
  2. Define pre-instructional activities.
  3. Select content and determine presentation format.
  4. Determine learner participation.
  5. Develop assessment procedures.
  6. Review activities.

Step 1 in the WOWDOC is to identify the level of online involvement that suits the structure of the course and the technological proficiency of the faculty member and the students. Harmon and Jones (1999) provide five levels of Web use in schools, colleges, and corporate training: (a) informational, (b) supplemental, (c) essential, (d) communal, and (e) immersive. Each level represents the relative amount of online-related course content and the level of reliance on the course Web site to deliver instruction.

The WOWDOC provides clear examples of how each level works with the utilities offered by the WebCT CM. At the informational level, for example, the CM simply provides course information and materials, such as a syllabus and handouts. Higher levels involve online discussions and regular student use of the Web component. The communal level retains the traditional classroom meeting but makes steady use of asynchronous and synchronous discussion utilities in WebCT. The WOWDOC recommends embedding other WebCT tools such as a quiz, self-test, and glossary into a CM to achieve the communal level.

As with step 1, steps 2 through 6 of the WOWDOC ask questions that encourage the instructor to identify which features available in WebCT are appropriate to the needs of learners and to the outcomes of the course. For example, the pre-instructional activities section, step 2, includes a motivational analysis. One reflective question asks, "How will learners react to the content materials—will they feel overwhelmed or confident?" The question prompts analysis that, in turn, reveals a key structural element of content design: consideration of the learners' need for rewards, as well as their interests, feelings, and attention levels. As part of the motivational analysis, the WOWDOC includes a series of recommendations on how the CM can be utilized to motivate the learner. It provides specific examples of tools that interface with the CM and support the instructional process. For example, if an instructor suspects that learners will feel overwhelmed and discouraged by the course content, then the recommendation is to review the content for applicability, to remove excess elements, and to divide content into separate documents. A self-test feature is also recommended as a means of rewarding students after completing a page of content.

The WOWDOC process ensures that the most appropriate features are selected based on the needs and capabilities of the instructor and students as well as the course goals. It provides the foundation for the structure of content materials and guides the selection of CM features that best fit the content itself.

Implementing instruction

Having performed the WOWDOC process, the instructor is ready to complete the CMS package and implement instruction. Dick et al. refer to instructional materials, regardless of form, as an "instructional package" (2001). Designing the CMS instructional package involves re-design of existing instructional materials and the selection or design of new materials and placement in the CM. The WOWDOC also provides guidelines for execution of the instructional package.

With the instructional package in place, implementation involves not only the teaching of the course but also the evaluation of course performance. Evaluation is an integral part of the instructional package resulting from the WOWDOC analysis. Take, for example, the earlier question about motivation: the instructor may use a survey question to measure student reaction to the course materials. Information gathered through this kind of evaluation is then used to redesign the materials in the next cycle. This iterative process reinvokes the WOWDOC and encourages reevaluation of the instructional package.

For all its advantages, the WOWDOC does not meet every challenge facing instructional design. As noted earlier, the WOWDOC process relies on the results of the analysis phase; however, instructors often lack the time to perform instructional analysis. The WOWDOC process requires that instructors can accurately gauge the learners' computer skills and preexisting knowledge of the subject area since it would be pointless to create a CM if the learners lacked the skills to access it or the knowledge needed to make sense of it. Analysis can prevent this kind of mistake, and, with assistance from the ITRC, ISU faculty members accomplish the analytical tasks needed to begin the WOWDOC process. ITRC instructional designers work individually with instructors throughout the analysis phase.

In addition to performing a front-end analysis, an instructor must also learn the CMS well enough to see the instructional design capabilities of the system. It takes time and commitment to learn to use a package proficiently enough to think about pedagogy rather than the point-and-click steps of the software. While the benefits to student performance can be great, these issues of time and technical proficiency can inhibit many instructors from using tools such as WebCT and Blackboard.


Most instructional designers recognize the ongoing scrutiny and improvement of instruction as one of the most important steps to the instructional design process (Dick et al., 2001; Gagne et al., 1992). By employing an instructional design model, online courses (if not all courses) can make a clear connection between learning outcomes and course design. The lack of time available for faculty to learn about instructional design systems drives a need for solutions that are focused on the tools they use to deliver instruction. Tools like the WOWDOC can enable instructors to employ instructional design strategies to guide the process of transferring a course from traditional to online delivery.

[Editor's note: This paper is modified from a presentation at the 2001 WebCT Conference in Vancouver.]


Baylor, A., Kitsantas, A., & Chung, H. (2001). The instructional planning self-reflective tool: A method for promoting effective lesson planning. Educational Technology, 41 (2), 57-60.

Byun, H. P., Hallett, K., & Essex, C. (2000). Supporting instructors in the creation of online distance education courses: Lessons learned. Educational Technology, 40 (5), 57-60.

Dick, W., Carey, L., & Carey, J. O. (2001). The systematic design of instruction (5th ed.). New York: Addison Wesley Longman.

Fraser, A. (2001). Web visualization for teachers. Syllabus, 14 (8),18-36.

Friesen, N. (2001). Guide for WebCT 3 for instructors. Toronto: McGraw-Hill.

Gagné, R. M., Briggs, L. J., & Wager, W. W. (1992). Principles of instructional design (4th ed.). New York: Harcourt Brace.

Harmon, S. W., & Jones, M. G. (1999). The five levels of web use in education: Factors to consider in planning online courses. Educational Technology, 39 (6), 28-32.

Ruffini, M. F. (2000). Systematic planning in the design of an educational web site. Educational Technology, 40 (2), 58-64.

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