March/April 2003 // Faculty and Staff Development
Using the Project Approach to Online Course Development
by Diane Chapman and Todd Nicolet
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Diane Chapman and Todd Nicolet "Using the Project Approach to Online Course Development" The Technology Source, March/April 2003. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

While business and industry training programs frequently have a highly-structured, process-driven approach to course development, the approaches used in higher education are usually informal and independently planned. Such a difference is not surprising when we consider that each instructor or faculty member in higher education has a great deal of control over the course content, one of the strengths of such advanced coursework. The informal nature of course development in higher education is even more prominent in online course development due to a lack of dedicated technology personnel to work with faculty, faculty unfamiliarity with online technologies, faculty desire to remain autonomous, and a lack of the necessary project management skills. The needs and desires for more and more online multimedia-enhanced courses far overwhelms the resources and skills available to faculty, most of whom lack the confidence, time, and incentives to do all tasks related to developing and supporting their courses (Fink, 2002).

Over the past several years, we have worked with more than a dozen educational institutions that face the challenge of increasing their online course offerings despite limited resources and limited faculty experience with technology. While some have begun to hire instructional technology personnel to facilitate faculty efforts, none have provided a systematic method for providing that support while maintaining faculty control over course content.

A project approach to online course development, however, can facilitate scaling the design and development of online instruction while maintaining the quality and integrity of the courses. Course design and development become more manageable when they are translated into repeatable processes and easy-to-apply tools. This more structured approach borrows from lessons learned outside of higher education in order to leverage instructional technology expertise while providing faculty with appropriate assistance and collaboration in developing their courses.

The project approach combines project management tools, found to be essential in managing multimedia projects (McDaniel & Lui, 1996), and consistent course development guidelines and templates to make the development of materials easier and faster. By viewing each and every course and program development as a project and applying repeatable processes and frameworks, development can be streamlined while maintaining the quality of instruction produced. This formal team approach to online course development employs tools such as project charters, module templates, and a structured progress reporting system.

Project Leader

Establishing a project leader is the first step for every project. The project leader coordinates the activities of the instructional development team and acts as the main conduit of information between the instructor or administrator and the rest of the team (see Exhibit 1 for the standard duties of the project leader). A project leader will not have all the answers but is responsible for finding and communicating issues, concerns, and questions to the rest of the development team. Depending on available skills and resources, the team should at least include people filling the following roles: project leader, faculty member or subject matter expert, instructional designer, graphic designer, and multimedia specialist. One person can fill several roles.

Project Charter

Project leaders are responsible for initiating, tracking, and reporting on a project. Initiating means that they will formally start a project by communicating the same set of expectations to team members and to stakeholders (the faculty and administrators who are funding the development). The project charter states the project overview, scope, timeline, participants, and roles, facilitating a shared and consistent vision of the project for everyone involved (Exhibit 2). Project charters should always have a version number. We use the date for the version number, which ensures that people use the latest version and allows us to more easily track changes. As details in the project change, the project charter should be changed and redistributed to all participants.

Templates and Processes

To track projects, the development team should rely on common sets of course development templates and procedures. Templates create visual and content standards that the team can quickly and easily adhere to. They also guide faculty to effective means of communicating information. Processes should be documented for all repeatable activities, from step-by-step instructions for creating an audio recording to the general phases for developing an entire course. Writing down the process helps team members better understand what they do and find more efficient ways to complete tasks. Team members learn from each other and work together to develop the best ways of creating the highest quality products. Written processes provide one of the quickest ways to share individual knowledge and expectations without significantly impacting the work. The way processes are documented can vary, but standard forms (Exhibit 3) help.

Status Reports

Status reports help drive the progress of projects and effectively communicate with faculty and administrators. Project leaders should provide regular status reports (Exhibit 4). Using a common form that includes such headings as "Activities Completed," "Activities Planned," "Issues," and "Risks," project leaders can quickly create simple documents that provide valuable information for project stakeholders and create visibility for the team. Effective status reports should fit on one page—the audience needs a high-level overview and should not have to wade through details to understand where the project stands.


We have implemented this process at the UNC School of Public Health (UNC-SPH) and begun to see a greater ability to more effectively handle an increased workload. Our Online Instruction Group (OIG) serves as a centralized service for the design and development of online instruction at the School of Public Health. In our organization, project leaders are also instructional technology professionals who have skill in both instructional design and educational technology. Team members include graphic designers, multimedia specialists, Web developers, and instructional designers. Some of these roles also serve the school in capacities other than online learning, increasing the importance of the project leader's responsibility to distribute them among course development projects.

For example, the Health Policy and Administration (HPAA) department requested a series of course development projects. Rather than assigning different people to each project, we assigned a single person to act as project leader for all HPAA projects. He started by developing a general project charter (Exhibit 5) that addressed the entire series of projects. In addition, some of the subprojects (because of their complexity) required their own, more detailed charters (Exhibit 6) and support documents. Subprojects ranged from creating webcasts and facilitating the development of a hybrid simulation activity to full online course and program development. For each subproject, the project leader was responsible for ensuring that the work was completed to meet faculty and administration expectations and that projects and activities were completed on time.

For example, the HPAA 233 subproject (project charter shown in Exhibit 6) relied upon templates and processes to help the project leader guide the development of the course. Courses at UNC-SPH are developed within Blackboard, so the process and templates reflect the constraints and possibilities available in Blackboard. In addition to using a course development process (Exhibit 7), the project leader created a specific template page (Exhibit 8) for the course. Since many courses use narrated slide presentations derived from PowerPoint, the project leader also created a course template for the slides (Exhibit 9).

Guidelines and templates have also been created to help with the structure of content modules (see Exhibit 10 for an example of a module template). Based on these guidelines, the instructional designer works with the faculty member to determine the module template for the course. The HPAA 233 instructor decided to include the following components in the course modules (Exhibit 11): Objectives, Text Assignment, Other Readings, PowerPoint, Exercise, Paper, and Grading. Although each module did not include every element, the template provided the base framework within which faculty created content, helping them focus on what the students would learn and not the technical implementation.

As work progressed on each of the projects, the project leader provided weekly reports to the key stakeholder of the project and the coordinator of the Online Instruction Group. Since all of the HPAA projects had the same key stakeholder, a single status report (Exhibit 12) was used to report progress on all of the projects at once.


Using a project approach to online course development, a university, college, or school can maximize the time and talent of all members of its instructional development team and use current resources to meet increasing demands. The combination of using consistent standards, trackable processes, templates, and structured communication enables scalability of the development of online instruction and results in a more predictable end product. The project approach may not only increase the efficiency of the team but also increase the quality of the team's efforts, as the members focus more on instructional goals and less on technical obstacles.

[Editor's note: This paper is modified from a presentation at the 2002 UNC Teaching and Learning with Technology Conference in Greensboro, NC.]


Fink, M. L. (2002, February). Faculty on the move: Rethinking faculty support services. Syllabus, 27-29. Retrieved September 10, 2002, from

McDaniel, K., & Liu, M. (1996). A study of project management techniques for developing interactive multimedia programs: A practitioner's perspective. Journal of Research on Computing in Education, 29(1), 29.

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