Concurrent Instructional Design: How to Produce Online Courses Using a Lean Team Approach

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Syracuse, NY 13244-2530
Phone: (315) 443-4452 or (315) 443-3329

Maureen Ann Wakefield, Instructional Designer
Mike Frasciello, Production Manager
Linda Tatnall, Instructional Designer
Peter Conover, Graphic Designer

Special thanks to Syrtis staff for input and support on this project.

Concurrent instructional design incorporates the instructional strengths of traditional design methodologies with the organizational and cost benefits of modern software and systems design methodologies. This unique methodology is based on a premise long understood by many world-class software development organizations:

design, development, and testing can be fast-tracked when designers, developers, writers, and technologists work concurrently on multiple phases of a project in synergistic teams.

This approach streamlines the design and development of courses and uses specialized roles, which allow individual contributors to move in and out of the project as necessary.  A Lead Instructional Designer is responsible to coordinate the team effort.  Open communication and project planning and management are key ingredients to keeping contributors informed of changes and to providing consistency from module to module. One benefit of concurrency in the process can be realized when individual contributors work on multiple teams across multiple projects.  [See Figure 1]

Concurrent Course Cylinder

Figure 1: The Concurrent Course Cylinder diagram graphically represents concurrent course development using multiple teams with each team assigned to a different module in the course.  Communication flows between teams and course development is defined by a project plan.

Concurrent Design and Development: Defined

Concurrent is defined as "an activity or a set of activities occurring at the same time or acting in conjunction."  Concurrent design and development of an online course occurs when different objects, components, or modules are designed and developed simultaneously.  As multiple teams design and develop the assigned modules concurrently, the course is rapidly authored, assembled and tested.

The project and team-specific task requirements define each team member's role. A lean team is made up of the most qualified people who have the essential skill sets and experience for the task requirements.  The goal behind using a lean team approach is to design and develop a course or module quickly with just the essential, highly qualified staff.  A lean team uses a minimum number of steps, conserving and optimizing resources to deliver world-class instruction in a cost-effective manner. At Syrtis, lean instructional teams are committed to continuous improvement, while cutting production time and adding value.


· Courses are produced in a lean way because team members are selected specifically for their area of expertise, which is optimally used to create the module as defined in the project plan. For example, the team may be comprised of members with expertise and experience in: needs analysis, defining learner requirements, creating graphics, animation, familiarity with the content area, etc. By defining specific subtasks needed in each module and by assembling an ideal team with the skill sets needed, the modules are produced in a leaner fashion.

· Work on the project proceeds on an "as needed" basis, depending on the status of various components of the module.  Because team members work on assigned components of the project intermittently, they are free to work on other projects while other members of the team contribute to their portions of the module.  For example, the Publisher may work on establishing hypertext links in a module and during this effort, the Instructional Designer may be writing instructional objectives for a different course altogether.  Once the Publisher completes the hypertext links in the module, the Instructional Designer may return to the module to define evaluative items for the module.  So a team member returns to the project at appropriate intervals with renewed energy, commitment and fresh ideas at critical stages of development.

· Lean team production takes advantage of each member's special abilities in a way that provides an additional incentive for success.  By tapping into each individual's strongest skills, there is added strength in the final instructional product.  Team interaction and synergy created along the way, result in a product that transcends the efforts of the individuals.  For example, an Instructional Designer may define the need for a map.  The Graphic Designer may produce the map and suggest mouse over pop-ups of text describing key locations for the learner.  The Technologist may review the map with the pop-ups and see added value in a printable version of the map for the learner.  A combination of perspectives and skill sets result in synergistic, valuable outcomes.  [See Figure 2]

Inside the concurrent course cylinder:
Advantages and Challenges

Figure 2: Inside the Concurrent Course Cylinder: Advantages and Challenges provides a closer look at team 1 assigned to module 1 in a course with a total of 4 modules and 4 teams working concurrently to develop a course.


· Communicating changes as each module is developed requires on-going interaction and updates through scheduled or unscheduled meetings and walkthroughs.  Module objectives and activities that build the learners skills and knowledge based on previous module objectives may not have been developed yet. A periodic review of the entire course helps the different teams remain informed of the changes and progress occurring concurrently throughout the course. On-going communication and periodic reviews ensure that learner skills that build on skills in other modules in the course are tied together and reinforced.

· On-going communication between Instructional Designers on different teams is key to defining the instructional strategies in the modules of a course. The use of instructional strategies such as: case studies, scenarios, or role-playing, for example, needs to be assessed at a module level and also at a course level.  How to chunk content, the amount of interaction, and the use of graphics and video also needs to be assessed at the module and course level.  Content should "flow" smoothly from one module to the next, even though there may be different content authors.  These challenges require special editing and sensitivity to the course by the individual contributors involved.

· Evaluative strategies used in each module must be compared so that learning is measured consistently throughout the course. The number and types of evaluative items are compared and shared by Instructional Designers at status meetings and walkthroughs.  However, the instructional objectives drive the evaluative items and some variation in both the number and type of items required may be appropriate, depending on the course content. Constant communication of the instructional goals, objectives and evaluation with attention to consistency, is critical for success.  Walkthroughs provide team members with a forum to assess and compare the evaluative strategies used at a course level.  Strong project leadership is required to coordinate team efforts and keep contributors informed of course evaluation standards and priorities.

Lean team Roles and Concurrent Design

As open and unfettered communication is critical to the success of concurrent design, well-defined roles and tasks are critical to the success of each lean team. At a minimum, lean teams consist of the following members:

· Lead Instructional Designer / Project Manager
· Instructional Designer
· Technologist
· Technical / Professional Writer
· Graphic Designer
· Web / Print Publisher

Lead Instructional Designer / Project Manager
The Lead Instructional Designer / Project Manager defines the project plan using traditional project management methods and software. In this role, the Lead Instructional Designer defines the scope of the project with the following information:

· Task start and end dates
· Resources assigned to each task
· Project milestones, goals and constraints.

In addition to coordinating the project, the Lead Instructional Designer / Project Manager communicates progress to the client, coordinates status meetings, and works to resolve conflicts and remove obstacles through scheduled walkthroughs.

Instructional Designer
The Instructional Designer is assigned to one or more modules and is responsible for module layout, branching, and organization.  The Instructional Designer defines module objectives and evaluative items, and may develop content or work with a subject matter expert to develop content.  The Instructional Designer works with the Technologist or Graphic Designer to specify graphics, movies, audio, and interactivity to meet valid instructional requirements.  The Instructional Designer also coordinates the work efforts of other contributors and reports obstacles to the Project Manager.

Technologists are tasked with designing and building animations, movies, and audio that support valid instructional requirements. Working with all members of the lean team, Technologists provide the expertise needed to incorporate advanced course components while recommending the best use of technology to support the instructional goals and objectives of the course.

Technical / Professional Writer
The Technical / Professional Writer is primarily responsible for the quality of the written course content. Using a number of industry and client-specific style guides, the Technical / Professional Writer edits course content for tone, usage, grammar and spelling. Working closely with the Instructional Designer(s), the Technical / Professional Writer also reviews course content to ensure that ideas are meaningful to the learner.

Graphic Designer
The Graphic Designer provides custom visuals for the course to enhance learning.  The Instructional Designer identifies the need for a graphic based on the requirements of the learning objectives and the nature of the content.  The Graphic Designer meets with the Instructional Designer and recommends various graphic options for the course and navigation. The Graphic Designer also customizes and designs the layout of the course for ideal online usability.

Web / Print Publisher
The Web / Print publisher packages the course for delivery during all iterative phases of development. Phases may include integration testing, regression testing, and pilot (field) testing and final release to the client. The Web / Print Publisher is responsible for resolving usability issues identified during testing, such as broken hypertext links, problems with navigation, and improper sequences of interactive elements. The Web / Print Publisher also researches and recommends links to resources that strengthen and support the course objectives.   [See Figure 3]

Team Roles and Open Communications

Figure 3: The Team Roles and Open Communications figure shows an inside view of a team 1 assigned to module 1 in a course.  The arrows pointing among and between team members on team 1 and indicate open communication paths in a concurrent environment.

Concurrent Design and Development: Communications

Team members are informed of changes in various ways and at a variety of times during a project.  Team members receive informal updates on their modules from other members of the team as the module is handed off and as development tasks are completed.

For example, the Graphics Designer may hand off the module to the Instructional Designer when the requested graphic is in place in the module so that the Instructional Designer can add content.  Or the Graphics Designer may hand off the module to the Technologist to add interactivity to the graphic.  This is a purely informal type of communication driven by the development needs of the module as identified in the project plan.  Conversations about time estimates for task and time usage are on going.  Data regarding time usage is maintained in the project plan by the Project Manager.

Individual team members receive more formalized updates about assigned modules and other modules during course-wide status meetings and during walkthroughs. Formal walkthroughs, informal walkthroughs and status meetings provide an excellent opportunity for an exchange of ideas from contributors as well as provide an opportunity for a comparative look at multiple modules in a course. While formal walkthroughs are scheduled by the Project Manager / Lead Instructional Designer at critical intervals in the project life cycle, informal walkthroughs may be called at any time by any team member.  Informal walkthroughs may be held at the team level or for all teams depending on whether the problem effects the module or the entire course.  At status meetings and at walkthroughs, modules are examined, compared and critiqued by all.

Concurrent Design and Development: Consistency

Consistency during concurrent design and development is best addressed by applying a
structured well-defined design and development methodology. The DDM allows for concurrent processes while guaranteeing instructional consistency through each course component. Components can include course content, objectives, evaluation, instructor's notes, packaging, and navigation.

A Systematic Design Model

The DDM differs from traditional design and development models in that it allows designers to quickly translate client analysis and learner requirements into functional course components (learning objects). The concurrent design process is supported by the DDM's flexibility, which allows Instructional Designers to move seamlessly from design specifications to working objects during development. This flexibility also guarantees that design specifications stay relevant throughout the development process.

As a systematic design model, the DDM enables developers to check for errors early. Because course and design requirements are directly translated into functional objects, each piece of the course is subjected to error checking and analysis. The earlier the errors are detected, the easier and cheaper they are to fix.  Instructional Designers can ensure that each object corresponds to a learner requirement in a one-to-one fashion because each learning object is maintained as a single, verifiable element. Through this practice of object tracing, course designers and developers are able to reuse learning objects within courses and across courses.

Reusable Course Objects

The DDM provides a high level of object reusability. Approximately 70 to 80 percent of course can be reused within a course and across other courses. The obvious benefits of reusability are higher productivity and lower costs.

Productivity returns are realized during all phases of design and development and during prototyping of new courses. Lower costs are realized during and after development because the initial “investment” in learning objects can be amortized over the number of new courses that make use of the reusable objects. The more often objects are reused, the less onerous the initial investment.

Control Processes

The use of a systematic design and development methods combined with open communication provides the Instructional Designer with a forum in which to compare the instructional strategies used in all modules of the course. This comparison is conducted in a synchronized manner using informal and formal evaluative criteria.

Synchronization Process

During all phases of development, each member can access learning objects, modules, or the entire course. Components are saved to the team member's local computer where changes can be made independent of other components of the course. After updates are made, the components are saved back to the development server. If changes have been made in other modules, the individual synchronizes their local site to the central drive site to see the changes made in other modules.

Synchronization protects data from being overwritten by a second user. While multiple modules may be designed and developed concurrently within a course, a given module may have only one author making changes at a time. In this way, data is protected, but concurrent course design and development can go forward.

Style Guides and Templates

The consistent look, feel, and tone of courses are addressed through the use of internal and client-specified style guides. Style guides allow developers to test course content against defined usage and grammar conventions. Style guides also facilitate the rapid creation of content when all lean team members are familiar with the common elements of the guides. By applying style guides and templates, the "look and feel" is consistent to the user and yet customized for each client.

Consistency across course modules, and often across entire programs, is addressed through the use of templates. Both Web and print-based templates are used at all phases of design development. Print-based templates facilitate needs analysis and definition of the project scope. Web-based templates are used to develop prototypes of course layout, navigation, and structure. More complex Web-based templates are used to quickly design and development interactive assessment and feedback components.

In Summary

The concurrent lean team approach to the design, development and testing of online courses provides a new streamlined and unique process for courseware developers.  This approach makes the best use of specialized roles and talents, allowing individual contributors to move in and out of multiple projects. Coordination, consistency, and open communications are the critical elements for success in a concurrent environment.  The use of a systematic design model, such as the Design and Development Model (DDM) coupled with reusable learning objects provides an efficient and instructionally valid process.  Internal control processes, such as the synchronization process used in conjunction with style guides and templates, ensure consistency and on-going communications for the development of world class instructional products.


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ITFORUM PAPER #56 - Concurrent Instructional Design: How to Produce Online Courses Using a Lean Team Approach by Syrtis. Poted on ITFORUM on December 1, 2001. The author retains all copyrights of this work.  Used on ITFORUM by permission of the author.  Visit the ITFORUM WWW Home Page at