Course Design – Start with an Outline

From a project management perspective getting a brand new course moving can be a challenge. With a course revision, you’ve got a full draft right from the beginning in the form of the exiting course. With a new course, the momentum has to come from a complete stop. The work of Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) is critical in the design stage to ensure that the scope and sequence of the specific content and source(s) of content are all appropriate. SMEs who are also filling other professional roles, such as full-time faculty, need support that helps them to provide their expertise, stay focused on project goals, and complete assigned tasks on schedule.

The project manager/instructional designer can provide tools that both manage the process and result in the information developers need to build the course. For a new course, starting with a high-level outline can be helpful.  A simple table can serve this purpose: organizing thoughts and documenting a plan for the course. The format allows for moving things around and review by others on the team.

In the illustration below, columns list the components of a course unit and each row represents one unit (one week per unit is a typical – but not required or even recommended – way to plan).

Possible advantages of this approach:

  • Provides easy access for others on the team – to contribute, review, edit (Consider posting as a GoogleDoc or in a system that allows for file sharing and version control like Sharepoint or Basecamp).
  • Structures the course before moving to the more cumbersome and detailed development guide for full writing of the course.
  • Becomes a primary reference document for the course – you can go back to it.
  • Allows for division of labor later on – multiple people working on separate units at the same time.
  • Offers flexibility – add columns as needed (e.g. case study) and your own course/program nomenclature.
  • Provides documentation for approval at a critical point in the process – before development goes forward.

This is a plan, not a prescription. Not all units will require a synchronous seminar or have assignments due. In the next phase of development (writing the course content in a development guide) the outline may change somewhat, but it is there in the beginning to show the way forward.

It’s a simple tool that takes some time to complete early in the process. This time on the front-end will likely save your schedule later on. Take the time to frame the house before you begin to buy the furniture, or even put up drywall.

Do you use something like this to get a new course project moving? How do you provide initial support and guidance to content experts and course writers? Please share!

11 thoughts on “Course Design – Start with an Outline

  1. Ryan Eikmeier

    I have used a similar approach when developing new courses. Rich Avrut and I developed a “Master Course Guide” Excel matrix that helped us to organize our ground-based courses. Once the SMEs developed the basic structure of the course, we mapped reading assignments and projects to the MCG. The beauty of using the spreadsheet was that we were able to incorporate the assignments/grading/weights in the MCG so the SMEs could see the impact of changes to the gradebook.

    I would be happy to share a sample MCG with you if you’d find that helpful.




    1. Chase

      This is great information, Melissa! Ryan referred to a master course guide example… I’m in the process of developing one as well and am looking for help and ideas… Did he post it somewhere? Thanks much!


      1. Melissa A. Venable Post author

        Hi Chase – thanks for stopping by! Glad you found this post helpful. I don’t know if Ryan’s document is posted anywhere, but I will check with him and see what I can find out.


  2. Melissa A. Venable Post author

    Ryan – Thanks for sharing this matrix! I like the spreadsheet format – it allows for those flexible rows and columns. Also interesting that you take the next step: after the SME has developed the basic structure, you as a designer/developer add, sort of overlay, the additional information to sharpen the big picture, especially where changes are concerned. I think something like this would be helpful at the program level as well to clearly map courses aligned with each other and with overall program goals and outcomes. We need more time…

    Betsy – It’s an oldie but a goodie. Basic, but gets the discussion started and helps the SMEs and larger team to make initial decisions. Don’t forget that communicating the purpose of this document (and expectations for the SME) are important, too. The table needs some introduction and instructions, and sometimes a unit or two of info to get it started.

    Thank you both for your comments!


  3. Jesse Gentile

    In this article you twice refer to a more detailed stage of the training development process…

    For example…

    [This is a plan, not a prescription. Not all units will require a synchronous seminar or have assignments due. In the next phase of development (writing the course content in a development guide) the outline may change somewhat, but it is there in the beginning to show the way forward.]

    Can any of you point me to some good resources, articles, or chapters that would illustrate this aspect of ISD.

    I’m new to the field and have had a very hard time breaking into isd work. I’m trying to double up my learning efforts and not let my degree get stale.


    1. Melissa A. Venable Post author

      Hi Jesse – Thanks for your comments! The course development guide I mentioned here is what gets the content from the SME to the Developer. This document takes the course outline, also mentioned in this post, and expands on it by including the information the developer will need to build the online course pages. Depending on the needs of the organization/project a development guide might include: introductory text, URLs, assignment instructions, discussion questions and guidelines, images, quiz questions/answers, reading assignments, etc. There may also be additional assets to include in the course that won’t be in the development guide – videos, podcasts, PPT files – but this document will indicate where these items should be integrated.

      So a “development guide” is part template, part storyboard, part style guide. Alessi and Trollip provide several storyboard templates in their book Multimedia for Learning that could be adapted for this use. You might also want to explore the worksheets and samples in Piskurich’s Rapid Instructional Design.

      I hope this is helpful! Let us know.


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