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Four Strategies to Foster Effective Online Teaching within a Standardized Curriculum
Effective eLearning (Special Series)

By Beverly Santelli, Kendra Stewart, Jean Mandernach / August 2023

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To maintain curricular consistency and streamline online course development, many large online programs utilize a standardized curriculum. Within this context, a single, centralized master course is developed (typically including all instructional content, activities, and assessments); instructors for that course then teach from duplicates of the master course shell. Recognizing that individual instructors each have unique backgrounds, expertise, and style, it is important to design standardized courses in a manner that maximizes the benefits of these individual instructor differences while simultaneously maintaining curricular consistency. Here are four strategies that can ensure standardized online courses are designed to balance these competing needs.  

1. Embrace a collaborative approach. Faculty members are constantly exploring new ways in meeting the demand of innovation, while promoting a functional and flourishing learning experience. While full-time faculty are often more aligned with broader program needs, adjunct instructors offer a unique asset in their perspective and applied expertise, which can bring a different lens to course and program design. Recognizing that adjunct faculty are often underutilized in departmental initiatives or curriculum decisions, it is important to intentionally include them in the processes of course design and sharing of resources or materials. Institutions should provide platforms where faculty (full time and adjunct), course designers, curriculum developers, and technology specialists can collaborate on online course development. Collaborative approaches involve collective proficiency and ideas on organization of the course shell by faculty, designers, and even students [1]. Encouraging student evaluative feedback regarding classroom strengths and areas of improvement can help to shape classroom structure and course satisfaction overall. This can be accomplished using student feedback from anonymous university-wide surveys as well as faculty-created surveys used in the classrooms.

2. Be intentional with technology integration. Web 2.0 tools and other forms of instructional technology are constantly evolving. As such, course design should ensure the methodology does not solely rely upon specific technologies but more on the service that they provide [2]. With so many options available now for faculty to utilize (e.g., virtual meeting spaces, screen recording, social media, apps, etc.,), it can be overwhelming to know what to use, when, and why. The “why” behind the technology is just as important as the "what" it is being used to accomplish. While integrating multiple technologies in a classroom can look impressive, it is important to keep practicality in mind and ensure the technology is helping students learn and not taking time away from the objectives. Likewise, recognizing that many different faculty will teach a course, the course should be designed in a manner that allows for effective teaching across a wide range of technology expertise. This is not to imply that courses should be designed with minimal technology to align with the least tech-savvy instructors, but rather that technology integration should be intentional in meeting learning objectives and utilized only when it adds value to the learning experience.

3. Create opportunities for instructor individualization. According to the Community of Inquiry (COI), teaching, social, and cognitive presence are all key factors for creating a dynamic educational experience in an online environment [3]. Central to this theory, effective online instruction goes far beyond good course design; rather, it rests on the faculty member’s ability to create an interactive learning experience, connect with students, and enliven content material. Even within a standardized curriculum, faculty members must have opportunities to adjust and adapt to the tone of the classroom environment, create a climate of trust, and establish relationships. Standardized course design needs to be intentional in creating opportunities for instructor individualization. For example, the course design can include placeholders for instructor-generated videos, live virtual meetings, customized announcements, or supplemental instructor-generated discussion forums.

4. Support instructional growth and innovation. Faculty have content expertise but often lack the background or training to effectively transfer that knowledge to students in an online classroom. This challenge can be intensified in an online course with a standardized curriculum as the faculty member does not control the focus, flow, assignments, or activities within the course. Recognizing this disconnect, it is essential to provide dedicated professional development. This professional development should go beyond simple training on online pedagogy to examine strategies to personalize and engage within a standardized curriculum. This can be done through traditional didactic instruction or via collaborative approaches such as faculty group circles that center around specific topics or sharing ideas in team meetings. Offering professional workshops and/or webinars can also establish a dialogue that focuses on effective instruction within an established course shell.

Teaching online within a standardized curriculum can be a daunting task for many faculty. The key is to ensure that faculty are involved in the initial course development process, that there are opportunities for faculty to personalize their courses, and that they have the knowledge, skills, and technology to teach in a manner aligned with their unique expertise and strengths.  


[1] Stewart, M. K., Cohn, J., and Whithaus, C. Collaborative course design and communities of practice: Strategies for adaptable course shells in hybrid and online writing. Transformative Dialogues: Teaching & Learning Journal 9, 1 (2016), 1–20.

[2] Ornellas, A. and Muñoz Carril, P. C. A methodological approach to support collaborative media creation in an e-learning higher education context. Open Learning: The Journal of Open and Distance Learning 29, 1 (2014), 59–71. doi:10.1080/02680513.2014.906916

[3] Armellini, A. and De Stefani, M. Social presence in the 21st century: An adjustment to the community inquiry framework. British Journal of Educational Technology 6 (2016), 1202–1216.

About the Authors

Beverly Santelli is an assistant professor for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Grand Canyon University. She teaches critical thinking, psychology, and introductory level undergraduate courses. Santelli serves as a mentor, peer support reviewer and member of the University Assessment Committee. Her research interests include student perceptions in online learning, instructor presence, and intentional integration of technology in the online classroom.

Kendra Stewart-Nelson, DBH, LPC is an assistant professor in the Clinical Mental Health Counseling program at Grand Canyon University. Her research focuses on ways to enrich the student learning experience through creative course design and student engagement. She examines how online instruction can be dynamic and innovative by implementing best practices with teacher presence, course structure, and delivery. She continues to create, connect, and collaborate through faculty development, community involvement, and entrepreneurship. In addition, she has interests in personal and professional development, technological integration, and enhancing the faculty/student alliance. Stewart-Nelson is a behavioral health professional who enjoys developing ways to meet both the diverse and unique needs of the online environment and student learner.

Jean Mandernach, Ph.D. is executive director of the Center for Innovation in Research on Teaching at Grand Canyon University. Her research focuses on enhancing student learning experiences in the online classroom through innovative instructional and assessment strategies. She explores strategies for integrating efficient online instruction in a manner that maximizes student learning, satisfaction, and engagement. In addition, she has interests in innovative faculty development and evaluation models, teaching and learning analytics, emergent instructional technology, and faculty workload considerations. Mandernach is an active researcher, author, presenter, and consultant in the field of online education.

© Copyright is held by the owner/author(s). Publication rights licensed to ACM. 1535-394X/2023/08-3597298 $15.00


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