Right Questions but No Right Answers: Avoiding Universal Pitfalls in Online Course Development

Concurrent Session 4

Brief Abstract

Fast, cheap, or good…pick two. It’s an old adage for every creative project, but online course creation adds a few wrinkles: who defines good? who is the actual audience? are faculty members course creators or subject-matter experts? Our talk focuses on how a holistic and agile approach to course creation can help answer these questions.


Allen Hoover is the Director of Media and Design at the McIntire School of Commerce at the University of Virginia. He has over 20 years experience in the creation of instructional media, online course design and documentary filmmaking.

Extended Abstract

Creating an online course is in many ways like any other project – there are invariable budget and time constraints, and occasional creative differences to overcome. But there are also a few variables faced by online course developers that are unique; unclear project ownership, faculty buy-in, and a shifting definition of success all make creating an online course particularly challenging. These complications, coupled with the fact that rarely are two courses or programs alike, mean that making good, timely, and cost-effective online courses remains a complicated and often seemingly illusive endeavor.

There’s an old adage that content creators have for years told prospective clients: “good, fast, and cheap...pick two.” Online course creators have to ask those same three questions, but for them, there are added variables that complicate which two they chose. For many course-creation teams, it can often be unclear: who is the client and who is the creator? Is the instructional design team the creator or is it the faculty member? Is the client the faculty member, or is it the school itself, or perhaps it’s the student? And how do we determine what “good” means? What we have found is that “good, fast, cheap” remains relevant, but it’s a false paradigm that cannot be answered until these other issues are addressed.

Through nearly a decade of creating online courses, we at The McIntire School of Commerce at The University of Virginia – through lots of trial and error – have developed a process to address these fundamental questions. And because our online offerings vary wildly in scope – as small as an individual course and as large as an entire online graduate degree – our answers to these questions vary as well, depending on the context. But what does not change are the fundamental underpinnings that allow us to successfully answer the questions in the first place. The answers we get may change, but the questions we ask do not.

Our talk focuses on these fundamental questions and how other institutions can learn from and possibly replicate our approach to addressing them. We review the development of our own online course capabilities- from the early stages to our current state- to demonstrate our growth process arc, and to show how the questions – and answers – that have been emphasized at each step along the way have changed with this maturing process.  More specifically, we discuss the evolution of our organizational structure, technological capabilities, and how we approach faculty buy-in, quality and timeliness challenges in the context of how we have tried to answer these fundamental questions in the moment and to anticipate how we wanted to be able to answer them as we matured.  The intent is for our reflections and experience to demonstrate how asking the right questions at the right time might be more important than knowing the answers all along the way.