Pitt Online Toolbox: Building a Centralized Staff Resource Depot

Concurrent Session 7

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Achieving quality and consistency in online courses can be challenging. Find out how we share internal best practices among course development staff using our LMS.


Jonathan Gunnell holds an Ed.D. in Instructional Technology and Leadership and has presented his research throughout the United States. He also holds a B.M. in Music Technology and an M.M. in Digital Music Pedagogy. Jonathan joined Penn State in 2019 after 5 years working in online programs at the University of Pittsburgh and a faculty member at Duquesne University, where he has been teaching courses in audio, video, web design, and technology since 2008. In his current role, Jonathan oversees the planning, development, delivery, and assessment of online programs and courses. He is also an accomplished musician and performs frequently in the western Pennsylvania area.

Extended Abstract

Target Audience: Faculty, training professionals, instructional support, technologists, design thinkers

Materials: Powerpoint presentation with screenshots of the Pitt Online Toolbox.

About Pitt Online
The University of Pittsburgh, one of 34 public member institutions of the prestigious Association of American Universities, has been nationally recognized since 1787 for the quality of its graduate professional programs and service to students. The mission of Pitt Online is to offer graduate professional programs commensurate to those offered to resident students on the Pittsburgh Campus in terms of quality, faculty, and level of support services.

Pitt Online, comprised primarily of instructional designers and technologists has recently expanded to include ten full-time staff members. This team, tasked with the development, implementation, and maintenance of 137 unique courses across seven schools at the University, follows an established workflow to meet demand without compromising quality. Upon the establishment of a course development contract between Pitt Online and the school liaison, the instructional design manager assigns both an instructional designer and technologist to the project. The instructional designer serves as the project lead, in charge of communicating and collaborating with the faculty on content development. As this collaboration occurs, the instructional technologist focuses to the technical aspects of course building, including the implementation of course structure, tools, media, and content. A similar process ensues when a course revision is proposed.

How can we simplify our course design template?
How can we increase consistency between our courses?
Where can we store important files and documentation in a quickly-accessible location?

Pitt Online uses a design in our online courses that includes custom HTML and CSS elements in conjunction with a theme provided by the Learning Management System. A growing list of new courses and our expanding staff has made consistency in course development and revision a growing concern. For example, course builders might list content in a different order or use a different format for displaying assignment instructions from course to course. Being that the majority of Pitt Online students are taking multiple courses through Pitt Online, it is important to keep the user interface as consistent as possible. Implementing our previous design template required an intermediate level of HTML and CSS knowledge. This resulted in additional training time for new hires. We also realized that the time it takes for new hires to "settle in" could be shortened if access to "How-Tos" and procedural documentation could be easily accessible.

The Pitt Online Toolbox originally started as a Blackboard course shell meant to act as a "sandbox" for creating a new course template--our first problem. When the new template was finalized, the sandbox course was converted to an example which we left open and accessible by our staff for reference when applying the new template to courses. To help increase consistency between our courses, we added a content area in the sandbox that included detailed step-by-step instructions for applying the new template to a course. This was the first step towards converting the sandbox course into a resource center. Over the past several months, we have continued to add content to the Pitt Online Toolbox. In addition to template implementation instructions, it has grown to include how-to files, document and image resources, and department policies and procedures.

The Pitt Online Toolbox has been met with an overwhelmingly positive response from the Pitt Online team. Since its inception, the quality of new staff orientation and training has greatly improved. Additionally, the ability to access course design templates, resources, and tutorials from one location has contributed to increased productivity from existing staff. Overall, a higher level of cohesion and consistency has been achieved across the Pitt Online course catalog.

The presentation will close with a conversation with audience members. Questions to spark conversation can include: What issues regarding quality assurance and consistency in course development have you found at your organization? How have you addressed these issues? How does consistency affect learning and the user experience in online courses?