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From Text to Screen: Challenging Approaches to Creating Learning in an Online Environment

Catherine Naamani

University of Glamorgan,


The aim of this paper is to explore different approaches to course design within the blended learning continuum in the context of an externally funded, collaborative project - the development of an online Master’s Programme.

The research literature identifies two main categories of curriculum design – the systematic approach, described by the models of Pask, (1973), Keller (1983), Gagné (1985) and Dick & Carey (2001), and latterly, approaches which promote a more constructivist model as described by Hoyle (2005).

A multi-specialist team comprising a project coordinator/instructional designer, multi-

media developers, an editor and an e-resources librarian/rights officer was recruited for

the project. This core team worked with subject specialists from both an academic background and in the film industry to develop the award over 13 months.

The project adopted three models of materials development:

• the adaptation and re-use of existing e-learning materials;

• ‘translating’ existing lecture notes for an online environment; and

• the development of modules from scratch.

The paper uses examples to explore the extent to which each of the above models is effective in terms of identifying good practice in blended learning curriculum design. It also discusses the challenges associated with rethinking module design for online delivery and issues connected to multi-specialist team-working in higher education.

The findings suggest that the most effective way of developing materials is to undertake

a complete redesign. ‘Translating’ lecture notes tends to result in a content heavy

product, which takes longer to develop because of issues relating to structure, availability of resources and so forth. The re-use of existing e-learning materials can be equally difficult unless some initial thought is given to planning the development. The findings also indicate that while many academic staff may still be uncomfortable with the concept of working with a multi-specialist team, the result is generally an enhanced learning experience, both f-2-f and online.


Learning design; Course design; Film; Blended learning; Pedagogy


In May 2005 the Film Academy at the University of Glamorgan was successful in obtaining funding from Skillset (the Sector Skills Council for the Audio Visual Industries) and the Higher Education Funding Council Wales, to develop a range of awards and courses for the film industry. As part of this initiative, the MA in Film Producing & Business Management was developed to be delivered both face-to-face at the University, and online to a potentially global target audience. The project was a collaborative one on a number of levels – the Screen Academy Wales was a partnership of six Higher Education Institutions and CYFLE, the Training Company for the Welsh Television, Film and Interactive Media Industry; the award itself was delivered by three faculties within the University; the online version of the award was developed by a multi-specialist team comprising a project coordinator/instructional designer, an editor, two multi-media developers and a resources librarian. This core team worked with academics from the different faculties, representatives from industry and the Screen Academy to develop the modules. The core development team had extensive experience of developing awards for online delivery while the experience of the academic staff involved ranged from having no experience at all, to having developed full modules and awards for online delivery.

The timeframe for development was especially tight. Development started in November 2005 and by January 2007 all modules had been developed.

The aim of this paper is to explore different approaches to course design within the blended learning continuum in the context of an externally funded, collaborative project - the development of an online Master’s Programme. It uses examples to compare different models of module development in order to identify good practice in blended learning curriculum design. It also discusses the challenges associated with rethinking module design for online delivery and issues connected to multi-specialist team-working

in higher education.


A review of the relevant literature identifies a range of themes and issues related to the

development of courses for an online learning environment. These include the need for what Bell & Bell (2005:644) describe as ‘…comprehensive staff development…which goes beyond a simple ‘driving lesson’ approach’. Other advocates for effective staff development include Caplan (2004), Kawalilak & Corbett (2006) and Pasian & Woodill (2006). Linked to this, others (Ayers, 2004; Bongalos et al, 2006; Kawalilak & Corbett, 2006) discuss the role of and continued resistance to technology and online learning. We are also seeing increased discussion around effective project management of e- learning projects. Commentators like Arami & Wild (2006) and Pasian & Woodill (2006) suggest that much of the research relating to e-learning projects comes under the category of software development or IT project management. This, they suggest,

ignores what they go on to describe in terms of an appropriate approach to e-learning project management which focuses on culture change (Ayers, 2004), the need for effective communication, awareness of the culture in which a project is based and the challenges associated with a multi-disciplinary team approach.

The aim of this paper however, is to compare different approaches to curriculum design and to identify examples of good practice in terms of creating an effective learning experience.

There is notable emphasis in the research literature on the link between good instructional design models, pedagogy and curriculum design for the development of courses for online delivery. Moallem (2001:113) suggests that:

Employing instructional design principles and modules in creating WBI can help ensure that what is produced is of high quality and is able to present significant challenges to students.

Generally speaking, the literature tends to categorise curriculum or instructional design into two main categories; a more traditional, systematic approach (for example, Pask, 1973; Gagne, 1985; Dick & Carey, 2001), and more recent constructivist approaches such as those described by Hoyle (2005) and Oblinger & Hawkins (2006).

Systematic instructional design techniques include the ADDIE model (Analyse, Design, Develop, Implement, Evaluate) (Strickland, A.W., 2007), which breaks down the design process into a series of well-defined stages starting with identifying aims and objectives and analysing the learning environment and the needs of the learner. In the next two stages, materials are first designed and then developed before the final stages of delivery and evaluation. Dick & Carey’s (2001) Systems Approach presents a similar model. In both, the process is a simple one, fairly linear in approach and as a result, has certain advantages especially with regard to developing instructional materials of a prescriptive nature.

Gagné’s (1985) Nine Events of Instruction offers a slightly more complex model of instructional design. Gagné’s (1985) approach focuses on the learner experience taking them through a series of stages which start with attracting the learner’s attention and finish with assessing performance. The approach has a clear association with Keller’s (1983) ARCS (Attention, Relevance, Confidence, Satisfaction) model which focuses on the motivational aspects of course design.

All these models have their roots in behaviourist learning theory and are used extensively for course design with some justification on the premise that they ‘…are guidelines or sets of strategies, which are based on learning theories and best practices’ (Moallem, 2001:113). The assumption is that by following a series of steps and stages, it is possible to create an effective learning experience.

A number of authors (Moallem, 2001; Caplan, 2004; Hoyle, 2005; Brown, 2006; Oblinger & Hawkins, 2006) however, have begun, if not to question the systematic

approach, then to suggest that such an approach might not be the most effective in exploiting the full potential of the online medium. Online learning, they suggest offers unparalleled opportunities for exploration, communication and learner empowerment. It consequently presents a number of challenges to the learner, course designer and lecturer alike as roles and the traditional medium of delivery changes.

Certainly if we want people to think for themselves, equip themselves with new understanding and take responsibility for updating their knowledge we need to create new learning environments. This means signposting, enabling browsing and self-assessment, creating a tool where learners plan their own routes for a learning journey in which they are in control (Hoyle, 2005:27)

It is a sad fact however, that the vast majority of online courses do not exploit the online medium to its full potential (Caplan, 2004; Moallem, 2001; Ayers, 2004). Many online courses remain little more than online text books and most of us still use computers as elaborate word-processors (Ayers, 2004). Caplan (2004) suggests that one of the key reasons for this is the lack of a clear definition of online pedagogy while Moallem (2001) and Oblinger & Hawkins (2006) suggest that the dominant approach to developing online courses is to present information and content online as text. Caplan (2004:177) sums up the criticisms of these text-based courses as follows:

The loudest criticisms of this type of course are that it does not make any use of the multi-modal, computer-mediated instructional means that are available, and that the printing costs are downloaded onto the student. Another criticism is that these text-based online courses are often supplemented with electronic interactive tools, such as discussion forums and chats, that are implemented as “extras” or afterthoughts to the course—their pedagogical value is often artificial and suspect.

The proponents of a more constructivist approach to course design refer no longer to instructional design, but to learning design (Hoyle, 2005; Arami & Wild, 2006; Oblinger & Hawkins, 2006 among others), the aim being to ‘…move beyond the notion of a course covering content to the idea of a course as constructing a series of learning environments and activities’ (Oblinger & Hawkins, 2006:14).

What are the implications then in terms of identifying good practice for online course design? The literature suggests that there are relatively few examples of courses built on learning design principles and Caplan (2004:177) warns us that ‘…there is no standard, accepted definition of what constitutes an online course’. For those of us facing the challenge of creating effective online learning environments that promote exploration and active learning however, both Hoyle (2005) and Oblinger & Hawkins (2006) offer some consolation. They point to the benefits of adhering to a systematic approach which focuses not on the process, but on encouraging learners to ‘develop skills of questioning and information seeking’ (Hoyle, 2005:26)


This paper aims to compare three different approaches to developing modules for an online learning environment. The main data collection technique was to adopt an ethnographic approach. While this approach is not without its critics who question its reliability as an objective method, it was felt to be the most appropriate for this study given the involvement of the researcher for the duration of the project. To overcome some of the issues relating to reliability and validity, other methods were also used, namely semi-structured group interviews with the subjects of the research and an analysis of the relevant project documentation.

The researcher was the first member of the core development team to be recruited to

the project and remained in post until all modules had been developed. It was relatively straightforward therefore to undertake ‘…participant, observer-based research’ (Cohen,

et al, 2000:153) Additionally, her role as project coordinator and instructional designer

ensured prolonged involvement in all stages of the project and with all members of the team, both academic and core, thus facilitating what Cohen et al (2000) refer to as holistic research, a key element to ethnographic approaches. A combination of observation, notes from meetings, records of discussions, reports and e-mail correspondence, collected in situ, enabled the researcher to build up comparative descriptions of the module development process.

Group interviews were carried out to increase validity and to evaluate the extent to which the findings of the ethnographic study tied in with the perceptions of the core development team and academic staff involved. A group interview was carried out for each of the modules concerned. All members of the core team were able to contribute to one or more of the group interviews and four of the six academic staff involved

provided input. The interviews were semi-structured, the principal aim being to carry out

a qualitative evaluation of the effectiveness of each of the development models by allowing the subjects of the research to reflect on the development process.

Relevant project documentation was also analysed, primarily that relating to the project plan and quality assurance.


The technology Early on in the project it was decided to use a combination of Blackboard (the

University’s MLE) and Glamlearn, the University’s bespoke content management system, to create the modules. This approach offered several advantages; Blackboard

is used widely across the University and there are established procedures to ensure

modules are available and students have easy access to course content; use of Blackboard also allowed the inclusion of discussion forums as part of the learning experience, while the adoption of the University’s content management system ensured what Moallem (2001) describes as visual consistency, clear structure and navigation and easy access to online resources. It also enabled the use of video and interactive multimedia using Macromedia Flash. Both Blackboard and the content management

system are supported by the University’s e-Support Team. At this time, the University was looking to pilot the use of Talislist, an online reading list system allowing instant access to the details of readings, or the readings themselves and a decision was taken to also include this system.

Staff experience of blended learning Experience of developing and delivering materials for an online environment varied across the teams involved in the project. All but one of the core development team had extensive experience of working in a multi-disciplinary team and of developing materials for e–intensive delivery i.e. where most of the content is delivered online and at a distance. Of the 10 academic staff involved, only four had developed materials for online delivery. Two of the staff had not used Blackboard previously. Only one member of the academic staff was involved in delivery of a module online at the time of the project.

The development process The core team had extensive experience of developing modules for an online learning environment having been involved in the E-College Wales Project (ECW), an ambitious European funded project, starting in 2001 and which foresaw the development of a series of modules and programmes for e-learning delivery. Over the lifetime of the ECW project, over 40 modules were developed by a core production team and a team of academic staff. At the same time expertise and awareness of the key issues relating to this, at the time, relatively new area of curriculum design grew. This led to the development of guidelines which anticipated the following key milestones and stages:

Evaluate and confirm module learning outcomes and assessment strategy

Identify any existing materials

Provide a summary of expected resources (core texts, journal articles, diagrams)

Develop outline module structure in the form of learning units

Identify tasks and activities for each learning unit.

Identify areas for multi media development within content areas

Identify reading activities for each learning unit

Develop additional content and/or narrative.

Clearly, many of the above stages would overlap and by its very nature, the process would be iterative. However, what was suggested was a top-down approach that was based on established instructional design strategies and which would, it was anticipated, facilitate the creation of an active, learner-focused learning experience. It was hoped that such an approach would also limit what Caplan (2004:175) suggests is the norm: ‘There’s a good chance that a very thick file has just landed on your desk(top), and you’re not sure where to start!’

In total, seven modules and a CD to support student induction were developed for the MA in Film Producing & Business Management. For the purposes of this paper, however, we shall compare how the first three of the modules were developed:

Model 1 - Reusing Existing Materials The first module to be developed was Business Planning. It was presumed that this would be a fairly straightforward process; much of the required material had been developed for online delivery previously, albeit at different levels, and the academic staff involved had both developed and delivered modules for this medium. A project plan was agreed early on in the process, and although at this stage in the project an editor and a resources librarian had yet to be recruited, this was not felt to be an issue as the materials had already been edited and copyright clearance obtained previously.

The initial stages of development worked well. An outline structure for the new module was created and work commenced on identifying existing resources and materials. Once materials had been identified, these were imported into the outline structure in the content management system. The result of this initial process however, revealed an unwieldy, text heavy module which included considerable overlap and repetition. Additionally, it became clear that because the original materials had been developed with an undergraduate audience in mind, there remained some considerable work to be done to create relevant tasks, to identify relevant resources and to edit the materials to ‘speak’ to the right level. The absence, in the early stages, of an editor to work on the materials and a resources librarian to advise on the availability of relevant journal articles also delayed progress. Further delays to the development of the module occurred even after all the staff were in post. This was largely as a consequence of the fact that other commitments were beginning to impinge on the time available to the academic staff.

The final version of the module was clearly structured, taking students through a fairly linear business planning process. Online resources were easily accessible. It was however, content and information rich with limited use of multi-media. Many of the online resources were identified towards the end of the development process and as such, became an additional, rather than an integral, resource. Opportunities for interaction were limited to discussion forums and as a consequence of the focus on content, students had little opportunity to adopt a more constructivist approach. The module took twice as long to develop as had been initially anticipated.

The key issues relating to this approach to development appear to be linked primarily to the availability of the academic staff involved and an underestimation of the amount of work involved even when materials already exist online. Initial discussions involving the academic staff concerned had indicated the need to reconsider the way the module should be presented online with the aim of moving away from what were originally two content rich modules in order to create an engaging, interactive experience. Ultimately however, it was not possible to pursue this approach due to lack of time and the pressures associated with developing the module to a tight timescale.

Adapting Lecture Notes The second module to be developed was Entrepreneurial Studies. This was a well established module and had been successfully taught face-to-face for a number of years. Two members of academic staff were involved in its development as an online

module. One of these had some previous, but not current, experience of developing modules for online delivery, the other none at all. Initial discussions focused around the production process and the key stages of development, starting with the identification of resources and an outline module structure. Opportunities for multi-media were also discussed. Thereafter, the majority of content came from existing lecture materials with limited opportunities for the inclusion of interactive multi-media and although the lecture materials pointed to some seminar-based tasks and activities, in the online environment, these became very much an addition to the content. The use of resources was also problematic. These had not been identified early on in the development process and many were either out of date or not available electronically. Module development was prolonged as a result of difficulties relating to structuring and editing the materials, the non-availability of resources and decreasing availability of the academic staff concerned.

The final version of the module was unwieldy and text heavy. Many of the readings were difficult to access without purchasing the relevant text book. Tasks and activities were added on to the content almost as an afterthought.

The study of the development of this module revealed a number of issues, ranging from the need for effective project management and a strategy at departmental level to enable staff to undertake this type of activity to issues relating to multi-disciplinary team- working and copyright. In terms of identifying good practice for the development of blended learning materials, the key pointers include the importance of early collaboration and interaction with all team members where collaborative effort leads to an enriched module, the importance of identifying resources early on in the process to ensure that they are available online, the need to streamline the content with the recommendation ‘don’t use just because it’s there’. Above all however, two pre- requisites were identified by the academic staff involved to ensure successful module development, namely, ‘start with a blank sheet’ and make sure you have enough time.

Starting From Scratch The third module to be developed was Understanding Producing. This was a relatively new module and had been delivered face-to-face to just one cohort of students during

the previous academic year. It was thought initially that this might have posed problems

in terms of identifying appropriate content and resources. Furthermore, the academic

member of staff originally identified to work with the core development team was unable

to continue on the project and a second academic had to be engaged. This delayed the

start to the module development.

Following initial discussions, a project plan was agreed based on the afore-mentioned stages and staff availability. The academic had no previous experience of developing online modules but as a professional film producer was used to working in the context of

a production process with a multi-specialist team. He worked closely with the core development team for the duration of the project and the recommended stages in

development were strictly adhered to. This ensured that there was ample time to identify

a range of up-to-date electronic resources, opportunities for multi-media development

and relevant case studies. Additionally, task and activities were identified early on in the development stage and were consequently easily integrated into the learning experience.

The final version of the module was resource rich and text appeared simply to provide brief explanation or guidance. It was dependent on students interacting fully with the materials, resources, multi-media and discussion forums to get the most benefit from the module. There were no delays to the development and the module was completed in the timescale agreed.

In spite of initial difficulties in terms of identifying the appropriate academic staff to work on this module, once development was underway, it proceeded well. In terms of good practice, the following were identified as key to its success – start off with an outline of the module and build up the content gradually; early identification of resources and opportunities for multi-media and case studies; a collaborative team approach whereby all those involved in the development, including the academic member of staff, were able to share an office. Availability of the academic member of staff was made clear from the outset, the process both discursive and iterative and the focus throughout was on creating an engaging online learning experience.


The focus of this paper has been the comparison of three different approaches to developing modules for an online learning environment. The findings appear to reflect some of the current debates about the usefulness of adopting a traditional systematic approach to designing courses for online delivery. Given that the approach adopted was similar for all three modules, it seems surprising that one particular example makes better use of the medium that the others. Further analysis of the study reveals that there are key differences during the development process which might account for this:

Of the three modules, only Understanding Producing started with little or no previously used content in the form of lecture notes or existing online materials.

The academic member of staff involved in the development of Understanding Producing was able to dedicate his time solely to the project. Furthermore, he was able to work in close proximity to the rest of the core team, facilitating an effective multi-disciplinary approach which promoted discussion and the sharing of ideas as the module progressed.

Electronic resources were identified early on in the development of the module. This ensured that they were integrated into the learning experience and easily accessible to learners.

Interestingly, previous involvement by academic staff in the development of online materials seems to have had little or no effect on the end result. Successful development then seems to be linked more to having no or few preconceptions of what content should be made available to students and to ensuring that staff have enough time to devote to a project. A traditional systematic approach to instructional design is not enough to ensure an effective online learning experience and a holistic approach

needs to be taken which ensures staff availability, promotes a team-based approach and encourages the potential of the online environment.


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