Striking a Balance Between Standardized and Flexible Online Course Content

How much of an online course should be standardized? It's a question that has important implications for institutions, instructors, and students in the online space. In an interview with Online Classroom, Melanie Kasparian, Online Experiential Learning Developer/Instructional Designer at Northeastern University, offered advice on what to consider in striking a balance between standardization and flexibility.

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How much of an online course should be standardized? It's a question that has important implications for institutions, instructors, and students in the online space. In an interview with Online Classroom, Melanie Kasparian, Online Experiential Learning Developer/Instructional Designer at Northeastern University, offered advice on what to consider in striking a balance between standardization and flexibility.

There are several compelling advantages of standardization, Kasparian says, including:

“[Standardization] makes sense in some situations with the caveat that we don't want to disengage faculty or [stifle] creativity and innovation,” Kasparian says. “If an institution is at a point where it has 30 sections of a course, each with 25 students, it's a lot easier to build and track with a one-to-many curated content model. It's worthwhile to develop something that is consistent and scalable for measuring the same student outcomes across sections.”

The notion of standardization in online courses might mean different things at different institutions. It might mean a consistent course navigation and appearance. Or it might mean that every course has the same assessment strategy. It could mean that all course sections are identical and cannot be changed. Northeastern's courses are based on evidence-based learning principles, including experiential learning.

However, a high degree of standardization could lead instructors to feel relegated to a diminished instructional role. Giving instructors more flexibility can increase innovation and provide opportunities to tailor the instruction to individual learner's needs. But such courses are likely to be less reusable, have disconnected outcomes across sections, and potentially create confusion for students in the online environment, Kasparian says.

Determining what to standardize in a course or program is a collaborative effort at Northeastern. “At the program and course level, we discuss what can change and what can't be changed term over term,” Kasparian says. “As enrollments grow, we may have other conversations. We may need to be more prescriptive or encourage more consistency so that we can be more scalable and reuse content. It's evolving.”

Kasparian does not consider standardization and flexibility as opposing ideals. Rather, she sees them as complementary for instructional designers. “We create the consistent elements to facilitate access and to frame the creativity,” she says. Standardized course elements, such as common verbiage and navigation, free up instructors' time to focus on the parts of the course where they can use their creativity to adapt to individual learners' needs. It also reduces students' cognitive load, saving mental space for core content and concepts rather than wondering where elements are or what they mean.

Kasparian and her colleagues strive for balance between standardization and flexibility by using a 40/30/30 rule in which

These percentages may be modified per course, but the notion of dividing up the balance into core/flex/teach helps frame our level of standardization.