Course Structure 6 Minute Read

Design Considerations for Master Courses

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The adoption of a master course philosophy involves an institution developing content for a single version of a course, which is then duplicated each time that course is offered. These single versions of the courses, called master courses, are created in alignment with institutional standards and programmatic outcomes in mind, ensuring quality and consistency across multiple sections of the same course. Additionally, because facilitators of the live courses cannot edit the material, this model allows them to focus exclusively on teaching the course instead of creating it or compiling resources and assessments. While these benefits can help ensure a positive learning experience for your students, though, they don’t come without challenges. This article will address some common course-level considerations to be employed when building a master course.

Don’t Include Instructor Information

Because a master course may be taught by different instructors over the course of its life, instructor-specific information should not be included. While this may seem counterintuitive – you want students to know how to contact their instructor, after all – limiting instructor information ensures that students aren’t given the wrong instructor information, which could lead to confusion or frustration once the course begins.

This isn’t to suggest that instructor information needs to be omitted altogether, though. Instead, we recommend placing it somewhere outside the master course. For instance, many learning management systems offer a user-specific profile page, which instructors can use to display information about themselves (office hours, contact information, personal websites, etc.) across all courses in which they’re enrolled. If instructors are encouraged to do this instead of putting their contact information in the course itself, the syllabus can then direct students to those pages in the “Instructor Information” area of the syllabus. That way, the information is available, but it isn’t housed in the actual master course.

Don’t Include Term Dates

One nuance of master courses is that the duplicated versions of the course may be taught across different terms. Because of this, specific dates should not be included. Instead, it’s preferable to refer to days within a module. For instance, “Please submit by March 11, 2015” could be replaced with “Please submit by Wednesday of Module 2.” As with instructor information, being more relative than absolute in this sort of manner helps ensure that any accidental duplication of term-specific information is limited.

Be Careful with Time-Specific Material

Because a master course may be taught during different terms, be wary of time-specific assignments and assessments. These are course elements that refer to specific dates, or those that are designed to be relevant during a particular term. They don’t have to be avoided altogether, but considerations should be made. For instance, if an instructor wants to include weekly discussion forums based on current events, it might be best to not label them as “current events.” As we’ve suggested elsewhere, this is to limit any student confusion or frustration that might arise because of key pieces of content being mislabeled. Additionally, a resource incorrectly labelled as a current event could come off as unprofessional or unorganized on your part. Accuracy and relevancy are important to students taking any course, so be certain to ensure that the materials you include, even if they are current at the time of design, and labelled appropriately for students who might take your class months later.

Alternatively, consider a tool such as an embedded Twitter feed that would automatically generate current event headlines for assignments. This can easily be included in most learning management systems, and you can set up the feed so it only displays certain accounts or hashtags. That way, your online classroom has a continual stream of up-to-date content that instructors can use as they choose.

Include Rubrics

One important consideration when it comes to designing master courses is that some sections of the course likely won’t be taught by you. One of the primary benefits of implementing a master course philosophy is scalability, so it’s common for multiple instructors to teach various sections of the course. Another benefit is data analysis; that is, institutions and departments can track student success data across multiple sections of a course, which can then be used to make systematic improvements to that master course. To ensure that this is done accurately, though, consider including rubrics for all summative assessments.

There are numerous benefits to using rubrics in the online classroom. They help make feedback timely, they communicate important information to students, and they can even encourage critical thinking. When it comes to master courses, though, rubrics also help ensure that the myriad of instructors teaching the course are able to grade summative assessments fairly and consistently. That way, regardless of which section of the course a student takes, he or she receives a fair and equal experience. This benefits instructors of your course, too, as they know exactly what the assessment’s expectation is regardless of whether they designed the course or not.

Develop a Course Map and Instructor Guide

A course map is a document that provides a bird’s eye level view of your course, and illustrates the alignment between all of its components. Starting with your macro-objectives (what students will be able to do by the end of your course) and working through micro-objectives (what students need to be able to do to accomplish the macro-objectives), assessments, and instructional materials, a course map illustrates what students will do in your course, how their mastery of learning objectives will be mastered, and what learning materials they’ll use to gain mastery. Aside from being a valuable tool to help you organize your master course, course maps are also valuable to instructors of duplicated versions of that course. By creating and providing a course map to these instructors, you illustrate the pedagogical organization and rationale of what they’re teaching. That way, they have an easy-to-read tool for familiarizing themselves with the course they’re preparing to teach.

Another resource you can create for instructors of a master course is an instructor guide. While the specifics of this might vary based on your course’s unique needs, compiling what facilitation information you can hand off can be a great tool for instructors who are new to teaching your online course. This guide can include specific talking points, suggestions on how to respond to typical discussion board questions, or even supplemental materials that an instructor can use. This isn’t a required resource, but it’s an excellent one that course writers can provide to provide instructors with the insight behind the design decisions.


The implementation of a master course philosophy can provide several benefits to your institution: scalability, consistency, quality, and more. However, for many schools, course writers, and instructors, this can also be a big shift. By considering the design suggestions above, though, you set these individuals up for success in ways that will benefit both the design and delivery of your online courses.

Posted November 15, 2017
Author Adam Shaw
Categories Course Structure