Teaching Standardized Courses: Advantages and Disadvantages

Online courses are increasingly being developed by a team of instructional designers, curriculum specialists, and instructional technologists. In the majority of cases, these courses feature standardized content such as a common syllabus and assignments, and reusable course modules and learning objects.

These team-developed courses are often meant to be taught in multiple sections for successive course terms, facilitated by different instructors, including those who weren’t even part of the initial course design process. Institutions rationalize this standardized approach because it’s an efficient way to ensure consistent learning outcomes, it allows them to serve more students without expensive and time-consuming individualized course development, and it helps meet student expectations for consistent, high-quality online courses.

Yet there are those who feel “standardized” means “canned” — with no input from the teacher, and no opportunities for instructors to fully leverage their expertise, much less infuse their teaching style into the course.

In the recent online seminar Teaching an Online Course Developed by Others, Dr. Susan Ko, executive director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Maryland University College, offered strategies on “how to make a course your own” even if you weren’t involved in the initial creation.

“A lot of people don’t even like to use the term ‘standardized content’ because it has some negative connotations, but when you think about what it means to have standardized content, it’s not a negative thing at all,” Ko says.

In fact, she says, teaching an online course with some standardized content can carry with it certain instructor benefits, including:

  • Allows you to spend less time preparing your online course
  • Lets you focus your energies on teaching the course
  • Enables you to teach a wider range of courses
  • Gives your course a professional look and feel, with multimedia components that appeal to today’s students

Despite the many benefits of standardized courses, however there are some pitfalls that need to be addressed, including the potential for:

  • A poor fit between course design and the instructor’s teaching style, in some cases there may be irreconcilable differences
  • Lack of ownership and engagement
  • Loss of interest after repeating the same content semester after semester
  • Disagreement with aspects of course content

“You’ll want to thoroughly familiarize yourself with the course you are going to teach, because if you don’t understand the content, approach, and principles of that course, you will find it hard to be an effective instructor,” Ko says. “Also find out what you can add or change in the course, whether that is your own commentary, additional resources, assignments, or discussion questions. Or it may be that your unique contribution will be in providing feedback and facilitating interaction in the class.”