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Only a Fool Goes it Alone in Online Course Development

Why is collaboration important? Who are the key players? And what are their roles?


I’ve never been good at asking for help. Between being a natural problem solver and having a bit of a stubborn, er, independent streak, I’m a person who tends to want to do it all myself. But after more than a decade developing online courses, there’s one lesson I’ve learned time and time again: only a fool goes it alone in online course development.

Collaborative Course Development

It’s never been easier to build your own online course. Today’s course development tools are user-friendly, and plenty of blogs outline easy-sounding steps for how to plop in some content, publish it, and watch the students roll in. I have no doubt that a motivated person can indeed put something together and launch it. If you’ve done this successfully, more power to you. (And, if you’re pleased with your results, let me buy you a drink so we can swap secrets!)


In my experience, however, building an online course is a collaborative process. There are multiple phases from conception to launch, and I want the most capable party to do each of the specialized steps. I mean, if I were assembling a team of people to build a house, I’d select a skilled plumber to do the plumbing and an experienced electrician to do the wiring instead of somebody’s uncle who unclogged his toilet and reset his breaker once.

Online Course Development Team Members

On some projects, team members wear multiple hats. On other projects, more than one person fills each role. Each project is its own beast and the course development team should be crafted to tame it.

Here are the key players to recruit for your online course development team.

Project Lead

Vision Setter

The Project Lead paints a clear vision of the end result. They outline what’s being built and why and for whom. This person comfortably swings from cheerleader to coordinator to coach and back again, sometimes all within the same meeting.

This team member may be responsible for:

  • Defining the target audience and communicating this to the rest of the team

  • Outlining the planned deliverables and components of the course

  • Setting the project schedule or working with a project manager to do so

  • Assembling the team and ensuring each team member knows their role

We’ve probably all worked on a project that lacked a clear vision. Time got wasted, people got frustrated, and the end result flopped. In contrast, a skilled Project Lead rallies the team and makes each person feel valued for their contributions.

Subject Matter Expert (SME)

Driver of the Course Content

The Subject Matter Expert (SME) is the driver of the course content. They possess a deep knowledge of the material, including what material to cover and in what order and to what level of detail.

This team member may be responsible for:

  • Building the course outline and structure of the course

  • Defining learning objectives

  • Writing and editing course content

  • Identifying visual elements needed to illustrate the content

  • Authoring assessment questions

  • Ensuring industry standards are upheld

  • Confirming that the course content is presented clearly and accurately

While it’s helpful if a SME has teaching or training experience and knows how to communicate their deep knowledge effectively, this is not always the case, and other team members may play a larger role in shaping the content. (We’ll cover this more in a future article.) Either way, the SME is the “voice” of the course.

Instructional Designer

Expert in eLearning Best Practices

The Instructional Designer is familiar with online teaching and learning best practices and how to convey information in different formats.

This team member may be responsible for:

  • Helping to define deliverables during the planning stages

  • Building storyboards to visually represent the deliverables

  • Organizing the content meaningfully

  • Determining how the material will be presented

  • Suggesting where interactivity would be beneficial

  • Helping with implementation steps

The Instructional Designer has a gift for taking the initial vision of the course and crafting an implementation plan that connects the student to the material in a relevant way.

Course Developer

Implementation Expert

The Course Developer does the heavy lifting of implementing the course plan. This person is tech-savvy, possesses high attention to detail, and is well-versed in course-building tools.

This team member may be responsible for:

  • Building content in the LMS

  • Documenting specs to ensure consistency

  • Creating interactive elements with eLearning tools

  • Confirming adherence to accessibility guidelines

  • Testing different implementation options

  • Performing a quality assurance audit of the complete course

The Course Developer has a gift for assembling all of the individual components of the course into a cohesive final product.

Graphic Designer

Visual Artist

The Graphic Designer shapes the visual appearance of the course.

This team member may be responsible for:

  • Creating eye-catching graphics

  • Sourcing imagery to support learning objectives

  • Building a consistent look and feel across the course

  • Writing a style guide to be followed by other team members

  • Ensuring that brand standards are followed

The Graphic Designer has a gift for bringing life to the content and drawing in students.

Video Producer

Multimedia Artist

The Video Producer crafts the course video elements. This goes way beyond aiming a camera and pressing record.


This team member may be responsible for:

  • Selecting the best equipment for the job

  • Evaluating the lighting and audio quality and camera angles

  • Directing the on-screen personnel

  • Editing footage

  • Deciding what elements to include on-screen and how to engage the student with movement or design

  • Ensuring consistency across multiple videos

  • Assembling the video while keeping in mind the user experience

With all of the powerful video tools out there, it’s easy to think of this as a luxury role, but a Video Producer brings a level of polish and finesse to the final product. (This is the same reason I hired a wedding photographer instead of asking that same uncle to pull out his iPhone.)

Course Facilitator

Caretaker of the Final Product

The Course Facilitator takes care of the course once it is launched. Avoid the trap of thinking that once a course is launched, it runs itself. Yes, the course should be planned and built with administrative ease and low maintenance in mind, but a human facilitator is almost always necessary.

This team member may be responsible for:

  • Assisting with enrollment

  • Answering student questions

  • Moderating student discussion boards

  • Updating course components to stay current

  • Grading written assignments

  • Responding to student feedback

The Course Facilitator role may be split to differentiate learning support from technical support.

A Complete Team

Rarely does a team consist of exactly the roles I’ve outlined. (Come to think of it, I’ve never worked on a project that had this exact makeup.) Roles can be split or combined, and teams regularly include additional supporting roles. Still, the different specialties and how they contribute to each project are essential to the course’s overall success. A person working alone needs to juggle all of these responsibilities, despite likely having expertise in only one or two of the areas.

Online course development is an artform. It takes practice to tailor materials to different formats and to suit varied learning styles. It’s also like a symphony. Just as the violin’s bright sounds are balanced by the cello’s mellow notes, the online course development team members blend their skills.

Sure, teams are messy, but it’s better than working alone.

1 Comment

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Ginny Moore
Ginny Moore
Apr 01, 2021

Wonderful insights! Thanks for sharing.

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