Building a team to develop an online course

Mollie O’Neill, Brigus Learning Inc.

For publication in Association Forum. All copyright retained by author. 

Online course delivery differs from in-class delivery in one major way – there is no face-to-face interaction. Consequently, online courses must be designed to anticipate the questions, comments and needs of the student participant. 

While the absence of face-to-face delivery is a constraint, there are many positive features of online learning. Online delivery offers the student participant the option to proceed through the material at their own pace, at any time of the day and in any location where there is an internet connection. Online courses can also provide interactive exercises, videos and audio recording. 

To maximize the benefits of online learning for your organization, the following areas of expertise are needed:

  • Subject Matter Expert(s) (SME)
  • Technical Writer
  • Instructional designer
  • Graphic Designer
  • Software engineer/developer
  • Project Manager 

These specialists will not be needed at the same time. You will probably want to outsource some of these services unless you are developing many courses at once.

Subject Matter Expert(s)

The subject matter experts are the people who know the material that should be included in the course. They may be on your staff or members of your association. Ideally, your subject matter experts are also good writers. If writing is not their strength, you will need to hire a technical writer.

Technical Writer

A technical writer has a superior grasp of grammar, sentence structure and communication. There are many excellent technical writers in Canada. The Society for Technical Communication has a branch in Toronto that invites posting for jobs and contract opportunities. There are three circumstances when you should consider hiring a technical writer:

  • Writing is not your subject matter expert’s strength
  • The material is written by more than one subject matter expert. The technical writer will bring one voice to the course.
  • The online course’s design requires a specific structure to the presentation of the material

Technical writers charge between $30 and $150 an hour with $55 an hour being quite common. Others charge by the project. Some technical writers have expertise in specialized software, such as document management software (Flare). These technical writers usually charge on the higher end of the scale. Other technical writers charge a premium if they have specialized knowledge of the material and they can be considered a subject matter expert. For example, a lawyer who has chosen technical writing as a profession would probably charge a premium to write a course for the law profession.

Instructional Designer

An instructional designer has two responsibilities: first, to apply learning principles to organize the material into learning chunks; and second, to design the layout on the screen so the student can easily move around the course (remember, the student of an online course does not have a peer or instructor at hand to help out). 

The instructional designer works with the subject experts to outline the course and chunk the material into learning units. The relationship between the instructional designer (the ID) and the subject matter expert (the SME, pronounced ‘smee’) is usually quite dynamic. The ID is focused on ensuring that each part of the material is clearly explained and logically flows to the next chunk. SMEs, who know the material thoroughly, are prone to skip some explanations ‘because everyone should know that already’. An experienced ID knows that skipping explanations of what ‘everyone knows’ is a sure indicator that students will feel confused and overwhelmed. Think of an ID as the three-year-old who always asks ‘why’. The ID is the person who must take on the role of the student who knows nothing about the subject matter in the course and may have no resources at hand beyond the course content to provide an explanation.

It is critical to the success of the project that the instructional designer and subject matter expert respect each other and have a good relationship. The ID must respect the knowledge of the SME and should not override the SME’s set of learning priorities. I have seen IDs reinterpret content supplied by a SME without getting the SME’s approval. In my view, such behaviour is unacceptable. All content should be approved by the subject matter expert. 

A note of caution about the title ‘ instructional designer’: a good instructional designer for online courses should have education in both the psychology of learning and technical knowledge of the software used to develop the courses. Some IDs have no background in the psychology of learning and others have no knowledge of the technology used to develop the course. A good instructional designer should be familiar with learning principles, the software that is used to build the course and have teaching experience. 

Some instructional designers are trained to organize the material in a format that is meaningful for the learner. Other instructional designers are trained specifically on how to use the software that is used to build the course. 

Instructional designers who know either the learning design principles or the technology charge between $70 and $100 an hour. Experienced instructional designers who have designed large learning programs and who are familiar with learning principles and technology, and who can also be project managers, charge between $1200 and $2,000 per day.

Graphic Designer

A graphic designer is an artist who works with digital media to prepare the images needed for the on-line course. The screenshot below illustrates the result of the collaboration between the instructional designer and the graphic designer. The instructional designer listed the elements needed and where they should be placed on the screen. The graphic designer then created the banners, backgrounds, place-holders for images and fonts for each heading level. Once images, such as the picture of the woman, were selected, the graphic designer resized them to fit on the screen.


SME – Lynne Mackay, ID – Mollie O’Neill, Graphic design –  Carey Alvez, Developer – Jonathan Hart

  1. ‘Previous’ and ‘Next’ allows the user to proceed though the course in a linear fashion
  2. The Menu provides links to the each section of the course.
  3. The instructional material is placed in the center
  4. Images that illustrate a concept are displayed on the right of the content
  5. ‘Table of Contents’  – When the user mouses over this menu, there is a list of every screen in the course. The user can click on that screen and go directly to the page. A detailed Table of Contents is useful when there are too many pages to include in the menu in the left column.
  6. Internal navigation control of audio. In this case, the user will hear the text read if they click on the start triangle. The audio navigation allows the user to begin, pause, move forward and backward and stop the audio.
  7. Page numbers help the student know where they are in the course

What you see on the screen above is a collaborative effort among the subject matter expert, instructional designer, graphic designer and the software developer. It is the software developer who assembled all the components to create the online course.

I have worked with many graphic designers and am always amazed by their creativity. Never underestimate the value a graphic designer brings to a project. 

Graphic designers charge between $35 and $75 an hour. Very customized work, such as original illustrations, are usually priced individually.

Software engineer/developer

A software engineer or developer is a person who is an expert in the software used to create the course. 

In the screenshot above, the instructional designer would provide instructions to the developer about where each graphic and piece of content should be placed, what parts should be interactive and what the result of that interaction should be. The content of the course, plus all the instructions for the developer would be provided in a document called a storyboard. 

In my experience, a developer who has programming education is ideal. Many authoring tools claim to be useable by people with no programming knowledge, but almost every project I have worked on has required the developer to add customized code that the software does not provide. 

Software engineers charge between $30 and $100. Others charge by the project. For example, one company charges $3,000 to develop a 15 minute course within Lectora, an authoring software program, while others charge $7,000 to build a basic one-hour course. Superb software engineers who are creative, good trouble-shooters, and knowledgeable about computer programming and the authoring software used for online learning are very hard to find.

Project Manager 

There are two kinds of project managers. One type sets a schedule of task deliverables and ensures that established deadlines are met. This type of project manager is not concerned with the content of project and may not have any expertise in the subject matter. The second, and more typical, type of project manager in the online learning sector is a team leader who communicates and coordinates all aspects of the project. Often, the instructional designer is also the project manager, since this role requires coordination between the subject matter experts, the graphic designer, the technical writer and the software developer. 


Every online course requires subject matter expertise, technical writing, instructional design, graphic design, software engineering and project management. Each is a separate area of expertise, though some professionals have expertise in several areas. It is advisable to recognize the scope of expertise within your team and budget for outsourcing components where needed. Few organizations have all the expertise in-house that is needed to create an online course.

Next in the series 

Storyboarding – how to develop the document that details what will be in the course, what graphics will be used, where everything will be located in the course and on each screen and how each component links to the others.

Designing a course according to learning principles – Describes the six instructional elements that every course should include.

Selecting a Learning Management System (LMS) – Discusses what to look for and what to budget for each type of LMS you might need to manage registration and distribution of your courses.

Communicating online on a small budget – Provides tips on how to use social media and a simple website to teach, engage and communicate with your target audience. 

Mollie O’Neill is president of Brigus Learning Inc. She is an internationally recognized designer of educational and training programs. Mollie specializes in the design and compliance of certification courses for self-regulated and government regulated industries

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