The perfect Venn: How instructional designers are changing online learning

Katie Jacobs
February 18, 2014

Megan Kohler, an instructional designer in Education Technology Services (ETS), studied her computer screen, watching a small, black dot on the right side of a video. Distracting.

No one else in the production team had noticed — but Kohler did, and she had it edited from the clip.

Kohler was part of the 40-person team that produced the Penn State massive open online course (MOOC) “Epidemics -- the Dynamics of Infectious Diseases,” alongside eight faculty members. While MOOCs are typically the brainchild of a university professor or two, instructional designers are often brought in to provide guidance on everything from best practices in online pedagogy to online video lecture color schemes.

Even though the course belongs to the faculty members, instructional designers are the glue that holds all the moving pieces together. Matthew Meyer, the acting assistant director of ETS, describes instructional designers as “the perfect Venn,” the intersection where technology, learning strategies and production meet.

“Instructional designers have to wear many hats and have to be very savvy and able to adapt to any situation. The Epidemics course was one of the first MOOCs being designed at Penn State, so there was no workflow template. We had to learn as we went.”

-- Matthew Meyer, the acting assistant director of Education Technology Services

Kohler began by sitting down with the MOOC faculty members in February 2013 to discuss their goals and expectations for the course. The group decided on the material to be covered and brainstormed ideas for the video lectures.

“The faculty members were true visionaries — they had fantastic ideas for what they wanted their MOOC to be,” Kohler said. “My job was to take the faculty’s ideas, run them by the graphic designers and production team, and come to an achievable plan that meets the instructors’ vision.”

The team originally wanted intricate animations to make up the background of the videos — animations that appeared as though they were being drawn as the instructor spoke. Kohler said that while time and resource limitations hindered their ability to create exactly what the faculty envisioned, they came close.

“It really speaks to the talent we have at Penn State that we were able to come so close to the original plan,” she said. “Instead of it looking like it was being drawn, we had the images and animations move across the screen. It was a very similar effect.”

That was just the beginning. The faculty members had to record their lectures, which requires a much different process than preparing a discussion for a classroom lesson. Scripts have to be written and perfected — there’s no going back to add a detail once the lecture’s recorded.

The raw footage goes through a round of approvals until everyone’s happy with the result. To keep track of the dozens of notes and comments, not to mention the different versions of video files, the team uses accounts from cloud-based file storage company Box. That way, each team member has instant access to annotations and updated files. Next, the graphics team creates the animations and sends them for the next round of sign-offs. 

Once approvals are finalized, everything then goes to WPSU to be combined into the final product. But even then, it’s still not ready.

“By that point, things should be in pretty good shape. But you can’t get too lax — that’s when you have to keep an eye out for details, like that tiny dot,” Kohler said.

Videos are just one item on the to-do list. Instructional designers often find themselves having to tackle such varied tasks as arranging wardrobe coordination and obtaining copyright permissions. These are skills Kohler gained the year prior while working on Art 10 — the online course released on iTunes University that eventually became Penn State’s first MOOC.

Art 10 is an introductory art appreciation class, which means it features lots of different examples of art from many different genres. Kohler says there were more than 150 different art works from categories of art such as classic, contemporary, black and white photography, 3-D art and more.

“Copyright permissions were a big undertaking,” Kohler said. “For each piece we wanted to use as an example, I had to go through all the channels to make sure we had all the necessary rights to include it in our course.”

An instructional designer doesn’t just deal with course production, though. When a course is over, especially one as large as a MOOC, an enormous amount of data needs to be analyzed and catalogued.

Instructional designers make note of everything from how many people completed the course to their quiz scores and whether there was a particular question a lot of students got wrong.

“Part of our job when working on any project is to perform assessments,” said Meyer, who reports the retention rate for the Epidemics MOOC approached 14 percent — double that of the average 7 percent for all MOOCs. “For example, one thing we try to define in the beginning are our learning objectives — what we want the students to know by the end of the course. If there’s a particular question that the majority of students either got right or wrong. That could be indicative of whether we’re achieving the objectives or not.”

Realizing the majority of students missed the same question is a detail many might overlook. But like that black dot, instructional designers know the devil is in the details. Even if no one else notices, you can be sure the instructional designer will.

For more information about building MOOCs, visit to learn more about MOOC 360, a free webinar series offered by ITS. For more stories about IT at Penn State, visit Current at


  • Marcel Salathé in a video lecture with animations

    Marcel Salathé gives an online video lecture alongside custom graphics.

    IMAGE: Penn State
  • A screen capture of Week 3 of Epidemics—the Dynamics of Infectious Diseases

    A screen capture of Week 3 of Epidemics—the Dynamics of Infectious Diseases

    IMAGE: Education Technology Services
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Last Updated February 19, 2014