Effective Working Relationships – Faculty and Staff

by Kristina Wilson


What is at the core of a successful online course development or revision? A really great collaboration between a faculty member, a  Learning Designer, and an Instructional Technologist.

Working with a course development team for the first time can feel new or overwhelming. There are so many new terms and roles to figure out! So, what can be done to build effective working relationships that last from the kickoff meeting through the course launch?

Inspired by the May 2017 Inside Higher Ed article, “Quashing Tension, Boosting Cooperation,” we asked School of Professional Studies faculty what worked for them. Although each of these faculty members worked with different team members, their feedback is applicable across degree programs and development types.

Clarify Roles

First and foremost, it is critical to establish clear roles in the development or revision process. A course has so many moving parts. Who will be responsible for which components of development?

Professor Jen Baker, who teaches in the Master of Science in Information Design and Strategy (MSIDS) program, started out by saying, “I think that faculty need to truly understand what the learning designer’s role is and what the faculty role is. … Faculty need to realize that the Learning Designer is there to help them, and in this particular situation (course design) they are basically equals.”

Professor Carol Beirne, who teaches in the Master of Science in Regulatory Compliance (MSRC) program, said, “The key to our successful project was being clear about who was doing what and helping each other when we got stuck.”

Professor Nethra Sambamoorthi, teaching in the Master of Science in Predictive Analytics (MSPA) program, mentioned that relying on the Learning Designer as a point-person ensured that “the coordination of time, resources, and talents [were] well managed.”

Build Structure

While faculty developers have a variety of preferences, consider embracing schedule and structure in your course development or revision.

Professor Kara Palamountain, who teaches in the Master of Science in Global Health (MSGH) program, describes how her Learning Designer approached structure: “Rather than overwhelming me with a deluge of details, she thoughtfully laid out a week by week plan for developing the course.” She compared course development to construction, saying “I would view your Learning Designer as an architect who can help structure and design a building that is really hard to envision. You as the faculty developer are in charge of picking out the high quality materials that make the building sound and high quality.”

Professor Leslie Fischer, who teaches in the MSIDS program, said that her Learning Designer “helped me to set incremental goals for the course development that gave me the time to reflect on the content and align it to the learning goals I had outlined.”

Professor Arda Gucler, also teaching in the MSGH program, also credited “the presence of a solid structure,” in contributing to a successful course development. “From the very beginning, [they] did a very good job of forming certain structures such as meeting times, anticipated expectations and a clear timeline, which allowed me to know exactly what [they] were looking for in this collaborative engagement.” He also noted that the team “did a very good job of sustaining this structure without making me feel overburdened and excessively under pressure.”

Professor Eric Abbott, teaching in the Master of Science in Health Informatics (MHI) program, said that, “Creating and managing a timeline for the re­design with regularly scheduled meetings is crucial to the success of the effort, and this was extremely helpful for me in terms of meeting re­design commitments given my busy work schedule.”

Listen to One Another

During development, it is important to listen as well as speak. Both parties–the subject-matter expert and the distance learning team–will have important intellectual contributions to make to the development.

Professor Fischer said that her “collaboration worked so well because we listened to each others’ perspectives,” and that she “was open to examining new ways of approaching the material,” and Professor Baker urged that “even if the faculty have some technology or online course knowledge, they have to remain open to the ideas that are part of the job of the Learning Designer.”

“What I also liked which helped me do my job was that [they were] cognizant of the fact that faculty like me also need space to bring out our point of views for a great content and its flow,” said Professor Sambamoorthi.

Professor Mary Morley Cohen, who teaches in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies (MALIT) program observed that her Learning Designer “was a collaborator. I loved discussing and debating ideas with her and watching how her contributions enhanced the course in ways that I could never have done on my own.”

Professor Gucler also says, “It is very natural to have different ways of imagining thing anew. What is important here is to be open to new suggestions and allow oneself to change one’s opinions. I think we both did a good job of taking each other’s suggestions into consideration and try to find the best options through effective communication and decision-making.”

Trust Each Other

Beyond careful listening and consideration of multiple perspectives, it is important that both teams trust each other. Typically, everyone involved has a common goal: improving student success and experience.

Professor Baker observed that she “trusted [her Learning Designer’s] ability to do her job, and she trusted me to do mine.”

Professor Gucler cited the “establishment of trust” as a key factor in the success of his development. “Structures are important, but they do not mean much if you don’t stick to them,” he says. “This is where the importance of trust comes into the picture. [They] made me feel like [they] were always there whenever I needed [their] help. This is very important because it allows me to feel supported at all times.”

Keep in Touch

Throughout development, it is important to maintain a clear line of communication. This may involve a combination of e-mail, phone, Blue Jeans screensharing, and in-person meetings, patterned differently for each team. Make a collaborative decision about how to keep in touch–while being courteous about availability–and the dividends will pay off.

Professor Abbott cited “frequent interactions with a realistic cadence.” Professor Baker said that “The main thread … is open and straight-forward communication,” and Professor Sambamoorthi noted that “A systematic follow up on weekly calls, and on action items on the content management were essential.”

In some instances, the course development team had prior coursework or interest in the topic of the course in development, which helped enhance communication. Professor Cohen said that, “The collaboration with [my Learning Designer] worked especially well, I think, because she had a genuine interest in the course subject,” and Professor Baker said “that a Learning Designer who is a lifelong learner [and] gets excited about creating a well-developed and interesting course is a huge help.” We work to establish relationships like these as often as possible!

Be Considerate

Although this should go without saying, it is always worth a reminder: during development or revision of your online course, please be considerate of your development team. Although we aim for excellence, we’re only human! We will surely miss an e-mail now and then or stumble over our words occasionally.

Professor Abbott complimented his team as being “highly professional, with excellent communication skills.” Examining their relationship further, he observed that, “Even though [they were] not subject matter experts, [they] both were able to simplify complex and abstract visioning in terms of course material and structure into simple-­to-­understand concepts in a friendly and encouraging manner.”

And Professor Baker noted that, “As with any working relationship, patience, kindness, and the benefit of the doubt can make a huge change.”


If you keep these tips in mind throughout development, you’re sure to succeed. Are there any other factors that you feel lead to successful collaborative relationships? Reach out to Learning Designer Krissy Wilson to have your perspectives included in this blog post.

Alternately, if you’d like to talk best practices with other faculty and instructional designers, consider attending my roundtable discussion at the Supporting Learning and Technology in Education (SLATE) Conference this October. Check out the schedule for the exact when-and-where!