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Collaborative Instructional Design in Communication

Katherine Brown

Department of Communication
California State University, San Marcos


Many instructors find it challenging to create assignments and group projects that support student learning at all skill levels. By making the effective use of multimedia technology a goal rather than a given, students and faculty in many disciplines can work together to explore the roles of teacher and learner from a variety of perspectives.

In fall of 2004, I taught an upper division elective course, Communication and Collaboration: Collaborative Design, where students worked with CSUSM faculty on technology projects developed to enhance instruction. My course had four goals:

  • To identify and incorporate the expertise of students of communication and ďnet genĒ (Lippincott, 2006) technology users in creating multimedia objects for use in actual classes.
  • To encourage students to critically examine web based courseware by going through the same processes faculty do in developing multimedia materials.
  • To support student-peer and student-faculty collaboration informed by research on organizations, instructional design and usability theory.
  • To ask students to reflect upon and articulate what they learned about communication by working on the fit between major concepts in a course and multimedia authoring tools.

Usability Theory and Collaboration in Design

Course textbooks (see References) provided concrete examples of effective technology use from research on adult learning, education, and workplace research. Steve Krugís (2002) Donít Make Me Think: A Common Sense Guide to Web Usability, introduced students to ideas and conventions of user-centered versus technologist-centered design. Don Normanís (1999) The Invisible Computer provided a context for students to learn about human-centered design teams and to explore social factors in technology use.

For each project, I prepared individual job/role descriptions, applying Normanís ideas about design disciplines (pp. 187-191):

  • Leaders coordinated activity, communicated with the instructor and the web designers, clarified tasks and responsibilities for group members, set goals, resolved disputes, and addressed problems.
  • Technical persons mastered WebCt tools, provided technical support, led the group through the storyboarding process to build the multimedia layout for the groupís curriculum component, and coordinated the transformation of group ideas and objects into digital form for submission to the course page.
  • Research analysts searched analog and digital source materials for the groupís use on the project.
  • Communication concept consultants obtained syllabi for courses of interest to review, investigated how a multimedia version of course components could improve learning outcomes.
  • Novice users articulated the perspectives of students without previous online course experience, as well as differently-abled, unmotivated, and skeptical students, in order to challenge assumptions, follow instructions, and ask questions.
  • Documentarians maintained group communications, coordinated evaluation activities, posted updates at least weekly to the discussion board, and oversaw the final presentation.

After reviewing the job descriptions, students self-nominated by telling the whole class about their relevant skills and experience for at least two positions. Each leader took turns selecting people to fill positions in rounds until all were filled, with all students placed in either their first or second choice. Since leaders chose a roster of people based on project interests and skills, there were no last-picked students, only last-filled roles.

The Collaboration Process

Groups met during class time to form goals, and to create project storyboards and blueprints. They had different peak and slack times, redistributing work among them as needed to advance project goals. For example, research analysts and communication concept consultants were very busy at the beginning of the project, working closely with their groupís faculty member and gathering materials. Novice users were busy late in the course when the site or product was tested. Technical persons had a time crunch at the end. Leaders and documentarians were busy throughout.

The significance of different work demands became clear to students when they experienced these lessons of collaborative work: People with the same job title may not exert equal effort; the same role can have different salience in different projects or at different times; and not all individual work and learning is visible in the final project, where it is difficult to quantify and evaluate individual contributions.

Students submitted project journal entries periodically so that I could keep track of the process involvement, difficulties and progress of each. I also asked them to post to our WebCt discussion space final evaluations of their own efforts in the group work, requiring group members to concur or disagree with each colleagueís self-characterization.

Lessons Learned

Many of the coordinating challenges faculty and instructional designers face in working together were echoed in the course experience. Finding time for students and faculty to meet was an ongoing challenge. The responsibility inherent in the role of leader became evident in one group where the leaderís availability was limited. The projects also placed special demands on our campus Instructional Information Technology Services department during a staff shortage. One faculty member encouraged me to emphasize partnerships with faculty to counter the tendency among some students to treat faculty as end users or clients rather than as collaborators.

One group developed a WebCt site on ideology and popular culture around popular music in the US, with a timeline and links both to lyrics and to archives of images. Another demonstrated key ideas in interpersonal communication, with video and sound clips demonstrating interaction dynamics. A third developed a useful timeline of key moments in the history of the Internet. Learning to critically examine web-based courseware by going through the same processes as faculty do, students gained insight into what thoughtful technology use requires.

I plan to link future course projects to other departments on campus and to expand the range of digital media forms and environments beyond WebCt or web-page creation to digital video production or podcasting.

Many instructors are interested in increasing studentsí sense of their role in their own learning. I believe that instructors in other disciplines might adapt this project for use in their own upper division courses, inviting students to think about the fit between major concepts in a course and the properties of multimedia authoring tools. The collaborative effort to create new objects for future students and faculty stimulates discussion of student learning outcomes, how they may be achieved, and what multimedia technology brings to the equation.


Krug, S. (2000). Donít make me think: A commonsense guide to web usability. Berkeley, CA: New Riders Press. [Course text.]

Lippincott, J. (2006) Net generation students and libraries.

Norman, D. (1999). The invisible computer: Why good products can fail, the personal computer is so complex, and information appliances are the solution. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. [Course text.]

Seely-Brown, J., & Duguid, P. (2002). The social life of information. Boston: MA: Harvard Business School Press. [Course text.]

Posted October 27, 2006.

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board.
©2006 by Katherine Brown.

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