Techniques for Working with Course Writers
As an instructional designer, working with subject matter experts and course writers can be a complex process with many potential challenges, from setting expectations and discussing requirements to navigating the multitude of personalities and challenges you may encounter from course writer to course writer.
The following overview covers some of the many aspects that are relevant to navigating this complex relationship between instructional designer and freelance course writer.
One of the most important things you can do to start things off on the right foot with a new course writer is to have a robust kickoff meeting, which serves many purposes:
Take the time to get to know the course writer, his or her background, experience, and interests. Build an interpersonal connection with the course writer. Not only is this just the human thing and the polite thing to do, the course writer will be much more receptive to collaboration and feedback if he or she feels valued and appreciated as a person.
A kickoff meeting is an appropriate time to set expectations about the project requirements and the nature of the work that the course writer is expected to produce.
Many course writers, especially those whose primary experience is academic, are unfamiliar with the nature and specifics of a content development production workflow and tools. Part of a kickoff meeting should be devoted to the details of the production workflow, including how and where the work will be done (such as in a cloud-based authoring environment), and how to use the necessary tools.
Course writers may not realize that their authoring work is only the first stage of a much longer content development process that may include reviews, edits, revisions, course building, a quality assurance process, a course copy process, and an enrollment process. In addition, course writers may not be used to project-based work with firm intermediate deadlines, which is different than the workflow and pace of traditional academic writing. The kickoff meeting is a chance to convey the importance of the content development schedule, including the course writer’s intermediate and final project deadlines.
Course Writer Challenges
The personality types and experiences of course writers vary widely. An important aspect of working effectively with external course writers is tailoring your work style and communication style to elicit the greatest degree of productivity and quality of work from course writers. The following are some challenges you may encounter while working with external or freelance course writers:
Missing in Action
Because traditional academic work is often a solitary activity, course writers with a background in academia may not be used to the more regular communication and transparency common to the educational technology and educational content development industries. “Missing in Action” course writers are those who go on silent running, either because of busyness with other commitments or because they are behind schedule in their content authoring responsibilities. The challenge with Missing in Action course writers is often in terms of tracking them down for status updates and accountability, either directly through some communication means or indirectly through the course writer’s supervisor or dean.
Incomplete Work / Never Finished
Some course writers may not realize the importance of turning in complete work, or complete drafts of work. These course writers constantly revise, update, tweak, edit, or make additions to their drafts, even after the supposed “lockdown” date for a particular piece of content.
Academic Mindset / Time Frame
The previous issue (incomplete work) is related to the academic mindset, and the longer time frames often involved in academic work (such as writing a dissertation or publishing a book). For course writers used to this longer authoring time frame, it can be a challenge to work in more concentrated bursts with firmer intermediate deadlines (such as weekly or biweekly deadlines). This issue is often related to the aforementioned lack of understanding about the overall content development production workflow and the importance of meeting intermediate deadlines. But it is also a function of the academic mindset in which one’s research or academic pursuits are never truly “finished.” For these course writers, the importance of intermediate deadlines and submitting “complete” work on time often requires ongoing reinforcement.
In helping set up external course writers for success, there are several things you can do to ensure the level of productivity and quality that you are helping course writers to achieve:
Shared Documents and Transparency
One of the simplest things you can do to help course writers understand the collaborative nature of educational content development and instructional design is to use cloud-based content development tools such as Google Drive and Google Docs, in which all participants in the content development process can see and have access to the various documents and files that make up the project, including the course writer’s current progress within those documents. This transparency, inherent to a cloud-based content development workflow, can help course writers understand that they are working not in isolation but as part of a larger team.
It’s very important to have a “How can I help?” attitude when it comes to working with course writers. If course writers know that you are available to answer any questions, to help them get unstuck, to brainstorm and collaborate, and so on, they will be much less likely to go on silent running and retreat inward when they encounter a stumbling block. Have a willingness to meet with course writers by phone or via an online meeting if they have any questions or to walk through something together while screen sharing.
Checkpoints / Intermediate Deadlines
A sizable or lengthy content development project can seem daunting to course writers, particularly to those who are new to developing online course materials and online courses. To help course writers be successful, remember the old adage “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” (Laozi). Break down the overall project into reasonable but forward-looking sections, batches, or units, each of which with its own intermediate deadline for completion. While a larger number of intermediate deadlines amplifies the chance of a course writer missing any particular deadline, it is a much more transparent, and must less risky, approach to content development than to have only a single final deadline with no intermediate deadline or checkpoints along the way.
As you can see from the above aspects of working with external course writers, many of the challenges in working with external course writers arise not out of intent, but out of a difference in experience and expectations around things such as time frame (academic time frame versus industry time frame), workflow and deadlines (longer-term deadlines versus a larger number of shorter-term deadlines), collaboration (working independently versus working as part of a team), transparency (little transparency versus a greater degree of transparency), and so on. As an instructional designer it often falls to you to help ease course writers into the transition from their experience as an academician into a new role as a course writer with radically different expectations and workflow than they are used to.
The challenge for an instructional designer lies in finding the balance between being sympathetic about the challenges of this transition for course writers (such that you are not put in the position of hounding course writers and risking damaging a healthy working relationship) and being the guardian of quality and the overall development schedule. This challenge has less to do with the mechanics of content development and more to do with interpersonal savviness in working with a diversity of course writers, with numerous backgrounds and a diversity of experiences, to help them achieve the content development ends you want them to achieve.
Zachary Fruhling is an instructional designer, online educational content author and developer, educational technologist, philosophy instructor, poet, and podcaster with nearly 20 years of experience in higher education and educational content development. See Zachary's website at www.zacharyfruhling.com.