Lessons in Course Design

By Megan Brown

How can a course be planned in a short time frame while harnessing the creative power of a team? How do you develop a consistent experience across multiple courses planned by different faculty members? And how do you keep track of the multitude of ideas and to-dos that emerge out of highly creative, learner-driven lesson planning discussions?

These were some of the challenges the TLL tackled while planning the structure of Leading Learning, the first module in the Certificate of Advanced Education Leadership (CAEL), a project being developed in partnership with Prof. Liz City. CAEL is an online program composed of several modules, each of which will be led by a different faculty member. This meant we needed to balance a need for consistency across modules (to make the learning experience more intuitive for participants) with the need for creativity and also allow room for the pedagogical knowledge and teaching styles of multiple faculty. In addition, Leading Learning is being developed under an accelerated timeline: The initial course is set to launch in February of 2016, which gave us very little time for the usual learning curve of a new project, much less one whose decisions would carry over into other projects!

In the end, these needs served as the pressure which turned the team’s ideas into diamonds: After several weeks of planning and collaboration, we ended up with an exemplary plan and a process that can be easily adapted to multiple projects and courses as well as several important lessons to inform our future planning efforts.

Design Framework and Key Decisions

Each module in CAEL is 13 weeks long and includes 4 content weeks, as well as weeks set aside to allow participants to apply what they’ve learned and receive substantive, personalized feedback.

For each content (aka “learn”) week in Leading Learning, the TLL worked with Liz and others to develop an online learning experience that supports specific learning outcomes and pedagogical strategies. First, we designed the structure of each content week, deciding when deliverables would be due, how many “chunks” each week would be divided into, and whether or when weekly materials would be available to participants in advance. After deciding to split each content week into three “blocks,” we then devised a template that could be used for lesson planning and material organization, which Liz and others used to design each week:



Block 1:

Block 2:

Block 3:


Week opens Friday 12:00pm

Week closes Sunday at 11:59pm

Student Activity

Opening Questions



Teaching Videos

Voices from the Field

Faculty Voices




Closing Question


Tues 11:59pm

Thurs 11:59 pm

Sat 11:59pm

The lesson plans were then used as a springboard for discussions around implementation, including ideas for activities, videos, and pedagogical decisions, as well as extracting a list of assets that would need to be created or obtained in order to allow the content week to be created and built in Canvas, the learning platform that will host this module.


Lessons Learned

Course design is always a complex endeavor, particularly for projects that involve a large number of contributors and stakeholders. While the Leading Learning design effort is still underway, here are some of the key lessons I’ve taken away from the experience so far:

        • Be Flexible - It’s important to accommodate ideas that are good for learning, even if they come after a plan is already ‘done.’ In the case of Leading Learning, a contributor had the idea to include interviews with teachers and students in addition to those planned with Harvard faculty and systems-level practitioners. Since the team felt this would bring a lot of value to the course experience, other plans were rearranged to accommodate this opportunity.
        • Work Backwards for Project Management - Working backwards from the course launch date allowed us to see how much time we needed to set out for certain tasks. Having mapped those out, it’s easy to change plans or to ask for more time if necessary.
        • Make Time to Work Together - The planning and design of Leading Learning has depended upon regular, collaborative work among several people. Making the time to come together in weekly meetings allows discussion to flourish, which in turn facilitates brainstorming and idea development.

Looking Ahead

As we wrap up the lesson planning portion of Leading Learning, we’re moving full steam ahead into asset development and the module build out, each with its own lessons to learn and processes to explore. I look forward to continuing to share parts of this exciting project with you as it unfolds!


See also: Project