The major growth in online education over the last several years has underscored the importance of instructional designers and their role at  institutions of higher education across the country. As the industry has evolved to rely on these specialized roles, research literature and strategies related to quality in design, quality in teaching, and content management have proliferated as well.

One such practice related to managing content and maintaining course quality and integrity — the use of master course shells to house and deploy materials for online courses — is often misunderstood. Sometimes this can lead to conflict between the instructors teaching a course and the instructional designers responsible for its ongoing maintenance and availability (Tate, 2017). This article outlines the benefits of master course shells with the goal of promoting more widespread adoption across the industry.

As an instructional design tool, the master course shell serves to store all the materials for an online course as designed by one or more subject matter experts and instructional designers. Not only does a course shell store the materials in the learning management system on which the course will be taught (e.g., LearningStudio, Canvas, Blackboard), it also presents the materials in a manner that aligns with an organization’s course design,  accessibility, and branding standards, all with the goal of maximizing student access to the materials, and learning outcomes.  Because the content and design of a master course shell are reviewed and approved by stakeholders at multiple levels and in multiple roles at the university, a master course shell provides online programs with the ability to design and develop a course that can be taught by multiple individuals with content expertise, whether they be be full-time faculty members, graduate teaching assistants, or adjunct professors. Thus, the integrity of any given course — its instructional outcomes, materials, activities and assessments — is maintained from one offering to the next and revisions are made through collaboration with the course design team.

However, as Hill (2012) pointed out, this practice fundamentally “changes the assumptions [about] who owns the course” (para. 7). The resulting ambiguity could easily leave a faculty member — who could be the only instructor of a course for several years — feeling as if their unique contributions and skills have been discounted or, perhaps worse, captured for purposes of replication; marginalizing their role or rendering them unnecessary. This would suggest that elements essential to quality course design — individual expertise, academic experience, and professional judgement — are devalued in lieu of compliance with regulations, micromanagement, and an scalability.

Fortunately, the use of master course shells is  not meant to restrict faculty members from contributing their expertise, or employing their strongest skills, nor is it meant to limit the revision and fine-tuning of content. Rather, design and development of course materials within a master shell  provide faculty the opportunity to demonstrate their preeminent subject matter expertise without compromising the usability, rigor, security or efficiency required to offer and maintain online courses. The  Office of Digital Learning in Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University utilizes master shells to address four central purposes:

  1. Promote course design and usability
  2. Improve learning design and increase instructor presence
  3. Prevent technical errors and FERPA violations
  4. Ensure that implementation timelines are met

Structural and Visual Integrity Promotes Overall Course Design and Usability

Take a moment to reflect on a website that you visited recently. What did you use it for? How did you access its features? Did visual cues direct you toward specific interactions? Have you seen those visual cues or interaction types repeated elsewhere on the Internet? If so, you have likely encountered a website that was designed — consciously or unconsciously — to implement Jakob Nielsen’s (2012) concept of usability. According to Nielsen, “on the Web, usability is a necessary condition for survival,” because “if a website is difficult to use, people leave” (Why Usability is Important section, para. 5). Being composed  of webpages themselves, the online courses developed by faculty with the Office of Digital Learning are no exception to this rule. Fortunately, the use of master course shells makes it more likely that both the learner and facilitator will have positive experiences.

The most usable websites provide their users with tasks that are easily learned, efficiently performed, and quickly remembered. A prime example of this is the hyperlink. Users see a hyperlink’s visual cue on the Web in the form of underlined and recolored (usually powder blue) phrases which signal to the reader that with one click, they can see additional data, videos, or articles that supplement or relate to the information they are currently reviewing. Because the hyperlink is almost universally utilized, even someone with little-to-no experience using the Internet can quickly learn how to recognize and use a hyperlink regardless of its context.

Similarly, the Office of Digital Learning utilizes the master course shell to ensure that all online courses in a program employ the same visual cues and interactions to structure a user’s experience. Each master shell builds on a design template of menu items, instructions for users, symbols, and colors to direct navigation through the course materials and the learning experiences. These design elements can be tailored to the specific learning activities, yet consistent interaction with the same set of elements throughout the course and degree program, allows them to be quickly recognized, easily recalled, and efficiently interacted with, reducing cognitive overload that might otherwise be spent on learning the structure and navigation of each new course. This in turn allows the student to more expeditiously – and deeply – engage with the most important components of any course: its content and learning activities.

Intentional Iterative Design Improves Student Learning and Increases Instructor Presence

We’ve all experienced online courses that have failed to provide students with an effective learning experience. Sometimes the problems that plague these are readily apparent; technical glitches, absent instructors, or irrelevant content are all relatively easy to identify and address while the course is being offered. At times though, the issues preventing students from mastering a course’s content are much more subtle. Instructional materials, activities, and assessments that fail to support learning or are misaligned with the identified learning outcomes are less easily spotted and can be much more detrimental to a student’s learning. Similar to a house with a cracked foundation, courses with these types of problems can be disastrous for students, impeding learning, and helping to fuel total disengagement in online classes (Carnegie-Mellon University, n.d.).

When an instructor or instructional designer discovers such issues in the learning design , it may be necessary to complete extensive course revisions.Yet, constraints such as university deadlines or personnel availability may delay the full implementation of these changes (Verstegen, Barnard, & Pilot, 2006). Therefore, the course redesign process might be completed over time and in small phases. This concept, known as iterative design, encourages regular scrutiny of instructional materials and strategies to identify errors, weaknesses, or irrelevance. As Verstegen, Barnard, and Pilot (2006) point out, this continual improvement process can result in “better designs… [and a] design process [that is] easier to manage and more efficient” (p. 482). Thus, iterative design not only prevents the foundation of an online course from cracking, it strengthens it.

Additionally, by containing only the most current design of the course, a master shell removes the possibility of copying old content, out-of-date materials, or discarded learning activities. This smoother design and course setup process decreases the amount of time that might otherwise be spent modifying materials while the course is being taught, effectively increasing instructor presence and engagement with students. As Liu, Gomez, and Yen (2009) note, instructor presence is crucial to student retention and success because it can lead to “early identification” of and “effective intervention” with students who may need assistance to succeed (p. 172). By preserving the valuable time and cognitive resources of the instructor, a master shell managed by the Office of Digital Learning allows them to do what they do best: teach.

Enrollment-Neutral Courses Prevent Technical Errors and FERPA Violations

The Office of Digital Learning utilizes master course shells to house course materials for legal and technical reasons as well. Legally, it is imperative for the university to protect student information housed in previous sessions of a course. If not properly removed during the copy of course materials, student names, ID numbers, and/or grades might  be viewed by future instructors and students. According to the U.S. Department of Education, “students and their parents should expect that their personal information is safe… and not improperly redisclosed” (p. 1).  Many  courses include  a discussion board in which students introduce themselves, meaning additional student information such as demographics, birthdate, religious faith, and accessibility needs might be compromised (McMillon & King, 2017). Setting up new course offerings from a copy of a master course shell that does not contain any student data ensures prevent the privacy and security of student information shared or automatically recorded in prior offerings.. Master course shells also provide a neutral copy of course materials to share with colleagues, guests, or university affiliates who should not have access to any student-specific data.

In addition to privacy concerns, courses that are copied incorrectly can produce technical issues that divert student and instructor attention away from engagement with the content and each other. If not modified, old adaptive release information, item availability, or due dates can restrict access to content or prevent students from submitting work. Similarly, the course files folder can accumulate unused or out-of-date files and gradebooks can amass additional columns. These issues can result in broken links, incorrect information, lost files, and confused participants, ultimately creating barriers to student achievement.

On the other hand, master course shells provide a data-free course that includes a chronologically aligned gradebook, agnostic release/due dates, and a coherent file management strategy. As a full-time time faculty member interviewed by Franetovic & Bush (2013) pointed out, A design that is characterized with consistency and alignment… [and] illustrates uniformity … will enable future instructors to focus more on the teaching the concepts of the course instead of worrying about how to use the technology to effectively present the contents to the students. (para. 17)

Consequently, the instructor can utilize this saved time to focus on facilitation, evaluation, and intervention with their students and increase overall learning outcomes and satisfaction.

Efficient Configuration Ensures Classes are Available On Time

Changes in personnel are inevitable, and one of the most significant side-effects of an employee’s departure is the loss of contextual knowledge and productivity (Worley, Skimbo, & McIntyre, 2015). This can be especially true in the information and content management spheres where instructional designers spend a great deal of their time. Courses or programs that require specific contextual knowledge to manage — such as those that require updating of specific content for each offering, or those whose file naming conventions and management structure can be understood only by the person who created it —  can easily cost a new instructional designer several hours or even days of productive time that could otherwise be devoted to developing relationships with faculty members or reviewing the design of a course.

Compare this to what a new instructional designer might experience when provided access to master shells for all courses in a degree program. Assuming that content and file management are up to date and details for managing the course are provided in a secure location within the master course shell, the new instructional designer can easily set up and configure courses so they run smoothly. This in turn grants them time and opportunity to develop constructive relationships with faculty members and a deeper understanding of their courses they will support. Faculty also benefit as they can be confident their courses will be ready for students regardless of changes in support personnel. Master shells provide continuity during times of transition and offer a practical and sustainable method of online course management.


When considered as a whole, the central functions of a master course shell serve  to advance educational access,outcomes, and experiences while leveraging the knowledge, skills and expertise of both instructional designers and faculty members. Consequently, both faculty and instructional designers should strive to prioritize collaboration and continually improve a course through iterative design. By doing so, they will reach the ultimate goal of providing students with the most relevant and rigorous learning experience possible.


  1. Carnegie-Mellon University. (n.d.). Why Should Assessments, Learning Objectives, and Instructional Strategies be Aligned? Retrieved January 23, 2018, from
  2. Franetovic, M., & Bush, R. (2013). Master Course Shell Practice: Redesign of Institutional Online Course Look, Feel, Alignment of Core Course Content and Delivery, and Quality Improvement. Retrieved January 08, 2018, from
  3. Hill, P. (2012, March 22). The Master Course: A Key Difference in Educational Delivery Methods. Retrieved February 09, 2018, from
  4. Liu, S. Y., Gomez, J., & Yen, C. (2009). Community college online course retention and final grade: Predictability of social presence. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 8(2), 165-182. Retrieved January 23, 2018, from
  5. McMillon, T., & Tucker King, C. S. (2017). Communication and security issues in online education: Student self-disclosure in course introductions. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 15(1), 1-25. Retrieved January 24, 2018, from
  6. Nielsen, J. (2012, January 04). Usability 101: Introduction to Usability. Retrieved January 22, 2018, from
  7. Tate, E. (2017, May 03). Easing Instructional Designer-Faculty Conflicts. Retrieved January 26, 2018, from
  8. United States, Department of Education. (n.d.). Safeguarding Student Privacy. Retrieved January 08, 2018, from
  9. Verstegen, D. M. L., Barnard, Y. F., & Pilot, A. (2006). Which events can cause iteration in instructional design? An empirical study of the design process. Instructional Science: An International Journal of Learning and Cognition, 34(6), 481-517.
  10. Worley, A., Skimbo, A., & McIntyre, M. (2015, August 01). A Tale of Retention: Staff or Students? Retrieved January 18, 2018, from

Writen in collaboration with Meredith Toth and Marissa Akins.