Like many of us working from home in the last year, when I’m working I tend to play something in the background. Lately, for me, it’s been Marvel. (I’ve been crushing through the Marvel films in order). As I’ve completed my Marvel marathon, I threw on the “behind the scenes” of Marvel Comics Marvel 616 on Disney+. As I’m watching an episode titled “The Marvel Method” I was shocked (and excited) to learn about the method in which famed comic writer Stan Lee created his thousands of stories and characters that ended up creating what we know as The Marvel Universe. I wasn’t shocked to find out that he didn’t single-handedly create each panel or write each word. I knew to some degree that he didn’t do it all, but I was shocked to hear just how collaborative it was. In fact, Stan Lee created what is called the Marvel Method of comic writing. 

The Marvel Method of comic writing was developed because Stan Lee recognized that he had so many ideas and so many stories, but not enough time to create and develop each of them to their fullest extent. Lee would create the general outline of a story, the major plot points, and would then pass this work off to his artist. The artist would then take over, fleshing out the details of the story while adding their own spin and input to the overall story. Afterward, Lee would return to this and fill in the dialogue. This is how comics were created at Marvel. This was novel because previously one person would write and draw the entire comic. The Stan Lee method played to the strengths of each collaborator involved and allowed for more creativity to flow into the work. It also created scalability for the goals of the Marvel Comics company. 

At this point, you might be wondering, am I reading an article on comic design or instructional design? And the answer is, both! As I was learning about the Marvel Method, I could see the connection to the course design process and the relationship between faculty and designers. The course design process is, or should, be a collaborative process that plays to the strengths of each collaborator. This Marvel Method perfectly describes a creative and collaborative approach to course design. The faculty is Stan Lee, brilliant and too busy to draw out each comic panel. Instructional designers are the artists, creative, and able to flesh out the minute details of each page, leaving the final touches for faculty. 

What does this Marvel Method look like when actually applied to collaborative course design? 

It starts with the faculty, our Stan Lee. The faculty knows where the story of this course is headed. The faculty creates the outline and major plot points–course content and assignments. From there, the designer takes it on. The designer creates the panels of the comic–handling the technology side of the course and building out the content provided. We take their work and expand on it, looking for ways to further enhance content by providing insight on technology and bringing our educational backgrounds in to suggest meaningful additions such as rubrics, further detailed instructions to assignments, and tutorial aids for students. We examine how we can bring their course to life through interactive tools that can take their course to the next level. We use our superpowers of design to fill in the gaps between the panels just like Stan Lee’s artists did for him. We provide feedback to help shape the story, even creating some new characters along the way. When we’ve completed our portion with all our notes and recommendations, we convene back with our faculty to work in the final dialogue, the details.

This Marvel Method allows for a collaborative and iterative design process for courses as well as scalability. As seen through the lens of Marvel Comics, Stan Lee’s process granted him time to create more stories. When designers take on the details of the course, this allows our faculty more time to focus on their content or even other courses. Overall this supports designers and faculty to meet course and program outcomes. In this way, we see that course design and the relationship between faculty and designer is collaborative. We’re creating a cohesive story together. The bulk of the work is not placed on either collaborator, but each person is able to play to their strengths while contributing. This method takes the pressure off of the faculty to know each minute detail and allows them to focus on the larger story arch.

How can we apply the Marvel Method to course design?

As designers, we can start by setting the expectation for the course design and clearly defining roles. We let our faculty know that they are the subject matter expert of the course and we are their technology and design experts. Our role exists to help not improve their courses per se, but to help ease their burden of focusing on technology and the minutia of working in the LMS– We are their online course experts. This then allows them to further focus on their content and by extension their students who are the real focus of everything we’re doing. Additionally, we must be sure to hear and respect the concerns of the faculty. If faculty is new to the online sphere, we can help acclimate them to online teaching. Most importantly, we can familiarize ourselves with the faculty’s approach, concerns, goals, and priorities to ensure that they feel in control of their course.

We can walk them through gathering the major plot points of their course by providing an outline template, a place where faculty can fill in their details. We can assist the faculty in creating and refining their course objectives which can also help better define what their learning activities and assessments will look like. We can assist in assessing what the ‘final fight’ (final assignment) of their story looks like and assessing how we as the artist can prepare our heroes (learners) for that battle. We can let our faculty know that we are here to handle the “in-between.” Finally, we let our faculty and co-writers know that this is a creative and iterative process. We will regularly come back together to review the ‘storyboard’ of the course and ensure that their vision is coming to life. 

Why does this matter?

We have all met faculty presented with transforming their traditional course to an online course and been met with reservations. Reservations about how could this course possibly translate into the online sphere and keep its integrity? How can certain activities or assignments move online? Faculty may not want to sacrifice the interactions and relationships with students or may just be new to online teaching in general. 

Any number of these reservations can create tension when working with an instructional designer. However, by implementing this Marvel Method to course design we can create the type of collaborative relationships designers dream of having with their faculty. Our roles can be more clearly defined and we can empower our faculty to feel fully in control of their course and to focus on content and students. As designers, we can focus on what we do best as well– the creative course design and technology. By creating a collaborative environment we can ease the tensions that can come with faculty who feel we might be there to change their course. We can assure them that we understand and respect their role as Stan Lee.

Elizabeth Lee is an Instructional Designer at ASU EdPlus.