Transitioning to
Online Introductory Math

Promising Strategies

Master Course Shells to Reduce Variability in Course Quality and Delivery

The master course shell approach, sometimes referred to as one-to-many or curated content model, relies on a central team of subject matter experts and instructional design and support staff to develop a course shell with all of the materials for an online course that are aligned with an institution’s learning objectives and meet major quality standards. The developed course shell is then used by all instructors teaching different sections of the same course, with some flexibility to incorporate customized content to reflect individual instructors’ expertise or meet specific learner needs.

This approach has the potential to reduce variability in course quality often attributed to individual faculty members’ varying levels of experience with online teaching modality, and contribute to greater coherence and rigor in critical foundational courses that students must successfully complete before moving onto higher-level study.[1] It can free up valuable faculty time so they can focus their attention on scaffolding student learning and providing personalized instruction, not on developing, organizing, and maintaining course content on an online platform which can be a very time-consuming and labor-intensive process. The consistency in student experience can, in turn, lead to more accurate assessment of the efficacy of the curriculum and enable departments to figure out better ways to design and deliver their courses. The use of a master course shell can also lower the overall course development cost through centralized management and maintenance.

Examples in the Field

  • Arizona State University (ASU) uses a master course shell approach to manage the content, quality, and integrity of their online courses.[2] The content and the design of a master course shell are reviewed and approved by stakeholders at multiple levels and roles at the university. The course shell stores all the materials required for an online course as designed by a team of subject matter experts and instructional designers. The course shell not only stores the materials in the learning management system, but also presents the materials in a way that aligns with ASU’s course design, accessibility, and branding standards, with the goal of maximizing student access to the materials, and ultimately their learning outcomes. Another key element of the ASU model is the iterative design process which aims to further increase instructor presence and improve student learning. There is a process in place to evaluate new and existing courses to assess whether the materials, activities, and assessments are appropriately supporting student learning or are misaligned with the identified learning outcomes. Course revisions occur over time and in small phases and encourage regular scrutiny of instructional materials and strategies to identify any overlooked errors, weaknesses, and irrelevance. By preserving the valuable time and cognitive resources of the instructors, master courses allow them to focus their attention on facilitating student learning. The increased instructor presence, in turn, can have positive immediate and long-term impacts on students, promoting their retention and success. This approach is also valuable in ensuring continuity of quality learning in times of instructor or support staff turnover. If course content and management processes are all up to date and documented in a secured location for access, new instructors or designers joining the team can rely on those resources to easily set up a course and support their smooth transition. This approach provides continuity during times of transition and offers a practical and sustainable method of online course management.
  • Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) has a formal project management team for its course development.[3] The internal team composed of instructional designers and subject matter experts designs the full course, from its target outcome to the critical path for summative assessment, as well as formative assessments and other learning resources. All of this content is designed in-house and built into the learning management system (LMS) by the project which then becomes a master course shell. The course shell is then copied out to different sections that are needed for a select term. Instructors receive fully developed courses a few weeks before the courses begin, so they can get acquainted with what they will be teaching. This approach enables consistency across sections even when the majority of SNHU’s online faculty are contingent faculty, many of whom are also experts in their respective fields outside of academia. SNHU ensures that their faculty deeply understand their approach to teaching and their own roles throughout the hiring and onboarding process. The institution-wide recommendations around the curated content model are transparent to faculty, and there is standard onboarding training for all faculty, including course-specific and tool-specific training for faculty teaching specific courses. There is also a streamlined process to decide which courses will get re-developed or refreshed every term. For each new program that needs to be built out, SNHU holds a multi-day workshop in which subject-matter experts, academic stakeholders, and a launch team collaboratively figure out the curriculum, including the number and type of courses, for that particular program. Once the program is approved by the university’s governing body, a designed project management team begins scheduling course development work. While curriculum development work begins, course titles and descriptions are established and used to recruit instructors who are academically qualified and interested in teaching the sections. At the same time, outcomes and assessment specialists work with the subject-matter experts to write outcomes for the end of the course and critical tasks leading up to the final assessments. A design phase begins in parallel where the instructional design team works closely with subject-matter experts to build the courses and identify any third-party resources, such as videos, textbooks, and e-books. The fully designed and approved courses are then loaded onto the LMS for instructors to use.

Implementation Considerations

One of the biggest barriers to implementing this strategy is a long-held belief that course development is a solitary endeavor of an individual faculty. Some faculty members may view the effort as degrading their role to graders and discussion facilitators, not as subject-matter experts. Therefore, it is important for administrators to clearly communicate at the outset why the department is considering this approach and how this effort will benefit everyone involved including faculty, students, and the department. Teaming up with faculty leaders who can lead constructive discussions with other faculty members in the department to get their endorsement will be critical in collectively figuring out ways to move the idea forward. Also, faculty members’ dedication to supporting student learning in their interactive work with students in introductory math must be acknowledged at the department level, and formally recognized in their future employment and promotional considerations. The president and provost can also prioritize teaching and learning as essential part of the institution-wide vision for student success, and help academic leaders, faculty, and other staff members reinforce that focus in their everyday work.

Successful implementation rests on the ability to cultivate and sustain a high degree of coordination and collaboration among faculty, administrators, and instructional support staff.

Successful implementation rests on the ability to cultivate and sustain a high degree of coordination and collaboration among faculty, administrators, and instructional support staff. It is important to bring the relevant stakeholders together in the early stages to devise a plan, decide on roles and responsibilities, and the workflow. A designated project management team can help streamline communication and decision-making activities to enable the cross-functional team to work together throughout the iterative course development and continuous improvement processes. The team can also ensure that the fundamental basics around the course model, including weekly structures, participation guidelines, assessment rubrics, course expectations, and user experience basics are all in place to help students successfully navigate their courses. Institutions with limited expertise in online teaching modality or limited resources could benefit from partnering with other experienced institutions or third-party vendors to gain access to tools and resources that will help augment their pedagogy and delivery strategies.

It is important to ensure that the standardized approach itself doesn’t limit the breadth and range of learning for students. The course design team should build the course shells with an eye toward helping students continually develop a strong foundational understanding as well as essential skills that will be valued and serve them well in their future academic and professional endeavors, such as critical thinking, communication, teamwork, and creative problem-solving.[4] Faculty leaders should also collaborate with the design team to develop a set of resources and professional development opportunities to onboard and train newly joined faculty on best practices and pedagogical strategies to provide high-quality formative feedback to help students learn how to analyze, reflect, and accurately apply learned concepts to new situations.

Recommended Readings


  1. Benefits of this approach are well documented in a study looking at calculus coordination systems at five public research universities, which found that such systems can make instructors’ lives easier by providing instructional resources and taking care of logistical issues, opening a space for faculty collaboration and community, and informal, in-house professional development. See Chris Rasmussen and Jessica Ellis, “Calculus Coordination at PhD-granting Universities: More than Just Using the Same Syllabus, Textbook, and Final Exam,” in “Insights and Recommendations from the MAA National Study of College Calculus,” ed. David Bressoud, Vilma Mesa, and Chris Rasmussen (MAA Press, 2015), p. 107-115.
  2. Kent Darr, “Why Use Master Shells to Manage Online Courses,” Arizona State University, February 23, 2018,
  3. David Raths, “How Southern New Hampshire U Develops 650-Plus Online Courses Per Year,” Campus Technology, October 15, 2014,
  4. “The Soft Skills Gap,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2020,