CMM and online learning development process design

Universities need to significantly increase their capacity to develop high quality online and blended delivery through the recruitment and training of Learning Designers. Institutional scale requires a shift from focusing on individual Learning Designers’ capabilities to concentrating on the organisation’s capabilities for designing learning. First, universities must consider how Learning Design projects are managed and implement sound project management principles. Next, they need to implement a structured development approach through research, evaluation, and peer review, the creation of rigorous quality standards, a formalised development pipeline, a strong community of practice, and progressive professional development.

Good project management of course design and development projects keeps them delivered on time, on budget, and within scope, and ensure a high standard for the student experience. Most learning development models are in their infancy, with few standards defined. If institutions want to produce novel and innovative online courses, they need to borrow design and development techniques from other fields, including software engineering.

The Capability Maturity Model (CMM), developed at the Carnegie Mellon University for large software projects, evaluates a product development processes level of maturity. It is focused on standardising the process of design and development and so counter to many agile methods but will work well with established teams in large organisations. CMM accepts that design and development processes are idealistic and do not represent most projects’ messy and improvised nature, but that tightly controlled and fully documented processes are better. The messiness level varies from project to project, and CMM aims to categories these into five levels of maturity.

Learning Design teams can use CCM’s five levels to improve their operations and assess how individual Learning Designers perform. Teams work through the levels in sequence to standardise their process to produce consistently high-quality online courses no matter the team working on it. The highest level would be represented by a clearly defined process that can be taught and learned, with clear quality metrics that lead to near-zero adverse outcomes. It includes mechanisms for capturing innovative practice and incrementally improving with each course iteration.  

The five stages of maturity

All stages above level two subsume the standards of the previous level.

Level 1: Initial – an ad hoc process which can be chaotic. Each Learning Designer follows their version of a basic process. This is the starting point for using a new or undocumented repeat process. 

Level 2: Repeatable – each project includes cost scheduling and basic project management practices. Some processes are repeatable, with some consistent results. 

Level 3: Defined – the process for managing and developing courses is standardised and documented.

Level 4: Managed – measurement is made of the process and course quality. These measures are used to control and improve practices. Effective achievement of the process objectives can be evidenced using metrics.

Level 5: Optimising – processes are continually improved through quantitative measures and testing innovative ideas and new technologies. (Few developers are considered to be at this level). 

The next three to five years will see massive growth in online learning, and universities core delivery will keep much of the changes they have implemented over the last ten months. Departments responsible for supporting online and blended learning should be spending time now on process improvement to optimise their design and development model to prepare for this rapid growth.

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