Online to Remote and back to Online — How we ensure quality and accessibility with so much demand

Adam Fein
5 min readApr 25, 2021

Tania P. Heap and Adam D. Fein

Fostering resiliency through a flexible and sustainable online course design program.

In its first year of inception, the UNT Course-In-A-Box (CIB) initiative saw 673 faculty complete the training and 169 new online courses developed.

In Spring 2020, to ensure continuity of learning during the onset of the pandemic, many universities quickly and relatively successfully moved to remote learning — including the 7,700 course sections our team at the University of North Texas shifted over the course of 10 days. Resiliency emerged as a key trait during the pandemic, enabling individuals and communities to create and thrive in online educational environments. Now a greater challenge lies ahead in how we offer courses to our (residential) students “post”-pandemic in the upcoming Fall 2021 semester. After 18-months of experiencing remote learning, student expectations have changed. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought short-term and likely long-term changes to the way online teaching is supported and delivered in higher education. Many institutions are in the process of assessing the past year, selecting and converting the remote courses with the highest ROI from their temporary remote state (defined here as rapid-transition, little to no review) to a more permanent fully online offering (defined as Quality Matters-certified, accessible courses). How do faculty and eLearning professionals ensure that courses that need to transition from remote to online reflect high quality foundational design and also the gains we’ve observed in the last year-and-a-half? What has the disruption brought by a global pandemic taught us about the future of online course design initiatives?

Traditionally, high quality online courses can take between six months and a year to develop. Faculty receive support from dedicated eLearning and media professionals to assist in the pedagogy and design of content, including lecture videos, interactions, and assessment. Pre-pandemic, to account for a growing audience of full-time educators juggling professional and familial priorities, our team set out to create a solution that would be flexible and sustainable and also focus on clarity of goals and procedures — an initiative that would be high utility even in times of unforeseeable disruption.

In the Fall of 2019 at the University of North Texas (UNT), we began offering an independent course development pathway for online faculty, called Course-in-a-Box (CIB). CIB is a guided do-it-yourself initiative founded on the idea of flexibility and sustainability as a key component of success among an audience of busy educators. Little did we know then that during and now after the pandemic’s worst, it was this initiative that would be essential to current and future growth of high quality online offerings.

The UNT CIB program is flexible in that faculty are empowered to lead their own course development build in the Canvas learning management system. The program is offered entirely asynchronously over the course of four months, with highly recommended deadlines and milestones during development, and one hard deadline at the end of the process. Faculty begin the process by enrolling in an online asynchronous CIB training course in Canvas, which takes between 3 to 6 hours to complete. The training course has a set of goals and objectives and covers topics such as: (1) backwards design, (2) accessibility and copyright, (3) best practices in assessment and (4) inclusive student interactions. Once the training course is complete, faculty are given access to their pre-templated ‘Course-in-a-Box’ development shell in Canvas, which is accessibly designed and provides a roadmap and set of examples for how faculty can present their own content. During course development faculty have easy access to eLearning professionals who ensure quality by providing formative feedback at key development milestones.

What makes the program sustainable is its scalability and affordability. Lack of time and cost is often seen as a barrier to both faculty and students in completing an online program or training. Even before the pandemic, demand for producing more and better online courses outstripped supply. At UNT we are fortunate to have a large teaching and learning center embedded in a new Division of Digital Strategy and Innovation and yet with 41,000 students and 14 colleges to partner with and to produce digital content for, our organization had to figure out how to deliver a service that would prioritize high impact courses while championing a design approach that lessens the pressure on both the faculty and designers. The key to UNT CIB is that it emphasizes utility in the semi-structured asynchronous time in between the milestone check-ins. In addition to being busy with teaching, research and service, our faculty members might be located in different time zones and managing multiple commitments. So it is essential that clear goals, procedures, and templates are offered at the beginning of the CIB. The program is supported by a project manager and extensive documentation, which includes: (1) formative milestone reports, (2) common feedback templates, (3) a detailed workflow and (4) a database of accessible and copyright compliant resources and tools — all of which are iteratively revisited and updated as needed. Ultimately, this then enables a modest team of eLearning professionals to assist a large cohort of faculty members — up to 100 per development cycle (spring, summer, and fall).

In its first year of inception, 673 faculty completed the UNT CIB training and 169 new online courses were developed, following instructional design, accessibility, and copyright and trademark compliance standards. In the summer of 2020, demand for online course development through the CIB process tripled, suggesting that this model was well received both before and during the emergency transition and will remain in place for our future online design plans.

As demand continues to grow, the program is revisited twice a year to address opportunities for improvement and to keep it current. We presently offer a survey at the end of the UNT CIB training course and seek informal feedback from our faculty completers and internal staff. The next steps in our initiative is for our Digital Learning Research Center to develop a robust research and program evaluation process that goes beyond the UNT CIB training experience, to evaluate the overall course development process of delivery and teaching, which will include surveying students who take courses developed through the UNT CIB process. This should inform our efforts in making the program better, more up to date, effective, and relevant to both faculty and students.

We would love to hear from other institutions on their work in adapting their online course design programs for faculty and what efforts were made to evaluate and improve their programs, to create a more resilient online community, and other strategies used to create flexible and sustainable services. If you are interested in partnering with us on a research and development initiative feel free to reach out at We always look forward to collaborating with and learning more from our peers.



Adam Fein

Adam D. Fein (PhD, Illinois) is the VP of Digital Strategy & Innovation at the University of North Texas. His research examines multimedia learning performance.