Smart Ways Consistent Course Design Can Boost Academic Freedom in Teaching and Learning

by Cate Dowman

“A philosophy is important so that everyone is on the same page and there’s a consistency of message.” Paul DePodesta


Delivering an excellent online learning experience is the optimal goal in higher education, but this is often not the reality. Student satisfaction surveys indicate the student learning experience has long been inconsistent even before the March 2020 pivot. Instructional designers know consistency matters in courses. Engaging faculty in this discussion can end in a debate about academic freedom. Giving faculty the freedom to create content and deliver an optimal online course is paramount. In rare instances, faculty choose not to engage in training, which can have the effect of impeding on student learning. Confusing course layout, inaccessible content, unclear navigation, and random changes in topics are a few examples. Instituting a few measures to ensure consistency not only saves faculty time but lessens the burden on students. 

Consulting the Design, not Academic Freedom

When it comes to teaching and learning, academic freedom allows the instructor to choose content pedagogy without infringing on the rights of others. In cases where faculty limit content, for example a reading file or an exam that cannot be read by assistive technology or random changes in assignment due dates, an instructional intervention is needed. The aims of this intervention are to:  

  • remediate the content for accessibility, and  
  • review the course design for consistency.  

If faculty know that the design consultant respects faculty members’ academic freedom and aims to offer ideas to increase students’ satisfaction and learning of the course, they will gladly accept design advisement.

Start Small

A good way to build in consistency is the course layout. Students should be able to easily locate and access readings, assignment instructions, discussion boards, and know that due dates fall on the same day and time every week or module. 

If your faculty member is initially hesitant, perhaps start with improving naming conventions, labels, or formatting such as font, color and icon use. Showing faculty the importance of keeping the wording consistent throughout the course will help avoid ambiguity or confusion to the students, particularly second language speakers. An excellent example of this is Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching Online Course Design Guide that advocates for including consistency and access when deciding on factors in course design. 

Consider a Template Course 

If you find yourself rebuilding a course every semester, consider moving to a template and a master course. Templates have their purpose and while not every course or program needs a template, using one can save faculty time on repetitive rebuilds.  

Offering a glimpse into how a template can work to benefit learning,the University of Miami’s UOnline graduate programs uses one. They have courses that run on 7-week semesters. Keeping in mind the majority of students are part time and mid-career with time constraints, UOnline instructional design team built a base template that aligns with the Institute’s internal quality standards based on Quality Matters standards. Many of the courses are prewritten and offers fluidity to faculty members to modify the subject content. This is fundamental as a means of preserving academic freedom. Prior to the beginning of the semester and in collaboration with an instructional designer, the faculty member can update materials, change out textbooks for OERs, and update discussion prompts as well as assignments. 

Additional flexibility for each program. Key faculty may adjust the base template to suit the needs of the school. Additionally, the instructional design team, in collaboration with faculty and administrators, undertake periodic reviews and updates of the base template to address best practices and technological updates. The University of Miami’s UOnline template includes additional instructions that guide the instructional designer and faculty member on best practices for color combinations, selecting images, plus best practices on video and audio files. 

A template means not having to reinvent the wheel each time the course is offered including choosing accessible friendly font type, size, and colors. It means incorporating many Quality Matters standards for designing courses that facilitate learning. It means saving faculty members time and effort on the format so that they may exercise academic freedom to modify or create their unique course’s content.  


To some degree course syllabi are usually based on a template. Syllabi follow standard language, institutional policies and style guides without faculty complaining about academic freedom (Abbott, Nininger & Shaw, 2018). A carefully planned and ADA compliant syllabus helps the learner locate key information and due dates easily. Instructional designers may already work with a structured syllabi templates. For ideas on best practices one recommendation is to review Tulane University’s accessible syllabus template that includes visual features such as a pie chart values and accessible tables to accommodate all learners. This template is also under creative commons license.  

Consistent Transparency

Grading transparency should also be considered when looking at improving consistency in the course. American Universities and Colleges have greater diversity in student and teacher population making transparency ever more important to effective teaching particularly in online learning (Ragupathi & Lee, 2020). Rubrics are shown to be a useful tool because the transparency in assignment design can overcome inequity issues. Of course there are faculty members who do like the idea of confining grading to a criterion opting for freer grading system. However, studies show that students like and want teachers to use rubrics. Instructional designers can remind their faculty members that rubrics offer fairness and consistency in evaluations. As a time saver, faculty can choose to grade using the LMS inline rubric grader which can be set up with the help of an instructional designer. Faculty should also consider the ambiguities around using a simplified rubric such as a yes/no checklist with online courses. 


Adding consistency to a course takes the learning from teacher-centered to student-centered and creates an optimal learning experience. Consistency as a philosophy keeps everyone on the same page and is an effective way to retain learners by taking out the guess work on navigation, and opaque grading practices. Using templates puts not only time back on the clock for faculty and instructional designers but boosts academic freedom so teachers can do what they do best―deliver optimal learning experiences. 


Abbott, M., Nininger, J. &Shaw, P. (2018). Quality control versus academic freedom: Walk the line. ELearn Magazine ACM Publication. 

Johnson, S.M., & McDaniel, R. (2020). Design, consistency, and access. Vanderbilt University Course Development Resources. 

Ragupathi, K., Lee, A. (2020). Beyond fairness and consistency in grading: The role of rubrics in higher education. In: Sanger, C., Gleason, N. (Eds.) Diversity and Inclusion in Global Higher Education. Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore. 


Cate Dowman, Senior Instructional Designer, University of Miami,