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Designing Online Courses at Michigan State University 

  • 5 Min Read

In an interview with D2L, Gwyn Shelle—instructional technology specialist at Michigan State University Extension and D2L customer—shares her department’s connection to continuing education and advice for building online courses.

Photo © 2015 Michigan State University Board of Trustees.


Gwyn Shelle is an instructional technology specialist at Michigan State University (MSU) Extension. The goal of her department is to take science-based information from faculty and researchers at the institution and disseminate it throughout the community.  

Gwyn helps build and grow the institution’s portfolio of online offerings—courses, meetings, webinars and podcasts. She uses her 25 years of instructional design experience in the higher ed landscape to oversee the processes and data for online courses as well as to conduct training and consulting. 

During an interview with D2L, Gwyn shared more about the Extension Department’s connection to continuing education and her advice for building online courses.  

The History of Extension and Continuing Ed at MSU

Michigan State University’s first correspondence courses were actually for farmers all over the state. They’d learn about best practices for growing corn in fields. Those were our first virtual-type correspondence courses disseminating that information. That’s what extension is all about.  

Fast-forward to now, and we have online, in-person and blended learning offerings with representation in every single county within the state of Michigan. We do a lot of programming and training—everything from agriculture, health and nutrition within our communities to entrepreneurship and natural resources as well as development programs for our children and youth. 

Credits, Certificates and Badges

Many of our online courses are in the field of agriculture. We work with outside organizations to grant continuing ed credits. For example, we give out course credits to students who have a pesticide applicator license and are learning how to properly use pesticides.  

We don’t offer MSU credits or lifelong education credits through our Extension courses. We use badging in certain instances within our courses if it applies. But typically, what students get at the end is a certificate of completion. 

For example, we have a course called Pollinator Champions. MSU educator Dr. Meghan Milbrath came to me and said she was an expert on pollinators. People were asking her to do presentations on the subject, and she found she didn’t have the bandwidth to do so given her research and teaching commitments. 

When I first started, we only had a couple of courses that were online. Now we’ve got around 90 noncredit online courses, and last year, we had around 8,500 registrations. 

Gwyn Shelle, instructional technology specialist, Michigan State University Extension

So, we created Pollinator Champions. It’s a free, online, open enrollment course that’s fun, interactive and self-paced. At the end of it, if the student decides they want to be an actual pollinator champion, they pay a small fee and get their certificate of completion they download from D2L and then print. They also get material they can use within their local community to teach people about pollinators. 

The Growth of Online Learning

We’ve definitely seen growth over the past few years, especially with the push to online learning through the pandemic. But I think that even without that, we would’ve continued to see an increase in interest in our online programs. 

When I first started, we only had a couple of courses that were online. Now we’ve got around 90 noncredit online courses, and last year, we had around 8,500 registrations. Even though we’ve gone back to in-person learning, we’ve continued a lot of our online programs and are still seeing growth. 

Designing an Online Course

The first thing I always tell everyone is we’re not going to take a one-hour webinar and just put it online. The course development process we follow typically starts with a needs assessment that looks different for each program. Sometimes it’s a little more informal—like focus groups—or we have an existing curriculum we’re working with.  

We always start out by defining the needs and goals. We build our learning objectives just like you would in a credit course, making sure that all our content assessment activities align with them. Next, we develop our content, which can vary from course to course. 

For example, we have a lot of self-paced open enrollment courses that people can join at any time. Discussion forums don’t work very well in these courses because the interaction time can be off, so we’ll need other ways to bring in instructor presence. Sometimes we have short videos from the instructor throughout the course, introducing students to each unit and letting them know whom they can contact with questions.  

We go through a review process with our courses, which includes peer review by someone else who has expertise in that certain area to make sure we’re not missing anything. We’ll also do pilot testing with someone from the intended audience to get feedback. 

There are always continuous improvements being made to the courses. We’ll look at our evaluation data and complete quality assurance checks to make sure everything’s working properly. In some ways, it’s very similar to creating content for a credit course, but in other ways, it’s different. 

Advice for Building Continuing Ed Courses

Before diving in, having a plan of how you’re going to put together your infrastructure is really important, especially if it’s something you’re looking to grow. You need to look at things beyond just creating the course.  

You need to make sure that you have a proper registration system that can handle all these courses. At MSU, they’ve customized a registration process where individuals can create a guest account and get immediate access to the course. Other things to consider are your pricing structure and how you’re going to market your course.  

Bottom line: Institutions really need to think about the big picture. It’s not just designing a course, putting it up online and hoping people register. There’s much more to it than that. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Continuing Education: The Guide to Getting Started 

Discover how to harness the demand and boost enrollment in this comprehensive guide to continuing education for postsecondary institutions.

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Table of Contents
  1. The History of Extension and Continuing Ed at MSU
  2. Credits, Certificates and Badges
  3. The Growth of Online Learning
  4. Designing an Online Course
  5. Advice for Building Continuing Ed Courses