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Taking a Big Project from “Big Problem” to “No Big Deal”

Sometimes it seems like the higher education landscape has gone from evolution at a manageable pace to revolution at warp speed overnight. For instance, say you’ve been adapting your course regularly to accommodate learner needs, new technologies, and current trends in your field, when, suddenly, you find yourself facing a complete, top-to-bottom curricular redesign initiative, in partnership with fellow faculty and vested stakeholders--in record time. Presented with such an undertaking, how you structure that limited time, build and maintain relationships, and leverage your resources (including instructional designers!) will make all the difference between “big problem” and “no big deal.”

Faculty as Project Manager

Person holding "to do" "doing" and "done" posts its to signify project management
As noted in a previous post on faculty as writers (and instructional designers as editors), singular job titles comprise a composite of identities; no one is just one thing. How you self-identify will have a direct effect on how you see yourself and how others see you. And this, in turn, affects your success as you work cross-functionally to achieve common goals. Your team may include a dedicated project or program manager, but if not, your instructional designer can also help light the way. Regardless, as team lead, you’ll need to adopt a production mindset and define an action plan. In short, form, storm, norm, and perform!

A few guideposts….

  • Don’t lose sight of the big picture. Start with it. And stick with it. It is the underpinning of any details and analysis to follow.
  • The execution is in the details. The course design and redesign processes are rigorous ones, particularly with rapid-development timeframes, and it’s easy to underestimate all that goes into them. Rock-solid project management and reporting strategy is, therefore, a categorical imperative.
  • Don’t be the “Rosetta Stone” for your project, and don’t hesitate to delegate. Systematically and transparently track progress, communicate, and effectively delegate. Anyone who joins the team (or transitions to your role in the future) should be able to readily ascertain the overall project status and the status of its individual pieces. And you should be able to easily hand off aspects of the project to team members, making the best use of everyone’s time and strengths, including your own, to get the job done.
  • Learn to let go of your work. This is just as much a skill as anything else. The development cycle isn’t interminable, it is iterative. In other words, do your best work given the constraints, put it out there, learn lessons, revise, and do it all over again!

Three Fundamental Components

So where do you start when project management isn’t your daily bread? Though project management itself is a multifaceted discipline, you can use the following three fundamental components as primary points of entry. And, should you not have a dedicated project or program manager on board, again, your instructional designer (ID) can advise. You can (and should) also delegate project management responsibilities to your team members who may be best suited to specific aspects of the process.

Component 1: Project Timeline Creation and Maintenance

So, first things first: Goals without deadlines = dreams. Deadlines make goals real, and timelines make a complex project’s moving parts both apparent and attainable. You don’t have to create a giant Gantt chart; a basic spreadsheet will do as a medium for measuring progress. It may also be particularly useful to join forces with your instructional designer and subject-matter-expert teammates to capture the scope of work in its entirety.

Here are 5 steps to get the ball rolling:

  1. Make a list of all of the deliverables and action items that comprise your project. As mentioned above, it’s easy to underestimate all that needs to get done. A list will help you sidestep that pitfall.
  2. Sequence that list in logical order. Some items will have dependencies, or simply require more time and effort than others. Sequencing allows you to map out and carry out a project in a methodological way.
  3. Define team members’ roles. Consider strengths and areas of expertise, availability, etc., and identify who would be best suited to what.
  4. Create a “master” spreadsheet for the project, with a dedicated tab for your timeline. It’s highly recommended that you use Google Sheets. This way, you can seamlessly share, update, and save things automatically online, and backtrack through version history. You can also eliminate the guesswork around whether a document is the most current, as well as the need to upload files from your machine to Drive for access. Include columns in your timeline for things like deliverables, assignees, and status, along with deadlines and general notes. (You can also use formulas to set milestone countdown timers.)
  5. Update your timeline on a weekly basis. “Set it and forget it” is not a viable project management M.O. Update your sheet and share progress routinely with stakeholders as a means of transparency and accountability.

Component 2: Content Asset Development, Tracking, and Storing

Person write down a timeline with goals
Some may describe Google Drive as a rabbit hole, a labyrinth, or a lost and found. But when it comes down to it, it’s just a file directory in the cloud, much like any other on your local computer. And it allows you to develop, track, store, and share all of your course assets with everyone, without things getting stuck on your desktop or caught in the crosshairs of email threads. (You may never again have to fruitlessly search your inbox or sheepishly ask, “Can you resend that?”)

Here are some general guidelines for Google Drive optimization:

  • Asset storing. A giant folder of miscellaneous, uncategorized documents is like a teenager’s messy bedroom. It’s hard to find what you need, and when you do, at best, it may be too late, or, at worst, you may wish you’d never unearthed it.
    • Set up (and bookmark!) a shared, centralized, common-sense folder/subfolder structure on Drive for the entire team in preparation for your work together. For example, you might create folders such as “Project Management / General Admin” to house meeting notes and tracking sheet(s), “Course Design and Development” to store your course content by module, and “Resources” to house templates, examples, and other handy job aids.
  • Asset tracking. Add a tab for content asset tracking to your master sheet, with the status and links to the location of various deliverables. Include columns for important information such as module number; content type; content creator; document link; status (e.g., draft, ready for review, final); reviewer initials and date; and general comments. This way, you can see your work holistically, in the context of the development cycle, from draft → review → revision → final → production.
  • Asset development: Google Docs, Slides, and Sheets not only help eliminate confusion over versioning and prevent data loss but also facilitate collaboration and communication via “track changes” and comments, so you and your team can asynchronously share thoughts and come to a consensus.

Component 3: Meeting Cadence, Agenda Creation (and Adherence to), and Detailed Notes

Meetings can be a terrific way to connect and keep a project on track, but they can also be a terrific trap if not properly implemented. Too many meetings leave no time to get work done. Meetings without agendas, or straying from one, go from meaningful to meandering in minutes. And meetings without detailed notes make it difficult or impossible to accurately recall critical decisions or action items, putting your project at risk for chronic regression. But, like anything else, meetings, when done right, are key drivers for the conception of, discourse around, and decisions on a given project.

Here are a few ways to make the most of yours:

  • Establish and adhere to a mutually convenient meeting cadence. Will you meet once a week, twice a week, biweekly? No matter your cadence, calendaring with multiple stakeholders can be a bear. You can use free polling tools like Doodle or When2Meet, or FindTime to take the sting out of scheduling. Once you’ve landed on a time that works for everyone, set up your Zoom room and send out your recurring meeting invitation.
  • Create and maintain a singular Google document agenda for notes. Use one document for the life of your project. Add your current agenda to the top prior to each meeting, including time estimates for each item, to stay on track. Share it out with invitees prior to each meeting, and encourage them to add to it should they have things they’d like to discuss, too.
  • Define roles and responsibilities during meetings. Consider appointing a notetaker, a time-keeper, and a moderator to make sure information is accurately captured, agenda items are covered and the meeting doesn’t run over, and all voices are heard.
  • Drive the project forward to a successful launch. Easy as 1-2-3!
    1. Next steps and key decisions. Close each meeting by documenting the next steps and assignees, and summarizing key decisions.
    2. Follow-up. Send out a message to your entire team within 24 hours, recapping, and documenting said next steps and key decisions; check in with individual team members in between meetings if needed.
    3. Execute. Design, develop, and build your course collectively, on an ongoing basis; as you and the team set the pace and find your rhythm, you may find your agenda creates itself, an organic outgrowth of your team’s momentum and steady progress.

The Long and Short of It

Change is hard. Big projects can also be hard. But managing one doesn’t have to be a big problem. The same strategies applied to instruction also hold true here: Break things down into digestible chunks, be help-seeking and open to feedback, and, above all else, enjoy the process!


Jill Roter wearing a purple top and glassesJill Roter, M.A., is a Senior Instructional Designer with EdPlus @ ASU, where she focuses on scalable initiatives for worldwide learner audiences.


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