ASET logo
[ EdTech'92 Contents ] [ EdTech Confs ]

Developing style for multi-institutional distance education course development projects

Neale Kemp, Fons Nouwens
University of Central Queensland

Steve Towers
Queensland Open Learning Network
Traditional materials development in tertiary institutions has typically taken place within closed groups where the locus of control typically resides with individuals within one institution. Materials development with other institutions however, demands a model where responsibility is shared and where specific expertise is recognised.

This paper critically examines the development of a project with particular regard to the typographical, editorial and educational styles which were adopted. A major focus will be on the allocation of particular style development responsibilities within the course team and the subsequent impact on the materials preparation process. The authors' experience suggests that an effective approach to the development of style centres on providing an infrastructure which maximises the use of each team member's skills and creativity. In this way individuals can concentrate on their specific areas of expertise.

The rationalisation of the provision of distance education in Australia has, in, many cases, provided opportunities for higher education institutions to work together in the development of courseware for open learning applications. The utilisation of course teams for the development of open learning courseware has been adequately documented (Gough, 1984; Waller, 1977) and is a model which has gained wide acceptance from many distance education providers.

The establishment of course teams, which provides the basis for the development of quality learning materials, can often complicate and protract the preparation process through the sheer variety of specialist skills which team members bring to the development process. This can be controlled to some degree if the team members are all based in a single institution. However, the development of the Preparatory and Remedial Education Program (PREP), which this paper will discuss, involved the design, development and preparation of a suite of preparatory and bridging courses using development team specialists from a number of Queensland tertiary institutions.

This paper critically examines the development of this project with particular regard to the typographical, editorial and educational styles which were adopted. A major focus will however be on the allocation of particular style development responsibilities within the course team and the subsequent impact on the materials preparation process.


The main goal of the Preparatory Remedial Education Program (PREP) was to produce preparatory and bridging open learning packages in science, mathematics and communications. The courses needed to provide flexible, high quality instructional materials which integrated contemporary teaching-learning methodologies with appropriate multimedia delivery techniques. The materials to be produced were expected to gain widespread acceptability in Queensland higher education institutions, mainly because development teams comprised content specialists from these institutions.

Many higher education institutions had previously developed their own preparatory and bridging courses. The Queensland Government funded PREP project provided an opportunity to rationalise such courses, improve their quality and establish common programs available that promote transferability of credit in preparatory courses in Queensland.

Considerations in materials development

All Queensland tertiary institutions (TAFE and higher education) were invited to participate in the project. The response was both encouraging and daunting. Seven of the nine Queensland academic institutions became directly involved in the course development process. Involvement of such a large number of institutions and academics presented an unusual project management experience, which added a layer of logistical and administrative complexities to the materials development and design process. Some complications faced in this project were the distances between project members; the need to schedule meetings for large numbers of people making contributions to different working groups and the need to attract and support motivated academic staff with both the required materials preparation skills and credibility within their institutions.

In retrospect, some specific issues that influenced the materials development process have been identified:

Materials development process

A sensitivity to budget considerations led to an intensified focus on project management. Relevant information was assembled, project organisation and structures were developed and an initial meeting of all team members was arranged in Brisbane.

Project management and course development guides, based upon the methodologies and experience gained in the design and preparation of distance education materials within UCQ, were presented to the team members at this point and included:

As the PREP project required the development of instructional materials in four specific discipline areas, an academic team (the Subject Team) was established in each of the areas of Mathematics, Chemistry, Communications, and Biology. The role of this team was to:
  1. develop the curriculum/content framework for each subject
  2. work with designers to prepare a plan for the materials to be developed
  3. select writers and validate the work of these writers.
Each academic team included five or six subject specialists from a range of tertiary institutions. Another team (the Design Team) with expertise in instructional design, typographical design, media development and administrative support was formed to:
  1. facilitate the design and development process
  2. keep Subject Teams on schedule
  3. ensure that materials were produced efficiently
  4. ensure materials were educationally effective
  5. ensure consistency across subject areas.
These responsibilities were based on the assumption that the Design Team would have dose involvement with each Subject Team and provide liaison while ensuring cohesion between all five Subject Teams to ensure consistency, maintain timelines and provide quality assurance.

Once Subject Team members were brought together it became apparent that the original project plan would require reappraisal. It had been assumed that, because subjects were preparatory in nature and because the academics selected had experience in the area, only a limited amount of time would be required to develop a course curriculum and select writers. These assumptions proved to be optimistic as they did not consider:

The Design Team had spent some time researching the area of preparatory and remedial studies. Much of this information had been obtained from prospective Subject Team members. The Design Team was keen to present this information and have Subject Teams complete the curriculum planning stage quickly to justify the expense of the initial meeting and to ensure that time and funds would be available for writers to complete their work by the initial deadlines defined for the project. Unfortunately, and for the reasons given above, this task orientation by the Design Team did not allow Subject Teams to come to terms with group dynamics and the curriculum development task. Insufficient time was allocated for the academics to acclimatise to their new team environment. The Design Team was perceived as being too autocratic with a policing role, threatening the individuality of the writers. While many of the team members had conflicting views about their subject and its development, the Design Team became a common focus for dissension. We were reminded that two cardinal rules for course development had been broken - the designer must not be seen to have a policing function (Cook, Nouwens & Bergin 1987, p.26), and the conceptual development stage of materials development should not be brought to a premature focus on content (Houghey 1989, p.51-56). Possibly a new rule could be "A tight budget is no excuse".

It was soon decided that the Design Team should reduce its task orientation to give Subject Teams an opportunity to develop a sense of cohesion, and deal with the issues of curriculum development. This required more face to face team meetings than was initially planned. Many team members had experience in preparatory and remedial education, and as suggested earlier, much of the initial information gathered by the Design Team to assist with planning had come from prospective Subject Team members. Because of their experience, it was felt that the Subject Teams could analyse needs and prepare subject plans while the Design Team members would continue to facilitate this process. While tension remained between some group members, this approach was successful in that each subject development team concentrated on course planning, although this process took some time.

It had been intended that Subject Teams, with the Design Team, would prepare a subject plan and select contract writers to develop this plan. The Design Team would then provide workshops for writers, whose work was to be validated by the Subject Team. In reality, most writers were contracted from the Subject Teams.

The trust and understanding that team members developed of each other in the curriculum planning stage paid dividends at the point of validation of the materials. Philosophical issues about the nature of teaching and the requirements of the subject had been addressed so most writers knew what was required. Writers were required to defend their work in detail in an atmosphere of frank and constructive criticism, resulting in rigorous scrutiny of initial drafts.

As expected, the decision to give Design Team members a less prominent 'policing' role in subject development resulted in difficulties in maintaining control of timelines and processes. For example, writers' workshops that were originally planned were not offered because there was a perception within Subject Teams that their members' expertise in preparatory and remedial education and the work done by members in planning subjects had already prepared these people for the task of writing. Subject Teams did not wish to address issues of style development and little documented planning was done for the writing task by the Subject Teams.

PREP style development

Because of an initial lack of attention by Subject Teams to the issue of style, the determination of educational, editorial and typographical style for the PREP program was based upon an incremental development of 'ideas' which evolved as the materials were being prepared by the various writers.

Each writer had individual pre-conceived notions of how materials should be presented. In the writers' minds, these 'ideas' appeared in the manuscript for the model module for each subject, but much of the intended style was implicit in the manuscripts with little or no description of the purpose or layout.

Thus when the model was typeset and returned to the writer and the Subject Team, the response was generally that the style which had emerged from the instructional designer's and typographer's interpretation of the writer's manuscript was unacceptable. At the team meeting held to consider the initial typeset model, it was interesting to note that while the Subject Teams found the initial educational and typographical treatment inappropriate, individual writers and team members had differing perceptions on the appropriate layout of the text and the use of educational techniques in learning materials.

Identifying presentation 'ideas', describing them and agreeing on consistent use of educational features and typographical elements became a lengthy process. For example, in one instance when the typographic designer was asked to attend a Subject Team meeting to discuss optimum presentation formats, it became clear that some of the writers had very strong but subjective preferences about the presentation of their materials. For that particular subject, establishment of a typographical style became a matter of bargaining, experimentation and compromise in order to gain overall agreement on presentation. The experimentation process continued on through many proofing stages until a defined style was developed which satisfied the subject teams' requirements and met established typographical requirements (considering aspects such as readability, legibility and typographic consistency) was finally achieved.

The result of this process of typographical experimentation significantly increased the production costs as several modules of the materials had been prepared before an acceptable presentation style was agreed upon. These modules, of course, had to undergo repeated major revision as the style evolved. The issue raised here is not the addition of new features to the style - a style must grow to deal with the needs of teachers and learners - the problem was one of changing features that had previously been accepted by the Subject Team.

The consensus style development approach ignored the amount of work involved in training staff in style, in checking for consistency and changing existing typeset materials when such late changes were made. The effect of such changes on materials which had already been typeset involved many revisions, and subsequently considerable production time as various elements of the style were refined. The ongoing experimentation and refinement of the typographic style may have provided a useful learning experience for writers as they came to learn the wisdom of many typographic conventions, but it greatly increased production costs and time.


This development experience of the project highlights the importance of group dynamics, which is fundamental to the efficient team development of distance education materials and the need for clearly defined roles - especially in the development of style. While the project has produced materials of quality, the cost of this quality has been significantly greater than for traditional course development because it sought to involve all tertiary institutions in Queensland.

The experiences gained in this project suggests the need to clearly define the roles of all involved in developing learning materials and to support those roles at a management level. It cannot be assumed that roles will be allocated by Subject Teams in a way that promotes efficient and timely production of materials. Subsequent to this project we have found that by providing the writers with a clear description of their role, a defined project style and the tools to implement that style, the time that all team members must spend on a subject can be significantly reduced. By defining the style and then introducing writers to the components of style at the initial writers' workshop, we find that writers develop a better understanding of the techniques that can be used to teach in print and use these techniques more effectively.

It is our experience that style should be defined at the pre-writing stage, and provided it is seen as a means for promoting learning rather than an end in itself, the style can be regarded not as a constraint but as a resource which leads to enhanced productivity and efficiency for the writer, designer, editor and the entire production team.


Traditional materials development in tertiary institutions has typically taken place within closed groups where the locus of control typically resides with individuals within one institution. Materials development with other institutions however, demands a model where responsibility is shared and where specific expertise is recognised.

The team approach to distance education materials development is a well defined and established procedure for the production of quality learning materials. While this approach has proven to be extremely effective in bringing together the expertise of those people who could be involved in the development process, systems are not always refined to channel the expertise productively.

On occasion there has been tension between the team members responsible for content and those specialists with the particular skills necessary to efficiently develop the content into effective study materials. This situation possibly arose from the traditional culture of face to face teaching where teachers are accustomed to maintaining total control over the design, development and delivery of their subject matter. In these scenarios there is typically little to no experience in relying on 'communication specialists' to assist with the teaching process. The team approach to materials development threatens this traditional autonomy. This sometimes results in team members working outside their areas of expertise, thereby losing focus of their own responsibilities. As a result there may be some tension between team members, which can affect the team's productivity.

A productive team approach can be fostered through the recognition by all parties of each team member's professional expertise and responsibilities. The authors' experience suggests that an effective approach is to create an environment in which the skills and expertise of individual team members are recognised and thus productively utilised. This approach centres on providing an infrastructure which maximises the use of each team member's skills and creativity. In this way individuals can concentrate on their specific areas of expertise.


Cook, P., Nouwens, F. and Bergin, P. (1987). Report on instructional design in TAFE external colleges. TAFE National Heads of External Studies Annual Conference, Sydney.

Dekkers, J., Kemp, N., Nouwens, A. & Towers, S. (1991). Course materials development for distance education workshop. Rockhampton: University College of Central Queensland.

Hartley, J. (1985). Designing instructional text. 2nd ed, London: Kogan Page.

Houghey, M. (1989). The critical role of the educational developer. In M. Parer (ed.). Development, design and distance education. Gippsland: Monash University College.

Kemp, N. & Towers, S. (1992). Creating readable text: The role of a typographic style in the development and preparation of instructional texts. The Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 8(1), 27-34.

Kemp, N., Nouwens, F. & Towers, S. (1991). Materials development workshops - An integral component in the design and preparation of quality distance education materials. Australian and South Pacific External Studies Biennial Conference, Bathurst, 16- 19 July, 1991.

Nouwens, A. & Robinson, P. (1991). Evaluation and the development of quality learning materials. The Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 7(2), 93-116.

Authors: Neale Kemp is Manager, Production and Systems, Division of Distance and Continuing Education, University of Central Queensland. Neale has worked in the printing and publishing industry for 19 years as a typesetter, designer and lecturer. Neale gained a Churchill Fellowship in 1985 to study computer aided publishing in the USA, UK and Europe. Since that time, he has been heavily involved in computer publishing and was instrumental in establishing UCQ's sophisticated computer publishing network. Neale is currently completing a Masters degree researching the effect of typography upon student learning through print materials.

Fons Nouwens is Head of Instructional Design, Division of Distance and Continuing Education, University of Central Queensland. Fons has degrees in Engineering and Education and has 17 years experience in the preparation of distance education materials in TAFE and higher education. Fons is currently developing design models and multimedia, support packages to aid course writers during the development process.

Steve Towers is Assistant Director, Queensland Open Learning Network. Prior to joining the Open Learning Centre, Steve worked for the Distance Education Centre with Western Australian Ministry of Education for four years. During this time he was responsible for the establishment of computer based training policies and computer aided publishing. At UCQ he managed several inter-institutional projects for the Division of Distance and Continuing Education and completed his Master of Education degree. Steve is currently working as Assistant Director of the Queensland Open Learning Network.

Contact author: Mr Neale Kemp, Division of Distance and Continuing Education, University of Central Queensland, Rockhampton Old. 4702.

Please cite as: Kemp, N., Nouwens, F. and Towers, S. (1992). Developing style for multi-institutional distance education course development projects. In J. G. Hedberg and J. Steele (eds), Educational Technology for the Clever Country: Selected papers from EdTech'92, 215-223. Canberra: AJET Publications.

[ EdTech'92 contents ] [ Ed Tech Confs ]
This URL:
Last revised: 8 Sep 2003. HTML editor: Roger Atkinson
Previous URL 26 Sep 1998 to 30 Sep 2002: