Instructional designers (IDs) and subject matter experts (SMEs) understand the practical need for aligning learning objectives, assessments, and course materials when designing courses. Alignment of these crucial components ensures that each reinforces the other for optimized learning (Blumberg, 2009). Unfortunately, achieving alignment when designing a course can be elusive and frustrating.

The cloud-based storyboard system described below could enhance collaboration between IDs and SMEs to achieve proper alignment.


The Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning (FCTL) at the University of Maryland, Baltimore takes an active role in supporting online course development with faculty partners. Supporting faculty during the course development process often requires IDs to mentor novice faculty on evidence-based pedagogical practices, including the concept of alignment. However, given faculty time constraints for comprehensive training on pedagogical and instructional design concepts, a different approach was needed to fill this gap.

Several years ago, FCTL IDs devised a three-part course planning system of storyboards formatted as Microsoft Word documents (Engler, 2017). This planning framework was typically emailed between SMEs and IDs and was found to be effective for (1) providing an asynchronous means of communication between IDs and SMEs during the course development process, (2) aligning course outcomes, module objectives, assessments, and resources, and (3) producing a well-organized blueprint for building the course in an LMS.

While the Word-formatted storyboards were effective, there were problems. The multi-part planning system required faculty to provide course outcomes in one storyboard file, then module objectives and assessments in another file, and course materials in a third document. For some SMEs it was challenging to imagine the integrated “big picture” because the main course elements were separated across three independent documents. Also, the act of transmitting iterations of editorial feedback with each document via email resulted in version control challenges.

Next generation solution

Recognizing these challenges, FCTL IDs set about devising a collaborative and fully integrated course planning system using a cloud-based platform provided by Airtable’s database development tool is easy to use; the first functional version of the cloud-based storyboard was created within the first several hours of using it. And, the Airtable platform is free for relatively low levels of user activity.

The advantages of using a cloud-based database include the following:

  • It is sharable. IDs can grant permission to share a storyboard database with faculty. All document changes are viewable real-time, so the need for file exchange by email, as well as version control concerns, are eliminated. Also, a storyboard template can be easily copied for each new course slated for development.
  • It is collaborative. All changes are viewable by the designated development ID-SME dyad, or by the entire team if multiple IDs and SMEs are preparing a course. The built-in commenting feature provides an easy-to-use feedback mechanism and revision history.
  • It integrates all essential course components. A single database can be designed to include all key elements—course outcomes, module objectives, assessments, and resources. This enables a faculty developer to see all aligned elements as an integrated whole. [See Figure 1.]
  • It encourages alignment. The column and row grid encourages clear alignment of course elements. Each row maps the relationship among specific course outcomes, module objectives, assessments, and course materials. If there is misalignment or missing components, it is easy for a reviewing ID to spot and offer feedback.

A completed storyboard module

Figure 1: A completed storyboard module

Special features

The Airtable development platform is intuitive and enables complete database customization. No programming knowledge is required. However, it is useful to be able to distinguish among the terms "database", "table", and "field" to follow built-in notes for guiding Airtable users.

A key attribute of a database compared to a spreadsheet is its relational capability. That is, data from one part of a database can be used to populate another part of the same database. Applied to our storyboard use case, course outcomes entered in one table will automatically populate a drop-down list in another table. A SME can use the course outcome drop-down list to indicate alignment with a specific module objective.

The customizable drop-down lists expedite the planning process. Selectable lists for course outcomes and assessment types are available in the current version of the storyboard. (See Figure 2.)

Drop-down list for assessment types

Figure 2: Drop-down list for assessment types

The storyboard template includes a “Getting Started” section with embedded hyperlinks that give users access to information about Bloom’s Taxonomy, how to write learning goals, etc. Additional links to “help” topics can easily be added using the built-in hyperlink feature.

The planning process

Kicking off new course development typically begins with a brief consultation between an ID and SME to discuss the planning methodology using the online template system. Faculty are encouraged to approach the planning process iteratively, first composing the course outcomes and then identifying module-level objectives, assessments, and resources. At any time during the planning process, SMEs and IDs can interact via the shared database to ensure that planning is on track and alignment is being achieved. This process may take days, weeks, or months, depending on the negotiated timeline.


Once the storyboard for a new course is finalized, the ID and faculty will have a nearly complete roadmap to begin developing the course in an LMS. The extra time and focus spent on creating a comprehensive and aligned course plan saves many hours in the development phase. Focused planning also contributes to a quality learning experience for students.

Using this cloud-based storyboard system facilitates collaboration between IDs and SMEs when planning and developing courses. If you would like to download the FCTL storyboard template, visit: or open this link.


Blumberg, P. (2009). Maximizing Learning Through Course Alignment and Experience with Different Types of Knowledge. Innov High Educ (2009) 34:93-103.

Engler, K. Storyboard System to Ensure Alignment in Graduate Courses. Learning Solutions, June 14, 2017.