Crystal Butler smilingFor the second year in a row, a University of Alabama online course has won an Exemplary Course Award from the learning management company Blackboard.

Crystal Butler, an instructional designer with Bama By Distance, worked with late College of Human Environmental Sciences faculty member Darryl Thornton to design HES 450 Volunteerism and Civic Responsibility. This Exemplary Course Award is the second for this pair and the third awarded to a University of Alabama online course.

Blackboard began the Exemplary Course Program in 2000; it includes a rigorous peer review process. Experts grade submitted courses along a 191-point rubric that covers four key areas of best practice: course design, interaction and collaboration, assessment and learner support. Not only is the Exemplary Award reserved for classes scoring the highest, but also 14 compulsory standards must be met for this distinction.

“Everything the rubric asks is something we are taught to do here at Bama By Distance from day one,” Crystal said.

Crystal works for the Instructional Technology and Academic Services team in UA’s College of Continuing Studies, which includes instructional designers and other experts who work with faculty to design courses for UA’s online degree programs. Boyd Drewelow oversees the instructional design team.

“I didn’t have to revise any part of my course to make it fit the guidelines for the Exemplary Course program,” Crystal said. “Boyd runs a tight ship to make sure that every course we design is a quality course. When compared to any other course produced through our department, there’s nothing unusual about my course. It’s just a typical course like we produce every day down here. I’m very proud of our department.”Darryl Thornton smiling

Crystal says this year’s award-winning course was the brainchild of Darryl Thornton. “He pushed for the course and created it from scratch,” she said. Since it is a service-learning course, they integrated a link to Bama Pulse into the course design so students can easily find and track the required volunteer hours.

In addition to this integration and the course’s accessibility (an added category for the 2020 Exemplary Program rubric), Crystal is most proud of three elements of the course design: a weekly service-learning reflective journal, face-to-face student interaction through Flipgrid and a limitless, open-ended Qualtrics survey inviting students to give anonymous feedback to their instructor at any time.

Sadly, Darryl passed away in January. “Students loved him, and he worked really well with them, so I’m sure he got positive feedback,” Crystal said. “I miss him, and I’m sad he didn’t get to see the award announced – but I’m sure he knew we would win again.”

For more information about Instructional Technology and Academic Services in CCS, visit

Published: April 5th, 2021