It may seem obvious that courses should be designed to help students learn, but "course design" is not something that university lecturers are necessarily trained to do. As an IT professional I have been trained in techniques to systematically design computer systems, starting by finding out what the system is required to do, setting that down in a very structured and standardised language, planning the steps in implementation, including the resources required and how the system will be tested. This process does not always work. I get hired to be an expert witness in court, when it goes wrong. Usually I can pinpoint the step in the process where things went wrong, because the professionals failed to follow the accepted methodology (sometimes it is not possible to work out what happened because no clear methodology was followed).
Top down course design
It should be possible to follow a similar methodology for course design. The first step is to work out what it is necessary to teach and what it is feasible to assess. With software development, there is no point in building a system which cannot be tested. Similarly, there is no point in teaching something, if there is no way to test it. This seems to be a point many educators forget.
The course design process should start with what the final product is to be and then work out how to test if that has been achieved. The place to start is with what behaviour the student should be able to exhibit at the end of the course. This is a more concrete way of asking what the student should learn. The difference is that we cannot know what the student actually learnt (as that is in their head), we can only see and test what behaviour they exhibit. Their learning can be assessed by getting them to do whatever it is they are learning to do, perhaps by use of a simulation.
Helping Students Learn Through Assessment
Having worked out what the student should be able to do at the end of the course, we then need to work out how to get them there, that is what the student needs to learn and how we help them learn that. Helping the student learn is called "teaching".
Vocational training bodies, and more recently universities, have required a formal statement of "learning outcomes" for a course. The course designer needs to be able to show how each and every learning outcome is assessed in the course. There is no point in having a learning outcome which is not assessed, as there would be no way to say if the student had achieved it, or not. Therefore assessment and learning outcomes have to be formulated together.
For vocationally related courses, this process can be reasonably simple: list the activities which the professional has to be able to do and make these the learning outcomes. Then devise assessment items which consist of the student carrying out those activities. If the course is on how to play the piano, then the test is for the student to play the piano.
Learning is Not Meant to Be Easy
A course outline should reflect the same reverse process of course design: the student first wants to know what they will get out of the course: what will be the outcomes, will it help get a job or a promotion? Next the student wants to know what the assessment is for the course: How much assessment? Are there any examinations? How many assignments? What practical work is required? . Next they want to know what work is required for the course: is attendance required? can I do the course online? Are there extra cost books or other material needed? The student wants to know if they are capable and able to do the course: what are the prerequisites?
Examination of the course descriptions for three ANU courses
The homework for the foundation course required me to choose two existing ANU course descriptions and compare them with one of my own. I chose "Development Policy and Practice" (POGO8095) and "Solar Energy Technologies" (ENGN4524) to compare with my own "Electronic Document and Records Management" (COMP7420). I picked the policy course as my course has a lot to do with government policies and the solar energy course as this is one of the newer Engineering courses using blended learning.
A student deciding what to do might be put off from doing any program by the bewildering array of courses and acronyms. This is made a bit easier by the ANU's online handbook having pull down menus to limit sections to particular levels, for example I would only be looking for postgraduate courses.
However, I would like to be able to select broad topic areas for courses. As it is I can only select what College is offering the course. Even if I knew that colleges specialise in different topics, this is not a fine enough level of detail.Next I would like to know which programs have been accredited by professional or other outside bodies. That is if I do the program, am I qualified to be an accountant, lawyer, or whatever.
Then which are the introductory, intermediate and advanced courses? This is partly encoded in the numeric codes used for ANU couirse., but that would not be clear to an outsider.
Then I would want self explanatory course titles. "Solar Energy Technologies" would seem very self explanatory, but it is actually just about photovoltaic solar energy, not solar energy in general. "Development Policy and Practice"is misleading, as I thought it was about how to develop policy, but is actually about the effectiveness of policies for promoting development in less developed countries. This course description starts with: "The modern idea of development assumes that the process by which this form of change occurs is spontaneous as well as intended.". About all this tells me is that this is a course I do not want to enrol in: if it is this hard to understand the course description, then how hard must the content be? ;-).
Reading my own "Electronic Document and Records Management", I can see it shares some of the unnecessary vagueness of the policy course. It starts with "Web 2.0 and social networking have created a demand for rapid access to information in commercial and not-for-profit organisations", which does not actually say what the course is about.
The solar course has a list of six learning outcomes which start with "doing" words (which appear to have come straight from an educational textbook): explain, apply, appraise, interpret, discriminate between, identify. There are perhaps too many outcomes.
The policy course has just three outcomes, which seems a good number. But the outcomes are less clear. Also the third objective seems to be an assessment item: "... research and write an essay outlining and defending a position ...".
My document course has just two outcomes, which might be too few, but the do start with good action words "Describe" and "Evaluate". Also they reference an external skills standard, the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA). However, that is intended for IT professionals and those outside that profession may not be familiar with it.
The assessment for all three courses is reasonably clear, indicating the weighting given to different activities and most importantly how many examinations there are, if any.
The solar course indicates the hours per week, but does not say how many contact hours (that is in class) there are. It also unhelpfully says "more detail on the WATTLE site" which is pointless in a course outline, as the student cannot access the Wattle site (assuming they know what it is) until after they enroll in the course.
The policy course only indicates contact hours, with no indication of overall work required, although that could be assumed to be the ANU standard of 10 hours a week. By the way this standard may need to be revised down as, if a normal work load for a student is 4 courses, of 10 hours each, this results in a working week of 40 hours. The National Employment Standards (NES) set maximum weekly work at 38 hours.
My document course has no indication as to the amount of work required. Also it does not point out anywhere that this is a pure on-line cruse with no attendance required. No wonder the course did not have many enrollments. ;-)