What you need to know
A course or programme is a coherent package of learning, usually leading to a qualification or credit.
It may seem self-evident that this is the starting point for learning design but that may not be the case. Designing a new course or programme from scratch happens infrequently. More often than not, courses run for a long period of time and are only subject to review, reform or update at intervals.
The overall learning aims of a course are thus interpreted many times by staff who teach elements of the course (see the section on modules) and in the day-to-day interaction with students as they complete learning activities (see the section on lessons).
In higher education in particular, modularisation of the curriculum has meant that not all staff will have experience of designing a whole course or programme.
Whole-scale changes to the curriculum have occurred more frequently in further education where government initiatives and reforms have had an impact in recent years.
Why good course design matters
Students as consumers of learning are increasingly seeking good value from the courses they select. This means resolving issues presented by:
- Multiple pathways and options – this can mean individual students having different experiences on the same course
- Different staff teaching small elements of a course – this can result in confusing variations in interpretation and pedagogic approach
- Difficulty integrating work-based/placement elements of the course – this can mean breakdowns in communication, even isolation
- Modular courses and assignment bunching – modules setting assignments at the same time of the academic year cause an uneven distribution of effort and prevent students from applying feedback
- New syllabuses and frameworks – these need interpreting and translating into a coherent package for students in the most cost-effective way within the resources available.
As a consequence, designing a whole course inevitably means working as a team and taking time out to plan together the learning activities students will experience. It also means thinking of learning design at a holistic level.
Listen to an interview with Helen Beetham, consultant in higher education, who shares her views on the most effective approach to course design:
What the experts say
“The initiation of course design is best facilitated by an all-day event involving all programme team members and associated stakeholders … (such as students and employers), if this can be ‘hosted’ by a specialist in learning and teaching, or at the very least, someone from outside of the normal programme team, this objectivity can sometimes be helpful.”
Paul Bartholomew, pro-vice chancellor (education), Ulster University
Be inspired - case studies
Staffordshire University – a holistic approach to learning design
At Staffordshire University, academic staff are encouraged to focus design activities on courses rather than modules. Whereas previously there were no regular meetings between course teams, a new ‘connected university’ strategy is establishing a whole-team approach to learning design.
At the same time, there has been a drive to embed technology fully into learning and teaching across the university. All academic staff have been issued with Surface Pro tablets and classroom refurbishment has contributed to a culture of digital-as-norm for teaching and learning.
The change has been supported by staff development for course leaders based on a combination of the Carpe Diem and CAIeRO approaches. Both use face-to-face workshops to facilitate dialogue and collaboration between team members.
“Nothing is really better than the opportunity to try things out in small face-to-face groups.”
Sue Lee, e-learning manager, Staffordshire University
Isle of Wight College – designing for independent learning
With an established background in task-based learning, the childhood studies department at the Isle of Wight College was the natural choice for piloting Office365 Education with its 120 full-time learners and 300+ part-time learners.
Courses had previously been redesigned to give students 54 hours of timetabled independent study over the year running in parallel with face-to-face classes. Once learning objectives and targets are established in class, online weekly learning plans identify the activities students are to complete in their independent learning hours.
Redesigning the curriculum was supported by whole-department CPD sessions run over one year in conjunction with IT support to help staff take up the challenge created by independent, blended learning, including steps to ensure students ‘stay safe’ while learning online. Their experience has since inspired other departments to follow suit.
“You have to be prepared to support [staff] fully as they make changes and play to their strengths. But now, there are no learning programmes in the college that do not have a digital presence.”
Lynne Christopher, deputy principal, The Isle of Wight College
Glasgow Caledonian University – designing for the common good
Glasgow Caledonian University endeavours to design a FAIR (flexible, accessible, inclusive and real/relevant) curriculum that takes into account the educational, social and cultural background of all students.
The initiative aims to ensure that learning and teaching approaches are student centred, encourage and promote inclusivity, use a variation of materials, and offer opportunities for different approaches within the course of study.
Lecturers and tutors are required to be mindful of the impact that their design and delivery decisions have on all students, since they may respond differently depending on their previous experiences. And to promote its FAIR mission, the university runs regular FAIR curriculum workshops for academic staff and graduate teaching assistants.
Mainly for higher education
Review the CAIeRO model from the University of Northampton. This is a workshop-based approach to supporting course redesign that can be applied to modules as well as programmes of learning. Find out more by reading their blog: demystifying the CAIeRO.
Take a look at the list of curriculum mapping and learning design tools and frameworks on Professor Grainne Conole’s e4innovation blog.
Mainly for further education
Take full advantage of our e-books for FE collection.
Designing courses with online elements can raise issues of safeguarding and acceptable use. Watch our webinar recording on keeping learners safe online: