Each group of stakeholders tends to use its own vocabulary that fits a particular view of their domain. In particular, course and module descriptions prepared for academic quality approval processes often contain a relatively ‘technical’ vocabulary that does not readily lend itself to marketing the courses to potential students, resulting in a situation where the same basic information is redrafted multiple times for different purposes/audiences.
"Currently programme and module descriptions are written as part of the approval process by the programme/module proposer who in the majority of cases is an academic from the host school. The content and detail of these descriptions varies depending on the author but at times can be very subject specific and quite heavy in detail. These descriptions are often written to provide detail to approval committees rather than with a student focus."
University of Birmingham
"Anecdotal evidence which revealed itself in the course of the project would suggest that ‘marketing’ terminology is at odds with the terminology used by academic staff to describe learning opportunities."
"Although there was an understanding that programme documentation had a number of audiences (in theory), the crucial nature of satisfying the approval panel meant that documentation was written with (almost exclusively) that audience in mind. This meant that the utility of the documentation for other stakeholders was lower than it might be."
Baseline review for Jisc curriculum design programme (2009)
The University of Birmingham single source toolkit (via the Internet Archive) contains a paper with examples of the differences between module descriptors in their student records system and their course advertising database and discussion of the logistics/implications of having one descriptor or two.
Preparing materials for different audiences is not only a question of language/terminology; in some cases information that will be useful down the line is not essential at the start of the process. Coventry University undertook some analysis which revealed that only approximately 20% of data deemed necessary to market courses was captured at the original point of creation and realised that the issue was to get those involved in course creation to understand the added value that the extra information brings to the process further down the line.
The University of Sunderland believed strongly that it was possible to capture course information at the approval stage in such a way as to assist its repurposing for other uses and that preparing programme specifications in plain English need not amount to ‘dumbing down’. The academic experience committee agreed a revised programme specification template which was successfully piloted and experience to date suggests that the University is successfully maintaining an appropriate balance accessibility and academic integrity.
City University has taken a similar approach and has produced guidance for academic staff including a document outlining 10 tips for writing student facing documents as well as guidance on writing learning outcomes and guidance on revising programme specifications.
"[Prior to staff development activities undertaken by the PREDICT project] the focus tended to be on the paperwork and the approval event. Staff rarely used the term curriculum and many did not discuss curriculum models or stakeholder engagement especially students and employability."
Cardiff University worked with registry and academic schools to develop new programme and module description templates that support a more consistent approach to course information. The templates are backed up by support materials such as guidance on writing and using learning outcomes which addresses the question of a vocabulary for learning outcomes.
Staffordshire University has also been providing guidance to staff to enable content to be written in such a way that it can be written once and used again for multiple purposes. As well as language and terminology this also includes consideration of formatting (eg capitalisation which is rarely used in published marketing literature) and Disability Discrimination Act requirements.
Tips for student friendly language
- 'You' not 'the student'
- Active not passive verb forms
- Verbs rather than abstract nouns
- Acronyms spelt out
- Technical words used with care
"More is not necessarily better and plain English need not be a barrier to academic precision."
University of Sunderland