Course Design – from Raising Barns to Erecting Skyscrapers

The two articles that resonated with me this week were Carol Twigg’s description of online learning models and the description of blended learning class guides at Penn State.  Their message? We can’t design courses the way we used to.

Amaral and Schank report that the PSU project took 1000 person hours split among a five person team to redesign one modality of one class.  The models Twigg discusses require similar inputs of time and expertise.  This is hugely important in my context.

My institution has a very strong tradition of faculty autonomy.  When the exercise of that autonomy is most evident in that one instructor’s lecture notes differ from another’s, its impact is limited. It was fine for an instructor who relied on lecture to be a week ahead of the students, when preparing the course was largely a matter of gathering information.  The arrival of technology has changed that.  Now, a significant amount of time must be devoted, before the class begins, to creating materials, especially if one wants to include the kind of interactive and adaptive activities with rapid feedback that recent research suggests are key to improving learning.

The Cavanaugh chapter points out that we delude ourselves if we think that this applies only to online courses.  Technology, with all its challenges, is rapidly becoming part of every course.

When redesigning a course involves a handful of people and hundreds of hours, there aren’t enough resources to redesign and technologically enrich each instructor’s version of physics 1. Combine these new realities and it’s hard to not conclude that collaboration is inevitable if you want high quality courses that leverage technology.  With that collaboration comes another inevitability — compromise.  No single person on a five or six person development team will end up with exactly the course they imagined at the beginning of the process.

While my institution has pockets of collaboration, there are other pockets where any mention of collaborating with another instructor or sharing resources is seen as a plot by someone to undermine an instructor’s sacred autonomy.  I wish that every instructor could develop a technology rich version of their course, but the very real resource limitations we all face make that model untenable.

If the old model of course design was a barn raising (you and a few friends can put up the basic structure in a day), technology rich courses are more skyscraper-like (teams of of specialists working for months).  Do we have enough metaphorical architects, contractors, electricians and plumbers to build the courses of the future, or will curriculum become mass produced à la manufactured homes?

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