How can eLearning contribute when we consider curriculum design? The answer is obviously complex but for the purposes of this discussion I’ll attempt to break it down into three simplistic choices: the beginning, middle, and end.
A unified philosophy amongst all of those involved in developing a curriculum can be of enormous benefit if decided early on in the process. Once the philosophy has been agreed the result should be a programme with a distinct identity. This goes to the fundamental question of how the development team believe the subject should be taught. For example, does it need higher level problem solving skills or rote mastery of a single specific task? At this point there is the opportunity to consider how eLearning aligns with the chosen philosophy (if at all). Obviously if it is to be a distance learning course taught online then the connection with eLearning is a certainty. However there are numerous, more subtle possibilities. Another example would be if the philosophy concentrates on a facilitator style of teaching then eLearning can remove some of the need for teacher-led content delivery by using a blended approach.
If curriculum mapping is employed after a philosophy has been decided then eLearning may also be considered at this stage. Curriculum mapping may provide an overview allowing both teaching staff and students to clearly interpret the relationships between activities and content. The information hierarchy that evolves during the curriculum mapping process may make planning how often non-linear eLearning resources link together to produce a cohesive online delivery platform more effective. The clearer the progression is from one resource to another the easier it will be to apply in a virtual learning environment.
The choice of learning outcomes during the design process can have an influence on the effectiveness and degree to which eLearning is used when considered at an early enough stage. If the most appropriate means of electronically evaluating whether students have fulfilled learning outcomes are investigated while the assessment strategy is being developed then problems can be avoided such as trying to grade a highly subjective curriculum using objective multiple choice exams. Alternatively when subjectivity needs to be removed tools such as GradeMark rubrics can be used to improve the consistency of how learning outcomes are evaluated by employing transparent schemes that automatically calculate grades based on the options the tutor selects on screen. Greater confidence that the grades accurately represent students’ achievement may be attained.
The long-term benefit of taking the time to consider these matters will be an online assessment platform that teaching staff see as a benefit rather than a clunky, ill-suited alternative to traditional paper-based methods.
Adding eLearning resources and activities at the end will often involve using tools to solve the problems already created during the preceding stages of curriculum development. For example if a purely exam based form of final summative assessment is decided upon but then the volume of students recruited exceeds the capacity of staff to mark the papers, automatic scoring options such as optical mark recognition may be requested. ELearning effectively becomes a means of troubleshooting.
What is the answer?
I began this post by asking where eLearning featured in the curriculum development cycle. The answer is wherever you want it to. Even by looking at it in the simplistic terms of beginning, middle and end (admittedly boundaries which rarely exist in such a black and white fashion) we can see eLearning’s potential.
This leads us to the question of at which stage it is the most relevant. My argument would be anywhere other than at the very end. Leaving it until then could result in a situation where an eLearning service is expected to solve a curriculum development problem for which it is not designed, in the absence of any other option. Failing to consider eLearning during the sequencing of content can also make providing good instructional design difficult if the relevance of one resource to another cannot be clearly communicated. Again, if this is left until the end we risk producing resources in a less effective format or reproducing materials that already exist, wasting time and effort. An eLearning team with the flexibility to rapidly adapt to new problems and provide innovative solutions can overcome these problems but it would be better if they could be avoided from the beginning. The answer then is to include eLearning at the start of the curriculum development cycle if you want to see the most benefit at the end.