What’s Next: Course Creation Systems

Course management and learning management systems already do a fine job of organizing courses and providing the communications infrastructure for them. Portal-like features abound, course content can easily be plugged in, and channels or modules can be added to do just about anything from equation editing to voice annotation. All the major players have good systems that are getting evolutionarily better. While there is still a lot of important and interesting tweaking to be done, learning management systems only manage courses that have already been developed. It’s time to consider a course creation system (CCS); software that will assist in the creation of courses that could be dropped into a learning management system.

The first step in creating or refreshing a course is to do some planning. Like a project, a course has a start time, end time, events, resources, goals, and a critical path. A CCS would include features to assist with all the project management aspects of a course. It would include course templates with information imported from university information sources such as the academic calendar, exam schedules, room assignments, and so forth. For a course previously taught, the planning structure would be imported and just edited. Someone building a course would first define each event in the course. The structure, topics, goals, teaching plan, readings, and assignments of each lecture and lab would be specified. Where appropriate, due dates, weightings, and other information would be specified. Contingency plans such as make-up exams would be considered.

With an outline of the course specified, it would be possible to check the timing, flow, and logic of the course and move things around to improve it. D'es a lab expect students to do something not yet covered in class? Then maybe move the lab, change it, alter a lecture, or assign some reading to prepare students for the lab, or in some other way fix the error. Is the material covered in each class balanced? Is there too much material being squeezed into the last few lectures? Abe Lincoln said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” Spending time planning a course will make teaching easier and will improve learning.

Will busy faculty find the time to learn and use a CCS? Most won’t—unless there is no learning curve. One way to make that happen is to mimic the way TurboTax allows complete tax novices, such as me, to fill in arcane tax forms and conform to tax laws that I have no hope of ever understanding. TurboTax uses a few tricks that would be ideal for a CCS. Its interview process g'es through the most complex tax return by asking a series of simple questions. When it already has information, from a previous course—I mean tax form—for example, it just displays that for confirmation or alteration. You can quit at any time and it will start up exactly where you left off. You could work on taxes for several people and it will pick up where you have left off for each one. You can go to a particular part of the interview, skip a part, or just go to a form and fill it in yourself. No matter how information is entered it is incorporated into the final result. At the end, TurboTax checks for possible errors. I can imagine the CCS warning, “You have no midterm exam,” or “Your course meets during spring break!” The CCS would look at the quality of a course to ensure it meets pedagogical standards and the standards of your department, which you could follow or ignore.

A CCS won’t only do project management. An onerous task in creating course content is searching for references, examples, graphics, and multimedia to enhance the learning process. Whether on the Web, in the university’s electronic resources, or a part of ones’ personal collection of reference material, it is very hard to find quality material that meets the needs of a course. When a successful search is made, the CCS would save the search strategy as part of the course so it could be repeated if the course is updated. It could also do proactive searching, periodically looking for new material for your course.

Learning all the nuances of a search engine would improve searching somewhat, but a powerful search by example interface is needed as part of a CCS. It would use the same interface to search all information sources. The CCS would accept natural language, fill-in-the-form, or Boolean searches. Its normal mode would be to display a dozen or so best hits and have you rank them for quality. The CCS would then get hits more like the ones ranked high and less like the ones ranked low. After a few iterations of this, you’d be getting hits that were superb.

The interview process that helped build the structure of the course would help build the content for each lab and lecture, including printable and electronic course materials. HTML, XML, Word, PDF, PowerPoint, and other file formats could be included in a course directly or the CCS could help build Web pages and slide shows. The inclusion of pedagogical rules, course content-specific information, and APIs to instructional technology applications would enable the CCS to organize Web pages and slide shows, making them easier to build and more likely to include multimedia and other advanced features—while creating courses that are more logical and pedagogically sound.

Learning management systems are now pretty good at managing courses. It’s time we had software that creates something for them to manage.

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