Your course can be a real corker

January 10, 2003

When it comes to constructing a course, universities should chuck out the chintz and make the design clear, stimulating and satisfying, writes Paul Kleiman.

Universities are idiosyncratic organisations. They routinely employ skilled designers for buildings and marketing, yet when it comes to the central part of what a university has to offer - courses and curricula - the importance of good design is not appreciated.

Every year, academics are asked to design or redesign courses and modules. But do they understand and apply the principles of good design to this critical work? As the government proposes expanding the variety of higher education courses on offer, the ability to design successful curricula will be tested.

In the industrial and commercial world, good design is recognised as offering a strategic and sustainable competitive advantage. This is about applying good design principles to all of an organisation's work.

Good design is innovative . A well-designed curriculum has to adapt to a changing environment. But innovation is domain specific. An authentic innovation in one sphere of activity can be a certifiably madcap scheme in another. True innovation in curriculum design is about producing the best educational and functional outcome in the appropriate form.

Good design enhances utility . Some products, such as a corkscrew, function but require a great deal of effort. Other products function so effortlessly that they give users a real sense of satisfaction. The best design scores high on usability. It optimises the features of the product and the process of using them. A curriculum that provides a potentially wonderful learning experience but is hard to administer or assess is only partially useful.

Good design is aesthetic . The Shakers believed that intrinsically useful objects possessed the greatest beauty. "Aesthetic" is a word notable for its absence in education discourse. The idea of designing a curriculum as an aesthetic "object of desire" may seem curious and antithetical to the serious purposes of higher education. But we should design a curriculum in such a way that the experience of encountering and interacting with it evokes and provokes feelings of pleasure, fascination and excitement.

Good design displays the logical structure of a product : its form follows its function. If only. This principle - espoused at the Bauhaus - is certainly problematic for innovative curriculum designers. All elements of a curriculum need to reflect its function. But successful learning and teaching often occur despite, rather than because of, the form of a curriculum. Students and staff often display remarkable ingenuity and creativity working around institutional frameworks.

Good design is honest . The well-designed curriculum - like the well-known "it does exactly what it says on the tin" advert - should be seen to do what it sets out to do. It also requires constant monitoring. Honesty is the best policy in an education environment in which the customer - the student - is increasingly value conscious, and institutions are judged by their ability not only "to have and to hold" but also to ensure gainful employment.

Good design is enduring . Enduring is not the same as immutable. Flexibility, and the ability to reconfigure with relative ease, is a key characteristic of modern design. Some of the most enduring designs manage to retain critical and instantly recognisable elements of the original while adapting to meet changing conditions and expectations. An enduring curriculum design is one in which the core structure is such that it meets the demands of the present and can adapt to the demands of the future without requiring an overhaul.

It is often the detail that ruins a potentially good design. Every element needs to be thought through and implemented in such a way that it works in itself and in relation to the whole: the course, the institution and the educational/professional environment. Assessment procedures, feedback mechanisms, hand-in procedures and so on are all details that, if not carefully designed, can drastically reduce effectiveness and functionality.

Good design is minimalist . Minimal design involves understanding the design problem and paring down to the essentials required to provide optimum function and aesthetic appeal. Ikea's "chuck-out-your-chintz" creed is a version of that philosophy. Many curricula are unduly burdened with an excess of material accrued over the years.

Applying the principles of good design not only to the curriculum but also to the systems and environments in which it operates will enhance the quality of the learning experience for everyone and provide optimum conditions for intellectual development and achievement.

Paul Kleiman is a trained designer. He is associate director of Palatine, the LTSN subject centre for performing arts at Lancaster University. This is an edited version of a longer paper. learning.html

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