In distance education generally, course design is teamwork. Subject matter experts design courses in consultation with experienced instructional designers. However, depending on institutional requirements, it is possible that you are asked to do course design alone. The course design is a ‘blueprint’ that guides the development of the course. At this stage we are concerned with the aims and objectives of the course, course contents, media-mix, assessment, etc. For some, this is same as curriculum design (which also brings in other philosophical and social issues). It is important to introduce some practical issues and terms that are used commonly in distance education.
Course Vs. Programme: In the face-to-face system of education and dual mode institutions in India, MA (Public Administration) is a ‘course’ that includes a number of ‘papers’ to be taught. In distance education, it is called a ‘programme’, and the ‘papers’ are called courses.
Unit Vs. Block: In the syllabus of a paper in the face-to-face system, there may be several (say 4-5) units of studies. These units are referred as ‘blocks’ in distance education materials. A block is about 60-80 pages of A4-size printed text.
Lesson Vs. Unit: The units in a paper may include several topics/lessons to be covered in face-to-face teaching. These topics are referred as units in distance education materials. The normal length of a unit is about 5000-6000 words.
An important issue in distance education is the equivalence of the workload by students in the face-to-face system and by students in the distance education system. In distance education, the student workload is depicted in credits. The credit pattern differs among different countries and institutions. In North America, a three-credit course signifies that (for a semester of 15 weeks) there shall be three contact hours of student and teacher interaction per week. Thus, one credit is 15 hours of teaching time. Additionally, the student has to work 2-3 hours extra per teaching hour making the total study hour per credit within the range of 45-60 hours. In an Indian college/ university, the number of teaching days is about 210 days per year. Suppose there are about 3-4 hours of teaching everyday, the number of teaching hours is about 630-840. Besides, the learners have to do their own study, use the library, and discuss with peers and teachers in private. At IGNOU, the normal credit weight for one year is about 32, which is 960 hours of study time (as one credit is equivalent to 30 study hours) that includes reading and working through the self-learning materials, preparing assignment responses, watching video and listening to audio, attending to academic counselling sessions, teleconference, etc.
The course design also has to take into account the credit value of the course. Understanding the credit value and how different components of distance education delivery are assigned study time shall be helpful in designing the course as well as write instructional text. The following ‘thumb rule’ is suggested at IGNOU to calculate study time (IGNOU, 2006):
- For text (continuous): 70 wpm
- For text (with graphics): 40 wpm
- Time to do activities and SAQs: As per actual; as estimated by the course writer
- Audio and Video: Two times of actual running time
- Assignments (TMA): 10 hours per assignment
- Assignments (CMA): 2 hours per assignment
- Counselling: 150-180 minutes in every 1 credit
There are various sources from which information for course design flow. As a subject matter expert, we know the subject. But, we can still look into syllabi of various universities; analyze the contents of standard textbooks; and use training need analysis reports to develop the course content outline. While preparing the content outline, you may analyze the necessity, importance, and relevance of the topics so as to facilitate/ enable the learner to develop critical understanding of the subject. There are also various ways to organize and order the topics within a course. However, I suggest that a course may always be designed in the subject-centred approach that should reflect the knowledge and skills necessary to achieve mastery of the subject. This may sound contrary to the learner-centredness or problem-centred approach in ordering the content areas. The learner-centred and problem-centred approaches are very useful in professional courses.
Once the content outlining is done, it is important to decide on the media-mix. Most distance teaching institutions follow a supplementary approach to use of media, and develop all the materials in print. Nevertheless, it is useful to decide the topics / lessons / units that are amenable to use of audio / video. Similarly, the support mechanisms related to conducting academic counselling and practical laboratory work should also be highlighted at the course design stage. This helps to focus on the important considerations to be managed at the delivery stage. The course design document should also clarify the nature of the assessment of the learner performance.
Course Design Document
The course design exercise / process should result in development of a ‘blueprint’ or ‘course design document’ that should include the following:
- Title of the course
- Target group
- Aims and objectives
- Course content outline
- Assessment strategies
- Support mechanisms
- Credit value