Three Ways That Designing Curricula Differs from Designing Courses

In most educational contexts, individual courses link together to form a curriculum:  the map of courses and other experiences in a program of study. In addition to focusing on the design of individual courses, instructional design also involves the design of curricula. Besides the term curriculum design, professionals in the field also use other terms to refer to the design of these maps of learning experiences, such as (but not limited to) learning architecture and content strategy (a originally used in marketing communications).

Regardless of the term, designing curricula differs in a number of ways from designing courses. This article focuses on three: differences in goals, design process, and consultation process for approval.

Differences in goals:

Individual courses develop specific skills. As a result, their design focuses on identifying specific objectives, addressing those objectives, and verifying that learners have mastered those objectives. This approach is the essence of criterion-referenced instruction.  Because objectives refer to such specific skills, students typically students master one set of objectives in one course and develop new ones in subsequent or related courses.

By contrast, curricula develop broader skills, often referred to as competencies or outcomes. According to the Toronto-based Institute for Performance and Learning, competencies are “clusters of interrelated knowledge, skills, attitudes and values necessary for performing effectively in a particular area.” According to the Centre for Teaching and Learning at the University of Western Ontario, learning outcomes are “are statements referring to the specific knowledge, practical skills, areas of professional development, attitudes, or higher-order thinking skills that instructors expect students to develop, learn, or master by the end of their learning.”  Although the terms overlap, they apply to different educational sectors, with competencies typically used in workplace skills and the term outcomes typically used in higher education.

Because of their complexity and breadth, students often go through several courses to master particular competencies or outcomes. Determining which aspects of the competencies students develop in individual courses, what level of repetition students need between courses, and methods for students to demonstrate mastery of the competencies or outcomes—often handled through skill demonstrations, service learning experiences, and practica like internships and cooperative education—play a significant role in curriculum planning. A specific planning process called high-level design addresses these and other issues. 

Differences in design focus:

Designing individual courses involves a number of decisions about discrete issues regarding what and how to teach, such as identifying objectives to address, sequencing them, choosing an instructional strategy to address them, creating links to related material in other units (also called lessons and sessions, among other terms), and creating an overall clear, consistent, and “friction-free” experience for learners. Some refer to this as detailed design. The assumption is that primary development of the course lies with just one or two professionals with occasional assistance from specialists.

By contrast, designing a curriculum starts with broader decisions, including competencies or outcomes to address, courses in which to address them, paths through the courses and ways for learners to tailor their personal paths in response to their own needs, milestones for completion of the program and related assessments, among other choices. Designing curricula in some instances also involves identifying related supporting materials to include, including non-instructional interventions like textbooks, resource websites, and job aids, as well as developing initial guidelines for consistency to ensure that different parts of the curriculum do not unintentionally contradict one another. Furthermore, the various courses and other materials in a curriculum are likely to be developed by a team of professionals, each responsible for one part. In some educational contexts, a single person might design the curriculum but in others, it is a group process.

Different consultation processes for approval:

Review processes for courses usually involve reviews by technical experts to assess the accuracy of the content, by editors to review the readability and usability of the content, and by learners themselves to assess the ability of under-development courses to achieve their intended objectives. These three types of consultations are relatively similar regardless of whether the courses under review have uses in academia, continuing education, schools, or workplace learning.

By contrast, partly because they focus on general plans and content to be covered rather than draft courses, consultation processes for curricula vary widely depending on the educational context and funder. For example, because the K-12 system is funded, public school curricula typically go through consultations with experts as well as with the public. By contrast, academic curricula require faculty approval—not just the subject matter experts in a department but also the entire faculty of the institution in many instances, and may or may not include consultations with students.  Furthermore, if the academic curriculum prepares students for a licensed profession, the professional order or association that licenses people must also approve the curriculum and any changes to it.

Other terms:

To begin developing your own competencies in developing curricula, participate in the workshop ‘Thinking Bigger and Broader: Specifying a Curriculum Design Competency for L&D Professionals‘ at Online Educa Berlin, Wednesday, November 22.

Written for OEB Global 2023 by Saul Carliner.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.