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What online course creators should know about curriculum design

Developing quality online courses that are both interesting and useful may be quite tricky. Oftentimes, what seems like a fantastic idea fizzles once you start to apply it. Course design is very similar to creative writing – you have to start working on it before you can figure out if it will work or not.

Since learning has mostly moved online due to current global crisis developments, online course creators have a great opportunity to really prove their worth. However, aligning their work with the already established methods of creating (and curating) educational materials is also the challenge. Curriculum design is one of these.

What is a curriculum?

There is a common misconception that curriculum is just a fancy word for ‘course outline’. The concept is much more complicated than that. The word itself comes from Latin, where it meant “racing chariot”, derived from the verb ‘currere’ (to run). Basically, the curriculum is supposed to demonstrate where the learner will start and where the educational journey will end.

Today there are two main models of curriculum design – the product model and the process model. The first focuses on the end result (a test score or a certification) while the latter has more of an open approach, focusing on how learning occurs over a period of time.

It starts with good planning

This preliminary step involves considering the various instructional strategies and teaching methods aimed at achieving optimal results. You need to figure out who you are addressing and what needs, and standards exist in that community or demographic. Several elements must be taken into account at this point:

  • what major themes will make up for relevant content
  • what existing knowledge the learners are supposed to possess
  • what the main learning objectives are
  • what additional resources will be necessary
  • what type of assessment will be carried out at the end of the learning intervention.

Curriculum design at a glance

You need to first act as a curriculum designer. This entails a deliberate organization of all the learning process. All the steps need to be mapped out, along with the roles that all participants will have – in the case of online courses, this is about the course creator and the learners.

The objectives for each module also need to be clear at this point. A good curriculum will contain a list of the knowledge and skills that a participant should acquire at every stage of the learning process. Once all the requirements are clear, you can move on to figuring out the best approaches and teaching methods for achieving those goals.

The three types of curriculum design

Since the word for it is derived from an ancient language, the process of making a curriculum is not new itself. There are already three well-established types of curriculum design that have been tested and upgraded by schools, universities, and learning professionals in independent settings or corporate L&D.

Subject-centered curriculum design focuses on the information that needs to be passed along and does not bother with user preference or individual learner preferences. This works best when the content is very straightforward. They are just what they are and need to be presented as such. It’s important to note that this type of curriculum design might lead to decreased learner engagement and possibly even low information retention rates. If you are an instructional designer looking to build a business of it, this surely doesn’t work for you. Luckily, the other two types have much greater potential.

Problem-centered curriculum design shows learners how to tackle the challenges in their personal or professional lives. This especially works for experiential learners (which most of the younger, computer-gaming generations luckily are) who want to try their skills at cracking problems. This will feel most authentic since it is easy to see how the learned skills can be transferred in real life. This type of curriculum planning is also great for encouraging creativity, innovation, and collaboration, where that is an option, for courses that also encompass a social component.

Learner-centered curriculum design focuses mainly on the participants. It’s the path to take if you are going for personalized learning. However, this approach will require a lot of work, as it will take a good knowledge of the learner persona and the development of different materials to illustrate the same concept. Of course, this is also the most engaging version and has the most significant potential to generate learner and engagement and positive feedback.

Read more: The entrepreneur’s guide to buyer personas for online courses [Part 1]

Closing thoughts

There is a lot that goes into planning and executing a masterful online course. Instructors these days surely have their work cut out for them, but if they begin with a thorough planning of the curriculum, the rest will follow a lot easier and with less fumble.

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