Course Guides…does anyone care?

Posted by: Spiros Soulis, Senior Advisor, Learning and Teaching, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs the academic year has been thrust upon us yet again, teaching staff have been preparing their Part B course guides…or have they? The course guide system officially closed on Friday 8 March and in the lead-up I provided support and feedback for teachers developing or refreshing their course guides.

And this is where I came to the realisation that some staff were not fully aware of the importance of the course guide and its relevance to other areas both internal and external to the University. Further, there seemed to be some very good course guides on Blackboard or handed out in class but the guide published on the system may not have been given the love and attention it deserved as the ‘official’ guide.

So in the last few weeks I met with a number of staff (in some instances long standing senior staff) who were quite prepared to leave sections like the Assessment Tasks with the barest of information: no assessment descriptions, no marking criteria, no links to learning outcomes. This perplexed me and when I questioned the content or lack of it well the floodgates opened:

“Ah the students don’t read these!”
“Nobody reads them….the system is horrible to navigate!”
“We have been told to just get them published…just put in the bare minimum.”

And then the bombshell: “Let me show you my course guide that I put up on Blackboard!” Lo and behold here was a course guide with all the trimmings…a detailed teaching schedule, assessment tasks clearly spelled out, references clear, detailed and current.

“But…but-” I stammered, “-nobody reads this!”

“The students do.” was the prompt reply.

There is a world beyond the course and beyond the classroom. Some teaching staff (and I was certainly one of them) find it a nightmare to navigate the complexity and bureaucratic nature of universities today. There are so many central systems, like Learning & Teaching Units, Academic Services, Marketing, and the new world order in compliance, TEQSA. Now what do all these have to do with course guides, let me explain:

  • The L&T units look at the ‘official’ course guides and from those, rightly or wrongly, judge the standard and quality of the course being delivered. Rightly or wrongly they may also judge the calibre of the staff member delivering it.
  • Academic Services play a major role in coordinating the appeals process. Recent conversations with the Manager for Academic Services in one of the colleges highlighted clearly that almost all cases are around assessment. In most cases the school loses appeals because ‘official’ guides lack important criteria or a lack of information pertaining to assessment. Sometimes there is an inconsistency with what is handed out in class to what is found on Blackboard which is different again in the ‘official’ guide. Students call on help from Student Rights Officers who will point to every assessment regulation or course guide guidelines and show us where we went wrong.
  • Marketing extract the information from the “official” course guide (Part A) to promote the course and program. In a number of instances this has caused not only bland and lacklustre information being published in glossy brochures but also misleading information.
  • The course guide will take on a new prominence in light of the AQF, with course guides subject to TESQA auditing and review. As Professor Bradley pointed out in a 2011 issue of Campus Review, TEQSA will have powers to “…intervene at the course, student cohort, institution and sector levels and to scrutinise whole institutions as well as particular aspects of their operations…”

And finally a few tips on the system itself. Yes, it is cumbersome and archaic but it has some redeeming features. For example, the magical button called Copy Part B Values. I am still gobsmacked at how many staff don’t understand that this button can copy a previous semester’s course guide and paste it into the current semester. Get one course guide right and then with some tweaking of dates for assessment and updating references you can copy it over.

Beyond the mantra of compliance, the course guide system is there to assist and protect us by making explicit, as a public document, the course and assessment. For Semester 2 think about:

Share your thoughts about course guides in the comments below!

NB. The image in this post comes from MorgueFile.com, from user: mconnors.

11 responses to “Course Guides…does anyone care?

  1. Martin 21 March, 2013 at 21:26

    Problem is that it is quite clear that the University doesn’t really care about Course Guides, I was a beta-tester for the original system, 5, 6 years ago and as part of that I gave them about 5 pages of improvements they could make to the system. I talked through them with the person in charge of usability for the project and they agreed that they were all good improvements, but there wasn’t time to include them in the new release, but they would definitely be considered for the second release.

    2013 and the system is still the incredibly clunky and difficult to use system it’s always been, with absolutely no improvements for the user made at all since its release. If course guides were considered to be really important, then some effort would have been made in the past five years to give us a system that would reach the standard of a basic word processor at the very least.

    Of course, I agree with you that there are a lot of reasons why we should pay more attention to course guides, I’ve been on appeal committees where we’ve upheld the appeal on the basis of a poor course guide, but really if the University thought that they were important, they would give us the proper tools to implement them.

  2. Spiros Soulis 22 March, 2013 at 20:44

    Martin thanks for your comment. I agree the system is difficult to use and desperately needs to be improved. At every opportunity myself and the team of senior advisors flag it is as a priority, in the meantime though it is what it is and when I sit down with staff I try and work through some of those “clunky” aspects.

    Some excellent guides have been published using the current system and when some of the features and idiosyncrasies are explained I feel staff gain a better appreciation of it.

  3. Jude W 25 March, 2013 at 08:36

    This is a great post Spiros – easy to read, clear and informative, thanks

  4. Spiros Soulis 25 March, 2013 at 08:54

    Thanks Jude, appreciate your comment

  5. Kerry London 26 March, 2013 at 04:18

    Spiros,
    It is an excellent post. The course guide is actually the contract with the student. You are right about student appeals. I have heard more than 300 cases at RMIT as Dep PVC L&T and Chair of the College Appeal Committee and at Deakin when I was Chair of the University Appeals Committee.
    It even goes beyond our four walls- the Ombudsman’s office investigators have often read our course guides very closely. They are the core contractual document. But apart from this they are the basic communication on the standards we expect from our students and what they can expect from us in terms of their learning. I am dismayed at two aspects: the lack of ability to construct legible and coherent learning outcomes that are aligned to the assessments and the claim that students don’t read them. I am actually appalled at this comment. In my experience they do bother to read them when they are worth reading and when you have put the time, pride and effort into being the professional academic you should be.

    Regards,

    Kerry

    • Spiros Soulis 26 March, 2013 at 20:22

      Thanks for the comment Kerry. In relation to the Ombudsman’s office, yet another strong argument on getting them right. As you are aware our role as Senior Advisors is constantly communicating the importance of alignment in terms of learning outcomes and assessment. I am also of the opinion that the comment “students don’t read them” is in most cases unfounded. If “pride and effort” were taken then the writer would perhaps be presenting them in a different light.

  6. June 3 April, 2013 at 09:18

    Thanks Spiros. You cleared up some of my confusion also. In the Library ,when we want to find out details of a course with reading list attached and clearly defined assessment details, we turn to the course guide. Unfortunately we don’t have access to all Blackboard course guides, although hopefully in the future this may be ammended. We use this information to construct timely, appropriate and relevant information literacy sessions, to ensure we have either hard or electronic copies of all references on the reading list and also to give our information desk staff the heads up about forthcoming assessment tasks that may result in an influx of questions about a particular topic e.g. I have to construct a unit of work aimed at upper primary students, about the Australian Gold rush – HELP! When I find a well constructed, up to date and detailed course guide it is fantastic for us. I can’t comment on the process as I don’t have to use the program, but certainly it seems like it should be a major priority to improve the system for all users.

    • Spiros Soulis 5 April, 2013 at 09:16

      Thanks for your comment June. It seems that I have only just scratched the surface in relation to the importance of getting the official course guide right. I for one was not aware that the Librarians peruse the course guides for the reading list and upcoming assessment tasks but this makes perfect sense that they do.

  7. Peter 15 April, 2013 at 12:54

    Hi Spiros. One point, you mention the Copy Part B Values button. In my experience you still have to cut and paste the elements and performance criteria for Training Package courses, which generally don’t change as opposed to the other details in part B which do. Seems back to front to me, what do you think?

    • Spiros Soulis 22 April, 2013 at 13:38

      Hi Peter. Thanks for your comment. Yes that is correct. Although Training Packages do seem to change regularly and in some cases those changes do occur to elements and performance criteria (but I agree this is rare). Would ideally like to see all the information included in one course guide to be transferred across to another. There is no argument that changes to the system are required, and to realise that TAFE course guides do seem to have this inconsistency in how they are published.

  8. jeremy keens 16 April, 2013 at 18:41

    The reason students don’t read course guides is that the system is foolish. There is a button in blackboard that says ‘course guide’ and if they press this they get the Part A. They then have to realise that they then need to look at the table of ‘offerings’ which is historical and click on the current semester and then they get the ‘real’ course guide.
    Those students in the know know that this hidden document is the ‘contract’ with them, but most never get there. they use the information in blackboard under assessment or in course documents because it is immediately accessible, is direct to what they need to know and not padded out with statements and sentiments (I will admit RMIT is better at this than other universities where there is a couple of pages of guff before any information).
    Course guides are important for administration, for records, for audits – but I would suggest for very few students except when they have problems. They will not use them until such time as there is a true one-click link to the guide.

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