The dangers of a potluck dinner, and other metaphors for understanding program-based design

With program-based design squarely on Macquarie University’s agenda, it’s more important than ever to have a shared understanding of what program-based design is. How is it different from the more common approach of focusing on individual units?


Pot-luck vs. Cooking together  

Let’s use my favourite metaphor (food). For many good reasons (e.g. efficiency, time) some programs have been put together from a collection of existing units. This is what I call the ‘pot luck’ approach. Individual convenors bring various (and often delicious) dishes to the table, but they may not know what others are bringing, which sometimes results in gaps or duplication. For example, one could end up with too many salads and not enough bread.

A program-based approach, on the other hand, is similar to cooking together, where everyone helps combine the ingredients to create the meal as a whole. It does require time and coordination, but it is also likely to result in a more ‘balanced meal’.

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Small business owners vs. Co-op

In unit-based curriculum, unit convenors are similar to small-business owners. They run their units, have a lot of autonomy and make all the decisions regarding the unit that they teach. In the program-based approach, however, convenors do not ‘own’ their units. Instead they are part of a ‘larger’ business, where efforts/skills are pulled together for a ‘common cause’.  


 ‘Juggling yourself’ vs. Team effort

One advantage of program-based design is that it allows academics to step away from running assessments in each unit, and to have integrated ‘inter-unit’ or ‘shared’ assessments. For example, students can be asked to do a project that involves literature review on a topic, collecting and analysing data and writing about their results in a paper. Instead of one academic giving marks on different aspects of this project, teaching staff from three different units could provide feedback and marks for their respective areas. One unit may assess the literature review, another the research design and the quality of the analysis, and a third the quality of communication.

It is arguably a ‘win-win’ situation, as students will have fewer, but more meaningful assessments and will get detailed feedback on different aspects of their work, while teaching staff will spend less time marking.

Alignment and Flow

In a nutshell, program-based design is about a careful alignment of (i) content, (ii) activities and (iii) assessments between individual units to make sure that they ‘flow’ and build on each other. The big advantages of a program-based approach are improved coherence of programs and scaffolding of students’ skills.

For real-life examples of program-based design, see this post and this post.

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