Reducing the aggravation of student blogging: The story of BIM

In a couple of weeks I’m off to Canberra to talk PhD, potential ALTC grants and promote the use of BIM. As part of the latter task, I’m giving a quick talk at the University of Canberra as part of their Stuff the works lunches. The title of the talk is “Reducing the aggravation of student blogging: The story of BIM”.

I have to send of a short abstract for the talk today, so thought I’d share it here. I’ll use this post as the home for all the resources associated with the talk. The slides should be up sometime just before the talk and I hope some audio/video will follow not long after.

The basic aim of the talk is to share the why, what and how of using individual student blogs in teaching. The premise is that there is value in using individual blogs, but that it can require a bit of work and that BIM can help.


There are many good reasons (reflection and meta-cognition, reducing transactional distance, increasing sense of ownership and community, ICT literacy etc) to encourage or require students to use individual blogs as part of their learning. However, the use of individual student blogs is not without its problems, which include: limited quality of LMS blogging tools, difficulties of managing externally hosted blogs, the question of how to mark and comment on student posts, the novelty of blogging for many students and staff, increased workload etc.

This session will tell the story of BIM (BAM into Moodle). A Moodle module designed to reduce the aggravations of supporting individual student blogging. Since 2006 BIM, and its predecessor BAM, have been used to support 2800+ students in 26+ course offerings creating 20,000+ blog posts. The session will show how BIM works and describe one approach to why and how it was used in one course. It will include discussion of the challenges and benefits of using BIM.

More information about BIM can be found here


The slides that will probably be used in the talk are below. If things go well, I’ll have some audio/video of the talk up in the next day or so.

What are good designs/design principles for Moodle

My current institution has adopted Moodle as its institutional LMS as of 2010. Due to my role, I haven’t really had to think about how you best go about designing a Moodle course. Now, however, due to the curriculum mapping project it is likely that I am going to have to engage with this. Hence the question, what are the different principles, guidelines or approaches for designing a Moodle course site?

Why do you ask?

A part of the aim of the curriculum mapping project is to map the alignment of course activities, resources and assessment against graduate attributes, learning outcomes etc. At the moment, the project is at the stage of experimenting with existing Moodle courses – course sites that are live now – and seeing how well (or not) Moodle’s existing outcomes support can be used for this mapping purpose.

I’m only looking at a very small number of courses, however, these are courses put together by academics who care about their teaching, who want to make an effort. From this small sample it appears that, as they stand, the design of these course sites will not easily enable the clear mapping of the activities, resources and assessments against outcomes. It’s clear that the design of these courses is very different, and that’s in spite of the the institution paying some lip service to consistency of experience for the students (which is misguided I think as in the end it only results in superficial consistency and more importantly fails to engage with a key characteristic of learning and teaching – it’s diversity).

It appears that, in order for the curriculum mapping project to fully enable the mapping of activities, resources and assessments against outcomes etc, it will need to make recommendations for better course design.

Which raises the question, what is good course design in Moodle?

What are some of the possibilities?

From one perspective, it is important that this be specifically about Moodle, and not e-learning or LMS course site design in general. Moodle, like any technology, provides a set of affordances, a set of strengths and weaknesses. To get the most out of Moodle, like any technology, the design needs to be aware of the Moodle sweet spot, and its weak spots.

Moodle principles

There are some things that really work in Moodle. What are they?

An obvious place to turn is the principles underpinning Moodle itself, which are:

  1. We are all potential teachers as well as learners
  2. We learn a lot by watching others.
  3. We learn well by creating and expressing for others
  4. Understanding others transforms us.
  5. We learn well when the learning environment is flexible and adaptable to suit our needs.

Aside: would be interesting to map the content of courses with these 5 principles and find out how many follow them in some way. I think there would be surprisingly few. Following this evolution over time might be interesting as well. Do people become more informed about Moodle course design over time? Or, do they simply follow the same path they established for their first course?

Course structure or organisation

It’s my perception that the design of Moodle course sites is intended to be a sequence of sections which contain activities for students to complete. It’s interesting that one of the major “innovations” at my current institution is a “course design” that, to at least some extent, breaks this structure.

Rather than a long vertical collection of sections for each week, there is one section which breaks the course site up into a course synopsis and 5 horizontal sections – The course, resources, discussions, assessment and enquiries (which probably change depending on the course).

The courses not taking this approach seem to follow the same approach. One section as “About the course” – usually with a banner and general administration stuff – followed by the weekly sections. The content of those weekly sections is wildly different.

In part, the difference here seems to be between having lots of scrolling or not. A more typical Moodle design ends up with a couple of pages of scrolling. I’m hearing some positive responses from staff/students about the scrolling.

Is there research to see how it is received? Does the scrolling thing cause problems or benefits?

Look and feel

We’re superficial, something that looks good will often result in more immediate positive feelings, even though it’s a pain to use. A fair bit of the Moodle promotion stuff seems focused on showing that Moodle can be good looking. Even though most institutional Moodles appear to focus on consistency, rather than quality.

Learning design

More abstractly, a good course design should obviously – following the theory of alignment – be driven by the learning outcomes. With activities, resources and assessments chosen and presented in a way that best achieves those outcomes.

So, where are the good examples of good, constructively aligned Moodle course sites? What were the problem in achieving those designs?

The blended kitchen sink

One important question for the curriculum mapping project is whether or not the course site captures everything that all students experience. Where face-to-face is possible, it would appear obvious that there may well be some experiences that students have which are not captured in the course site. This suggests it won’t be captured in the mapping.

Should/can a course site contain everything, or just the online stuff?


So, what say you? What are the other principles? What is out there that can inform answers to this question?

Where are the design exemplars for Moodle course sites?

At this point I’ll include a quote attributed to Stephen Downes from here

What makes e-learning effective is, of course, typically in the eye of the beholder. One person’s toast and jam may be another person’s steak and kidney pie. This is what makes the drafting of a set of guidelines for effective e-learning so difficult.

Which is just one reason why I think “one ring to rule them all” corporate approaches to web course design is a big mistake.

It’s also the reason why input from many is needed.

Suggestions from Google

Some suggestions from Google follow. Only did a single, quick search.

  • Blog post describing some alternate course formats for Moodle – related to the course structure/organisation heading above.
  • Moodle course design – a word document with good coverage of the topic
    Interesting, makes the point that a consistent theme “gives it robustness”. I like the Dave Snowden distinction between robustness and resilience. Robustness tries to prevent mistakes/failure – which with people is itself destined to fail. Whereas resilience makes it cheap to respond/solve mistakes/failure. I know which I prefer.

    For similar reasons the document advises against messing with the standard Moodle design – which is what the local “innovation” does.

PhD Update #25: A return to discipline?

The last PhD update I posted here was in early November last year. It’s time to get back into the discipline of posting these updates, especially now I’m in the downhill stretch.

The rationale/excuse for not having posted in the last 3 or 4 months has been work and Christmas. For most of November, I was traveling to or working on conference presentations. I also visited Canberra in that time to work a bit on the thesis and received feedback from my supervisor – reduce content!. December was holidays and then, the great plan to spend January on holiday, working on the thesis went pear shape. For various silly, contextual issues I spent most of January and February working on BIM so folk could use it starting around March. This will hopefully bring some benefits, but it didn’t help thesis completion.

What I did last week

Early last week I had completed rough first drafts of chapters 2 (lit review) and 3 (research method). Since then, when time allows, I’ve been re-reading these drafts and making the slight modifications that are needed. A bit of space – it’s been almost 3 weeks since I finished the draft of chapter 2 – does wonders for perspective.

I’ve re-read all of chapter 2 and annotated it with suggested changes. I’m almost half way through making those changes in the soft copy.

What I’ll do in the next week

The aim for the next week is to have completed first drafts of chapters 2 and 3 sent off to my supervisor.

Time willing, the plan is then to get chapter 4 into the same state. I have until April 6 to get chapters in this state and sent to my supervisor.

Moodle curriculum mapping – Step 3

This will be a brief extension of previous work around this project. The main aim is to start identifying some of the methods used by Moodle with its current outcomes approach and how those might be harnessed and modified to support curriculum mapping. In particular, some specific questions include: What’s necessary to

  • allow the outcomes to be grouped and displayed as such when showing an activity/resource? IDENTIFIED
  • include a “help” link for each outcome or other means to explain? IDENTIFIED
  • allow the outcome scale to be used on the activity/resource to indicate how well the activity/resource meets the outcome etc? IDENTIFIED
  • display the curriculum map for a course?IDENTIFIED
  • add “outcome mapping” to those elements that currently don’t have it? IDENTIFIED
  • prevent curriculum mapping outcomes showing up in the gradebook?IDENTIFIED

This is a work in progress and will be updated over the next couple of days.

The association – where in code and the database

Moodle tracks which outcomes apply to activities and resources, the question is where in the code does this happen and where in the database is this information stored?

The code

The association appears as part of the edit screen for an activity or resource. This is implemented by moodle/course/modedit.php. This script:

  • Is given various params, including section and course, including the module being used to “edit” the activity/resource.
  • Is fairly typical PHP spaghetti code with little or no comments.
  • Acts has a harness/factory getting the module code to generate part of the form.
  • Has a section of code that retrieves and display the outcomes, all embedded in this enormous file – ugly.

The outcomes code seems to consist of (this is actually the handling of submission of the form, not display of the form – more on this below)

  • Get all the outcomes for the course (whether or not to display them, is left till then)
    if ($outcomes = grade_outcome::fetch_all_available($COURSE->id))

    fetch_all_available is implemented in moodle/lib/grade/grade_outcome.php. And basically defines a class that represents a grade outcome. fetch_all_available gets all course related outcomes listed in grade_outcomes (the detail of the outcomes) and grade_outcomes_courses (which outcomes are being used in the course).

  • Build array of grade_items
    It then loops through each outcome from above and uses moodle/lib/grade/grade_item.php to create a grade_item object for each outcome. This uses the grade_items table to store information. Am not 100% sure where this fits in.
  • The actual display is done using a “form” display…more on this below.

So the display is done using the form class defined by the module, which is an extension of moodleform_mod. As the specific modules won’t know about outcomes, the outcomes display would theoretically be done in course/moodleform_mod.php. Yep.

if ($this->_features->gradecat) {
    $gradecat = false;
    if (!empty($CFG->enableoutcomes) and $this->_features->outcomes) {

The process seems to be:

  • Get grade outcomes for the course, again
    Seems there is some duplication here, as it gets the grade outcomes for the course, all over again.
  • Get’s all grade items for the course, it any of them have an outcome set, then set this in the form?
  • A couple of other steps here, not immediately clear.

The above only seems to be preparatory. There’s a later section of code that adds the form elements for the outcomes. Again, there’s a fetch all available outcomes. This seems more directly related as it simply adds the elements.

Where does it store “mapping”

The next question is where does it store the fact that a particular activity/resource is using/assigned a particular set of outcomes?

This should be set in the code that processes the submission of the form. Which should be moodle/course/modedit.php. Ahh, this is done with grade_item as described above.

i.e. when you map an activity/resource in a course to an outcome or three, that mapping gets stored in the grade_items table. The fields in that table are (the descriptions are tentative):

  • id – the unique id for the mapping of activity/resource to a single outcome.
  • courseid – the id for the course that “owns” this mapping.
  • itemname – this is the actual name of the outcome assigned
  • itemtype – I believe this describes the type of object you’ve mapped the outcome to. Possible known values are currently mod, course.
  • itemmodule – the name of the specific module that implements the object. Possible values include: forum, bim (i.e. name of any module), assignment, resource.
  • iteminstance – I believe this is the id for this particular instance of the module. i.e. the id for the table course_modules. The pathway to more information about this instance.
  • itemnumber – for outcomes, this seems to start at 1000. It is used to give the sequence with which outcomes are assigned to the item. i.e. the first outcome assigned is 1000, the second 1001, the 3rd 1002 …. It appears that a value of 0, might indicate something important
  • iteminfo – currently set to NULL for all the entries I’ve seen so far. So, not currently sure what it is used for.
  • idnumber and calculation – also set to NULL or empty for the contents of my database – which doesn’t include a lot of real courses.
  • gradetype – integer, currently with value of 1 or 2. With outcomes I’ve set being 2.
  • grademax and grademin – fairly obvious. Seems to be set by scale and/or other stuff.
  • scaleid – the scale being used.
  • outcomeid – the id of the outcome
  • gradepass multfactor plusfactor aggregationcoef – various factors used for grade calculation, I believe.
  • sortorder – different integer values – purpose not immediately obvious.
  • display – big int, currently all set to 0. Not sure of purpose.
  • decimals hidden locked locktime needsupdate – various flags ?
  • timecreated timemodified – time stamps. Could be useful for identifying outcomes that need to be re-checked.

It appears that grade items and outcome items are treated the same, hence their use of the same table. The full view of categories and items give a good overview of this table.

There is the concept of categories of grades/items, this might be one avenue. i.e. a category for curriculum mapping.

What is the implication of this?

The next question is what are the implications to the rest of Moodle. If I map all the activites/resources within a course against a complex set of outcomes, does it have an effect on the gradebook? Any where else?

So, I’ve set outcomes for a number of activities/resources in a course. Does this show up anywhere else? Two ways of looking:

  • Check the gradebook from web interface.
  • Look for use of grade_item class/object.

Mmmm, not good. It appears that every time you add an outcome, it get’s added to the gradebook. In terms of curriculum mapping, not what is desired. This is perhaps the first obvious example that curriculum mapping and tracking student performance, while to some extent similar, serve different purposes.

The column in the gradebook for each outcome that is added, has a header that is a link. The link is to a script that shows some detail of the resource or activity that it the outcome is associated with.

Need to turn this off.

Now, you can hide an element in the gradebook. But that just greys it out, doesn’t remove it entirely from consideration, which is what is wanted here.

Adding a description/help


At least initially the outcomes etc shown are not going to make much sense to a teacher. Moodle currently only displays the name of the outcome. The teacher would have to somewhere else to read up on the outcome before they can determine if it applies. It would be helpful if additional assistance was provided there and then.

Some options in terms of what could be displayed, include:

  • The description of the outcome.
    As it stands Moodle allows each outcome to have a textual description. Displaying this as a roll-over or in a new window could provide a minimal level of assistance.
  • Link to institutional area for discussion and description of outcomes.
    The assumption being that most institutions would have a website in which institutional outcomes etc are discussed or described. Providing a link to this area, especially to the context specific to the a particular outcome might be useful.
  • Link to other examples.
    Many of the forms of outcomes etc. are likely to be used in other courses. e.g. institutional graduate attributes. It might be useful to give the option to see other examples of how these attributes are used in other courses. Even to the extent of link directly to those courses and/or reflections/discussion from other teachers using this outome.

These ideas range from the simple and static through to something you’d want to have some curating.

Possible solutions

The outcomes are displayed around line 220 in moodle/course/moodleform_mod.php. This is where the change would have to happen. Some possibilities include:

  • Using a Moodle helpbutton.
    Moodle forms have a function – setHelpButton – which associates a help button with an element. Very easy to make this modification. However, the problem is that the helpbutton is typically a call to open a new, small browser window to display HTML file.

    This is problematic as the outcomes are added via the Moodle interface and doesn’t provide support for adding a help file. So, outcome specific would be difficult. However, an institutional area/approach could be possible. It would require the institution to create HTML files for each outcome.

    Let’s do a simple test, put the Moodle code under git so I can manage this. And add a help button for each outcome. As expected, works easily. There is the question of how to create the filename for the HTML file. Most outcomes will have spaces and other characters that don’t necessarily play nicely with a filename. The language translation side of Moodle could help there, convert the complete outcome name into something more file system friendly.

  • More complicated HTML
    Another approach would be to add roll overs, additional links etc to the outcomes. This would require a more radical modification of the Moodle core but not much more than the above. Not to mention the desire to separate attributes up into groups.

Groupings of outcomes


It is likely that a course may have multiple different types of outcomes etc to map against. e.g institutional graduate attributes, discipline graduate attributes, course learning outcomes, program learning outcomes etc. There are two possible solutions (possibly complementary):

  1. Show outcomes grouped by category.
    To allow the mapping of an activity/resource against all these different groupings, it would be useful to separate out the different outcomes by category. So you could have a visible separation.
  2. Have a separate cross mapping.
    Mapping against all of these different outcomes might be somewhat tiresome, especially given a large amount of overlap between them. An approach that has been used is to produce a mapping between the different outcomes and a single point, and then only map activities/resources against that single point. Which of the different outcomes applies, can then be derived from the single point.

Possible solutions

Showing outcomes by category is going to need:

  • Some way of specifying categories/groups of outcomes.
    Which probably implies an additional database table and an additional interface or modification to an existing interface (e.g. the import outcome process) to specify which category an outcome belongs to.

    A separate interface minimises changes to core Moodle code, modifying existing interfaces is probably a more user friendly approach, depending on how widespread this need is.

  • Modification to the form display to recognise the categories.
    This should/would be a fairly simple thing to do, given the information above and Moodle’s form library.

    Let’s try a simple test. Create two boxes of outcomes that contain a copy of the same outcomes. Mainly to test if nested header/boxes work. No, they don’t. You’d have to use a separate header label and then have separate boxes for each, perhaps a table? Though Moodle dislikes table for layout…..

Display a curriculum map for a course


One of the basic functions for curriculum mapping is to get a report that shows how widely (or not) the outcomes are represented within the course in terms of resources, activities and assessments. i.e. you want a visual representation of the outcome mappings.

Possible solutions

Well, it’s basically a report, but you might want it more interactive than that.

Well, the existing outcomes report can do this to some extent. So an extension of this, or the additional of a mapping report might fill the bill.

To a large extent this is a fairly standard web application. Get the data from the database and display it in an appropriate form.

You’ll be needing data from the following tables:

  • grade_items – given a course id, this will give you all the outcomes for the course that have been mapped to activities/resources and the ids of those activities and resources.
  • grade_outcomes – will give you details about the outcomes – name, description, and scale id.
  • scale – details about the scales
  • course_modules – more information about the module/activity, most importantly perhaps the section of the course in which it appears.
  • resource – for the same reason as modules

Show outcome scale on activity/resource


Rather than simply “mapping” an outcome to a particular activity/resource, it may be useful to indicate how well/to what level does the activity/resource map to the outcome. i.e. use a scale, rather than a simple check box.

This is a fairly major distinction between outcomes for curriculum mapping and outcomes for student progress.

Possible solutions

It’s looking like a separate set of “Mapping outcomes” might be the way to go. This would also get around the problem with the gradebook from above. This might mean duplicating the items table, or at least adding a flag to differentiate between mapping and progress outcomes.

Similarly, could probably still use the standard outcomes “creation/import” process for both purposes.

Adding separate support would also help make it a bit easier to add curriculum mapping to an instance of Moodle by minimising disruption to the Moodle core.

Elements that don’t have outcomes


As outlined earlier there are some elements of a Moodle course site to which you can’t map outcomes. The outcomes don’t appear on the “edit” page. Those identified so far are labels and sections.

Sections might be useful, if you wanted to map a course by weeks, rather than by item. But perhaps not, you can generate such a map by aggregating the mapping of the contents.

Labels are way of inserting HTML into sections. Currently they don’t have support for outcomes. I’ve already seen in one course how such labels can be used to specify tasks, such as reading.

Possible solutions

Well, labels are the only real problem. The form for labels is generated using moodle/course/modedit.php. The same for anything else. It is the place where outcomes are shown. So, perhaps it’s just a switch that needs setting. Perhaps, outcomes aren’t here as it isn’t expected that these will be used in grades – i.e. student progress tracking.

Nope. The mod_form.php file for label actively turns off outcomes in a setting. Yep, set that to true and outcomes are there.

In light of the above, you’d probably have a separate set of outcomes for mapping, have this defined as a feature that modules can turn on/off and go down that route.

Elevator pitch for “Moodle curriculum mapping”

Over the next few weeks I am going to have a few meetings in which I’ll need to explain and justify the curriculum mapping project. This post is an attempt to further develop and share some of the perspectives and to develop an elevator pitch for the project.

It’s also reinforced the need to develop a name for the project. “Moodle curriculum mapping” doesn’t really send the right message.

Aside: I’m somewhat skeptical of the value and possible side effect of an aligned curriculum and curriculum mapping in general. (e.g. I’m not convinced institutional graduate attributes are possible or sensible, I’m not convinced that a mapped curriculum gives a true representation of what the student will actually learn/experience). However, I can see that this is becoming very important within Australian universities and that it will be done. I’m hoping this project can take the implementation of curriculum mapping in more interesting and useful directions. Time will tell.

Elevator pitch

The elevator pitch is formed by the sub-headings of the specific aims section. The “specific aims” section was written first.

At its simplest, the project aims to build on existing practices around curriculum mapping and fulfill existing needs, such as accreditation. More importantly, the project aims to make learning outcomes, graduate attributes etc a part of the everyday practice for a majority of academics in a way that is useful. As a result, it should help improve the validity of curriculum maps, encourage greater quantity and quality of use of the LMS and show how the institution is leading the sector. Most importantly, the project aims to provide a foundation that enables CDDU to more effectively engage with academics and, in broader terms, enable and encourage improvements in teaching and student learning outcomes.

It will do this through modifications to the Moodle LMS that aim make learning outcomes, graduate attributes and the alignment of those with learning activities, resources and assessment a “first class objects” within Moodle. These modifications, and more importantly, the processes used to roll them out will be designed to encourage and enable adoption and behaviour change.


The difficulties associated with doing this is that my overall focus for the project is around improving learning and teaching, which is a complex task with lots of connections. When people talk about curriculum mapping, they are typically talking about many different things, from many different perspectives.

Even more difficult is the fact that I am approaching this from the perspective of intervening in a complex adaptive system. This means that I don’t (and I believe, I can’t) have a firm idea of exactly where this project is going to go. This is because any fixed outcome is a waste of time, as the project proceeds we will learn more and the system (i.e. the university, its staff and their practice of L&T) will change around the project. What we think is a good thing to do in 6 months time, will be very different from where what we think would be good now.

And this is exactly the sort of “meta-discussion” that many of the people I’m going to talk to, will hate.

Some specific aims

So, let’s start with some specific aims.


  • “outcomes etc.” – used to encapsulate the broad array of “stuff” people want to map, including: university graduate attributes, course learning outcomes, discipline outcomes/attributes etc.
  • “course” – the smallest unit of study in which a student enrolls. Lasts for around 12 weeks.
  • “program” – a collection of courses that form a degree.
  • “majority” – the following often makes statements like “the majority of academic staff don’t teach well”. This is not a deficit model of academic staff. In the vast majority of cases the “don’t teach well” is due to contextual issues. I don’t blame the teacher.

    There are a small number of academic staff who teach very well. They typically do this in spite of contextual issues and because they are intrinsically motivated. This group are in the minority.

    My interest is in helping change the context so that the majority of academic staff are enabled and encouraged to improve their teaching.

Practical outcomes, reuse and a foundation

Just about every program that needs to be accredited has to generate some form of curriculum map, usually to meet the requirements of the external accrediting body. Increasingly, Australian universities are being required to demonstrate the presence and use of graduate attributes, typically illustrated through curriculum maps.

Proposition: This project will provide the functionality required to generate these and other curriculum maps.

There is existing work being done to generate these curriculum maps using established approaches (i.e. Word documents and spreadsheets). Rather than waste this work, these need to be used as inputs into this process.

Curriculum mapping is not a ends unto itself. It is typically part of a process used to increase understanding of a course and in particular its alignment and its relationships with other courses. That improved understanding informs subsequent action.

The intent is that this project is not simply about curriculum mapping, but it is focused on how the project can provide a foundation to enable and encourage subsequent action.

Make it part of everyday practice

Curriculum mapping is based around the idea that having alignment between the outcomes etc. and the learning activities, resources and assessments within a course is a good thing. The trouble is that as currently implemented outcomes etc are not part of the everyday practice for academic staff. Most academic staff, when planning a course, don’t think about outcomes etc. and alignment.

Support for this perspective comes from one of the few empirical examinations of academic practice that I’m aware of, the work of Stark, Lowther et al (1988), Stark et al (1990), Stark (2000), and Lattuca and Stark (2009). Some choice quotes from my thesis drawing on this work

How academics design their teaching is not described by a rational planning model (Lattuca and Stark 2009). In part, this is because the dominant setting for academics is teaching an existing course, generally one the academic has taught previously. In such a setting, academics spend most of their time fine tuning a course or making minor modifications to material or content (Stark 2000). Academics are usually not often required to engage in the development of new courses or major overhauls of existing courses (Stark and Lowther 1988). The practice of most academics does not separate planning from implementation, and rather than starting with explicit course objectives, starts with content (Lattuca and Stark 2009).

In part, this is because consideration of outcomes etc. are not a part of what many of them do around learning and teaching. That is, the LMS they are using doesn’t usually provide any support or recognition of outcomes etc. It’s not part of what they do in face-to-face L&T. To some extent, it’s a case of out of sight and out of mind.

This problem is made worse in institutions where an increasing number of courses are being taught multiple times a year. In my local context, this means that rather than an academic designing and teaching the course and its assessment. The design is done by the person currently teaching the course, and the next person teaching the course has to live with that design.

This becomes an increasing problem when many of these staff are contract staff employed to deliver the course. They don’t design the course, so the only place they see the outcomes etc. are in the small section of the course profile/syllabus.

Proposition: If alignment between outcomes etc, learning resources, activities and assessment is a good thing, then making outcomes etc and their relationship with learning resources, activities and assessment a highly visible and first class component of the LMS/learning environment is necessary to increase alignment, or at least consideration of it.

Improve the validity of the mappings

As argued above, outcomes etc and alignment is not a key component of the thinking of most academics. It has been widely recognised for some time that the validity of the mappings represented in static documents is somewhat questionable. Some more thesis quotes

In the absence of formally documented teaching goals, the actual teaching and learning that occurs is more in line with the teacher’s implicit internalised knowledge, than that described in published course descriptions (Levander and Mikkola 2009). Formal descriptions of the curriculum do not necessarily provide much understanding about how teachers put their curriculum ideas into action (Argyris and Schon 1974).

Curriculum mapping is typically done in a way divorced in time and space from the context within which academics teach. Subsequently, due to the known limitations of human memory – not to mention pressure to comply – it is unlikely that such curriculum maps capture the full complexity what occurs in a course. Given the static nature of such maps and their lack of use in everyday teaching, then over time the validity of their representation is only going to decrease.

Proposition: Curriculum maps that are generated, and continue to evolve, in the same time and space as everyday teaching and learning will have stronger validity in terms of capturing reality and consequently be of more value.

Enable and encourage improvements in teaching

The mapping process is fairly straight forward, if you are familiar and comfortable with a lot of the educational language involved in the process. A lot of academics aren’t. Some more thesis quotes

In the absence of formal qualifications or knowledge in learning and teaching, most academics teach in ways they have been taught (Phillips 2005) and/or which fit with disciplinary norms and their recent teaching experience (Entwistle 2003). Academic staff rarely read educational literature or call upon any available expert assistance when planning a course (Stark 2000).

A well designed mapping process would provide the scaffolding necessary for academic staff to be guided through the mapping process. It would provide pointers to similar maps, explanations of why it was done a certain way, reflections and insights from other teaching academics (not instructional designers) etc.

More importantly, the mapping process is the educationally easiest part of this process. What’s much more difficult is, once you have the map, using that to improve the alignment of the course learning resources, activities and assessments. Knowing how best, within the specific context, to provide students with the opportunity to practice and receive feedback on “critical thinking” is far more difficult than identifying where it is or isn’t provided.

The aim here is not just to help academics map the course, but then build on this to enable and encourage them to improve their courses.

Proposition: A learning environment that makes visible to all stakeholders the alignment (or not) of a course and then provides scaffolding necessary to improve that alignment will help improve teaching.

Encourage greater usage (quantity and quality) of institutional LMS

A lot is written about the poor quantity and quality of the learning and teaching that occurs within an institutional LMS. The vast majority of course sites are little more electronic photo-copiers, places to disseminate text. This is due to a variety of issues, most of them contextual and nothing to do with the LMS. However, some are due to the nature of the LMS and the types of tasks it makes easy (e.g. uploading some powerpoint slides) and the types of tasks for which it has no support (making visible and offering advice on how to improve course alignment).

Proposition: Well designed extensions to an LMS that encourage and enable improvement of course alignment will increase the quantity and quality of usage of the institutional LMS and subsequent student outcomes.

In a more institutional specific aspect of this aim, is the observation that Moodle (my institutions LMS) already offers support for tracking student progress against outcomes. However, this feature, which is optional, is not even enabled within the institutional instance of Moodle, and is currently not being used. Even though, there are parts of the institution that want to use this sort of feature.

Proposition: Building curriculum mapping around Moodle’s student “tracking” functionality will enable and encourage greater use of the student tracking functionality.

Demonstrate innovation and leadership

Within my own institution I have heard Deputy Vice-Chancellors ask “Where is all the innovative learning and teaching? We used to be at the fore-front.”
I have seen universities claim how innovative they are being around curriculum mapping because they are moving from using a Word document as the course curriculum map, to using an Excel spreadsheet. It’s not hard to be innovative in this area.

Proposition: The ideas described here are innovative and if successfully implemented can enable the institutions involved to demonstrate leadership within the sector.

Enable the CDDU to engage more effectively with academics

I work for the Curriculum Design and Development Unit (CDDU) at CQU. While I am not a curriculum designer, curriculum design is a key part of what the unit does. For me, the overall aim of curriculum design is to help academics improve the quality of their teaching and their students learning.

Current approaches to curriculum design have little impact. Arguably, this is because of a number of reasons, including – but not limited to:

  • Mismatch between the instructional design process and how academics plan courses.
    As outlined above, the majority of academics don’t use a rational planning model for course design. Instructional design is typically guided by a rational planning model. This mismatch is incredibly difficult for most academics to bridge, or even understand. The mismatch, in many cases, limits outcomes.
  • Help arrives outside of the context of need.
    An academic usually has a problem or question about teaching, while they are planning or teaching (which as argued above, is typically not separate tasks for academics). Instructional design assistance is typically not available within this context of need. Instead the academic must remember their need, at a separate time remember to ask for assistance, and then try to remember and explain the context of need to the instructional designer. Is it any wonder academics don’t draw on expert help?
  • Instructional designer as the police or fire brigade.
    The only time you need the police or fire brigade is when you are in trouble. The association people build up of these services is, trouble. Academics can form a similar impression of instructional designers, we only see them when I have a problem. It’s made worse in cases when management directs the academic to see the instructional designer.

Proposition: Properly implemented, this approach can make it easier for curriculum designers to embed assistance into the context within which teaching is taking place. If this works well, relationships will develop.

Specific project stages

While the specifics of the project are up in the air, not the least because of contextual uncertainties, it is possible to identify a collection of likely project stages:

  • Explore what is possible with Moodle.
    Where I am now. Playing with Moodle and its current outcomes functionality to see how it works and where the limits are. To find out what might need to be done, what are the limitations.
  • Talk with external partners.
    In mid-April I’m going to Canberra to talk with folk at University of Canberra and find out what there interest is around this topic.
  • An initial local trial.
    Half in this at the moment, but more progress once the “exploration” stage is complete. Work with a couple of programs to get some initial “mappings” done. This might involve a bit of rough coding to enable simple practices. Again, getting more of an idea of the project and what needs to happen. The purpose of this stage is to generate something concrete to show people what we’re talking about, rather than rely on abstract hand waving.
  • Some “innovative” applications.
    Arising out of the last stage, the aim will be to generate some new applications out of the initial trial to illustrate what might be possible. To really show that this isn’t just about curriculum mapping.
  • Initial publications
    Around about this stage we should be in a place for an initial publication or two, to get the word out.
  • An ALTC grant application.
    This is by July this year.
  • Contributions to the Moodle community.
    Eventually, when/if we produce something useful. It has to be given back to the broader community.


Lattuca, L. and J. Stark (2009). Shaping the college curriculum: Academic plans in context. San Francisco, John Wiley & Sons.

Stark, J., M. Lowther, et al. (1988). “Faculty reflect on course planning.” Research in Higher Education 29(3): 219-240.

Stark, J. and et al (1990). Planning introductory college courses: Influences on faculty. Ann Arbor, National Center for Research to Improve Postsecondary Teaching and Learning.

Stark, J. (2000). “Planning introductory college courses: Content, context and form.” Instructional Science 28(5): 413-438.