When the Loon has a new course to design, she starts a (completely disorganized stream-of-consciousness) list of what she thinks students want and need to learn, assignment ideas that will inculcate that learning, and whatnot. She does the usual competitive intelligence work—similar courses and their syllabi, competency lists (much though she hates them, she knows her courses will be measured against them, so becoming aware of them is instructorial self-defense), relevant job descriptions—to add more grist to her list.
Once the spate of ideas has slowed to a trickle, she reorganizes and culls the list into a week-by-week course outline, ideally with a strong narrative throughline. Here, constraints enter the picture: time, students’ pre-existing knowledge (which in areas the Loon teaches tends to be either nonexistent or—most frustratingly—a strongly bimodal distribution), time, infrastructure, time, the Loon’s own knowledge, time, and did the Loon mention time? One semester is not very much time at all, and the Loon can only decently make claim to a slice of student time per week. Much of the list disappears at this stage—well, not entirely; the Loon does keep the discards in case she is wrong on the low side about how much time a given topic will take such that she can pop another topic in.
Building the above course skeleton takes quite a bit of (this word again) time. Fleshing it out—readings, assignment descriptions and weights, the fiery error-prone hell that is course-management system setup—easily takes five to seven times that time. What the Loon is saying is, thoughtful student-centered course design takes a lot of time.
(The Loon knows some people just find a textbook. Bluntly and immodestly: the Loon is better at course design than they are, and her courses, course evaluations, and student success show it. That said, if course design is not one’s strong suit—and even the Loon has blundered at it from time to time; it’s not reducible to algorithms—there is some sense in outsourcing it to people who have at least had to think about it as they build a textbook.)
At last, the Loon has a course she’s happy with and believes students will be—if not “happy with,” at least “the better for.” But she is not done, oh no, building a good course is never enough. It is now time for the Attack of the Learning Outcomes. If you remember that scene from The Fellowship of the Ring (Moria, if the Loon recalls correctly) where a horde of little skittering reptilian goblin-things pours down the ancient stone pillars to overwhelm the Nine—yes, it is rather like that.
Now, the Loon quite understands that learning outcomes came about as a response to the sort of worthless classroom experience driven by an ego-laden bloviator who bloviates endlessly on whatever he (and yes, in the Loon’s direct experience these are “he”s) wants to bloviate about, heedless of what students might want or even need to learn. The Loon has been a student in that classroom, oh my yes, and she wants the bloviators stopped as much as anyone. They are legitimately awful.
But setting a horde of little skittering reptilian goblin-things on every single instructor daring to enter the course-design caves, the Loon included, cannot continue to be the answer it presently is. The learning-outcomes craze is thoroughly out of control, and it leaches the Loon’s course-design time and distorts her courses to zero productive purpose.
Consider a fairly typical course-design challenge for the Loon. The course will be mixed graduate/undergraduate, and must count toward the library/archives master’s degree. Already that brings in ALA accreditation standards and the master’s program’s overall learning outcomes (also mandated by ALA—not in so many words, but these days no school without a statement of overall learning outcomes can expect to pass an accreditation review). Two sets of learning outcomes, and we’ve hardly started! Both graduates and undergraduates are subject to various course requirements outlining their overall progression; for each requirement the Loon wishes her course to meet (given that meeting listed requirements raises enrollment), she will have another set of learning outcomes dumped on her.
One course she designed has no fewer than five sets of learning outcomes to cope with:
- ALA accreditation standards
- library/archives program learning outcomes
- learning outcomes related to a specific requirement in the graduate program
- one undergraduate minor’s learning outcomes
- one undergraduate breadth-requirement’s learning outcomes
The Loon cannot simply declare that her course meets a given requirement, of course; that is a loophole bloviators can and will drive shiploads of useless bloviation through. No, most sets of learning outcomes come with a committee of enforcers (if you suspect the Loon mentally casts them as Uruk-Hai, you are quite right) and each committee of enforcers demands that the Loon prove her syllabus not only meets, but directly assesses, their learning outcomes.
Satisfying the enforcer committees, in the Loon’s experience, takes not only a significant commitment of Loonish time writing convincers—because enforcer committees cannot possibly be expected to read and understand the syllabus, oh no, it must be pre-digested and regurgitated for them like pap for a loon-chick—but a significant commitment of time back-and-forthing with each committee while it puts its self-important oar in. Worse yet, the sort of assignment that satisfies an enforcer committee as direct assessment of an outcome is very, very far from isometric with the sort of assignment that in the Loon’s experienced estimation is best for students.
All of this is time the Loon cannot spend actually making student experience better in her course. She is heartily sick of this, fond of her students and (if we are to be honest) vain of her teaching as she is.
The Loon is so frustrated by this farrago of sluggish half-witted bureaucracy that she blew up outright when her not-a-boss came to her asking her to make an existing course meet yet another set of godforsaken learning outcomes. (The Loon should have quietly but firmly said “no, that won’t be possible,” or “well, this will take a significant outlay of syllabus-redesign and committee-wrangling time; given that enrollments are healthy, is it really worth the effort?” She knows this, and is sorry for her outburst.)
But good heavens, are we supposed to spend our time teaching or meta-teaching? The Loon certainly knows which she finds more worthwhile.