The InterLearn Blog

All posts in the Curriculum Design category

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The Truths We Ignore about Faculty (and how to embrace those Truths)

I’ve seen it time and again…examples of exceptional teachers in higher education and some dismal failures.  We look to faculty to be the deliverers of our message and mission to the students at our institutions.  We hire them educated in their field of study and ask them to pass on the body of knowledge to our students from our institutional perspective.  

However, there are truths about faculty that we often ignore.  When we do, we do our students a severe disservice.  Here are some of those truths:

Adjunct faculty members and non-terminally-degreed faculty may be your best teachers. Maybe.  This is not a guarantee.  However, because they often have their “day job” to support them, they are often doing this because they want to give back, because they have a passion for it, or because they really have a good knack for it.

  • Embrace the Truth:  Don’t be afraid of using adjuncts liberally. Connect them with your full-time faculty in discussion groups about the field and what is happening.

In getting their education, faculty often miss the practical experience out in the field because the ivory tower is not field-based instruction.  As noted in the previous point, adjuncts are often employed in their “day job.”  Their job out in the “real world” hopefully aligns with their advanced degrees that they’ve put to use informing the field and letting the field inform what they’ve learned in their program.  However, many times those pursuing higher education faculty roles are not experienced in what the field is doing.  Instead they have the perspective of what the research has shown (at best) and an outdated perspective they gained in the ivory tower.

  • Embrace the Truth:  Connect faculty with field-based experiences through your field-based adjunct faculty in discussion groups about the field and what is happening.  Encourage your faculty to engage in field-based projects to gain more personal “real-world” experience. 

Faculty without accountability equals anarchy.  Without accountability to policies and standards through faculty assessment and reviews, faculty default to their latest whim.  We hope that they have a standard of decorum, but allowing the faculty to do what they want could be akin to telling a teenager to “behave” while you’re out of town for the week with no other adult supervision.  Will your place be standing when you get home?  How many times will the police be called to your house by the neighbors?  

  • Embrace the Truth:  Establish strong relationships with your faculty, first and foremost.  Leadership of them through relationship will allow for trust to be built between you and them.  So, even when you haven’t specified something that might arise, they will know you well enough to do what you’d prefer.  Develop an assessment process that holds faculty accountable for the things that your institution values.  Assure that they know the standards you have and that they adhere to them.  In the accountability system, find ways to catch them doing the right things exceptionally.  And a final point, if you don’t have it implemented, don’t implement a tenure system that avoids accountability for faculty.

Faculty are educated in their field of study, not to be teachers.  This is probably the biggest truth we ignore and I almost wrote the article just about this.  Most individuals reading this article are probably working with teaching institutions.  In those institutions, we expect faculty to know how to teach when they enter the academy.  In adult and online programs, where we use more adjuncts, we’ve figured out that we better do some orientation.  However, I rarely see much beyond an orientation for even that group.  Further, I rarely see even an orientation for traditional side faculty where they are expected to know how to teach.  Faculty, at best, come out mimicking the methods of their instructors.  That is a complete wheel of fortune model though.  Sometimes you get the $10,000 slot (in a few, rare instances).  However, “bankrupt” is all too often an outcome.  Faculty (may) know their content, but they are not often prepared to be good teachers.  

  • Embrace the Truth:  Recognize the commodity that you’ve “purchased” (the knowledge base of the faculty member).  Recognize that they have that but that the rest of their abilities may not be up to the standards that you have.  Then meet with all of your faculty to discuss good teaching and learning based on philosophy and theory that your institution has as part of its conceptual framework* for its programs.  Then train EVERYBODY that has faculty status. Don’t let them back in the classroom until they have gone through your training.  As noted above, assess for the things that you’re wanting to see in the classroom.  Then keep developing and training every year.  For faculty that are good at what they do, use them as mentors for more inexperienced faculty.  Set up content discussion groups and teaching methods groups.  

*If you don’t have a conceptual framework for your programs that you actually use to affect course development and delivery, back up to this step.  If you need help with this, call us.  

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Andragogy: the modern learning framework

The most common differentiation I hear between pedagogy and andragogy is the simple definition … the art and science of teaching children (pedagogy) or teaching adults (andragogy).

Well, that defines the term, thank you … but how are these differences conceptualized? How does it change how I look at designing curriculum, planning for facilitation, or evaluating outcomes?

This infograph is a good representation of why we look at pedagogy and andragogy differently in all three critical roles of 1) instructional designer, 2) facilitator/teacher, and 3) assessor/evaluator.

When you look at the elements that constitute pedagogy and andragogy, it’s no longer about kids versus adults in my mind. It’s more about comparing industrial era learning practices against our current era needs for a lifelong learning journey.

Recently, our Senior Instructional Designer, Dr. Marian Willeke, was involved in the emergence of an agile compass for education, and it is this mindset that helps us align to the androgogical principles in design, facilitator, and assessment roles.

  1. We need to move from the pedagogical prescriptive behavior to iterative learning that involves visibility so that all stakeholders (including the learners!) have transparency with the learning intentions and outcomes.
  2. We need to move from the pedagogical approach of content, content, content to a focus on the culture of learning and addressing the ‘why.’ Mike Wesch at Kansas State provides excellent perspectives on the importance of ‘why’ for humans to learn.
  3. We need to move from the pedagogical drive for evaluation to an environment of visible feedback and reflection. This isn’t a suggestion that evaluation should go out the window. However, taking an assessment, test, or quiz with a feedback of which items were wrong a week later (if you’re lucky) doesn’t inspire the learning values. It is important to partner with the students in a learning journey.
  4. We need to move from the pedagogical controls we see in in learning environments to a space of trust where students can truly discover rather than be informed. Discovery is motivation for self-direction.
  5. We need to move from pedagogical competitive nature to a shared, or co-owned, experience that can only happen with authentic collaboration. This is the essence of where our soft skills and social intelligence is derived. Robotic information acquisition will not result in empathetic, critical thinking human behavior.

These five points are the compass points that Agile in Education provides, and aligns so well with the principles of andragogy. So when somebody asks you the difference, it’s not about kids or adults. It’s about knowledge acquisition versus a learning journey.

Written by Dr. Willeke

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The Mindset of Online Curriculum Systems

The phrase of change is the new constant is one that is sometimes frustrating to embrace. This is a surviving mentality … we have to change to survive. Frankly though, survival is no longer good enough. Thriving is the important mindset to develop, which requires two things: saying goodbye to the old and embracing innovation. This isn’t a requirement to change the world though; rather, it’s a strategy to stay true to your vision and being flexible on how you achieve it.

One of many complex reasons that these changes are upon us is based on consumer demands. Our adult learners have created a new traditional way of learning … a way of learning that demands speed, demands competency development, and demands diverse media. The effect on instructional design is thus to ensure that we have scalable curriculum for adjunct faculty (addresses speed and diverse media options) and use authentic assessment (addresses competencies).

Bad news though. Those are points of survivability. True, if you don’t have those, then focusing on those are important. However, let’s look at innovation, and see what our consumers (adult learners in this context) are looking towards.

Just a few trends to watch for that Frank Smith gave us in Ed Tech include the ability to analyze data, incorporate gamification, ensure personalization, and streamline mLearning (mobile learning options).

Data Analysis

Our current state is that Learning Management Systems (LMS) are a falling out of the sky. It’s a consumer’s choice now, giving us the ability to focus on the real values. Whistles and bells are fun, but frankly distracting if overdone. Your top priority, other than user experience, needs to revolve around data collection. Statistics, completion times, time spent on pages, and frequency to pages are just very basic data points you must gather to help group patterns and work towards personalized learning options.


There has been a lot of experimentation around this concept, giving non-gamification experts more to consider. It can’t be ignored though. Learners retain as low as 10% of what they read and down to 20% of what they hear. When we perform tasks ourselves, even in a simulated environment, the number shoots up to 90% retention, according to Frank Smith. Even if these numbers aren’t pure science, which I doubt they are, step back and take a look at the big picture. Reading and hearing is much lower retention of knowledge than experiencing. That’s the bottom line. So yes, we need to take this seriously.


It may feel conflicting when I note the value of scaling your curriculum, and then turn around and note the need to tailor it to the learner! In reality though, personalization options are very feasible within pre-set scalable curriculum. A few include providing optional ways for a student to perform an assessment, providing different ways for the learner and the facilitator to present content, leverage the student’s personal interests in research projects, and for advanced consideration, even allowing students to choose their own learning path.


This is something consumers want now, and is even provided by many LMS’. The concern though is that higher education hasn’t caught up well for a systemic and effective way to leverage mobile learning to be that seamless experience we demand from Facebook. Also, we have to treat the presentation quite differently. This is NOT a “smash the current stuff in an app” scenario. Cognitive overload is high and the more we can intentionally limit exposure to learning in chunks, the better for them to effectively learn, feel good about it, and stay in the program.

So my challenge to you are two questions.

  • Are you in survival or thrive mode?
  • Which intentional practice are you going to pursue first?

Written by Dr. Willeke

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Creating Program Oriented Curriculum

Let’s make an assumption that you have achieved or have an intentional path towards the mindset of online curriculum in terms of systems thinking. You’ll notice in my post on The Mindset of Online Curriculum Systems that I have a focus on the value of scalable curriculum in order to meet the consumer demands of accelerated learning. To really serve the adult learner’s need for fast and relevant learning, adjunct facilitation because a crucial aspect to scaling success, and in that, curriculum must also be standardized.

Something else important is providing the space to ensure personalized learning. Indeed, by choosing what is standardized, you can focus the learning experiences to be very personalized. Standard learning approaches, presentation, rubrics, and expectations provide the creative space for well-trained adjunct faculty to innovate, and the reflective space for learners to make decisions more relevant and immediately applicable for their own needs.

This really brings to high value the need for adjunct facilitator investment. I am not referring to the orientations or tools training. I’m referring to the exposure of coaching approaches. There is never a one-size-fits-all due to different audiences, different degree programs, and different facilitator skills. However, academic coaching practices are a key mindset for a facilitator to embrace, and for the administration to support.

The ultimate distinctive to ensure in your efforts to have curriculum fit within a program architecture is having the program be sellable and effective. Not only do your adult learners need to experience motivation and relevance from your program, but we need to help them be marketable, as Amy Mayer humourously helps us understand.

Organisations do not care about formatting standards, test taking, or rubrics. They want their employees to be articulate and skills in the area they are being hired, with a major bonus for those with the soft skills of decision making, critical thinking skills, and communication skills. However, we have to motivate learners to complete a program that provides these skills in order for them to be successful in their desired careers.

Understanding the Adult Learner

Adults are typically pretty goal-oriented. Our prospective adult learners want a promotion, a job, or a better job. Perhaps a different job. Bottom line, we’re looking at career goals. There are challenges though around the fact that adult learners usually have been out of school for a number of years and are frankly, afraid. Imagine being in a very dark room with no visible way out but you have a smart phone with GPS, somebody yelling at you, and you hear somebody trying to reach you. This is the overwhelmed emotional state many adult learners are.

As such, we have to keep it simple. Keep the programs very goal-oriented. Benchmark and research deeply into your potential programs, making sure that it is very applicable to a developing career. Then build around that program to help people develop specializations within that field, staying focused on the expertise skills and continual development on the soft skills. Your typical adult learner isn’t on a self-proclaimed fast track to post-graduate work. They are wanting proficiency immediately applicable for career development.

No silver bullet!

Just remember the biggest key of all. There is never, ever any silver bullet in this set of complex systems. If you are weak in your curriculum design, faculty investment, recruitment, advising, or financial aid processes, your chain will weaken. As such, it is critical to have cross functional teams as no one person can solve or advise on all of these topics. Lastly, and utterly most importantly, ensure the stakeholder representation of all levels. As there is an ever towering hierarchy of most institutions, we must keep in mind that our front line employees face the majority of the problems, and typically can solve them, as Patricia Lotich examples so well in her iceberg of ignorance!

Written by Dr. Willeke

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Creating Options for Learners

As noted in the Curriculum Design for Online Programs recording from the ABHE workshop, it can feel like a conflict to urge prescribed learning while pushing options-based learning. However, not only does it go well together, but the prescribed learning provides more space for the facilitator to provide options-based learning.

Prescribed learning (see more in Prescribed Learning for Adults), whether higher education curriculum or corporate training programs, provides the framework that is assured to scaffold throughout the program. Strong programs have an excellent architecture in place supported with well-designed learning. The prescribed flow is best developed in a centralized capacity, guiding the experience and knowledge of subject matter experts into the prescribed framework.

Centralization isn’t necessarily a popular decision (see more in The Role of Centralization in Higher Education), and there are good reasons for that. Dolan’s research study in 2011 titled The Isolation of Online Adjunct Faculty and Its Impact on their Performance reported that online adjuncts perceived low cultural connection, being taken for granted, and communication from the administration to just be disciplinary. Meanwhile, the administration’s perception was that communication was positive, even if not every single individual would be satisfied.

However, if centralized development is handled effectively, such as vision setting and framework development with a mission to be a conduit of information rather than a dictator of it, then such development can be extremely powerful. The challenge with any centralized tendency is to let it go and trust the stakeholders with it. Give the robust program and curriculum to the faculty as a structure to guide them. Don’t micromanage the content thinking that will improve the learning experience. Invest in your adjunct faculty’s training so that they make the content come alive.

Here is where options-based learning is not only real in the context of prescribed learning, but more possible as well. If a solid framework is provided, then a facilitator has a lot of slack to understand the learner’s needs better and ensure that connection between the knowledge and the individual.

By being able to take the time necessary to assess each learner’s needs (do not confuse the term assess with testing), the options-based learning can come into full effect.

While this can go on at length, you can see the pattern. Let’s stop thinking that groups of learners’ are going to have the same skills, same proficiencies, and ready to take it to the next level. A strong framework gives a well-trained facilitator the capacity they need to ensure true learning and maximize options based on those learners’ needs.

Written by Dr. Willeke and with contributions from her post on LinkedIn at Options-Based Learning.

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The Role of Centralization in Higher Education

There has been a push in elementary education across the grades to de-centralize curriculum development. However, there is a danger that the collegiate world of curriculum development knows all too well …. that decentralization is a breeding ground for silos. As noted in our post titled Prescribed Learning for Adults, there are extremes, and we have reaped the benefits with standardized tests on one extreme and a disorganized learning experience with no quantifiable feedback on the other extreme.

In reality, if one is going to have any kind of prescriptive curriculum, there is a certain necessity for centralized planning. However, to swing us into balance, and alignment with the discussion in the Prescribed Learning for Adults post, we need to determine the roles between the centralized development and individual instructors.

Monson and Monson presented this same question in Who Creates Curriculum? New Roles for Teachers. with an examination of which parts of curriculum development were collective versus individual based on the Curriculum Inquiry Model, where the centralized decisions focus on outcomes and what should be assessed while the instructors focused on the specific learning strategies for the assigned outcomes and what additional materials may be needed.

“Yes, but this article is for K-12 and was written 25 years ago!”

Indeed. Yet as higher education grapples with figuring out how to scale programs and curriculum effectively, we are now needing to address the same concerns. Clearly we can’t have full-time faculty creating curriculum autonomously and expect to scale. Clearly we don’t want to repeat the mistakes of K-12’s dictation of our standardized learning. We have to do it the collaborative way, with articulated roles for each contributing body.

Bottom line?

Centralized planning is needed, but it must be re-purposed to collect information and make decision for the architectural framework, providing the capacity for instructors to personalize the learning to the student needs.

Written by Dr. Willeke