How many ways can you describe a course?

During the early stages of our OPMS project, it became apparent that most courses have not just one or two but many published freeform text descriptions of their content.  Currently, these are mostly created in Word documents, distributed internally and published via various web and paper routes.  In order to scope this information set, it was decided that I would undertake an audit by approaching the academic departments responsible for five specified programmes, on in each of our Faculties.

This work is still ongoing, but I am beginning to analyse the findings.  When visiting departments, I have tried to gather copies of all of the available programme descriptions, to determine responsibility for their creation and maintenance and ask for details of the processes involved.  Back in the office with the various descriptions in front of me, I have firstly mapped the links between descriptions available online using Visio, and secondly copied the descriptions into a spreadsheet and used a colour coding system to analyse their content (for example, blue indicates a mention of the learning aims of the programme, while brown indicates text about the department’s reputation, facilities etc.).

My findings so far include:

  • Each programme I’ve studied has between 5 and 8 descriptions, some of which do have significant overlaps
  • The descriptions include course marketing texts on the prospectus, departmental websites and external aggregator sites; student handbooks; formal programme specifications and drafts of HEAR 4.2 texts
  • Audiences include prospective students, current students, accrediting bodies, internal quality assurance staff and graduate employers
  • Different programmes focus on different aspects of the programme, e.g. knowledge gained or the employability of its graduates.  This is mostly done with consistency across programme descriptions published in different locations.
  • Shorter texts, such as the prospectus entry, are more likely to have broad coverage e.g. a sentence covering each of the programme aspects I identified, while longer descriptions such as those on departmental websites are likely to closely tailor this to a particular portrayal, e.g. repeatedly highlighting the flexibility of the programme.
  • Responsibilities for creation and maintenance of these descriptions varies widely between departments.  In many cases, responsibility for updates is not well-defined – perhaps the Head of Department will decide that updates are required across the board when a significant change occurs in a programme, or sometimes someone will spot that something needs updating and direct it to the programme leader, or a member of support staff.

The next step after completing this analysis is to decide what it means for the OPMS project, and I will post about this at a later date.