Course design

Course design is hard. Here are some of the challenges, and how CyberCourse helps authors cope.

Course goals and constraints

Obviously, course goals should inform course design. The goals might be of the form:

By the end of the course, average students should be able to do tasks A, B, and C, by themselves.

Unfortunately, goals of traditional courses are more likely to be:

We’ll cover chapters 1 to 12 in this textbook.

Such coverage goals are unrelated to task performance.

Student time is the most serious constraint on course design. Students might devote a total of 120 hours to a typical three-credit class, including both in-class and out-of-class study time. Some students can do a lot of skill learning in 120 hours. Average students can do less.

Traditional skills courses often have so many topics that average students cannot use deep learning in the time available. The predictable result? At the end of semester, too few students can complete tasks independently.

The obvious solution is to cut the number of topics. However, professors used to traditional coverage courses may complain that important topics are missing. They might not see the value in having more students being able to complete core tasks.

Authors need to take great care in choosing course outcomes, especially for courses designed for other professors to use. It is the most critical task of authorship. Task-based goals might make the most sense for skills courses, like programming and writing. However, it might be difficult to get others to go along with task-based goals.

Course structure

Chain courses

Most courses are structured like chains. Chapter 1, then chapter 2, then chapter 3, etc.:

Chain course

All students cover the same material in the same order, no matter what their ability or interest. It doesn’t matter if Kevin fails the chapter 3 quiz. Next week, it’s on to chapter 4.

As the course goes on, more students are left behind. They switch to shallow learning, and vow never to take another course on the same topic.

Leaf courses

There’s another way. Suppose that there are four tasks that are critical. They are tasks that students must be able to do if they are too succeed in the next course. There are other tasks that it would be good for students to know, particularly those who plan to major in the field.

The course might look like this:

Leaf course

All students learn tasks 1 to 4. Weaker students use all their time just on those. By the end of the semester, they can do tasks 1 to 4 independently. If they go on to the next course, they will have a chance to succeed.

Stronger students will learn how to do the core tasks more quickly, in, say 60 of the 120 hours available. They can move on to the other tasks.

Cyco course design features

CyberCourse has features to help authors design courses. Here are the main ones.


Cyco encourages authors to design courses before they jump in and start writing content. To that end, each course can have one or more blueprints. A blueprint is a separate set of pages about the course’s design. There are pages on:

  • Author goals. Why make this course?
  • Instructor goals
  • Instructional contexts. Who are the students? What do the know when they start the course?…
  • More…

Students can’t see blueprints. Authors and instructors can, plus people whom authors invite to review a course.

Learning maps

Learning maps help authors visualize course design. Authors use them in blueprints. Here’s a learning map for the skill “Find information with Google”:

Learning map

Skills are in yellow. Two subskills are components of the main skill.

Students learn skills by reading content, looking at examples, and doing exercises. The blue and violet boxes show the experiences that help students learn.

The learning map feature exists in a prototype. It will be a while before it is stable enough to be added into the main Cyco distribution. The feature will change between now and then, based on community feedback.


Course design is hard. One of the main challenges is choosing course outcomes. Traditional courses are topic chains (chapter 1, and chapter 2, etc.). Students who get lost at the beginning may never catch up. An alternative is a leaf design. All students learn how to complete a few core tasks. More advanced students learn how to do other tasks as well.

Blueprint are sets of pages documenting course design. Blueprints are separate from course content. Only authors, instructors, and reviewers can see blueprints.

Learning maps help authors visualize course content. Learning maps are used in blueprints.