Higher Education Consultants and Course Design

The Gatekeepers demand cookie-cutter courses

Gatekeepers love to charge others with producing ‘cookie cutter’ education, but are completely oblivious and unaware as to their own central role in producing these results. Ironically, some of the biggest critics of students and higher education providers are those least innovative and imaginative!

University graduates have been criticised for undertaking ‘cookie cutter’ degrees, essentially qualifications that produce graduates who share similar attributes, attitudes and knowledge. That this is disputed by groups like Darlo Higher Education, along with various leaders, has been controversial at times. Critics who blame the universities that educate them as ‘cookie cutter’ usually have a political agenda and an axe to grind with change.

Among the most puerile and hysterical criticism is that private higher education providers (and content creators generally) develop cookie-cutter courses. The idea, it seems to be, is that having professional curriculum writers and course designers writing materials and resources will lend itself to ‘mass produced, unoriginal, or duplicated content’. This is sheer nonsense and flies in the face of well-established higher education course design methodology, and is one of the most hysterical furphies of the anti-private higher education establishment.

Do Universities Produce Cookie Cutter Students?

What does cookie cutter mean? There are various definitions, but we have chosen a contemporary one. According to the Urban Dictionary, Cookie Cutter refers to items that are:

“Marked by sameness and a lack of originality; mass-produced. Often used to describe suburban housing developments where all of the houses are based on the same blueprints and are differentiated only by their color.”

https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=cookie-cutter

Mass produced, same colour, same blueprints. What does this sound like? It sounds to us like the mass produced university education model of the 1960s. The unfortunate consequence of this system is that is compromises innovation in the system and results in a limited range of curriculum and course designs that meet, charitably, academic standards. It is unfortunate that regulators are investing in accrediting courses that only conform to the expectations of their paid consultants to accept or to reject (i.e. paid academics on their “experts register”).

TEQSA Templates and Course Design

The bias of TEQSA’s academic expert register is not something that is commonly noted publicly. However, in discussions with various industry colleagues and associates, there is a common perception that paying consultants (i.e. academics) to review courses is akin to paying staff from Coles or Woolworths to evaluate whether or not they want to have competition in their neighbourhood. Some have even likened it to paying competitors to trash the reputations of other academics and private institutions. We are not sure how that is helping to protect the reputation of Australian education, unless it is to support bullying.

The diversity in the private higher education sector, as noted in the Higher Education Guide, is what really adds colour and variety to the system. The Group of Eight universities are remarkably similar, all fighting for rankings on international academic and research scales. If that does not create conformity, or cookie cutter, behaviours, we are not sure what would. Fortunately for Australian students, it is private higher education providers that provide any colour, originality and uniqueness within a dreary backdrop of ‘cookie cutter’ MOOCS and university courses.

Beware of VET ‘Experts’ with their Competency Based Assumptions

Unlike Darlo Higher Education which treats each client as individual and unique, other sole practicing higher education consultants have been guilty, in the past, of selling ‘blueprint’ documents for all and sundry. The naivety (and absurdity) of selling policies and plans for $15k a package aside, the assumption that there are blueprints or fixed designs is really a characteristic of VET/ASQA design. With our interest in building internal capabilities within organisations, Darlo Higher Education is particularly keen to see the development of private higher educators in governance and operational areas. Unfortunately, we are continually needing to re-educate prospective higher education providers that the assumptions of higher education are based on ‘critical enquiry’ rather than competency-based training. This is why there needs to be such a sharp contrast between vocational education and higher education.

Higher Education Course Design and Critical Enquiry

Higher education course design is based on the abstract idea of critical enquiry. While we have undertaken academic research into critical enquiry and ‘critical thinking skills’ (more generally), it is often left deliberately abstract by academics.  In contrast, vocational education hinges on competency-based skills. By nature competency based education encourages standardisation and uniformity. Some may say this is ‘cookie cutter’, but it would be misinformed. Whether serving coffee, fixing an electrical problem or giving a haircut, the hope and aspiration is that students across Australia will be able to perform at a similar level of service. Many vocational education background consultants seem to have only a narrow way of viewing higher education as a process, as a similarly standardised one. This does a great disservice to students and fundamentally misstates the differences between higher education and vocational education.

Textbook publishers and professional course designers/academics approach learning design in similar and different ways. For pedagogical purposes there are a range of design options available. This includes designing units and lessons, followed by activities and exercises that reinforce learning. This is a small part of educational design, however. The alignment of graduate learning outcomes, attributes and materials create customised and original designs. The review by academic course committees, higher education coordinators, and teaching and learning staff all create interpretations, inputs and designs that differ for courses. Indeed, across universities and higher education providers, one should be hard pressed to find identical courses. This is because they are based on the design principle of critical enquiry, as opposed to the convergent ‘competency-based design’.

Mass University Education Needs to Change

Of course, governments love uniformity and standardisation. As much as the rhetoric of innovation appears in newsletters and pamphlets, the essential ways of teaching and learning for the majority of staff and students remain unchanged for over a century. There does not seem to be any interest in opening up the system or embracing different approaches to education. Online education has largely been conducted independently by organisations, many hoping to avoid much of the red tape and folly of regulators. Rather than attempting to address new skills and workforce requirements, the baby boomer Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, simply laments that there are too many law students being educated and that many (most?) should be discouraged from even attempting in the first place. This is despite the fact that former law students are the ones bringing in innovative ways of distributing the law that disrupts and improves access and the establishment gatekeepers.

Creating ‘cookie cutter’ courses (or mass produced courses, a la the universities) creates elements of standardisation. This is largely dictated in regulations and standards. For instance, requiring higher education providers and universities to focus on ‘winning degrees’ by reporting favourable attrition and other performance data, including key elements in course design such as graduate attributes, course descriptions, indeed a templated blueprint in the accreditation application forms, encourages a blandness and conformity that prevents innovation. However, those are the rules that have been agreed upon by the higher education cartel and paid gatekeepers, and ones that must be followed.

Academic bodies of knowledge are increasingly standardised with the globalisation of learning and resources. Would it really surprise academics and critics that large publishers and text book writers determine the knowledge that is uniform across subject areas? The peer review system has been demonstrated countless times as problematic if not crony and corrupt. The problem then is ideas and practices only endorsed and protected by a closed peer network are considered valid, while open and accessible learning is not. Many publishers support academics to use specific textbooks, thereby, creating the replication of similar ideas and knowledge as ‘foundational knowledge’. This is most often repeated by Professors and Associate Professors as binding standards of knowledge, rather than contestable and subjective ideas that can be scrutinised.

Will Unique, Original and Different Courses be Accredited? We Hope So.

The final element of ‘cookie cutter’ course designs is considering how to create unique, original and customised qualifications. As Darlo Higher Education has a team of experienced academics, specific to particular subject areas, and with ‘validators’ at senior levels in universities, we capture best practice, while working directly with clients to help them introduce content specific to their organisation and teaching and learning strengths. While we often receive requests to help design courses, Darlo Higher Education consultants insist that organisations build internal capabilities and strengths in course review and course design. While we are not opposed to the ‘outsourcing’ of courses, as shortly most courses and academic qualifications will be created by machine learning, we are not so oblivious to the fact that there is an expectation from the regulator that they want organisations to demonstrate their strengths in this area.

Customisation of courses and qualifications take time for private higher education, but nothing like the sheer inefficiency and waste that happens at most universities and TAFEs. The idea that an internal higher education group of academics can produce something institutionally as can be undertaken outside of mass education, cookie cutter standards and processes is not an argument that can be well sustained. Indeed, many universities have, or are looking at, establishing new companies to bypass the inefficiencies and waste of administration that characterises large organisations. Following academic research in the area of innovation, it has been found almost impossible for large, mature and declining organisations to innovate at the same level as smaller, more nimble, disruptive organisations.

Higher Education Consultants Respond To, Not Decide the System

The advice for those who prattle upon about ‘cookie cutter’ courses is to be aware that they more than likely do not understand the system. Government regulators and those on the nose in the ‘Quality Standards’ clique are largely clueless about their contributing and prescriptive roles in limiting innovation and design. It is more than a bit thoughtless and rich to blame the poor students, private higher education providers, or higher education consultants for reacting to the inefficient and strangled gatekeeping system that regulators are promoting. Then again, they are regulators, not educators. An important point to remember.

Copyright 2018 (c) Darlo Group.