Why we need to change how we design courses.

There are many courses out there that do a great job of teaching manual, dexterity and physical capabilities. From bricklaying, hairdressing, to gas-fitting, there are course that are focussed around manual processes. However, there are huge numbers of graduates from tertiary programmes that cannot perform duties required of employers on day-one simply because they have not learnt how to do something. Their learning may have been told ‘why’, and even ‘what’ is expected, but it has not enabled them to perfect the skills associated with the ‘how’.

It remains remarkable to me that so many course and programme specification documents, replete with (sometimes well-formed) learning outcomes, have NO psychomotor outcomes. There are few courses that could not be improved by including an assessed outcome associated with using a tool or technology.

To prove the point I asked colleagues informally before Christmas whether they could think of a course where there was NO tool or technology use in play. Without further prompting, most agreed that Excel skills, SPSS, CAD tools, even library databases all required a degree of incremental competence but that these had not been in any way ‘taught’, let alone assessed, within their courses. One provocateur suggested that their course required only the ability to write and reflect. It took little effort to unpick this given that writing in this context requires a word-processing package, formatting, style sheets, spell-checking and in-text-citations, all of which are assumed graduates skills. This colleague stood their ground, suggesting that they were not employed to teach those skills; that was someone else’s responsibility.

This may be at the root of the challenge. Thirty years ago (when many of our current educational leadership graduated) your three to seven years spent at University was a valuable time spent in proximity to the sources of privileged knowledge, the esteemed Professor or the library. You had a whole life after graduation to develop the rounded skills associated with being whatever your chosen lifetime employment might be. That is simply no longer the case. The ‘academy’ no longer contains the privilege knowledge. We have democratised the information sources. Even those who embark on a lifelong vocation will find the landscape around them continuously changing.

Access to the LinkedIn Learning resources, and the cornucopia of free web resources, has allowed some institutions to negate whatever obligations for manual, dexterity and physical skills development they might feel towards their students. Some course weave these external resources into the learner’s experience, others totally abdicate responsibility and deem it part of the independent learning required of learners.

One reason for this lack of attention paid to the acquisition of psychomotor skills is because it is thought harder to assess someone’s psychomotor skill set that it is to test their knowledge, and by extension their intellectual or cognitive skills. If I can’t meaningfully assess it, I’ll just avoid teaching it. It is also a function of the ‘curse of knowledge’, given that faculty have acquired their psychomotor skills in a particular technology or tool over an extended period of time and they have failed to either document that learning or indeed to reflect on it.

There are some well designed courses out there. I hope you designed or teach on one. But there is still a significant deficit in the in-course provision of support for the acquisition of psychomotor skills associated with tools and technologies in a range of disciplines. We need to design courses across ALL disciplines that are rooted in the skills that graduates require to handle the uncertain information, technology, and socio-cultural environments they face. This means designing courses first around psychomotor skills, interpersonal and affective skills, then meta-cognitive and cognitive skills. Then, and only then, should we worry about the factual knowledge element. We need programme and course designers to be designing with different priorities if we want to make learning appropriate for the contemporary learner.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Author: Simon Paul Atkinson

30 Years as an academic practitioner, educational developer, educational technologist, e-learning researcher, strategic advisor. Simon is now an Educational Strategst and Consultant. Experienced presenter and workshop facilitator. Formerly the Head of Learning Design at the Open Polytechnic of New Zealand. Previous roles included Associate Dean for Teaching and Learning (BPP University), Academic Developer (London School of Economics), Director of Teaching and Learning (Massey University - College of Education), Head of Centre for Learning Development (University of Hull), Academic Developer (Open University UK)

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