Never Put The Roof Up First

I had a great coffee meeting on Friday with a friend and colleague (who will be feeling self-conscious if he’s reading this now) and we were talking about a number of things, some education related, some research, some relating to the fact that the coffee shop was closing early. He reminded me, however, of some of the most important lessons I learned last year when I finally got the chance to produce a new Computer Science course from the ground-up, with no previous offerings at our Uni. So, with thanks to Jono, here are the things I learned about how to build a course, in a building metaphor to allow me to draw pretty pictures:

  1. Buildings Don’t Just Happen
    Fortunately for the building industry, bricks do not spontaneous leap together to form load-bearing structures. Resources need to be identified, plans need to be drawn, tasks need to be allocated. The fundamental requirement is that you know what kind of building you’re trying to construct!
    Similarly, for my course, I had to work out what I wanted to teach by looking at the curriculum to determine the scope and area. I had to figure out what students already knew by looking at previous courses and performance. I had to work out what people expected my students to know in terms of overall degree, courses that used mine as assumed knowledge and pre-requisites, and in terms of how much more each area would be taught. Once I knew that, I had my overall goal in my head and I had a much better idea of what I was supposed to be doing.
    Yes, I could have just put together a course on advanced C++ programming with some data structures but any meeting of the goals I was supposed to have been achieving would have been accidental. You don’t ask a builder just to build you ‘a house’.

  2. Never Put The Roof Up First
    You can’t put the roof on a building until there are enough supporting structures. Same process in a course. You can’t build to advanced concepts without fundamentals. You can’t generalise in a meaningful manner without knowing when to use specifics. For me, having determined my goals, sketching out all of the concepts in turn allowed me to think about how I was going to relate them. How I would move from one to the other. We can generally all agree on what the key concepts are but there are some ways of ordering them which are better than others. Ultimately, don’t start with the capstones! Things without support fall down.

  3. Think About The Occupant
    A well-designed and well-built building is a fantastic thing. Everything is in the right place, everything works. When all of the resources and plans have been assembled and used in a way that the final realisation is optimal for the occupant, happiness ensues. We’ve already talked about our goals and concept building – is this now set up in a way that works for your students? Are you building for one cohort or all of them? Is there space for different academic levels in the student body (because they will be there) or will people pass “if they’re smart enough”. Who will be in your course? Are your course features going to be appreciated as features? Are they even, being brutally honest with yourself, features… or rationalisations?

  4. Get It In Writing
    The builder does not pass on instructions via psychic powers. Apart from anything else, there are too many people to talk to, some of whom may not even be on site. Your carpenters, plumbers, brick layers, electricians, inspectors… the list goes on and, if you had to constantly check every little thing every time, your building will never get built. Good, and large-scale, builders not only have plans, they have specific plans for specific jobs so that everyone who works for them knows what they need to do as part of the bigger picture, with the spotlight on their area of expertise. Once you know concepts, relationships and targets, you can put together a plan that anyone can follow, assuming that they have the skills, to build you the house (or the course) of your dreams.
    Your overall plan could include your examination scheme (what’s in it? what form does it take? how long is it?) which assesses all of your target concepts. Built around these are the details of examinations, assessments, exercises and the lectures and content required to pass all of this on. Do you need a course provided in Blackboard or Moodle? Any special requirements? You can spin off a sub-section and get it to the right person so that, instead of waiting until the beginning of term and doing it in a flat panic WHEN they can find you, the relevant people can create what you want from your plan. Got TAs? A good design and plan will show them what they are lecturing, when and what you expect them to highlight. Yes, you’ll still need management meetings along the way most likely, but this will save you a heap of work later.
    Time spent now will almost always save you more time later and make your life easier.
    Think about it. What happens if you get really sick and someone needs to sub in? What would you prefer? A phone call during your prostate surgery that screams “Your course is on C++, what do they know?” or an e-mail that says “I’ve got all of your notes and plan. I’ll run that in-class quiz from the scratchies you prepared. Did you want me to cover anything else?” (Hey, I know, chances are you’re going to get called anyway because people are people but good preparation and planning will make the call shorter. 🙂 )

  5. Sometimes Things Go Wrong
    Builders are lovely people but, from my experience, if one told me that the work was going to be done tomorrow, I still wouldn’t buy the champagne until a week from now. Complex assemblies of things are prone to interruption – whether big builds or entire semesters of new content. You can’t expect everything to go to plan. You have to allow yourself some flexibility to cover those situations that will occur in a new course. You won’t necessarily pitch the course at exactly the right speed. Do you have additional activities if you get through lectures more quickly? Do you have a disposable slot in case you need to extend a lecture. Or you get sick. Knowing what your core material is allows you to quickly refactor the course and keep the good stuff in (which you’ve already identified and is already in the exam, maybe) and get rid of some fluff.
    What? No fluff? It’s ALL core? It’s going to be a long exam then! More seriously, can you move lecture content to tutorial, or extend an assignment a little, or put up a podcast, or arrange an extra session? If the answer to all of these is ‘No’ then you want to know this before you waste days of your time trying to make it happen. Sometimes things go wrong. A plan can help.
    A bird flies away with the house while the builder talks on the phone about a small delay.

This is, most definitely, not the definitive list of things you should know but it’s certainly at least some of them! It was a fascinating process to go through. Next time I hope to make my attempts to live up to my own goals even better. Fingers crossed. 🙂


One Comment on “Never Put The Roof Up First”

  1. Alex H says:

    I’m amused to see you using this particular metaphor, considering the nature of the building you’re currently working in 🙂

    Mathematicians do tend to put the roof up first. “Let’s hang this pretty thing in midair for a while, then think about what needs to go underneath to hold it up”.


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