In a previous post I started developing some ideas about the current assumptions associated with university learning and teaching which the concepts surrounding the nebulous term of PLEs bring into question. This post struggles with suggesting another one – consistency.

Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative


As I travel through my working life within universities I am bombarded with this idea of consistency. Some examples of how it crops up:

  • All course websites should have the same structure and appearance.
    The idea here is that students are confused, and are complaining about being confused, because the course websites for their courses are all different. They don’t know where to find things.
  • All text-based material produced by the university should use the same template.
    This is a hang over from the old print-based distance education days and I first wrote about it back in 1996.
  • Consistency of course delivery and student participation.
    The Australian Universities Quality Agency in its audit report of CQUni wrote

    As a University with multiple teaching sites, CQU has developed a system for ensuring the consistency of course delivery and student participation which may be amongst best practice in the Australian sector.

    When agencies tasked with auditing and reporting on quality assurance speak, institutions listen. Consistency of course delivery is important.

Problems with calls for consistency

Personally I find this emphasis on consistency simplistic, limited, likely to enshrine problems and essentially a complete and utter mismatch with the nature of learning and teaching, of people and the diversity between and within disciplines. Some of the problems I see with consistency follow.

Solving the wrong problem

When it comes to students not being able to find material on course websites, I would suggest that it is not lack of consistency that is the problem. It’s the lack of quality.

There are well established principles for the design of the structure and appearance of websites to maximise findability. Most of course websites are designed by people who aren’t aware of these principles using systems that actually make it really difficult to make use of those principles.

That’s the old style solution, good design.

The new style solution is to make use of a good search engine. The majority of folk don’t find things on the web by navigating through a course design. They “google it”. If the systems used by universities were able to provide a good search engine, there wouldn’t be a problem.

Often the call for consistency is an attempt to achieve quality through consistency. Which is essentially a cop out. What is needed is the much harder task of achieving quality through quality.

Remember, the prime example of quality through consistency is McDonalds. They are the same everywhere. I wonder how many universities want to be known as the McDonalds of higher education.

Diversity is a key component of innovation

It’s well known within the realm of innovation that one of the necessary (but not sufficient) conditions for innovation is diversity. Aiming for consistency will kill off innovation and open up an organisation to the threat of being unable to respond to changes in the market.

I’ve written about this previously and given some pointers to some related thinking.

Everything is not the same

Back in 1996 I wrote about a problem with consistency. The rules to keep consistency didn’t recognise an instance where the content was really different. Applying the rules broke the meaning. The rules of consistency didn’t apply in every case. There is inherent diversity.

Everyone is not the same

At the beginning of this week I attended a video-conference session by George Siemens. He started the session with an overview of what we know about learning from the research. One of the 6 points he mentioned was “Incorporates prior learning“.

This means that learning should aim to start with and be tailored to actively engage with the knowledge which each learner brings to an experience. It would be very, very rare to find any two learners with the same prior learning.

Another of the 6 points he made was “Is multi-faceted, multi-dimensional“. In that it treats the whole person. It engages with them and their situation. It is different.

What is it important for CQUni

I currently work for CQUniversity. This discussion is especially important given the recent push for the university to be associated with the brand/slogan “Be what you want to be”. As outlined here