Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Over emphasis on design and bugger all on maintenance

I have a quote from software engineering that I have been quoting for a long time. It’s from Glass (2001) and says that when building software, 40 to 80% of the costs are going to be for maintenance. i.e. Only from 20 to 60% of the costs are going to for the initial development or purchase.

Maintenance is something that takes more money than design.

I feel the same thing applies for courses, especially online courses, within universities, especially those with which I’m familiar with. In terms of time spent by academics on their courses I rank activities in the following order

  1. teaching the course;
  2. maintaining/modifying the course;
  3. designing the course.

Designing the course is generally the activity they do the least.

Question: How many staff have actually designed a course?

Increasingly in my context, academics are simply taking a course that someone else has created. Due to the nature of this context many of them tend to make changes only when absolutely necessary, and many don’t then. This is due to a number of courses being taught all year around – which means no one academic can have ownership of it

Question: Is there any difference in the answer to the previous question based on characteristics of the course (e.g. # times offered, # of campuses etc)?

The problem

Sometimes the processes, people, research and products intended to help academics with the courses show an unhealthy focus on design and creation of courses and little on maintenance. Which is a mismatch, if staff spend the majority of time teaching and maintaining courses.

I’ve seen this in course designs and systems that offer some support for design, but offer little support or consideration of on-going maintenance. For example, a kludge in using a LMS that achieves a design goal but requires hours of additional work each time the course is reused.

I’ve seen evidence of this in senior management who think the solution to problems in courses is to engage an instructional designer to help the academic to re-design the course. An approach that ignores the majority of what people do.

I’ve seen evidence of this in organisational processes that place emphasis on the creation of artifacts (course profiles, course websites, features of course websites) and little to no consideration of what happens for the tasks that take up the majority of time spent by academics teaching.

Ideas for more thought

  • Quantify some of the anecdotal “evidence” I’ve mentioned above, especially the questions above.
  • What are the factors that encourage/require an academic to make changes to a course?
  • What are the features provided by a LMS to support maintenance? How effective are they? e.g. the course copy feature in older versions of Blackboard had some fairly significant limitations.
  • How do the (do they?) processes and policies of an institution impact on where academics spend their time?
  • What are the impacts of all of the above on the quality of learning and teaching?

I’m sure there are many more.


Glass, R. (2001). “Frequently Forgotten Fundamental Facts about Software Engineering.” IEEE Software 18(3): 110-112.


Lessons from place


Quality assurance of learning and teaching


  1. jocene

    What are the factors that encourage/require an academic to make changes to a course?
    Ans. AUQA
    The problem is always about the extrinsic motivational factor.

    • Actually, I’d even argue against the proposition that
      AUQA = academics change course

      I think it’s a lot more indirect than that. I don’t think AUQA plays a very large role in the day to day live of academics.

      I think it’s more like this
      – AUQA is coming soon
      – Organisation gets worried
      – Sets up or beefs up unit responsible for preparing AUQA submission
      – They analyse what is required and identify weaknesses
      – Those weaknesses are then raised at senior levels of the organisation
      – Any concerns start to dribble down the hierarchy until it gets to coal-face academics
      – At this stage they may change courses

      But even by this model, I think the amount would be quite small.


  2. To a large extent I believe you’re correct about the extrinsic motivational factor. But I also think that is wrong and also that it’s incredibly difficult to change.

    All of the best teachers at university that I’ve known are intrinsically motivated. They are driven to understand how to improve their courses.

    While the system relies on extrinsic factors – and does so badly – then any form of academic staff training and development or curriculum design is wasted.

    At the moment, too much of the system is focused on things that encourage a reliance on extrinsic factors and are actually harmful to intrinsic motivation.

    What are they? What can be done to change it?

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