Startup Aims to Help Colleges 'Tune' Their Curriculums

Digital Learning in Higher Ed

Startup Aims to Help Colleges 'Tune' Their Curriculums

By Jeffrey R. Young     May 8, 2018

Startup Aims to Help Colleges 'Tune' Their Curriculums

Professors can be “haphazard” in designing their courses, and a course often changes considerably when a new faculty member comes in to take it over. As a result, college departments don’t always have a clear sense of what it is they are trying to teach students.

That’s the argument made by Maria Andersen, a former college instructor turned entrepreneur. A year ago she co-founded a company that makes what she describes as “the 'AutoCAD' of learning design,” referring to the popular drafting software. Andersen calls her product Coursetune, and she is marketing it primarily to colleges who are working to redesign a campus program or going through an accreditation process that requires them to show outsiders what they are teaching.

So far 27 institutions are using the software. Often, instructional designers at those colleges will sit down with professors to guide them through entering information about their courses into the system, such as each learning objective, test or assignment.

Some course-management systems already promise features that help track learning objectives for courses. But Andersen says such options are usually an afterthought. In fact, she sees things like learning objectives as a key datapoint missing in some college efforts to use data to make decisions or to improve their courses.

“Everybody’s talking about making data-driven decisions, yet they don’t actually know what students are supposed to be learning in these courses, so they’re looking at click patterns,” she says. In other words, some data-driven projects focus on what items students click on within a course’s Web site without fully accounting for what learning actually took place.

Some professors, especially in some liberal-arts courses, push back against the broader trend of stressing detailed learning objectives that Coursetune emphasizes, out of concern that it makes courses too prescriptive, notes Derek Bruff, director for the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University. “They worry that there’s no room for serendipity in this kind of thing,” he says. Other departments or programs may be more receptive to the idea, he says. While he hasn’t looked at Coursetune, he believes that such a tool could help in the design process.

The pharmacy school at the University of Pittsburgh is among those starting to use Coursetune. The school is working on an experimental overhaul of its curriculum to break it into smaller modules designed around core competencies it wants students to learn, rather than to think in terms of traditional courses, says Randall Smith, senior associate dean for the school of pharmacy.

“We can’t afford anymore to have wasted classes,” he says.

Instead, the plan is to offer “a stack of competencies that will give you a degree” that students can more easily customize.

To keep their planning straight, he says the school considered eight or nine different vendors, most of them course-management providers, before settling on Coursetune. The selling point for him was an images tool that can create a picture of what is included in a course.

“They’ve created a way of visualizing your curriculum very easily,” he says. “It can show what’s missing—an objective you think is important, but it’s not shown in any course.”

Andersen, the company’s CEO and co-founder, so far has bootstrapped her startup without taking any venture backing. She says the meetings she has had with potential investors left her wary of going the venture route.

“There’s this need for this unicorn-esque growth” by venture-funding firms, she says. “We were told by a lot of VCs that we need to immediately pivot to the corporate world because that’s where all the money is.”

Her company’s main interest is to focus on issues faced by colleges, she says, “and we don’t have to be billionaires doing it.”

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