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Monday, October 10, 2011

Shopping for a Curriculum Management System

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about the need for curriculum management in higher education--specifically in programs with defined standards and competencies required for accreditation.

Since then, I’ve been considering how a program should shop for a curriculum management system. Choosing the right system is a heavy decision. You want to have a really good idea of what you’re getting into before you make the commitment. The system you choose will affect the lives of your faculty and your students daily.

Before you decide on a curriculum management system, I hope you will consider the following questions.

Does it do what your program needs it to do?
For the programs we’ve been working with, this means tracking the standards required for accreditation and simplifying the accreditation process. As we’ve been researching the current practices related to curriculum tracking and mapping within institutions of higher education, I’ve learned many institutions are spending amazing amounts of time tracking curriculum. Some programs meet every month, some meet every week (usually in addition to lengthy meetings at the beginning of each semester) to go over each course and ensure it has met the standards and competencies it was supposed to. Programs are also spending incredible amounts of time preparing for their accreditation reviews.

With the right system, much of this work can be eliminated. A lot can be automated; the rest can be made easier using a web-based system in which information is centralized, giving members of the faculty access to the curriculum information all the time. The right system will also simplify your accreditation review preparation with automated reports and other features to make your review much less daunting.

Can it be customized?
Every Physician Assistant program is different, as is every Dental Hygiene program and every Chiropractic program. Though each and every Physician Assistant program, for example, must meet the same standards to be accredited, each program finds unique ways to serve and educate. Your curriculum management system must recognize that. Customization should include more than changing the font or a title. You don’t want a cookie-cutter solution. You should not need to adapt to the system--the system should adapt to you.

Was it designed to be a curriculum management system?
A generic content management system cannot merely be tweaked to handle your curriculum. You need something designed specifically for the unique needs presented by curriculum management. A generic content management system will not generate reports. It will not consistently structure your information. You’re looking for something that will simplify your life, not complicate it.

Additionally, a system that tries to do everything (admissions, online assessments, demographics, delivering pizza...) misses the point. Because it tries to do everything, it risks not doing any of them well. A system with an all-in-one approach may lack the detail you need to efficiently manage your curriculum. Focus on the needs your program has. Do you need admissions, or does your school already have an admissions department? You know you need curriculum management. Find a system that handles your curriculum extremely well--not one that manages it ok but also has a million features you’ll never use.

This idea goes hand in hand with customization. Ideally, the company you choose to work with will have experience and expertise in a variety of areas--certainly in curriculum management, but also in content management, maybe online examinations or catalog management as well. The more experience the company has--the broader their range of expertise--the better that company will be able to ensure that the system does all you need. If you have an incredible system for tracking your demographic information, but need a little help with managing your curriculum alignment, an all-in-one system probably is not for you. Why would you trash what you’ve already got going for you? The company you choose should be willing to work with what you have, build on your strengths, and give your program a boost where it needs one.

Is the system easy for your faculty to learn and implement?
Your entire faculty will need to use the curriculum management system to some extent, so you need to be sure it’s easy to understand and to implement. Curriculum management should not require extensive technical knowledge nor extensive training--you have more important things to do than study a technical guide or attend countless training sessions. Check out your system before you buy it. Is it intuitive, or do you guess where to find the information you need? Learning the right system should be a natural, easy process.

Does the company know what it is doing?
The company you choose to work with should have experience in curriculum management. Having experience in the field is the only way the system they build will be able to do what you need it to do. A company that works only in general content management can’t know what educators need and will therefore either fall terribly short of those needs or will take forever to get it right.

Is the technology up to date?
Before buying a system, you should make sure you see a demonstration of how it works. In the demo, consider whether the technology seems modern. Does it look like something built in the early nineties? Is it direct, or does every action require a circuitous path? You should also study the company’s web site. If it is not presented well, if it is difficult to navigate, your system likely will be as well.

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