When students talk of incredible educational experiences, nobody says “wow that textbook was incredible.” So why do we spend so much time fretting over the exact readings we give our students? Even worse, bad curriculum seems to cause negative reactions, yet great curriculum never receives fanfare. In student surveys, curriculum is only mentioned for students who are upset with the course. It’s never the reason students love the course. Students love their course for the teacher. Course creators and teachers should focus on the course story arc, learning objectives, structure, and assessments. After those core elements are developed, creators should find external curriculum that fits their needs and start teaching. Over time, you’ll see where custom curriculum is needed via student feedback and results.
Why You Should Use External Curriculum
It’s faster - Writing stellar curriculum takes a long time. My rule of thumb is four hours of writing for every one hour of student material. This means even short classes can all of a sudden take months to prepare. This giant time investment for students to not even notice is heartbreaking.
You learn more quickly - Just as in product development, creating a fast feedback loop is critical to creating courses that work and that students want. Instead of spending months creating a course and then teaching to see if it works, spend weeks using external curriculum and start teaching. Learn from student results and feedback. Then iterate. Over time, this may mean swapping out curriculum or even writing custom materials. Instead of operating off of what you think will work, use external curriculum to operate off of what is proven to work.
It’s more up-to-date and easier to maintain - If you’re in a field that is always evolving like software, the most common complaint from students is the curriculum is out of date. Course creators need to also factor in the maintenance of the material when choosing to write their own. Using external curriculum means you never have to think about maintenance.
It’s probably good enough - Unless you are doing original research on curriculum, external sources are probably good enough. They may teach topics slightly differently than you would, but often they don’t teach it incorrectly. Those curriculums were created by professional curriculum writers, often with entire editing teams behind them and many years of student feedback to tweak them. That’s a massive leg up your class gets over custom curriculum.
Where It Makes Sense To Write Curriculum
Rarely will a single curriculum be able to match exactly your vision for the course. Most likely, you’ll have to pull together different modules from different sources to create a single course. With even the best curriculum, I find I still have to write my own curriculum in three places: assignments, assessments, and transition material.
Assignments. I’m not sure why, but every curriculum I’ve worked with never has enough assignments. Students need many low-pressure opportunities to show their skills. This requires a lot of smaller assignments that almost always have to be custom-created. Additionally, this idea of many small assignments is how I believe teachers get the best signal on how individual students are doing and how best to support them. People with a pedagogy background call these formative assessments.
Assessments. Externally built final assessments rarely encompass everything I'm looking for. Instead, I often start with the provided assessment and add to it to cover all my learning objectives. I often use the provided assessment and then have to add to it to hit every learning objective I want to hit.
Transition Material. It will be obvious to students when they are transitioning from one curriculum provider to another. Don’t try to hide it, but do build in transition materials that smooth over those transitions.
Over time, you may replace different sections of curriculum until one day it’s all custom. That’s fine. The key is when you are first starting out, leverage external curriculum so you can focus on how the student will interact with the teacher and the story arc the course is trying to tell. How do you approach course creation? I’d love to hear from you and discuss more. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org