Prototyping in higher education course design

Universities can learn a lot about how to develop courses from product design. In England, a student will spend over £27k on course fees and give up three years of work to take an undergraduate degree, and they put their trust in the course team to make this worthwhile. The combined student tuition fees and education contracts in the 2017-18 academic year were £18.7 billion. At this size, the development of new courses should be a finely tuned process; many institutions have begun to invest heavily in making sure courses this is the case by hiring teams of Learning Designers. Learning Designers adapt many good practices from software and product design to develop offerings that meet the students’ expectations and long-term needs. Prototyping is one such tool helping universities develop great courses.

Prototype: a first or preliminary version of a device or vehicle from which other forms are developed.

Oxford Languages

Prototypes are used to test a solution before the institution invests heavily in the full development of a finished product or service. In higher education, prototyping allows Learning Designers and course teams to test the learning outcomes, course narrative and student journey with prospective students before committing resources to develop it. It enables these teams to create increasingly complete versions of a course over time as an iterative process, reacting to regular feedback and changing trends. Prototyping a course should reduce development time and the need for changes once the course is live. It allows faster identification of the optimal model and avoids the trap of investing heavily in course offerings with significant flaws. 

The idea for prototyping comes from evolutionary software development, where a first version is built from a rough specification and presented to users for feedback. Each prospective user experiments with the prototype and makes suggestions for improvements or refinements to the design. The development team then makes improvements based on this feedback and gives it back to users for further testing. The prototype and improvement process is iterative, repeated until the product is where it needs to be for launch. 

Iterative prototyping process:

  1. Paper prototype
  2. Proof of concept
  3. Functional prototype
  4. Minimum Viable Product (MVP)

A paper prototype such as a solution presentation or module map is used as a conversation with students and demonstrate the offering to test whether your offering fits their problem or need. Once the idea is proven to be worth investment, a proof of concept can be created; this is an internal technical test to see if the product can be built with available technology and tools. Once the product or service is approved in principle and proved to be practical to deliver, a working prototype that approximates the final product without being fully finished is created, and further user testing is carried out. 

Once the product passes the working model stage, a minimum viable product, the simplest possible customer-ready version, can be built and delivered and sold as a functional product. The product continues to go through developments based on feedback throughout its lifecycle, making sure it remains fit for purpose.

The prototyping process means users get to try the product early. It helps narrow down specifications, and users are more likely to accept the system if they have been involved in developing it. There are some downsides; the first versions a user sees might be of poor quality due to the speed of development, it is not always clear how many iterations the development team should carry out. Prototypes are often built without maintenance in mind making it harder to support long term.

There are two main ways to use prototyping. The first is evolutionary prototyping, where the prototype will become the final system once users satisfied. Significant maintenance work (refactoring) may be needed to keep these products running efficiently, so some people chose to start again once the final design is agreed upon. This second method is called throwaway prototyping, where the initial iterative development is used to determine requirements and then discarded. The product is then built from scratch with quality and maintenance in mind. Throw away prototyping can have a higher upfront cost and slow down the final product launch but should deliver higher quality and a cheaper to maintain end results.

Using prototyping in course design

In the course or module design process, the paper prototype as a module map can be created as the output of a design process such as the UCL’s ABC workshop. A proof of concept represents any technical testing needed to deliver the course vision, and a working prototype could be one hour or so of the course built in the VLE. A working prototype should be tested with at least five potential students in one to one interviews to pick up significant trends in how prospective students feel about the course’s viability. 

The Minimum Viable Product is the first run of the course with live students. It is generally accepted that a course needs at least three cohorts to reach maturity, with refinements after each run; Quality Matters (QM) even suggests that a course goes through three complete cycles before a QM review is carried out. Your Course design process should have reviews built-in after each of the iterations to make sure identified changes can be made.

Get in touch with me on Twitter if you want to chat about course development ideas.

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