Friday, March 11, 2016

Names vs Intent and Contents of Programs and Courses: Experiential Learning Case Study

There is an interesting academic issue related to the name of a course and its relationship with the intent and contents of the course. Over the last 20 years in academic management of curricula at several universities involving design of degree programs from bachelors to PhD level and introducing scores of new courses and monitoring their execution over time has taught me the following lesson:  The name of a course always trumps the intent of the course contents irrespective of what we may write in the outlines about the learning outcomes and what we specify as the contents or pedagogy. Once a new intent of the course is defined under an existing name, the intent quickly loses its spirit once the initial drive and focus wanes and shifts elsewhere.

In this post I discuss several examples of why as curriculum designers we should always change the name of the course if we are deciding to change the intent and objective of a course. Also, why we should be wary of defining similar sounding names for courses. We explore several reasons that lead to this reality and why our academic management systems should allow the academics to flexibly change the names of the courses.

Theoretically, each course is associated with a course file that contains the outlines, interpretation, learning outcomes, and several such things. Teachers do initially read the course details and intent, but often modify and reinterpret and may even question and just go ahead and modify the contents. This is the strength and the fun part of the semester system enjoyed by the faculty members. It is not always possible to have a committee review all courses every semester. The course teacher is the field commander, whereas the committees are the GHQ sitting far removed from the action. The action on the battlefield and the emerging situations always trump the strategies made in the headquarters!

Major problem with teachers in Pakistan as with students and with rest of the masses is that we are poor readers. Especially, reading soft copies of the documents (which are often too soft) is that they are just skimmed and most of the times never read.

A major issue at the university level is that there are often several different faculty members teaching the same course during a given semester and from one semester to another. The knowledge about the intent of the course and its objectives dilutes over time and the successive handing over of the course from one teacher to another. In universities with large student populations, a course may be assigned to different teachers. Teachers come and go. A visiting faculty member may be assigned one course during one semester and another during the next one. Frequency of change among the visiting faculty members is even higher than the permanent faculty members.

Even if there are large number of permanent faculty members, it is difficult to schedule course sections in a way to ensure that all sections of a course are being taught by the same teacher.  In universities where there are 3 or more sections of the same course, chances of the same course being taught by different teachers even in the same semester is high.

Greater the person distance of the discussion that led to the new intent or introduction of a course from the teachers teaching the course and greater the time that has elapsed between the decision about the intent and the offering of the course, greater are the chances of the intent of the course being misinterpreted or modified. Many a times, the course name acts as a primary vehicle for the determination of the contents of the course, especially if at the university level the academic administration is burdened with managing hundreds of sections every semester.

Confusion over Similar Sounding Names

During the 1996-7 revision of the MBA MIS program at IBA, we introduced a new course by the name of ISM (Information Systems Management). Mr Zaheer Asif, a fellow faculty member, had provided a nice book that dealt with the corporate management of the IS/IT departments of business organizations [1]. It focused on the power structures influencing the selection of technologies, obsolescence of information systems, paradigms for deciding about centralization of systems vs decentralization, audit and life cycles of systems etc. The approach and content of this book was far different from the typical MIS (Management Information Systems) books that were popularly used and that dealt with IT and Information Systems for various levels of management and for various functional areas of organizations. As long as Mr Zaheer Asif (now a PhD) or I were teaching the course, it was all fine. But, as our attention moved elsewhere we soon found that in the hands of a new faculty member, who had not been part of the design of the ISM course, the course morphed back into just an advanced version of typical MIS introductory text. Later when I introduced the same course with the same name at a different institution, it was difficult to keep the course execution focused on our original intent. Soon we had to abandon the course altogether.

Moral of the story was that the name of the course should not be similar to the name of a more popular course which has a wide following in different institutions. It is likely that when the original designers of the curriculum and the intent of courses are not there or are looking the other way, the content of the course may soon morph into the more popular understanding of the course. Each teacher tries to bring in to the course his own experience into the course.

Confusion over Changing the Intent of the Course without Changing the Name

Historically Consumer Behavior had been an MBA elective course at IBA during the 1980s. As such its status as an advanced course had become established and ingrained in the mind of senior management professionals in the industry. As an advance course, Consumer Behavior is treated as how to change and modify consumer behavior using brand strategies.  A few years ago there ensued an intense debate in the marketing department over Consumer Behavior whether it needs to be an advanced course or an introductory course. The department decided that it ought to be an introductory course because any advanced course in marketing relies on understanding the psychology and behavior of consumers. The argument was inline with the prevalent philosophy in the management stream where Organizational Behavior course typically precedes any advanced course in management. I had suggested that we should change of the name of the course and include in its name the word "psychology" before changing its sequence and bringing it from a latter semester to the first semester. However, in view of the strong stance of the department, the sequence was changed without changing the name. The result was that as a Dean, I started getting even our own adjunct faculty members, who were not privy to the philosophical shift about the change in the intent of the course, coming to me and pointing out the "error". I tried connecting these well wishers to the department and also tried to the best of my ability to explain the shift to students and teachers. However,  I soon realized when I saw emails from a few alumni pointing out the issue that it would be futile to try explaining this shift to all the people out there in the field and who would also probably be interviewing our students. The community out there in the industry is just too large who had taken this course as an advance level course. The poor graduate would have difficulty in justifying in an interview why the course is there in the first semester. Also, an outsider who does not know about the change in intent, may even think that the university had been lax in implementing the pre-requisite policy. Hence, we had to decide to change the name of the course and modified it to "Consumer Psychology and Purchasing Behavior". Here this name clearly signifies that the intent is focusing on psychology of the consumer and the ensuring purchasing behavior and not the role of a brand in modifying the consumer behavior. Latter with the change of the HoD, the entire scenario once again turned back 180 degrees, and the course had gone back to its previous advance level position.

Moral of the Story: Never change the intent of a course without changing the name of the course. 

A similar issue arose with the course Introduction to Programming in the CS department. Historically in Pakistan we have only been aware of this course as a C-Language based course as part of the structured programming stream of a CS curriculum. As per IEEE Computer Society, bachelors curriculum of  computer science can either be built on a structured programming language (like C-Language) stream or an AI programming language (like Lisp as at MIT) stream or an Object Oriented Programming Language (like C++ and Java) stream. In the structured programming stream, the first course is C-Language followed by C++ and so on. Whereas in the OOP Language stream the university starts with C++ (or some other OOP language) and just adheres to the same stream for most of the advanced courses. Similarly for other streams. Given the issues as highlighted in my other post on Why PBL: An Experiential Learning Case Study of Language Teaching, we decided to use a visual C* object oriented programming stream in an IDE environment. As the latter decision makers had not been aware of these philosophical debates, and the new teachers had not understood the entire historical reason for the switch and who had been previously exposed to only the structured programming stream, they reverted the first course to C and hence the entire coherence of the stream was lost by replacing that course. This happened because we did not change the name of the first course  and only tried to change the intent of the course using visual C* as a vehicle, therefore, soon the course had reverted to its more popular meaning and prevalent execution which uses C-Language as a vehicle.

Confusion over adding prefixes to the established course names. 

The above example indicates the confusion that may arise with similar sounding names. The name of MIS and ISM had just the acronyms in a different place. Similar issue also arises when a more popular course name is prefixed with the word Advance, for example, Operating Systems vs Advanced Operating Systems, HRM vs Strategic HRM, Financial Management vs Advance Financial Management. This is the classic differentiation problem that we encounter in marketing. I sometime equate this to the famous FMCG product variations of Lux, New Lux, Super New Lux, etc. Similarly, Surf, Surf Excel, Super Surf, New Surf, Extra New Surf, .... These variations may make sense to the vendors who may have spent a lot of time designing the new mix, but to the user it makes no difference.

Similarly, a curriculum designer may have a very clear view about the level of a course like "Operating Systems" and its distinction with the "Advanced Operating Systems", but the second course in the hand of a visiting faculty or even a full-time faculty member who has not been involved with the curriculum design and the concrete meaning of advance may create awkward situations. My experience of reviewing such courses some years later had been exasperating. The contents of the two courses were typically found to be similar or different depending upon who was teaching and when.

Some other interesting examples are Principles of Management vs Foundations of Management and Financial Accounting vs Intermediate Financial Accounting. These changes are often cosmetic to indicate the difference between may be the first course of the undergraduate BBA program vs the first course of the foundation stage of the MBA program. The result of defining such variations adds nothing except a clutter in the directory of courses, and the intent of the two course as to the difference in the program and the level of the students is completely lost on the assigned teachers.

The effort of keeping the distinction of the base course with the advanced course is too cumbersome over a number of years, and over successive lines of teachers and across campuses and across programs. To expect that the designer of the curriculum and the executor of the course are always in sync is too much to ask.

Lesson: It is therefore in the best interest of the institutions to come up with names that explicitly indicate the contents and intent of the course and also clearly differentiate one course with other such courses.

Students and even teachers lose more than what they gain through the use of such confusing names.

Confusion over adding numeric suffixes to the course names that are not two different things but a continuation

The course names like the following never add any thing in meaning or intent and need to be avoided: English-1 vs English-2, Final Project-1 and Final Project-2, Intermediate Financial Accounting-1 and Intermediate Financial Accounting-2, SDP-1 and SDP-2, Business Communications-1 and Business Communications-2 etc.

The only justification for adding such suffixes is that you have two final projects and you put Final Project-1 and Final Project-2. However, if you want one to be an extension of the other, then unless the concrete meaning of that extension is made a part of the name, suffix 2 will always turn out to be nothing more than a glorified first course!. The second course in the sequence would always be fighting for its identity and would become a shuttle cock in the hands of the teacher and the student. The teacher always trying to put "some" extension in the course without being clear, and the students always trying to drag the teacher to the previous level to reduce their study load. 

Confusion over using a Course that extends its Intent to other unrelated Domains

Having run out of space for more English courses in our curriculum as explained in my post Managing English Teaching Outcomes in Universities: An Experiential Learning Case Study of ESL/EFL, we thought of using the courses Islamic Studies and Pakistan Studies for additionally complementing the English teaching. Our redesigned intent was that the course would be used as a vehicle for teaching English. However, this did not happen because a teacher who had been given Islamic Studies is more interested in teaching Islamic Studies than English. Similarly for Pakistan Studies. In a few semesters as the focus of the academic heads moved away from English, the courses began to be conducted with the intent as encapsulated by their names.

Moral: A course could never mean more than what its name signifies. Never add content to a course that does not fall within the domain of the course.A vague name leads to vague contents.

Concrete Meaning of the Course or Program Name

One of the most interesting experiences I have seen is the identity crisis of MIS and IT courses and programs designed around these two acronyms. They could never completely differentiate from whether they related to pure computer science or to hard ware or only software. The program BBA MIS and MBA MIS that started with much fanfare in the 1990s had fizzled out by the late 2000s. These programs remained in a perpetual identity crisis: They could never define whether they want to develop techies or managers. I found the MBA MIS graduates of IBA, actually, never mentioning the suffix MIS in their degrees. They chose to just write MBA on their CVs and would only mention MIS if they chose to apply in an IT related position.

The identity crisis arises because of the competition from both management side as well as computer technology side of the hybrid that MIS represents. If the job is more technology oriented, CS background graduate would always trump the MIS hybrid graduate. Similarly, if the job is more management oriented, then a regular MBA degree holder would always trump an MIS hybrid graduate. After repeatedly trying for over a decade to salvage the fortunes of MBA MIS, I finally came to the conclusion that the problem was in the name of the program (i.e. MIS) that could not clearly define the job scope and job designations. Around ten years ago, I finally changed the name of the MBA MIS program to MBA ERP and BBA MIS program to BBA ERP (and then to BS ERP) that the intent of the program became clear. We were finally able to liberate the MIS programs from their identity crisis. The word ERP clearly identified the job scope and job designations as implementer of the off-the-shelf-software ERP systems, and the result was that the students were happy and the employers were happy also.

Moral: Never give a name to a program that can not be perceived by students or their parents as signifying a concrete job space.

What is in a Name?

This brings us to the interesting philosophical debate of the name determining the structure and, in turn, influencing the contents and even the intent of whatever is included in that structure [2].


[1] Corporate Information Systems Management: Issues Facing Senior Executives, James I. Cash, Published by Irwin Professional Publishing, 1996, ISBN 10: 0256182132 / ISBN 13: 9780256182132

[2] Deconstructing Development Discourse: Buzzwords and Fuzzwords by Andrea Cornwall and Deborah Eade.

See Also:


  1. Thank you very much for putting insightful observations and experiences together. Hardly any work is done in these areas. In many institutions, you may find the similar course contents of two different courses e.g. Principles of Marketing and Marketing Management. Moreover, elements of psychology are crucial but missing in several courses such as marketing, consumer behavior, branding, organizational behaviors, to list a few.
    Current global trends consider and include practitioners’ perspectives into the courses. In fact, this aspect is generally ignored in course design and program development. Although quality assurance flocks have appeared on institutional horizon, very few found working to make change and establish the culture of quality where they toil.

    1. You are dot on target. We need to go beyond the names of the courses down to their contents and the evaluations of their learning outcomes.

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  3. Significant parts of the blog are unfortunately misperceived, specially what transpired in the Marketing Department.