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The development of external course material

Ann Wilson
External Course Development Unit

This research sought to establish some basic principles for the development and design of distance education courses at the External Course Development Unit of NSW Department of TAFE. The research falls into two distinct parts. Firstly, a literature search was undertaken to review recent thinking on the fundamental issues in external course development. The results of this part of the research were written up in a number of papers. The second part of the research involved the development of a number of staff training programs concerning the implementation of the new proposals. Thirdly, materials for a course in photography were developed on a pilot basis using this methodology, The paper concludes with a description of the practical outcome of this research - the development of a prototype expert system to assist in the production of external courses.

The External Course Development Unit of NSW TAFE is responsible for the development and production of TAFE courses for external delivery. This development process involves an Education Officer from the Unit, an author who is a content expert appointed in consultation with the School responsible for the course, and a reviewer also appointed by the School. The curriculum from which the external course is developed is the curriculum used by face to face students. The author's brief is to develop the course assisted by the Education Officer.

The Education Officer assists in terms of: instructional design, the pacing and sequencing of instructional events, the page layout and typographical considerations. The author's competence lies in the field of subject expertise. The reviewer is expected to review the material in terms of content accuracy and relevance to the syllabus document. To produce quality educational materials the educational structuring should be provided alongside the subject development. The provision of an instructional designer alongside the content expert is costly and an inefficient use of resources.

Typically, because the Education Officer to author ratio is 1 to 4, the educational structuring of material is provided after the initial writing of materials. Far greater efficiency could result if the educational editing and content output were concurrent.

The solution appeared to be the use of a computer whereby the expertise of the instructional designer could be provided in an accessible and structured way to the content expert. We explored the use of an expert system in which an automated consulting system provides the user with expert advice on instructional design applied to external course development.

The first stage in the system development was to research the information base, and develop the knowledge base, the procedures and protocols embodying good practice in instructional design and editorial considerations.

As most courseware produced by the External Course Development Unit is print based, the research concentrated on the particular issues of print based delivery.

Firstly, a literature search using the ERIC system, reviewed recent literature on several topics considered, after discussion with practitioners, to be the more important. This produced ten formal essays addressing the issue of sound educational practice in the design and delivery of external courseware.

  1. Stages in subject design
  2. Sequencing instruction
  3. Structure in text
  4. Behavioural objectives
  5. Mathemagenic behaviour
  6. Advance organisers
  7. In text questions
  8. Illustrations
  9. Assessment
  10. Typography.

Stages in subject design

This represents one possible strategy for curriculum development by Education Officers. The stages described here can be regarded as a protocol for subject design meetings conducted by the Education Officer and the Reviewer, but might also include the writer in the later development of the writer's brief.

The literature on subject and course design is vast and complex. The choice of theory to follow can be simplified into theories that discuss the implication of educational theory and others that are concerned with educational practice. This proposal follows the work of Posner and Rudnitsky. They identify nineteen steps in course design. This method was adopted by the External Course Development Unit along with practical steps to be remembered in developing of a subject.

Rather than list the nineteen steps I will discuss them more briefly under headings.

Guidelines for getting started
(steps 1-3 ) Examine the motivation for planning, the audience for the subject and the current approaches to the subject including how the subject is taught in the face lo face mode.

Developing a subject outline
(steps 4-10) Using the syllabus document and the statement of subject aims, formulate the central questions in the subject, list the intended learning outcomes, and categorise these into skills or understandings. Then construct a flow chart of the ILOs and construct a conceptual map of the subject for a panel of teachers to review.

Further structuring
(steps 11-19) After the review, consider the subject rational, and categorise and order the ILOs. Then cluster the ILOs into appropriate categories and select appropriate instructional foci. Title these groups and review the units and events sequenced within the units. Finally, specify the instructional design features, rationale for each unit in a subject and appropriate behavioural evidence for the ILOs.

Sequencing instruction

Sequencing instruction can refer to two elements: firstly, the sequence of the subject - the order in which things are or should be taught - and, secondly, the sequence constructed by the student. The concern for curriculum designers is whether there is a best method for determining in what order concepts, knowledge and skills in a subject area should be taught. The presumption is that if there is a best method then by revealing it and using it, the curriculum design aids teaching of the subject. The problem for education is not just the need to specify what is to be learnt but also in specifying how it is to be learnt.

There are several educational theorists who explore the issues of task analysis and the sequencing of instruction. Gagne uses the term "learning hierarchy" to denote a set of specified intellectual capabilities having an ordered relationship to each other. Learning hierarchies are intellectual skills or cognitive strategies not entities of verbalisable knowledge. Constructing a learning hierarchy in any given subject reveals the order that the subject should be taught.

The problem is how to predict the optimal sequence of events. Different theorists have different methods for revealing the optimal sequence. Some theories work particularly well with particular subjects, for example, Gagne works well with the physical sciences, while Bloom's taxonomy was developed from the study of examination questions. Other theories apply particularly to different domains of learning psychomotor, cognitive or affective.

Strategies for sequencing and synthesising material aim to help instructional designers break the subject matter into small pieces, order the pieces, teach them singly and then combine them based on their interrelationships. Two types of instructional strategies have been identified to provide sequence and synthesis: macro strategies concerned with structuring skill and knowledge repertoires, and micro strategies concerned with teaching individual ideas.

Two steps are required to construct a sequence: identify the elements and select the organising principle. The issue of the sequence of subjects for external delivery is a particular case. Several methods exist for developing learning hierarchies. The research indicates that Education Officers at the External Course Development Unit should become familiar with a number of different techniques and theories in the field of learning hierarchies, and develop a range of skills in sequencing and synthesis.

To this end the Unit developed a number of staff training programs to implement these proposals.

Structure in text

Structure in text is an attempt to cater for students with different learning and reading strategies, and with different learning needs. The problem for instructional design is whether the design should be developed for individual student learning differences and therefore consider all possible differences in interpretation of the text, or if it should follow a consistent line of reasoning. Recent research suggests that it is preferable to design text suitable for a variety of learning styles and methods.

Learner control subsumes a range of variables. Learner control of content includes curriculum selection, lesson or objective selection, and segment or module selection. Learner control of strategy includes display selection and selection of conscious cognitive processing. Learner control does not have to be deliberately built into instructional materials as to some extent it is present in all printed materials.

Research suggests that it is not enough to present materials so that learners can access materials in their own way and at their own pace. Development time needs to be given to assist learners to realise the potential of directing their own learning.

Structural clarity of printed matter is a function of space which is the primary dimensional variable the printed page must provide a reliable frame which the learner can move away from and return to without confusion.

Pacing and sequencing are important educational decisions made when page design is formulated. Pace is concerned with the speed at which new ideas are encountered, and with how much extraneous detail or supplementary material each new concept needs. Sequence is concerned with the order in which ideas are received.

In distance education decisions about both the sequence and pace of materials are ultimately a student's, therefore the nature of the devices utilised must be made explicit and varied to enable different learners with different strategies to use the same instructional material.

The typographical approach to learning strategies is to provide access to text by using a variety of spatial and access devices.

Text should be designed to provide for a variety of learning styles and methods, and learners should be instructed how to use the access devices in the text.

Material should be presented in accordance with the principle of learner control, including curriculum selection, lesson or objective selection, segment or module selection, display selection, and selection of conscious cognitive processing.

Strategies should be used before text involving a change in cognitive processing, whether to a higher level processing or a different method of presentation, eg an illustration, table, chart, etc.

Space should be used as a frame for the text, and enable learners to move in and out of the text with the minimum of disruption.

Pacing and sequencing should be presented to the learners as options within their control by making the devices of pace and sequence obvious and explicit in the subject organisation.

Behavioural objectives

Behavioural objectives, sometimes referred to as performance objectives, serve to indicate what capabilities are to be tested at the end of the course of instruction. They provide teacher and student with clear goals and a bench mark against which to measure progress.

The research into the use and usefulness of behavioural objectives considered all the major writers and researchers on the subject, but did not consider the development of courses without behavioural objectives as this was outside the scope of the research.

The distinctive characteristic of behavioural objectives is the notion of operationalism, that tangible phenomena can be observed and measured. The intention of behavioural objectives is that they are reasonable and can be achieved by the end of the course of study.

For the teacher and course designer the objectives form the parameters of the course, and should make explicit the structure of the learning.

For students the objectives help familiarise them with the learning task they are about to undertake. They also serve as a framework on which subsequent learning can be arranged.

Behavioural objectives indicate not only the possible method of testing but also the level of ability to be tested.

Mathemagenic behaviour

Learning strategies are acquired by most learners, but little is done by education to encourage the self conscious development of them. Evidence suggests that we do develop strategies of information storage and retrieval, but it seems to be an important area for educational research and development.

As Claire Weinstein (in O'Neill, 1978) points out:

We tell our students what to learn but we say nothing about how to go about learning.
The assumption that the abilities involved in learning are either innate or naturally acquired by every child is probably fallacious.

The teaching and learning strategies used in distance education are not by nature different from those strategies employed in face to face education; the difference is in emphasis and control.

The student in distance education could be thought to have two tutors, the course designer (in the case of ECDU, this comprises the writer and the Education Officer) and the course marker. The teaching process in distance education is therefore more complex than in face to face teaching.

The learning process has three stages: attending to particular stimuli in a busy environment, processing the information presented by the selected stimuli, and storing the information for later use. Mathemagenic behaviour is a precondition to learning, it is what happens just before learning takes place when information is stored in the long term memory of the learner.

L. T. Fraser in his article "Boundary Conditions for Mathemagenic Behaviours" states that

... mathemagenic behaviours can be usefully viewed as components of an adaptive system in which these behaviours are modified by characteristics of two kinds of input; 1) those that occur prior to encounters with the text and 2) those that are characteristic of the text.
Those characteristics that occur prior to the encounters with the text are events concerned with location, timing, and learning situation, and problems of distance education concerned with the lack of peer group support, the discussion and tutor contact that exists with face to face teaching. The problems of pacing and motivation, and the issues of andragogy (the particular case of the adult student who is possibly lacking in certain study skills and who is certainly more experienced than younger learners) are of particular relevance to distance education.

The characteristics of the text are things such as: the students' interaction with the text; the typographical considerations of layout, graphics and presentation; matters of transfer, retention; the issues concerned with feedback, pre-tests, overviews, advance organisers, guidelines, course prerequisites, course preparation, and the use of objectives. These things are very much educational problems, not specifically related to distance education.

Research into how students learn produces a model of the learner as an active, self determining individual who processes information in complex and often idiosyncratic ways. The student learns through the active use of complex learning strategies. As Weinstein states:

These new concepts of learning activities reduce the hope of finding or inventing scientifically based teaching methods, materials, or curricula that will routinely and automatically produce effective learning in students or trainees. But it opens the possibility of developing means to teach learners active cognitive strategies which if adopted may enable them to learn well and perform adequately in most learning or training situations.

The implication of this statement for distance education, as for face to face education, is that rather than presenting material in terms of teaching strategies the shift of emphasis is towards learning strategies. These learning strategies must be considered in course design so that the learner develops autonomous cognitive strategies as a significant part of the course content.

Intrinsic motivation, that is interest on the part of the student, seems to lead to a deep approach to the subject matter: extrinsic motivation, that is concern with post-text demands, leads to a surface approach to the material. Further, absence of threat (ie extrinsic motivation) and absence of anxiety are associated with the deep processing approach to reading. Threat, anxiety and absence of intrinsic motivation correlate with the surface approach.

Some research suggests that far from encouraging learning, questions within text discourage learning. The learning task is transformed into a rather trivial and mechanical kind of learning, lacking the reflective elements found to signify a deep approach. What allow the participants to transform the learning in this way is obviously the predictability of the task. Questions intended to help the student develop a deep approach to the work become the ends in themselves. Students develop an approach that helps them answer the questions at the end of the text, and not develop higher level processing skills to help them go beyond the demands of the textual questions.

The issue of student interest is pertinent to distance education materials. If students learn best, (using deep processing of the material) when they are interested, then the text must engage the students' interest. An advance organiser (Ausubel, 1963) or a general orienting direction that controls learning behaviour in terms of categories of information increases learning. The mathemagenic function is to inform the reader in advance about the structure of a text, and thereby increase recall in the latter stages of acquisition, and to arouse student interest in the textual material.

Learning strategies identified as useful and functional by recent research are in question/ answer training, paraphrase training, and imagery training. The techniques of imagery and paraphrase facilitate delayed retention of academic materials. Quillan (1968) suggests that the memory may be organised as a network of ideas and concepts, and named relationships between them. Research concludes that some aspects of human information processing and memory can be represented as networks.

Research suggests that encouraging a positive learning state in students has positive effects upon the outcome of the learning session. If student attitude is not positive then learning strategies are not useful.

A learner can be represented as an active, self determining individual who processes information in complex and often idiosyncratic ways, and learns through the active use of complex learning strategies. These learning strategies should be considered in course design.

Course design should include an interactive learner cantered component. a methodology for encouraging a positive set in the learner. This involves a number of steps, the first being that students make explicit the decision to learn, and specifying the long and short term goals. Secondly, they set specific goals for the outcome of the immediate training situation. A learning contract is then drawn up and agreement to this is made by both the teacher and the learner. A fourth step is an initial self assessment of skills and preparation by the student; this may require a supplementary skill training program.

The student then embarks on the prescribed course of study but must self monitor progress and performance, and identify any areas of difficulty. This self evaluation and self correction continues throughout the course of study and in itself would require some training on the part of students to enable them to self assess. Often with self assessment students are far more critical of their own learning then a teacher might be. The purpose of this system is to reduce stress and anxiety in the student.

Advance organisers

Advance organisers provide a conceptual framework which students can use to clarify the task ahead of them, in much the same way that in the construction of a house a framework is first erected. The advance organiser sets out the ideational framework of the subject to be covered and is based on the premise that:
...the most important fact influencing the meaningful learning of any new idea is the state of the individual's existing cognitive structure at the time of learning. (Ausubel and Robinson 1969)
Advance organisers are therefore deliberately structured sets of ideas encountered by learners before the material to be learnt. They provide the learner with a conceptual framework to facilitate learning and retention of the new material by organising familiar ideas so that new ideas can be related and anchored to the learner's existing framework of ideas.

The term 'advance organiser' was used by Ausubel to describe the preparatory framework for material to be learned. The work by David Ausubel on cognitive psychology underpins his recommendation to use advance organisers; this should be understood before taking on wholesale the use of advance organisers.

Ausubel (1968) states that learning occurs only when there is perceived meaning, relevant to what the learner already knows. Meaningful learning is that which is non arbitrary and substantively related to the learners' structure of knowledge. Material must be logical both internally and in the order that it is presented, and this would contribute to the non arbitrary nature of the knowledge. Rote learning is opposite to meaningful learning. Meaningful learning requires a syntactical code and basic vocabulary, rote learning requires neither of these conditions but can be the learning of an arbitrary list of unconnected words.

Advance organisers are process oriented and emphasise context over content. They should make explicit the links between that which is to be learnt and that which is already known, by making the difference clear using concrete examples in plain English. Those subject areas most responsive to the use of advance organisers, ie mathematics and science, should use them at all relevant points in the text.

To be effective the advance organiser must be formulated in terms of language and concepts already familiar to the learner and use appropriate illustrations and analogies if developmentally necessary.

It need not be limited to continuous prose. There are other possible formats such as maps and graphs, algorithms, networks of concepts, charts, a series of questions, audio cassettes, or visual aids.

In text questions

The term 'in text questions' refers to the insertion of questions before, after, or in the middle of passages of written material. These include self assessment questions, where the answer is provided, and self study questions where no answer is provided but interesting points are raised for contemplation.

Much research on inserting questions into instructional text depends on the concept of mathemagenic behaviour, that arousal precedes, attending responses and questions act as effective stimuli to arousal. Several studies have indicated that long term retention of material is enhanced if the arousal level of an individual is increased at the time the material is presented.

There is some controversy over the purpose and usefulness of in text questions. Some Anglo-Swedish research suggests that questions intended to help the student develop a deep approach to the work became the ends in themselves. Students develop an approach that helps them answer the questions at the end of the text, and not develop higher level processing skills that help them to go beyond the demands of the textual questions. The recommendations are that although in text questions are provided, there needs to be some active encouragement on the part of the teacher to facilitate the students framing their own high level questions on the text.

Inserted questions do aid recall of information and assimilation of knowledge. The degree to which this can be achieved depends upon five variables:


Illustrations in educational text serve a number of different purposes: to inform, to describe, to facilitate understanding, and in some instances, to alleviate the monotony of uninterrupted prose. The educational value of illustrations therefore varies according to the purpose and style of illustration. It is possible to generalise about their purpose although in practice it is difficult to predict their precise effect. Even more than words their meaning may differ for each reader.

Rowntree in his book "How to Develop Self Instructional Teaching" identifies four types of illustration: descriptive, expressive, analytic and quantitative. An illustration may have more than one purpose and may be classified under more than one heading.

Illustrations not only illustrate the subject matter or intent of the text, but also act as spacing and pacing devices within the text, or as a access devices by readers who use them to retrieve information. These functions of the illustrative material are important to the designer in making decisions about the type and style of illustration, and particularly about the position of an illustration within the text.

Illustrations can appear either before the relevant material, in the body of the material or at the end of it. The decision about position depends upon a number of factors: the type of illustration, the conceptual density of the material, the function of the illustration, and page design considerations.

The problems with perception of illustrations are far more complex those of written text. Visual comprehension is both culturally and contextually dependent. This means that although some problems of perception arise from assumptions made about readers' understanding, the contextual position and support can counteract this.


Assessment is a general term which describes all those activities and processes involved in judging performance. Assessing can be summative or formative: summative assessment is concerned with a final judgment of performance, formative assessment is concerned with the improvement of performance. In broad terms marking and grading involve summative assessment, while reviewing and giving feedback involve formative assessment.

Marking involves allocating scores to answers or student performance and adding these to give a total score. Marking indicates how the performance relates to a maximum possible score.

Grading involves allocating a letter or symbol (eg A, B, C) to performance. The letters usually have a special meaning in terms of the quality of performance indicated.

Reviewing involves making judgments, not about an individual piece of work or a specific performance, but about a wide range of abilities or achievements of a student at a particular time. Giving feedback involves providing information for a student about the quality of the work or level of performance. This is usually associated with more extensive qualitative information than marks and grades supply.

Evaluating involves judging courses or teaching rather than students, though assessing students can contribute to the evaluation of teaching and courses.

Apart from commenting and developing student achievement through a course, one must also consider the role of assessment as a method of preparing students for the final assessment event at the end of a course or subject. This often takes the form of an examination and therefore distance students should not be disadvantaged by not being prepared for the style and type of questioning commonly used in this event.


Research into typographical layouts and decisions fall into two main categories: the printer's research into the best presentation of text in the available spaces and the educational psychologist's enquiry into text processing. Testing of textual layout and of typographical considerations is closer to formative evaluation or industrial production testing than to the classical paradigm of educational research. This means that best practice is also dependent upon contextual issues. This fact must be borne in mind throughout this paper. No researcher is conclusive but the areas of research raise issues which must be tested in the specific area of application.

The problem is that of organising complex instruction for the benefit of the reader. Macdonald-Ross describes this process as "transforming" and includes not only the typographical layout of the text but the whole strategy of presenting the unknown in a manner that will facilitate the knowing. According to Macdonald-Ross the transformer is the skilled professional communicator who mediates between the expert and the reader putting the expert's message in a form that the reader can understanding and to look after the reader's interests in general.

Instructional materials are not designed to be read continuously. They contain many disparate elements, melded together to form an instructional package, in which students can move about as their needs dictate. The spatial organisation of the text should reflect this capacity of instructional text. This quality of instructional text means there can be no hard and fast rules for the novice instructional designer to follow.

Research in the field of typography is limited to particular instances and cases, and findings that emerge from one piece of work must be tested in the next; extrapolation can occur only in the most general cases. This is because there exist too many variables in any given field for more universal conclusions to be drawn. The best practice is to see research as offering a number of alternatives which can be tried, given the subject matter, the content of the unit, the level of the subject and the students, and the concept density of the writing.

Issues considered under typography would concern page design and layout, instructions to the reader, cues, highlights, headings, type style and size, numbering within the text, and graphics. The page of text in distance education is the instructional stage and therefore every mark upon it serves some learning function. Some marks enhance learning either by speeding it up or making it more meaningful. Other marks and organisations of the text detract from learning; the transformer has to remove these.

The second stage in the research process was to circulate the essays among practitioners and invite comments on the conclusions and the viability of the propositions contained in the recommendations. The essays then formed the basis for a theory for the development of learning materials. The recommendations of the eleven essays were to form the rules for the expert consulting system.

The rules were developed from the recommendations using a process of inductive inference. the process of constructing rules from data. This was done by applying the question as to what decisions would the writer and the Education Officer have to make regarding subject development, organisation and presentation. This logic revealed a simple algorithm, detailed below.

An algorithm was drawn which demonstrated the relationship between the components of course design. It also made clear that parts of course design were common to all courses and could therefore be decided upon before writing began. The 'Interactive Learner' rules, concerning the attitude and treatment of the learner, were rules that were decided before writing commenced and were therefore not necessary to include in the expert system for the writer to use. Four other areas of development were identified:

These areas were of particular concern to the Education Officer, but not to the writer of the course material. It was decided that these four areas would undergo separate development. Pre-course material and the information for inclusion in the student study guide will be developed later. The protocol for the organisation and production of the subject design meetings has been developed, and is now in use in the External Course Development Unit. The organisation of text on a macro level is an issue to be decided by the course designer and the Education Officer in consultation, and forms part of the comprehensive writer's brief document given to the writer when they begin writing the units. Post-text development includes issues such as page design and overall material production and are instructional design matters for the Education Officer.

The next stage in developing a rule system for the expert system was to consider the rules within each subset. Two important criteria were used. Firstly, there had to be consistency between all rules in each subset within the system. Secondly, there had to be completeness, that all parts of the unit and all uses of learning strategies were covered by the rules. Each subset was examined, and the rules within it were clustered and analysed in terms of consistency and completeness. Some conflicts were found, particularly between typographical design considerations and instructional design considerations. The principle applied was that the instructional theory was supported in preference to the typographical design theory on the grounds that we were concerned with educational criteria first and foremost.

Having considered each of the subsets within the system for completeness and consistency, the rules were then written in a rule format, using the imperative instruction and eliminating all ambivalence and ambiguity. These rules were then structured in an order that would be appropriate for the writer of an external course to follow through. The principle was according to the order in which the writer of the course material would have to approach the task. This development allowed for a number of learning loops to be built into the system, so writers who have used the material before could bypass those sections they were familiar with and concentrate on those areas where they felt they needed more guidance.

The rules followed the order below:

This rule structure is to be trialed on the MPT PC Class Version S.


Ausubel, D. P. and Robinson, F, G, (1969). School learning. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York.

Ausubel, D. P. (1969). Educational Psychology: A cognitive view. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Bloom, B. S. et al (1956). Taxonomy of Education Objectives. New York: McKay.

Gagne, R. M. (1968). Learning hierarchies. Educational Psychology, 6, 1-9.

O'Neill, M. F. (1978). Learning Strategies. New York: Academic Press.

Posner, G. J. and Rudnitsky, A. D. (1982). Course Design. 2nd edition. New York: Longman.

MacDonald-Ross, M. (1973). Behavioural Objectives. Instructional Science, 2.

Rowntree, D, (1972). How to develop self instructional teaching. London: Open University Press.

Ann Wilson, BA (Hons) MA (London) is a graduate of Leicester University and London University. She taught Communication Studies at a North London College for ten years before joining NSW Department of TAFE in 1985, Ann is now working as an Education Officer in the External Course Development Unit. She has been developing an expert system to assist in the production of external courseware. She is also working on a part time PhD at the University of New South Wales.

Please cite as: Wilson, A. (1988). The development of external course material. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (Eds), Designing for Learning in Industry and Education, 167-177. Proceedings of EdTech'88. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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