Sunday, May 11, 2008

tutorials, courseware, curriculum...oh my!

What’s the difference between Tutorials, Courseware and Curriculum?
As an instructor and an educator for 18 years, I’ve been tasked to write learning materials for various software packages. The learning materials usually fall into one of three categories; tutorials, courseware, or curriculum. As I’ve written, and continue to contribute to, various learning materials, I often find that many people don’t know the difference between these the three categories.

I equate this to the lack of knowledge of one’s level of understanding a certain software package, where someone might say I’ve used the software for a year so therefore I’m an advanced user and need advanced training, and someone else might say I’m an advanced user with XYZ software and I need advanced training on ABC software because of my experience with XYZ software.

To help solve those types of misconceptions on the software side and to help people begin “speaking the same language” I assembled a group of professionals in 2002 from various vertical markets and software knowledge to define the Fundamentals, Intermediate, and Advanced components of 3ds Max. This was how the current Software Standards for 3ds Max were created. Now that the framework to define Software Standards is established, it’s quite easy to implement this structure to other software packages, as we’ve done with Maya in 2006.

I find we’re in a similar situation now for labeling learning materials. Many people have their opinion on how to define tutorials, courseware, and curriculum and I also have my opinion that I would like to share. My definitions of these terms come from many, many years of training in the trenches at all levels, writing books, tutorials, courseware and curriculum, serving on various educational committees, and interfacing with a wide variety teachers and educators both in the classroom and at trade shows. I am open to constructive dialog to help us all “speak the same language”.

Tutorials: This is a recipe on a specific tool or to achieve a specific result such as how to make a flame. It has step by step instruction without really giving you an understanding of related tools or workflow. It’s really like a cooking recipe. You have all the ingredients and the step by step instruction on how to assemble the ingredients but not really knowing why you’re adding baking soda and what affect it will have to the recipe.

Generally, tutorials are used for self-paced learning.

In software, consider the tool Edit Poly in 3ds Max. The tutorial might say:
1. On the menu bar, choose Create Box.
2. In the Top viewport, click and drag to create a box.
3. On the command panels, choose Modify.
4. In the Modifier List drop-down, choose Edit Poly.
5. In the Selection rollout, choose Vertex.
6. In the Front viewport, start to move vertices to shape the box.

This is a recipe. You don’t know why you started with a box, you don’t know why you added Edit Poly, and you don’t know why you’re moving vertices, you’re just doing it because the tutorial (recipe) called for it.

Courseware: This is usually a series of exercises that explain how to accomplish a certain task. For example the task might be to learn a modeling technique such as Box Modeling. Now we’re giving the tools a purpose, and the purpose is to accomplish a particular task within the software. One of the exercises in the courseware book might say:
In the next 3 chapters you are going to use the box modeling technique to create a simple character. Before you dive into the software, it’s important to understand the importance of Scale, Design, and Reference Images.

Courseware is more robust than tutorials; it includes background information of the task, and clearly includes the importance of workflow. The author starts to explain why you’re using the specific tool and how it works with other tools to accomplish the specific task. Proper courseware includes step by step instruction and the explanations behind the tools that have been chosen. Courseware is ideal for instructors to use in a classroom where the class is specific to learning the software such as “The Fundamentals of 3ds Max, Modeling in Revit, or Character Rigging using Maya.

Curriculum: This is learning material that is in accordance with an academic area of study. The structure of the learning material closely resembles courseware but the difference is that the goal is to learn an academic area of study such as Game Art and Design, Architecture, Physics, History etc. You use the software as a visualization tool to allow for greater understanding of the actual course you’re studying. This is true for both secondary (high school) and post secondary (college/university).

It’s important for curriculum to include materials such as; Teacher and Student Guides, Syllabi, Mapping to Academic Standards (secondary) and Software Standards (secondary and post-secondary), Quick Start Guides, Glossaries, and other teacher training resources as necessary.

Consider the following secondary example: In Health class, the teacher is teaching about the importance of Diet, Nutrition, and Exercise. The class material includes discussion on the food pyramid, caloric intake, good carbs / bad carbs, metabolism etc.

The teacher might task the student with a problem such as: If you’re a 5’4” female and don’t exercise, what is your ideal weight? What happens when you eat more than what you burn and how long does it take to gain a pound? Now, tie that in with the importance of exercise and how one can burn calories and increase metabolism. The teacher might decide to have the student show this progression through drawn images/photographs/or 3D visualization and animation. The student is learning about Diet, Nutrition and Exercise, yet is able to incorporate another skill, like animation, to prove and enhance their level of understanding on the specific area of study which is Health.

The Autodesk Animation Academy curriculum and Applied IDEAS' Ignition Game Design Academy have successfully implemented this structure. The Ignition Game Design Academy can be easily adapted for any course in a degree program that calls for Game Art Export, Game Engine Principles, Game Design Principles, and Building a custom game level.

The Autodesk Animation Academy follows this structure for the following modules: Phases of the Moon, Architectural Restoration, Digestive System, Weather Systems, Forensics and a Capstone project (Independent Study).

Consider the following post-secondary example: The Degree is for Game Art and Design and one course inside this program might be Character Animation. In a 16 week class the instructor might want to discuss the Principles of Animation, Character Design, and Drawing, all before using the software. Once the fundamental concepts have been learned, the teacher can now introduce the specific software tools. The students have a purpose for the tools. Now they’ll want to learn how to keyframe in the software so that they can apply the Principles of Animation.

In closing, I hope this can be used to help us find/define the “Standard” for labeling learning materials. I encourage your direct feedback and welcome all your comments. The sooner we’re all speaking the same language, the better it will be for students and teacher’s everywhere that are interested in learning…however way that might happen.