The Search for Alignment: A Conversation about Program Design and Decisions

Concurrent Session 5

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

In this conversation, we will explore key decisions around program design in higher education. The session will be driven by your interests, experiences, and challenges in program design at your institution. Together, we will discuss potential frameworks for navigating programmatic design, regardless of our role in the process.

Extended Abstract

Program Design

Delilah is an undergraduate in the teacher education program at a nearby university. What she loves about her courses are the opportunities to connect with her fellow classmates and professors. What she dislikes about her courses are the several different start-up approaches that she encounters with each new course beginning. Delilah has found that each course within her Learning Management System (LMS) is a maze for getting started, finding purpose and connections between resources and activities, and always accompanied by a sense of defeat before interacting with any assignment! She yearns to feel a sense of connection to course materials and experiences with a hope to model best practices for her learners in the future.

Although we can all opine on several key components missing from Delilah’s experiences, the focus of this conversation is to innovate approaches to academic program design. Through our discussion, we will explore key programmatic decisions that support learners in achieving their goals and succeeding in learning experiences.

A program design process presents discussion points and collaboration opportunities for all involved in making key programmatic decisions (Rawle et al., 2017; Uchiyama & Radin, 2009). As we work to reform higher education to be more inclusive and provide equitable opportunities for learners and faculty, academic program directors, department chairs, faculty, instructional designers and many others must also assess and revitalize programmatic design to be more inclusive, equitable, and collaborative. Who is involved in programmatic decisions in your department or at your institution?

Academic programs tend to include a set of predetermined standards, objectives or goals, course sequence, course electives, curriculum, and required purchase materials. As we work to innovate learning, we must strive for clear alignment within and across these components of a program.

Alignment provides a foundation from which we can develop learner-centered strategies and materials to support and assess mastery of objectives and outcomes, in ways that are flexible, relevant, and meaningful to learners (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). As such, alignment is a core component to learners’ understandings of purpose and connections, which Delilah is missing. Is there a process to assess alignment within and across courses at your institution? How does this process unfold at your institution?

Assessments, courses, and programs that are well-aligned also present opportunities to incorporate and measure dispositional outcomes, or changes in learners’ values and attitudes (Zehnder et al., 2021). With clear connections between the components of learning experiences, courses, and departments, there are opportunities to revise and incorporate dispositional outcomes that measure the real change we are most eager to capture (Zehnder et al., 2021). In your department, who gets to determine the values and attitudes the program seeks to encourage in its learners? Does your institution utilize a program map or framework to define and measure learners’ values and attitudes?

A program map, model, or framework that results from the design process is a visual representation of a learner’s journey, the content and skill objectives they will master, and measurable, observable outcomes. This valuable information can be communicated to accrediting organizations, institutional leadership, and current and prospective learners. Program maps also offer a starting point for revising and iterating curriculum, assessments, course descriptions, and all things course (not instructor) related. Does your institution utilize a program map or framework to tell the story of a learner’s journey, connections to content, and measurable outcomes?

Program design and the resulting maps, models, or frameworks highlight opportunities for iteration and revision (Veltri & Webb, 2011). The cascading effects of changing one program outcome are easily mapped, tracked, and updated through individual courses because a systematic process and representation of the program’s alignment is already in place. With a strategy for revision, change and progress become less intimidating, as clear paths are provided for updating program values, outcomes, and remaining current. What is the process for reviewing and revising program outcomes or performance-based standards at your intuition or within your department? Who is involved in this process within your department?

Despite the benefits of intentional, thoughtful program design, there are challenges to navigating the design process. Stemming from each potential program component are key decisions about the design and delivery of the program. For example, designing standards requires the determination of selecting a published set of standards or creating one’s own set of standards; writing measurable objectives and then aligning such objectives throughout each course within a program; and other assessment criteria. Making informed decisions requires input and collaboration from individuals across the institution in a variety of roles. However, making such key decisions requires timely communications, effective communication, and collaboration strategies.

Rarely is there an opportunity to converse with other institutions about navigating program design. During this conversation (not presentation), together we will explore programmatic design decisions, involvement, strategic points of determinants, along with aspects of development and implementation. Everyone participating in this conversation will benefit from discussing the types of decisions, strategies for making decisions, and stakeholders impacted by decisions for furthering programmatic processes—whether new builds or revisions—at their institution. Our conversation session will provide time and space for individuals with varying roles, backgrounds, and experiences in higher education to discuss practices and strategies that enable collaboration around program design.


In this session, we will explore how stakeholders in higher education navigate program design at their institutions. In this conversation, participants will collaboratively: 

  • Identify and discuss specific types of decisions necessary to design, implement, and revise programs at their institution.
  • Discuss strategies for programmatic design at multiple institutions.
  • Identify participants in the program design process at their institution and discuss their roles and responsibilities.
  • Explore the value of program maps, models, and frameworks for the program design and delivery processes.

Plan for Interactivity

In this Conversation, Not Presentation session, we will facilitate a discussion about the realities and practicalities of programmatic design in the 21st Century. Our aim is to collaborate and connect with others asking these questions and facing similar challenges in higher education. To start our conversation, we will conduct a short poll to establish participants’ experience, roles, and interest in program design. The results of the poll will help us focus our discussion and recognize that everyone in attendance plays a role in program design and their decisions have far-reaching impacts.

As a conversation starting point, we will prepare one slide with a roadmap of potential conversational routes. Each route includes discussion starters varying across types of key decisions in program design such as:

  • Defining measurable program objectives
  • Aligning objectives or goals to institutional or industry standards
  • Design choices for their institution’s learning management system (LMS)
  • Players of involvement whether individual roles or groups of people
  • And more!

Each poll question and discussion starter will encourage brainstorming about key decisions when designing a program, enabling everyone in attendance to participate. Although discussion starters are offered, the conversation is open to address other avenues and ideas that are interesting to participants.


Rawle, F., Bowen, T., Murck, B., & Hong, R. (2017). Curriculum mapping across the disciplines: differences, approaches, and strategies. Collected Essays on Learning and Teaching, 10, 75-88.

Uchiyama, K. P., & Radin, J. L. (2009). Curriculum mapping in higher education: A vehicle for collaboration. Innovative Higher Education, 33(4), 271-280.

Veltri, N. F., Webb, H. W., Matveev, A. G., & Zapatero, E. G. (2011). Curriculum mapping as a tool for continuous improvement of IS curriculum. Journal of Information Systems Education, 22(1), 31.

Wiggins, G. P. & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. ASCD.

Zehnder, C., Alby, C., Kleine, K., & Metzker, J. (2021). Learning that matters: A field guide to course design for transformative education. Myers Education Press.