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Eastern Region Colleges ABC Institute


Overview of Program Development

Whether building a new program or making major revisions to an existing program, program developers are faced with making many complex curriculum decisions. They can be guided in their work by curriculum design principles such as those outlined in the “Design Principles” section of the curriculum road map.

Building new programs or making major revisions to existing college programs is an iterative process that usually involves a number of different players—each bringing a different perspective to program development. There are many different approaches to building program curricula. Each college will have identified a process and framework for program development. There are, however, common elements that can be found in most of these approaches. An overview of common, inter-related processes involved in program development is outlined here.

Refining the Initial Program Concept

Ideas for new programs come from a variety of sources and emerge in many different forms. Usually the initial concept for the program needs to be clarified, expanded and refined. Early in the program development process the curriculum developer needs to

  • develop a beginning description of the program
  • consider the rationale for the program (why it is important for it to be developed)
  • identify potential learner population(s) to be targeted by the program
  • describe anticipated graduate abilities
  • summarize key values and beliefs that will shape and guide program development

Many of these beginning ideas will change as the program develops but an initial exploration will provide focus and promote a shared understanding of the potential program.

Needs Analysis/Situational Analysis/Feasibility Study

Normally a situational analysis and initial feasibility study begins before major curriculum work is undertaken and continues as the program develops. For example, an initial assessment of feasibility is made and, later as the program takes shape and specific resource needs are ascertained, program viability is reassessed. Usually a program advisory committee (PAC) is assembled to assist with the situational analysis and with the development of the actual curriculum. The program developer may use primary and/or secondary research to undertake a needs assessment.

There are several questions that may help to guide this phase of program development. Here is a sampling of questions that may be addressed in this process.

  • How does the proposed program "fit" within the college's strategic plan?
  • Are there other similar programs being offered in your area? In Ontario?
  • How is the proposed program similar to/different from existing programs?
  • What will be the impact of this program on others in your College?
  • Who is the target audience for the program?
  • What interests, abilities and experience are these learners likely to bring to the program?
  • Will there be a demand for the program? Will there be sufficient numbers of learners interested in taking the program?
  • What are the potential employment opportunities for graduates of this program?
  • Will graduates be able to find employment in this field?
  • What will be expected of program graduates on entry to the work place?
  • What are the trends and issues in the field of study?
  • Are there standards or guidelines for this program that are established by professional associations, labour groups, or government?
  • What resources are needed to implement this program?
  • Are learning experiences in work places (field work, clinical experience etc.) likely to be required? Is this experience available?
  • Is this a stand alone program or will it be linked to other program(s).
  • What are the possibilities for delivery options (semestered, continuous intake, intensive, online or blended learning, co-operative programs etc.)?

Information contained in the six sections of the curriculum road map's "contextual framework" can be used to help answer these and other similar questions.

Approval/Funding Process

The proposed plan for the new program requires approval at several different levels.

  • Each college will have identified the individuals and groups within the college that must review and approve the program proposal. There will be designated times when the program is to be reviewed by groups within the college as it is developed. The final approval, at the college level, is given by the college's Board of Governors (BOG).
  • If the program is one that leads to an Ontario College Credential, the Credential Validation Services (CVS) reviews the curriculum to ensure that the program title conforms to provincial guidelines and that the curriculum is consistent with the credential framework.
  • If the program is to be funded by the provincial government, it is sent to the Ministry of Training Colleges and Universities (MTCU) who reviews it for funding purposes. Funding approval by MTCU occurs after the BOG has approved the program and CVS has validated that the program is consistent with the credential framework.
  • The approval process for programs leading to a degree in applied learning is outlined by the Postsecondary Education Quality Assessment Board (PEQAB).

Provincial Guidelines for Program Development

The Credentials Framework

Colleges in Ontario offer a wide variety of programs. The Credentials Framework was established by MTCU to ensure that credentials awarded in Ontario's College system are credible, meaningful and consistent across the province. Colleges are responsible for ensuring that their programs are consistent with this framework. To help colleges fulfill this responsibility, Colleges Ontario supports the Credentials Validation Service (CVS). CVS reviews all programs to ensure that they are consistent with this framework.

You can find out more about the Credentials Validation Services.

Program Standards

MTCU has established standards for college programs leading to an Ontario College credential. The standard has three parts vocational learning outcomes (the vocational performances expected of graduates specific to the discipline or career area for which the program is preparing the graduate), essential employability skills (learning outcomes that describe skills critical for success in life and in the workplace – – irrespective of career area for which the specific program is preparing graduates) and the general education requirement (requirements for general education courses). Collectively, these elements outline the essential skills and knowledge that a student must acquire and be able to demonstrate in order to graduate from the program. All programs leading to an Ontario College credential must be able to demonstrate that they meet these standards. More information about program standards and a list of published program standards.

The essential employability skills component of the standards is common for all programs leading to an Ontario College credential.

Standards for programs leading to a degree in applied learning are established by the Postsecondary Education Quality Assessment Board (PEQAB). Standards for college programs that lead to a degree in applied learning can be found on the PEQAB website. Click on the "Ministerial Consent" page button. 


Program Learning Outcomes

What are Program Learning Outcomes?

Program learning outcomes are statements that describe what learners will know and be able to do when they graduate from a program. They are closely linked to the credential framework and program standards set by the provincial Ministry of Training Colleges and Universities. Program standards apply to all similar programs offered by colleges across the province. Each program standard includes the following three elements:

  • Vocational standard (the vocationally specific learning outcomes which apply to the program in question),
  • Essential employability skills (the essential employability skills learning outcomes which apply to all programs of instruction), and
  • General education requirement (the requirement for general education in postsecondary programs of instruction).

The vocational and essential employability skills components of program standards are expressed as learning outcomes.

How do program learning outcomes influence curriculum development and program review?

If you are developing curriculum at a program level, you will need to ensure that you have identified program learning outcomes that are clear statements of performance describing what graduates of your program will be able to do. These need to be congruent with the credential framework, existing program standards and the needs of the workplace. Courses and learning experiences in the program need to be aligned with the program learning outcomes.

If you are developing, revising or teaching curriculum at the course level, you will want to have a clear understanding of how your course is expected to contribute to the achievement of one or more of the program learning outcomes. The course learning outcomes (or course learning requirements) and learning experiences in the course need to reflect this alignment.

If you are engaged in program review, you will want to ensure that the program learning outcomes for your program are still current and relevant for the workplace. You will also want to ensure that the program's curriculum and how it is delivered guides learners to achieve the program learning outcomes and provides opportunities for them to demonstrate that they have achieved the learning described in the program learning outcomes.

Definition and Characteristics of Program Learning Outcomes

Program learning outcomes describe what the learner will be able to do at the end of their program of study. They describe learning that is significant and durable – learning that really matters in the long term.

Learning outcomes are different from behavioural objectives. Learning outcomes describe performances that require one to integrate and apply one's learning. They do not break learning into domains such as knowledge, skills and attitudes. They do not describe discreet skills or specific facts but a more holistic performance. Learning outcomes describe what the learner will be able to demonstrate at the end of a period of learning. They do not describe the inputs to learning or the processes of the learning.

These qualities of learning outcomes are embedded in the definition of learning outcomes provided by the Ministry of Training Colleges and Universities (MTCU).

"Learning outcomes represent culminating demonstrations of learning and achievement. In addition, learning outcomes are interrelated and cannot be viewed in isolation of one another. As such, they should be viewed as a comprehensive whole. They describe performances that demonstrate that significant integrated learning by graduates of the program has been achieved and verified." – Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities, "Published College Program Standards." (updated June 22, 2007)

Another definition that emphasizes the need for learning outcomes to be significant and describe integrated learning that can be linked to the "real world" comes from Bill Spady.

"A learning outcome is an acceptable, culminating demonstration of learning which occurs in an authentic performance context and really matters in the long run." – Bill Spady, 1993

Tips for Writing or Revising Program Learning Outcomes

  • Don't work alone. When developing or revising learning outcomes at the program level engage colleagues and representatives from professional associations, advisory committees or the work place to help you identify current needs and trends in the field or discipline.
  • Check to see if there are published program standards for the program. If there are, you can use these as they are or you may want to modify or add to these learning outcomes to reflect the needs of your program. You will need to show that the outcomes you develop meet the outcomes published in the program standard. If there is not a published program standard but there is another program like the one you are developing in one of the Ontario colleges, you will be able to get a document called a Program Description. This will contain a statement of expected learning for the graduates. You can build from this as you develop your outcomes.
  • Start by capturing your ideas. You can edit and "wordsmith" later.
  • Write what you want all graduates to be able to do at the end of the program as clearly as you can. Then ask yourself:

    • Is this important? Will it really matter in the long run?
    • Would employers, other educators etc. agree?
    • Is this a performance that learners can demonstrate? OR If you are having trouble starting from the end, make a list of all the abilities that you think it is important for graduates of your program to learn—then group the ideas. Ask yourself;
    • What items can be grouped together because they speak to the same performance? Some items may describe knowledge or skills that can be integrated into a single performance.
    • What items are subsets of others?
    • What items can be eliminated? Are all items important? Will they be important three years from now?
    • Why do you want graduates to be able to do this? What do you want them to do with the this knowledge or skill?

  • Identify performances that you expect of graduates and write them to complete the statement...

    Graduates will have reliably demonstrated an ability to....

    Choose the verbs carefully. The verbs are the "powerhouse" of the outcome statement.
  • Describe only one performance at a time.
  • Use this checklist to review your outcome statements.
    Consider each program learning outcome to ensure that it

    • Is clearly stated
    • Is verifiable (learners can demonstrate that they have achieved the ability described in the outcome)
    • Describes learning that is essential, durable, meaningful and significant
    • Describes learning that is transferable
    • Describes learning that is performance-based
    • Describes learning that is achieved at the end of the program
    • Is free of cultural and/or gender bias
    • Is consistent with the rationale for the program

  • Consider the learning outcomes collectively to ensure that they

    • Reflect the credential being awarded to graduates of the program (see credential framework)
    • Reflect published program standards (if they exist)
    • Are consistent with expectations of any professional groups, industry guidelines etc.
    • Do not overlap
    • Are manageable in number

  • Review your draft outcomes with someone else to see if they are clear to them. You can check their understanding by asking them to describe a specific performance that would indicate that a learner had achieved the learning described in the outcome.

Working with Advisory Committees

Each program or cluster of programs in Ontario's community colleges has a program advisory committee (PAC). The purpose of the PAC is to help colleges establish, develop and maintain programs that are relevant to the needs of industry and the community.Why have program advisory committees?

Whether you are engaged in program quality review, revising an existing program/course or developing a new program, a program advisory committee will be a very helpful source of information. They can help you to:

  • Determine the need for new programs or modifications of existing programs
  • Establish a rationale for your programIdentify trends in the discipline or field of study
  • Identify hiring patterns
  • Establish links with the industry
  • Find resources (human and other) that will support your program
  • Validate and/or establish performances expected of program graduates
  • Shape your program of study and learning experiences so that they are current aligned with workplace needs
  • Assess curriculum and learning materials

All new program proposals leading to an Ontario college credential must have specific industry feedback regarding the need for the proposed program in the community and approval of the proposed curriculum. 

How to establish a PAC

Existing programs will have a PAC with members who are appointed by the college's Board of Governors. If you are developing a new program proposal and if there is an existing Advisory Committee that has the relevant industry expertise for the program you are proposing, there is no need to create and assemble a new Advisory Committee. If there is no existing Advisory Committee with the relevant industry expertise, you will want to create an Ad Hoc Advisory Committee that is broadly representative of the stakeholders of your new program proposal.

You usually will want to find eight to twelve people external to the college to sit on your ad hoc committee. You can find members with the relevant industry expertise by thinking of who would hire graduates of this proposed program in several areas:

  • Governments
  • Governmental Agencies
  • Corporations
  • Businesses
  • Business association/ chambers of commerce
  • Community organizations

Governmental agenciesCorporationsBusinessesBusiness association/ chambers of commerceCommunity organizations
You may also want to consider including members of relevant professional associations, educators from other related programs (such as a program that will articulate with the program you are developing), graduates of programs that may feed in to the proposed program etc.

"Why would anyone want to join my Ad Hoc Advisory Committee?"

There are several reasons:

Most people in their chosen industry are passionate about it and want to give back.They want to ensure graduates coming into their industry have the required knowledge and skills.They want an "inside track" on hiring future graduates of the proposed program.It is an excellent opportunity to network with other leaders within their industry.Being on an advisory committee looks contributes positively to one's résumé.

Tips for Effective Meetings

Timing – find a suitable time of day for all the members to attend. Breakfast meetings, lunch meetings and late afternoon meetings are most desirable meeting times.Provide information on how to find the meeting room, where to park etc.

Set Objectives for the Meeting – Before planning the agenda, determine the objective(s) of the meeting. The more concrete your objectives, the more focused your agenda will be.

Provide an Agenda Beforehand – Follow the agenda closely during the meeting.

Assign Meeting Preparation – Give all participants information that they need to prepare for the meeting. You may also want to ask members to be prepared to contribute something specifically at the meeting. The meeting will take on a new significance and they will be well prepared to provide the information you require.

Watch the clock – Stick to business items and reduce socializing. You want to maximize your committee members' time. Keep your meetings as short as possible particularly for early morning or mid-day meetings.

Assign Action Items – If required, don't finish any discussion in the meeting without deciding how to act on it.

Examine Your Meeting Process – Assess what took place and make a plan to improve the next meeting.

Follow up – ensure you follow up after the meeting. Thank all the members for taking the time to attend and contribute to the meeting. Let them know what action has been taken as a result of their input.

This material was extracted and adapted with permission from the Manual for Program Developers v2 developed by Algonquin College, last revised November, 2008.