Posted by: Gillian | December 10, 2009

Is it a good course? Questions to ask

Whether you are heading for an MBA, a PhD, a first degree, a professional award or Yr7 history, you want a course that is at the right level and that excites you, involves you, makes you actually want to do it.  The trouble is, providers are usually so keen to tell you which accreditation they have and how highly qualified their staff are that they forget you may want some realistic idea of what the content is like.  I have seen business courses so staggeringly knowledge-skills based that it is a wonder the students stay awake, much less actually understand how the information relates to the office.  I have also seen courses that give wonderfully inspiring, fun introductions but then narrow down to a very prescriptive set of requirements.  You may need (or want) prescription and that is fine, but you do need a course that engages you on some level so what should you do?

Simply, you need to ask questions, lots of questions, before you sign up.  Remember it is your time and probably your money and you may also be putting your friends/family/colleagues under some obligation to support you or at least fit around your schedule.  You have a perfect right to demand to know what you are going to get. Here are some questions to try, with notes.

1. When I finish, what can I expect to be able to do?

In academic terms, this is the ‘Outcomes’ question.  Note the word ‘do’.  Doing can be knowledge (e.g. reciting relevant laws) or it can be application.  If it is application, it can be application in one context or many and it may require you to work out what that context is or it may explain the context very thoroughly so that all you have to do is apply the relevant formulae/procedures.  Do you need basic skills (as an example, Quantitative Methods) or, following the example, do you want to find some numerical method of analysing various business problems or do you want a mix of both?

2. How do you know the course delivers those outcomes?

Frankly, if the answer is to the effect that ‘we only appoint the best/most highly qualified staff’ or ‘we have accreditation from X’ – run a mile.  Perhaps that is a bit harsh but I’d still say some very loud alarm bells should be ringing.  There is an exam/test and there are inputs (lessons, readings, seminars, wikis, etc).  If the provider cannot show how the one relates to the others in ways that you can understand, think hard.

3. Can you accommodate my needs or interests?

This is a question of flexibility and it has two sides.  There are, obviously, compliance course where individual interests will take a very low priority and there are occasions (e.g. wheelchair-bound) where practical arrangements need to be considered.  There is also a huge grey area of fitting a course or programme to your own agenda, assuming you have one (see next). The higher and more professional the level, the more adaptive the course should be.  That costs the provider in terms of staff academic skills, time and professional judgement so there is a straight cost:benefit analysis to be done by you.

4. Can you cope with practitioners?

Let’s agree: there are many practitioners out there who really know what they are doing in their own organizations. In the current economic climate you may be getting major grief because recruitment agents cannot cope with experience and just want badges.  You are potentially aggrieved.  Subsidiary questions include:

  • Will my (short) comments on real-life be welcome? No-one wants waffle about past experience but targeted experience can be really useful if the course is appropriate
  • I know what work problems I want to fix so can I adapt assessments to suit? This is a tough one.  There are those who sign up to courses/programmes and expect free business consultancy from their teachers.  That is not fair.  Teachers are paid as teachers, not consultants. You need to figure out whether you need skills for yourself – and the course to go with it – or consultancy.  Sometimes, buying in consultants is more time effective.

5. How do I know what my peers think?

‘Peers’ is a weird jargon word but it is the cultural and professional root of acceptance. Whether it is your local printed newsletter, your Chamber of Commerce recommendation or your Facebook/MySpace/Twitter/LinkedIn profile, you need to know that your study is understood and recognised.  Rankings are irrelevant: you need reality. Good marketing departments will provide all sorts of links and tables but be a good consumer – think about what each link really means.

6. Fun or duty?

Sometimes you really need to plod mechanically through a course and other times you want inspiration and fun and opening of horizons.  Does the course headline translate into reality?  It is very common for a course to offer the World and somehow narrow down into BloggsVille. The front desk staff/advisors have a duty to perform.  Ask and ask again: does the course reward innovation?  You may get, ‘Of course!’  but push them: how does innovation fit with officially defined required course Outcomes.  If the answer is panic or waffle, move on.

This note could go on forever.  Write if you want to give expertise or if you need help…

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