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Course Titles for Dummies

By Lisa Neal / May 2008

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In 1594 Shakespeare wrote, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." I disagree, names matter. Would "Desperate Housewives" have achieved massive popularity if it was called "Suburban Living"?

Only 44 years ago, New York on $5 a Day was published. What a compelling title! Now the Boston Globe reports that two adults sharing a hotel room and eating three meals spend, on average, $606 a day in New York City. Too bad "New York on $606 a Day" doesn't have the same ring to it. A search for New York travel books brings up Not for Tourists 2008 Guide to New York City and The Best Things to Do in New York City: 1001 Ideas. Not for tourists—but I am a tourist! If this is an insider's guide then do natives read it? And the "2008" in the title only reminds me that the book will soon be obsolete. If books are anything like car models, 2009 will be available well before 2008 ends. And "1001 ideas" just makes me hyperventilate—a few good ideas are all I need.

When I was in high school, a friend gave me Mathematics Made Easy, which was one of the most inspirational books I ever read. In fact I ended up a math major in college. Could Math for Dummies have inspired me so? The older book refers to the topic, not the reader. Now the For Dummies and Complete Idiot's Guide series offers numerous math books, but the titles refer mainly to the reader. In this age when Oprah's Book Club determines what sells, I wish we could return to book titles that neither insult nor overwhelm the reader.

And what about course titles? I teach a course, "Online Consumer Health," previously known as "Online Health Communities." My primary motivation for changing the name was that one of my students last fall told me he signed up for the course not knowing what an online health community was. Being descriptive and understandable is important.

What if course titles tried to grab you, like book titles, but remained usefully descriptive? I could rename my course again: "Online Consumer Health: How to Design and Evaluate Health Websites," or "How People without Medical Training Use the Internet for Health Education and Support." One of my favorite courses in graduate school, "Software Engineering," could be renamed "Software Engineering: How to be a Systems Architect and Play Office Politics to Your Advantage." Maybe these are a bit wordy, but they are certainly descriptive and attention-grabbing.

Title-related issues loom even larger for online courses, since there may be fewer contexts for understanding course titles when a student isn't on campus. Also it may be more important to market to online students since they are likely to study part-time and be busy with other commitments. A perusal of online courses showed that titles like "Business Writing 101? are still in vogue. That could be renamed "Business Writing for Clarity and Manager Approval"—if that is what students learn, of course. I will say that I have seen a few online courses with intriguing names: Trump University has courses called "The Trump Way to Wealth" and "How to Start a Business on a Shoestring Budget." I wonder if the Trump organization has a marketing department that creates course titles, just as the titles of television shows and even books are undoubtedly produced by marketers. The next step may be an online tutoring service called "Desperate Students."

Lisa Neal is Editor-in-Chief of eLearn Magazine and an e-learning consultant.


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