Program Design TIG Week: What is a program? by Catherine Nameth & Jacqueline Singh

Hello! It’s a pleasure to introduce this week’s series hosted by the Program Design TIG. We are Catherine Nameth, PhD (Program Chair) and Jacqueline Singh, PhD (TIG Co-Chair). In addition to serving in our AEA leadership roles, we meet regularly to talk about program design in our work contexts (higher education and consultancy) and other fields.

What is a program? Programs vary in context, purpose, and intended use. They can be defined in different ways (two sources of definitions provided within this post) and take a variety of forms. Throughout this PD TIG week, you’ll read about some aspects of program design that highlight how programs can be thought about and approached in different ways. To kick things off, we’d like share an example from higher education and one from non-profit.

Example 1. A program at a university’s teaching and learning center aims to support faculty in their role as teachers during the current pandemic, as faculty are tasked with redesigning their face-to-face courses for remote learning. 

Example 2. The NCAA’s Career in Sports Forum (CSF) aims to have student-athletes learn about careers in sports and career options within intercollegiate athletics in a unique virtual programming experience.

Are these two examples “programs,” and if so, how do we know? John Gargani, past AEA President (2016) and a PD TIG founder wrote, “When organizations set out to make the world a better place, they develop a plan of action. That plan is a program.”

Let’s go back to our examples – do each of these have a plan for making the world better?  We think so. Now, over to you – Do you have a plan of action to make the world a better place?

What is program design? Gargani writes, “Program design is both a noun and a verb.”  As a noun, it’s your plan of action. As a verb, program design describes the active and iterative process of identifying and describing the components of a program and how these intersect with program evaluation.

Thinking about other contexts and your professional work:

  • How do you define a program?
  • How does your disciplinary field (e.g., preK-12 education, higher education, public health, medicine, business, philanthropy, etc.) inform thinking about what a program is and how it should be designed?
  • How do you conceptualize or express a program’s design?
  • What tools, and/or approaches do you use to make a program design explicit (e.g., logic model, program theory, evaluability assessment, etc.)?

Rad Resource: John Gargani’s Evalblog can help you refine and define your thinking about program design and evaluation.

Rad Resource: The Joint Committee on Standards for Educational Evaluation in The Program Evaluation Standards (3rd edition)’ provides a comprehensive nine-part definition of “program.”

Hot Tip: Find yourself a like-minded AEA member who works in a different field than you do.  Meet regularly for a virtual coffee and discuss your AEA-related interests. Having this type of colleague is a wonderful way to enhance your program design/evaluation practice!

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Program Design TIG Week with our colleagues in the Program Design Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our Program Design TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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