Over the last 12 months I have been leading a curriculum project and one of the principles that we are working with is programme level design; simply we are trying to think about curriculum in the unit that it is experienced by students and not in the unit that we focus on in teaching or administration. Alongside this I am working with others on a piece of collaborative research which links to programme level assessment (more about that at this year’s AHE conference). Based on these recent experiences, here are five observations about the possible barriers to achieving programme level design in curriculum and assessment. I hope they are in some way useful to others working in this space.
‘My module’ or ‘your module’ is the language we often use when discussing teaching. An approach to modules which stresses ownership can have benefits since well-loved modules provide a space for specialist and research linked teaching to thrive, but the downsides are significant. When we ‘own’ a module, it is hard to take a day off or manage a personal crisis if we feel solely responsible for a unit of teaching, it leaves no room to anticipate real life events. We create a system of over-dependence on individuals which is arguably bad for both organisational resilience and for personal well-being. Of course, the idea of modules as personal territories is exacerbated by HE systems e.g. module evaluation scores which cause us to focus on this unit of operation, but undoubtedly ‘we’ can become very attached to the module at the expense of the wider view of the course. Moving to a course view means stepping back from the idea of modules as our own territory and instead conceiving them as a shared endeavour.
I need to confess my own territorialism. Recently, I had to hand over ‘my’ modules to others – it was quite an emotional thing because I was invested, but without hesitation a team have made it even better. I appreciate expertise and specialism means the pool of people who can teach some things is small, but if we can design out dependence on individuals owning a module and consider more team work and team ownership then we will be a step closer to programme thinking.
Course Team Organisation
I’ve come across a range of management structures, all with their own nuances, but none that really put course thinking at the heart of organisational structures (I’d welcome examples if colleagues have them). Perhaps this is down to academics having multi-stranded roles with research, reach-out and development elements; teaching is not the only thing we need to organise no matter how important I and others believe it to be. Whatever the approach, course team planning of curriculum needs to be underpinned by a clear process for course related decision-making, a process for understanding resourcing, and a process for managing people in the course team (while also respecting that all important academic freedom). Loose communities of practice will work well when there is consensus and all is well, but inevitably sometimes more formal structures are necessary.
Interdisciplinary vs. Course
What discipline or profession should exist in isolation? [none is the right answer!]. Programme led design doesn’t mean segregated courses. There is a well-established benefit to students of working in an interdisciplinary way, trying topics outside their areas, and working with others unlike themselves. Programme design should not make disciplines in to islands. Programme design should actively manage rather than lose inter-disciplinary aspects. Mistaking programmatic thinking for isolationist thinking would be a total deterrent to engage. Just as we would want to avoid a module free-for-all, that serves no-one well, we should avoid isolationist approaches. Perhaps we need to be clearer that this approach to curriculum development can still result in connected curriculum.
Systems planning and leadership
From my own curriculum work over many years and through engagements with external colleagues in educational development, it is clear that a move at scale to programmatic thinking won’t happen by chance. It needs to be led, planned, and managed. The rationale needs to clear and well made and continually championed. It is not just a matter for learning and teaching people; a true, deep move to programme led curriculum requires a course approach to space management, resource planning, timetabling, eLearning, and so many other dimensions of practice. With that in mind it is excellent to see a paper from CELCAT which starts to focus in on how time-tabling can align with course experience. Attempts to lead curriculum change, which seek to prioritise the student journey, need to reach well-beyond the course team themselves. Leadership, cross-institutional change, and changes throughout the system will all be key.
Time and Space to be Together
Perhaps the most obvious of barriers to course level design is simply the challenge of getting staff together in a room at the same time. I’m increasingly a fan of the ‘clear your diary to get stuff done’ approach, but that will only get you so far because work is simply displaced, and it doesn’t work for all. Instead, perhaps part of the change process to support programmatic design requires some structural changes to free staff up to be available as a team. I am hearing more organisations taking on things like no meeting Fridays, we need to think how we provide space and time for focussed collaboration in real time. Perhaps course team time needs to be scheduled as a timetable slot, so that there is time carved out to focus. However it is addressed, leaving it to chance is unhelpful.
Whist I have made observations on the challenges, realising the solutions in practice is undoubtedly challenging. It has become increasingly clear that course development underpinned by a programmatic approach needs to be a shared endeavour reaching well beyond teaching staff and educational developers.