Designing curricula when you have a blank sheet of paper

Opportunity, or bear-trap?

One of the more challenging challenges in my professional life has been curriculum design. I’m currently on my fifth major project, effectively designing an entire programme from scratch.

For those of you from countries/institutions when you don’t get to handle such things, I offer you a mixed greeting. On the one hand, you’re missing an amazing opportunity to contextualise your teaching within a much bigger picture. On the other, it’s a massive pain in the neck to do.

Here in the UK, we have prescribed degree structures: universities validate a package of modules/courses, which together make a named degree. There are options (some of which might come from other degrees), but there’s almost no mixing-and-matching by students to build a major, in the American style. It’s good in that it provides clearer progress and development (plus shorter time-to-completion), but at the price of the limited options for intellectually-curious (or uncertain) students.

Usually, this is a task undertaken by a team from the lead department, but in my case that’s only happened the first two times. All the rest have been for degrees that the university didn’t offer beforehand,  which opens up a whole new can of worms.

Given the financial imperatives that all Higher Education Institutions operate under, it has not be unreasonable that universities only want to do things that pay their way (or demonstrate some other clear benefit). But when you think of moving into a new market, then you have to take a bit of leap of faith.

Of course, ‘leap of faith’ is just the kind of phrase that makes both administrators and QA regulators blanch, so how to minimise/manage the issue?

First step is to have a clear handle on the objectives of the programme. This means finding other examples from other institutions, or benchmarks (HEFCE’s a good place to start): this is all much easier now following the UK requirements on publishing such information.

With the objectives set out, it is a much simpler process to work down to individual courses/modules: a grid or checklist of the former’s appearance in the latter is the obvious way to do it.

The second step is to then let your imagination fly. Typically, this is the best opportunity you will ever have to introduce macro-level changes to practice, so you might as well embrace it. To take my latest example, I had a lovely conversation the other day about moving to short-fat modules (all the module in a couple of weeks, modules running sequentially) from our current short-thin system (4 modules running concurrently over a semester): lots of upsides, lot of opportunities.

But this then crashes into the third step, namely the reality check. What are your constraints? Moving to short-fat might be great, but comes with a pile of consequences that impact timetabling, delivery of other courses, student welfare and beyond. In short, nice idea, but not one for now.

Obviously, the imagineering and reality-checking go hand-in-hand. It’s really important again to do both these in light of the objectives too, especially if you’re adding in provision that runs outside the boundaries of what you currently do. I find it useful to think about the problems we currently deal with and the ones we might find ourselves dealing with, then thinking about what the root causes of all these might be. It’s this that typically points to big-scale changes, rather than tinkering: if the latter was all that was needed, then you’d have done it already and it wouldn’t be a problem any more.

Alongside all this is a fourth idea, which is getting buy-in. That means support at the institutional level, ideally from a senior level to help unblock processes, but also from the local level, especially if you are going to have to get people to devote time and effort to help design and then run this programme.

This is something of a balancing act. As in all things, having more hands on deck means that jobs can be split up – so they’re not too onerous – but also increases coordination costs and the likelihood that someone throws a spanner in the works. In some cases that might be a sensible spanner – a problem that would have been overlooked otherwise – but often it’s not, especially if there’s a lack of any obvious reward/benefit for the individual(s) concerned.

The optimum solution to this is to have a small group be responsible for big-picture design of the curriculum, which then delivers a package to the broader group to gather detailed details (e.g. on specific courses/modules). That small group needs to include a mix of people that demonstrates inclusion of the key players, so that everyone can feel their voices were represented, just as the group itself should be representing all the likely issues that might arise.

In the current case I’m working on, I’m really happy with the group we have, not least because the nature of the programme requires a lot of input from a range of student services that normally don’t get so involved at this stage. As such, it’s been a great opportunity to hear what each other has to say about the priorities and constraints under which we operate.

The final thought to leave you with is that there is no one ‘right’ way of delivering provision. For the current project, I’m on my fifth draft of the curriculum, each of each has been radically different from the previous ones. There are very many ways to skin the educational cat, each with its merits and disadvantages.

That implies that you have to bite the bullet at some point and make choices. Especially when it’s a new venture, it makes sense to design something that has sound pedagogic foundations, start it up and then review relatively quickly once it’s up and running, to adjust as necessary. If you’ve designed your programme well – using clear objectives and with an eye to potential pitfalls – then such adjustment is relatively easy. However, you should also keep in mind that it’ll be adjustments, rather than building from scratch, so you need to be happy with your core ideas/approach.

I’m really keen to see how this current project plays out: obviously, I’ll write it up some more when we’re further down the line. In the meantime, if you have thoughts or questions on this, do please let us know.