As the impact of Covid-19 continues into the next academic year, many institutions are making significant changes to degree programmes – from the delivery of teaching, to assessment methods and, in some cases, to course content itself.
Lectures look likely to move predominantly online; many placements and year abroad opportunities will no longer be possible; and practical assessments may have to move to alternative formats. Students who have already undertaken one or two years of their programme may therefore find that it looks very different come September.
As I was considering these changes, I found myself recalling the story of the “Ship of Theseus”. Plutarch’s thought experiment asks us to consider a ship that has been put on display and its wooden planks slowly replaced over time. If, eventually, all of the parts of the ship are replaced, does this mean that the ship is no longer the same object? And if we accept that it is now a new ship, at what point does this change occur? At what stage does the ship of Theseus cease being this same ship?
What happens if we use the ship of Theseus concept and apply it to programme-level changes in higher education? Is there a stage at which we can say, “this degree programme is so fundamentally changed that it can no longer be classed as the same programme at all”? And what implications does this have for the sector, particularly in the areas of quality assurance, student experience and student engagement?
The first plank
Perhaps it is the case that as soon as the very first plank of Theseus’ ship is removed, it is no longer the same ship. But degree programmes (and their composite modules) are reviewed regularly, with tweaks to the curriculum expected and, indeed, encouraged. Perhaps it is decided that an additional piece of coursework should be included, or a reading list is updated.
Such a small change would not justify a claim that the degree programme has been so altered that it can no longer be deemed to be the same programme. Indeed, in those institutions that subscribe to a quality enhancement approach, continuous improvement to a degree programmes is commended and a sign of effective quality processes.
The final plank
An alternative argument is that the ship is only a new ship when the final piece has been replaced. In other words, we can consider the ship to be the same if just one part of it still remains from the original ship. Applying the same argument to degree programmes, this would suggest that if every part of a programme’s curriculum was changed – from format to delivery and almost every piece of content – but one week’s content was left the same, that this would be still be the same programme. Yet just because one small part of the programme has stayed the same, most onlookers would suggest that the degree programme is at this stage no longer the same as the original.
The time frame
Perhaps, some may argue, it’s the same ship even after all the pieces have been replaced, as long as the changes take place over time and at any one stage each change is only small. This feels a bit more comfortable. If a degree programme changes elements of its practice over 20 years – as it reacts to student feedback or new pedagogical methods – one could still say that the “same” programme has been running for all this time even though it is now unrecognisable from how it once looked.
But in the time of Covid-19, change is not happening incrementally. Instead, radical changes are being implemented simultaneously. Those who are comfortable with changes that happen slowly and asynchronously may not regard this process as equivalent when the changes occur all at once.
What is the ship made up of?
Although in Plutarch’s story the material of the ship has changed, its shape and design have nevertheless stayed the same. If the ship were to sail again, it may be possible to recruit most of the same crew to sail it. These elements are also part of what makes this particular ship “Theseus’ ship”.
And in the same way that a ship’s material is not the only thing that makes it that particular ship, the same can be said of a degree programme – assessment methods or delivery of teaching, for instance, are not its only parts. For example, the programme director might be integral to the “essence” of a degree programme – someone else could deliver the same content, of course, but each captain sails their ship differently.
So, perhaps, even if a programme radically changes in some areas (e.g. all of the teaching moves online), provided that enough of the other parts of the programme stay the same (e.g. it has the same learning outcomes, its overall “shape” is the same) then it could still be considered the same.
But what if we make such a significant change to the ship that it can no longer sail? If, for example, the ship’s exterior is changed from wood to lead then eventually it will become too heavy and sink. In this case, such a significant change is made to the ship that it cannot perform its central function i.e. being able to sail. What would this type of change look like for a degree programme? Is there a change that an institution could make that would mean that the degree no longer fulfilled what it set out to do?
Many have voiced concern about how creative courses will look if students are not able to work in studios or exhibit their work. Similarly, for degrees that are based around placements, where students can develop and practice their skills in work-based settings, if these placements are removed mid-way through the degree then are the alternatives that institutions offer enough to claim the degree is still fulfilling the same function? What does it mean if the learning objectives of a programme can no longer be met and students cannot demonstrate that they have acquired the same skills and knowledge?
What even is a ship?
Could it be that, ultimately, if people believe that the ship is the same, then it is? If so, then who decides if the ship is the same? The captain? The crew? Members of the public who come and view the ship? For a degree programme, there are also many stakeholders – including the programme director, the quality team, the students themselves. Who makes the call?
Part of the reason why the Theseus thought experiment flummoxes people is because “the ship of Theseus” does not have an exact definition. There isn’t a necessary or sufficient condition that makes it “what it is”. A degree programme is similar – it exists as a collection of things – reading lists, assessments, lectures, tutorials, staff, students. The classification of a thing must therefore be based in many cases on mutual agreement – we collectively agree that this thing is equivalent to this name and thus it is so.
If institutions want students to continue to believe in their degree programmes, they must therefore bring students with them through this process of change – staff should work in partnership with students to come to a shared new understanding of the programme. Together, they can identify the key elements of their programmes – what are the parts of the degree that are fundamental; what are its foundations, its first principles, its roots? What are the parts of the programme that, if removed, would render the programme no longer the same in the students’ eyes?
If radical, rapid changes are to be made to courses (and it is inevitable at this stage that they will be) then student engagement has never been more important. Students must therefore be co-creators in online course design and co-decision makers in institutions’ emergency response committees. They must be able to contribute to the building of the ship, not merely see it change around them mid-voyage.
There are already many excellent examples of institutions and students’ associations developing student representation systems that function optimally online (sparqs has collated a selection of useful resources from across the sector) and sector guidance on how to most effectively engage with students during Covid-19 (recent examples include resources for students’ unions from NUS Scotland and QAA, and ‘Quick Guides’ on student engagement from NStEP, Ireland’s National Student Engagement Programme).
Few students are expecting an experience in September that looks identical to what they anticipated when they applied for university. But after extensive changes for the next academic year have been finalised, students must continue to feel that their degree is still inherently the same degree they signed up to. The risks to institutions if they don’t are significant – a likely substantial negative impact on student satisfaction and the potential for complaints under Consumer Protection Law (in 2015 the Competition and Markets Authority clarified the law’s application to universities).
There are also meaningful personal impacts for individual students – a student may feel disheartened by not having the student experience they had hoped or envisaged. But, crucially, there are also opportunities – this process of change should not just be about “alleviating risk”, but about ensuring that students feel an active part of an institution’s academic community and understand that their expertise as students is recognised, respected and utilised.