Better by design – embracing complexity in curriculum development

Achieving curriculum change at scale is a complex business. David Spendlove explores how to mobilise the academic community

David Spendlove is professor of education at the University of Manchester.

Across the tempestuous past decade, higher education has weathered, with increasing frequency, a barrage of “perfect storms,” to the extent to where universities can now be considered to have their own particular microclimate.

Navigating these perilous conditions equally becomes progressively more challenging due to increasing public, political, and populist scrutiny; while like global warming, there are few signs of any relenting from the scrutiny of fees, culture wars and changing expectations from students and regulators.

In such circumstances when trying to maintain a high-quality portfolio of academic programmes, the challenge becomes particularly acute. The continual scrutiny from metrics, alongside the moral imperative of simply wishing to provide students with the best possible experience, when they themselves face challenges of wellbeing, a cost-of-living crisis, alongside personal needs and trajectories, contributes to a blizzard of demands and expectations.

Ultimate Jenga

Responding to these constant challenges is therefore exceptionally complex and is often like the ultimate game of Jenga, where something new is continually added whilst key parts of organisations, such as individuals, funding, or infrastructure, are removed or changed, for various reasons, making the entire enterprise unstable.

Yet while developing a high quality, relevant and attractive portfolio remains complex, the challenges are not insurmountable, particularly when they are carefully considered, suitably resourced, and able to draw on multiple areas of expertise, combined with a strong commitment to building quality into the development of programmes from the outset. This isn’t simply about an “agile” curriculum, the stock phrase used when all others fail, it is about responding to the higher education “ecosystem” challenge through engaging with complexity in a designerly and considered manner.

Inevitably, while the challenges of Covid and other unexpected events will require a rapid response, ongoing portfolio development can engage in the complexity of change in a purposeful and dare I say it, “enjoyable” and creative way, and this is something we have been attempting to do at the University of Manchester. More specifically the developments we have undertaken, as part of a major project within the Faculty of Humanities (for context the Humanities Faculty is the size of an average university in the UK), are part of how we are transforming our portfolio.

Central to this is attempting to prevent academics being weighed down by the complexity of trying to navigate the approval and quality assurance systems by themselves. Instead, we want to support them where possible to utilise their strengths, through drawing on their high-quality research, realising the potential of their expert knowledge and facilitating their ideas, whilst also challenging them to be innovative through providing high-quality support systems and processes.

A good example of this complexity is in the area of assessment and feedback which conceptually and philosophically remains a challenge for many academics to develop a deep understanding of. Equally when you add the further challenges of maintaining and understanding of the ever changing policy requirements, such as word counts, optionality and inclusiveness, and then consider the latest concerns and opportunities in assessment created by the use of generative AI tools, it is not difficult to see how academics can struggle to maximise the assessment opportunities that may exist.

Collective action

In such circumstances a supportive “community” approach which recognises the challenge as requiring a collective response, guides academics in their decision making, drawing upon a team with expertise in different areas of policy, pedagogy and practice. In this way we hope to avoid the stifling of academic ambition whilst supporting and informing their navigation of the appropriate regulatory requirements and multiplicity of pedagogical opportunities, whilst ultimately enhancing the “student experience.”

The strategy adopted therefore acknowledges that many academics are not pedagogical, policy, curriculum or learning design specialists; however, by matching them with specialist support in these areas alongside clear expectations and a mapped 19 stage process, where academics are shepherded through what normally appears a minefield of forms and regulations, we can sustain a high-quality and diverse portfolio. Central to this “learning design” approach is therefore the embracing of complexity, uncertainty, and creativity in order to make incremental progress through collaborative and distributed endeavours, drawing upon multidisciplinary expertise to find and resolve student-centred problems while creating a significant “leverage in practice.”

Notably, this approach means that quality assurance is built into each of the mapped steps rather than quality controlled at the end, hopefully meaning a less stressful experience for all but also a much higher quality programme at the end of the process. It also means that if, or when, any operational aspect of the development does not appear to be working as planned then individual components can be reverse-engineered and redeveloped given the knowledge that other aspects of the student experience are of high quality.

The main point being that while inclusion, progression, sustainability, assessment design, digital skills, employability, equality and diversity, alongside a myriad of other policy and practice demands, can feel like more “stuff” to squeeze on top of a programmes “content” through quality design and supportive processes that integrates pedagogy from the outset, a coherent student experience can be authentically developed in an integrated way.

While we are still developing our approach, the signs that making a commitment to investment in the process rather than a narrow preoccupation with the “product” is proving more than promising and scalable. More specifically while attempting to remove and navigate what are often perceived as institutional barriers and engaging in learning design developments, that acknowledge and embrace complexity, is proving an opportunity that can yield significant benefits in preparedness for the future storms ahead.

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