Fewer, larger, modules could help students too

Can larger and fewer modules offer a pedagogic benefit as well as cost savings? Jackie Potter and Laura Milne look at both sides of the block

Jackie Potter is Dean of Academic Innovation at the University of Chester

Laura Milne is the Head of Digital Education within the Centre for Academic Innovation and Development at the University of Chester.

We all know that universities are struggling financially.

A fixed fee income for nearly a decade when operating costs have risen, including higher interest on any debt, is a key factor. We’ve become used to troubling stories of voluntary or compulsory redundancy schemes, closure of some subject areas – and shifts to new learning frameworks.

These frameworks set new, more efficient, streamlined delivery norms for programmes and courses but are underpinned by design principles that have been adopted to support success for today’s students. Among the common features are a standardised modular credit volume, reduced choice of modules within a programme, a move to sequential delivery of modules across a year (block teaching) and more.

More than just a cost saving

These changes promise to deliver not only efficiency for institutions that could lead to cost savings but also offer real practical and pedagogic benefits for learners. Squeezed university leaders need to make cost savings and improve the quality of their educational offer to ensure prospective students choose their institutions in a crowded market of HE providers where cost of living and graduate prospects loom large in their decision-making.

When we think of learning design, we think of the ways in which teaching and learning activities and assessments are structured within a course or module. This alternative level of learning design is better described as the “learning architecture” of the systems and processes that deliver education in universities and is now also firmly in view for reform.

Fixed credit, larger sized, modules are becoming the norm. There is increasingly less tolerance of credit size variation within and among programmes at a single university, so we are seeing a shift in many institutions to 30 credit modules. This looks like an early response to the promise of funding following credit in the lifelong learning entitlement (LLE), as this is the minimum size for fundable modules that can stack together to allow students to accumulate credit towards awards over a lifetime. While no one is clear if the current or future government will pursue this possibility seriously in the near future, university leaders are making preparations.

Block party

Larger credit modules mean fewer are studied per year by a student. This allows institutions to do at least two things. First, they might schedule the courses in ways that mean at any one time a student studies fewer courses. In its purest form, for a conventional 120 credits per year undergraduate degree, this might look like four, thirty credit modules taught sequentially across the year. This kind of immersive study or block teaching method is being rolled out in a handful of universities. Early evidence of impact (see the Learn in Block website) suggests improved continuation and satisfaction among some students. There is mixed evidence of any positive impact for staff: with morale in the sector generally low senior leaders do need to think carefully about positioning the possible benefits of alternative delivery models.

This approach also brings the possibility of reducing the number of module options that are offered to students. Clearly fewer modules carry less administrative load than more modules although if all other things stay equal, larger student cohort sizes might have detrimental impacts on student learning and on staff workloads. Here, the need to ensure appropriate learning design for large classes, as for example undertaken at the University of Sydney Business School, is important.

At the level of learning architecture, fewer modules reduces the complexity of systems and processes and one of the key benefits it can deliver is condensed timetables where students are scheduled to attend on campus only on three or four days of the week. The days can be planned in advance allowing students with part time jobs and/or caring responsibilities to take more control as they balance busy lives.

Other ideas include, for example, reduced module optionality within subjects and establishing space for compulsory university-wide electives – these are all ways that universities can change the rules of learning design frameworks with a view to offer clarity to students and a more consistent experience, as well as improving delivery efficiency.

Good learning architecture alone might not save struggling universities in the long term but it will certainly help them stay afloat a while longer as they seek to reduce costs with no detriment to student experience and student outcomes.

6 responses to “Fewer, larger, modules could help students too

  1. Thank you for sharing a link to our Block collaborative project. A really good article raising some important points about approaching scheduling differently, also in a way that supports students rather than the perception that we taking something away.

    1. Thanks Leanne. A pleasure to reference your work not least because it provides evidence of the outcomes and impacts of some of these changes. We do need to, where we can, share that evidence and respond to it.

    2. I currently teach in 30cr blocks and it works well, but needs a good team, plenty of prep time, the right kind of flexible spaces and careful integration of content. The consequence seems to be the ability to take learning much further for the same number of hours, better peer relationships and the opportunity for more creative assessment.
      The catch is I work somewhere purpose built for this kind of teaching. The difficulty comes when trying to force this module into the spaces and structures of a ln established HEI which doesn’t have the spaces, staff skillset or team teaching approach that enables the model to work.

      1. Thanks for sharing your experience. I was interested particularly by the factors you suggest underpin success, such as (the right) spaces, staff skill set and team teaching.

  2. While I agree that if universities are having to reduce the number of modules for financial reasons, then they should make the most of it and squeeze what administrative and pedagogical gain out of it that they can, I don’t think we should pretend that this is something that most students want, or which enhances overall education.

    Students repeatedly tell us that they want and value choice and optionality, to produce bespoke degree programmes that allow them to specialise and develop their own education. Part of becoming a critical learner is about developing this specialisation, associated with chosing your own path of study. Reduced module choice is both less appealing to students, and creates an education which is less specialist and more homogenous. It will therefore produce students who are less specialist and more homegenous in their thought. While clever things can be done when cutting module numbers to retain some choice of assessment topic or type, but I’ve never seen these be something which replicates ‘proper’ choice.

    I also wonder about the long term impacts of reduced module choice. While it may bring short-term gains in administrative costs, but I wonder too about the long-term financial future: if we reduce choice then courses at different universities will become more alike, and this leaves the question of how less-established or lower-reputation universities can compete for students.

    Block teaching is a more promising idea, though it still raises questions about what happens to students who have either short-term illnesses or intense flare-ups of long term conditions that result in them missing a chunk of time. But the benefits of block teaching can be achieved without cutting module choice; the ideas are not inherently tied together.

    1. Thanks Rob for sharing your views. How much (module) choice is enough choice is a very pertinent question here. I’m yet to see any research evidence to elucidate that particularly as it pertains to recruitment and student satisfaction. Certainly choice within a module, of topics or assessment, usually lauded as personalization, has known benefits linked to student outcomes.

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