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We’re asking questions about curriculum transformation

Curriculum change is everywhere - and Wonkhe and Adobe want to know what's going on. Mark Andrews and Debbie McVitty introduce a new investigation into how universities are making their ambitions for their students a reality
This article is more than 1 year old

Mark Andrews is higher education lead (EMEA) at Adobe.

Debbie is Editor of Wonkhe

Australian academic Raewyn Connell explains the process of building higher education curriculum as one of imposing order and structure on chaos.

Extending knowledge through research is an inherently messy process – proceeding in fits and starts, evolving in unpredictable ways, without fixed conclusions. Building curriculum, by contrast, is a process of selecting what academics consider to be important for students to know and arranging it in some kind of sequence or narrative according to the logic of the discipline.

All academics probably have a very excusable bias in considering their own specialist topic to be absolutely essential to what it means to graduate in a subject – but within subject communities the debate about what belongs in curricula is appropriately lively. Especially in recent years, with inclusion and decolonisation agendas, the knowledge content of higher education curricula have come under greater scrutiny.

A greater emphasis on programme development – rather than academics running individual modules – has meant that curriculum development is much more of a collegial or team activity that it might have been in the past. That’s before you include stakeholders like employers, PSRBs, alumni, and students themselves. Nowadays, the selection and integration of different areas of knowledge for inclusion in curriculum is a process of collective negotiation.

But despite all this cognitive work to create a structured body of knowledge out of an unstructured one, describing the knowledge is only one aspect of curriculum construction. And in some ways, it’s the easier one – in that subject knowledge is the academic’s expertise, and the thing that drives their research, and the thing they have in common with colleagues in the same discipline.

Debates about what “else” should be incorporated into higher education curricula in terms of skills, competences, or attributes that will prepare students for lives and careers beyond university are often rather more difficult in the sense that while educators will readily agree that higher education learning outcomes incorporate both knowledge and skills, much of the “skills” element is not traditionally in the realm of academic or educator expertise – though many will take a lively and informed interest.

Curriculum for the whole person

Regular Wonkhe readers will be aware that Wonkhe and Adobe have worked together on aspects of this debate – from our exploratory Skills to Thrive work that explored educators’ views of skills in the curriculum, to our work last year on assessment, and students’ views of digital literacy in their curriculum.

You can only see something once you start looking for it (and then you see it everywhere), but it is striking that a good number of universities are currently working on curriculum transformation – and our sense is that this work is happening on a larger scale than the traditional triennial course review.

Student employability is, of course, one driver, and an important one – especially now that students’ professional outcomes are baked into regulation in England. And the growth in student numbers over the last decade in combination with some difficult times economically makes it all the more essential that students can be confident they will graduate with skills that employers will value – and, whether or not they pay fees, many presumably see this as part of the university compact.

There’s also changes in the labour market itself to consider – particularly the widespread use of digital information and machine learning technologies, that mean it is critical that students develop digital literacy as part of their studies – both in the sense of being comfortable with using different media production and productivity tools and in the sense of being critical about the role technology plays in wider society.

But curriculum transformation is also about responding to what’s going on with students and education – a sense that in the context of a very diverse student body, the goal of curriculum becomes conscious development of “the whole person” in a way that enables individuals to transcend or at least move a little way beyond the boundaries and limitations thrown up by their social background, personal characteristics or, indeed, education discipline – that fosters personal wellbeing and agency, and prepares students to have an impact in their future lives.

Students arrive at university with particular prior experiences of learning, individual interests, and ambitions they hope to realise while they are there – and while their journey may be highly personal, the curriculum articulates the overall shape of that development trajectory.

Graduate attribute and curriculum frameworks – in theory – create a shared understanding of what the larger goal and meaning of higher education is for that particular institution; they give students the opportunity to reflect on the kind of person they hope to become and how their learning will help them to get there; and they ensure closer alignment between knowledge, pedagogy, and opportunities for different kinds of learning experiences.

Inevitably some of this work deals with abstractions – higher education develops “critical citizens”, a “global outlook”, or an “innovative mindset”. If not grounded in real tangible learning experiences, these words are merely verbiage. So how are universities bring those abstract ideas to life in their curriculum and pedagogy?

Over the next few months we’ll be engaging with higher education leaders, academics, professional staff, and students, building understanding about what’s driving curriculum transformation, how it connects to broader strategic goals for university and student success, what the debates are on campuses about what different stakeholders want to see from the process and, critically, what’s actually being done to achieve and then communicate the change.

Steps to curriculum change

Any university that is considering changing the curriculum needs to ask four key questions. We certainly don’t claim to have the answers, but we have kicked off our investigation by canvassing our Education Espresso community of academics and higher education professionals – all coming from the perspective of taking an interest in learning, teaching and curriculum.

With 152 responses from a field of around one thousand – about half and half academics and professional staff – we think this is a respectable snapshot of that particular self-selecting group, but we’d caution against reading out to the sector as a whole. We report the findings here partly for illustrative purposes and to support wider discussion, and partly on the basis that you can’t reasonably survey someone and then not tell them the results.

Question 1: what is important and distinctive about our graduates?

We offered respondents seven different broad graduate attributes and asked them to rank them by importance – the survey platform randomised the suggestions, so that the order in which the attributes were presented would not influence the results.

The final ranking order was as follows:

  1. That students develop broad transferable skills such as communication, team work, and project management that will be valuable in their future employment.
  2. That students have personal agency, self-knowledge, and reflection to be able to make informed choices about their own personal aspirations, and health and wellbeing.
  3. That students are civic-minded and responsible citizens, well-versed in relevant ethical and sustainability issues, and understand their potential to contribute to the public good and to the advancement of social justice.
  4. That students are digitally literate: able to choose and use the appropriate digital technologies to produce, process, and communicate about various tasks in academic and non-academic contexts, with the appropriate degree of criticality.
  5. That students are enterprising: experienced in applying their knowledge – across disciplinary boundaries where appropriate – to identify and address society’s challenges.
  6. That students are globally aware, culturally competent and able to cross geographical boundaries with ease.
  7. That students are engaged with, and develop skills relating to, research, enquiry and the production of knowledge.

Accepting that most of our respondents would have wanted to answer “all of this and more,” we were mildly surprised at the primacy of the idea of transferable skills, given there’s a fair amount of critical discourse about “skills”, and wonder how these are perceived as relating to the other more complex attributes we described. We were also a little taken aback to see the low relative value placed on research skills and experience (again, a reminder that these results are not representative of the views of the sector as a whole).

It’s also worth noting that despite our best efforts to describe a wide range of prospective attributes, when we asked whether there were other important skills, competences or attributes more than half of respondents pointed out something they felt we had missed: resilience, collaboration, inclusion, confidence, critical thinking, data literacy and much more.

In many cases a good argument could be made about how these could be encompassed in our existing framework but the wider point is about the breadth of opinion on these matters – any university leader embarking on a curriculum review should be prepared for the answer to the question of what we’re trying to achieve with all this higher education business to be hotly contested.

Question 2: If we think something is important, does that mean it should be “embedded” in the curriculum or can we create or leverage opportunities that wrap around the curriculum to achieve it?

We asked our respondents to make a judgement about whether the skills relating to each of our attributes list (“research skills”, “digital literacy”, “employability skills” etc) should be primarily delivered through core curriculum, primarily through the wider student experience, both, or neither.

Of all the various attributes, only research skills were comfortably placed as belonging primarily in the core curriculum. There was no majority in favour of any of the suggested attributes being primarily developed through the wider student experience though civic engagement and enterprise come closest.

It is not especially surprising that in a lot of cases the “both” response proved popular – but that does raise a question of the alignment and integration of the curriculum with that wider experience and how students are expected to apply the learning from one in the context of the other.

It’s also worth rehearsing the point that optional co- and extra-curricular activity can be exclusive for disabled students, commuter students, those with caring responsibilities, limited resources and lower confidence, so it’s worth thinking through if you’re going to plant your flag on the development of specific attributes while there’s no requirement to stuff it into the curriculum, how some of that wider engagement might be supported and barriers to participation reduced.

Skillset/attributeCore curriculum Wider experienceBoth
Research skills76%3%21%
Transferable/employability skills25%

Digital literacy39%15%46%
Civic engagement/citizenship10%45%43%
Personal agency30%18%52%
Global awareness17%26%53%

We also asked to what extent these various skills, attributes, and competences are already embedded in curricula and the extent to which there were plans to change the current situation in respondents’ institutional context. Close to two-third (63 per cent) of respondents said “To some extent/in some subject areas but we’re planning on changing that.”

A further 18 per cent of respondents felt that these kinds of skills and competences were “very widely recognised and embedded” at their institution and if any of those respondents is reading we’d be pleased to talk to them about what the rest of the sector can learn from their spectacular success.

Question 3: Whose job is it to make sure students are actually developing skills, attributes, and competences?

It’s not always easy to pin down who should be responsible for the bits of curriculum that don’t deal directly with subject knowledge, especially when there’s not a consensus that the broader skills, competences, and attributes definitely belong in the core subject curriculum.

Rather than insisting that respondents pick a lead responsible actor we asked them to rank who has the greatest responsibility in their organisational context for making sure students develop skills, competences, and attributes.

Here’s the final ranking based on the votes of all our respondents:

  1. Programme leaders
  2. Module leaders
  3. Students themselves
  4. Professional staff (eg library, careers)
  5. Personal/academic tutors
  6. The students’ union

The findings here suggest that despite a degree of scepticism about whether these wider skills and attributes belong primarily in curriculum, broadly our respondents still considered it to be academics’ responsibility to make sure it’s happening – suggesting that even where students’ development is seen as taking place through the wider student experience it somewhat behoves academics to have sight of that in some way. The relative importance awarded to students themselves here is also notable – raising questions about how this responsibility is signalled and supported.

In this area we also asked who we’d missed and got the clear sense that respondents feel that senior staff and department leaders are also responsible – as well as external stakeholders, particularly employers. Assuming respondents didn’t mean that senior leaders are literally responsible for every student’s development, there’s a lesson to be drawn here about the value placed on the ongoing interest and engagement of senior colleagues in these matters and the utility and relevance of institutional policies and framework.

Question 4: Now we’ve decided what’s important, where it sits, and who’s responsible for it – how do we make it real?

The most important question and sadly, not one we could meaningfully engage with in detail in our snapshot survey, but we did ask respondents to give us a steer on what they feel does or doesn’t work in developing students skills, competences, and attributes. This gave respondents the opportunity to open up about their particular reflections having completed the survey.

Our respondents highlighted the importance of embedding activity – none of this can be bolted on to current practice:

Providing transferable skills in the context of a particular discipline seems to lead to greater engagement and buy-in, greater trust that what they’re hearing and exploring is relevant so worth their time.

Standalone/extracurricular programmes that develop skills are no longer sufficient. They are an added bonus, but it has never been more difficult to fight for student time. It’s vital that a student can gain all the experience they need to secure the future they want within their academic programme.

Comprehensive, programme-level approaches are more effective than initiatives limited to individual modules.

Skills, competences, and attributes are and should be a fundamental part of the academic curriculum, embedded during reviews and revalidations.

A number of respondents emphasised that a diversity of approaches creates space for the diversity of students – and presumably a diversity of subject contexts as well:

What can work, depending on how it’s resourced & implemented is authentic assessment, mentorship or student buddy schemes, learning support/personal tutoring, alumni stories & advice, informal conversations with alumni. What doesn’t seem to work is a ‘one-size fits all’ approach; offering a variety of options is more effective.

What works is providing a range of engaging and relevant ways of developing competences & giving students choice to select what works for them.

Cover-all initiatives sometimes fail to take into consideration complex individual student needs, particularly around cultural, gender and ability parameters. Class background also holds disadvantages for some students that tend not to be factored into the actual design of skills competency initiatives.

There was also a strong message about the importance of institutional coordination:

There seems to be a need for a framework; a common language and a starting point for students (and staff) to know what they need to develop. Also we desperately need to show we value these things – unfortunately, if they are not part of assessment, it appears to send a message that they are not as important.

It doesn’t fully work if just one department or role has responsibility if it is not supported across the institution – the values have to be embedded and understood across roles and departments of the institution. Training for all staff on why it is important is also key.

And students’ role and identity also came up frequently – noting that students themselves have a responsibility to engage in their own experience and potentially in curriculum transformation as well:

None of this works if we don’t require students to be accountable to themselves. We need to ensure that they accept responsibility for their own experiences.

What works: exposing students to the professional world of work early on (particularly at a time when they are beginning to form their own professional identity and graduation / a career may feel a long way off); integrating career / employability skills with academic skills; authentic assessments.

I think there is scope for co-creation of teaching resources and assessments between [a] teaching team and students.

Students taking responsibility for developing the skills and competencies they want, being active rather than passive.

As we talk to more individuals thinking about the future of higher education curriculum, we’ll be rounding out these observations with more detailed insight about why, and how, curriculum change can be made a reality. We’ll be keeping our community abreast of our work through our regular Education Espresso online event, so do sign up to get involved.

This article is published in association with Adobe.

4 responses to “We’re asking questions about curriculum transformation

  1. For a lot of disciplines, the biggest influence on the curriculum is the requirements (and often beyond that, the rightly or wrongly perceived expectations) of the professional and statutory regulatory bodies that accredited various qualifications. Getting them involved is a necessary part of any far-reaching reworking of the curriculum across many disciplines. The different ways in which requirements are determined, expressed and interpreted can play a huge role in driving, preventing, enabling or stifling innovation in the curriculum.

  2. It would be interesting to survey groups of students to get their answers to the questions asked and identify what they think and feel are the “correct”answers.

    You are right to question the wider subject of “what is an undergraduate education trying to achieve ?” alongside “How should we reform and update the academic curriculum ?”

    It is important to recognise that the answers will vary widely, in part because of the individual academic subjects being studied, the level of technical skill required to be taught to ensure student competence and the demand of employers and professional bodies relating to the subjects being taught.

    This is not helped by the growth of “Combined Studies” and the modular approach to building a qualification.

    If the student is to be at the heart of undergraduate education, it is critical that the student fully understands what the individual university, individual faculty, individual department and individual teacher / member of staff is trying to achieve and is responsible for.

    It is also essential that the individual student understands their own responsibility in the process / journey and the amount of time and work they will be required to undertake.

  3. I find it extremely disappointing that once again a false dichotomy is promoted between so-called transferable/employability skills and academic skills when in reality the skills required by the academy are exactly the same as those required for graduate employment.

  4. Three points, if I may:
    – it’s important to try to keep some clear water between pedagogy (how a programme is to be taught) and curriculum (what is to be taught). For me, this article somewhat conflates the two. Both are vital but they are (to a large degree) separate and they warrant somewhat separate treatment. (Only then can we ask awkward questions as to the priority between the two. Does pedagogy trump curriculum OR vice versa? For too long, crucial as it is, in higher education, curriculum has tended to trump pedagogy.)
    – 30+ years ago, it could have been claimed – and received an ‘of course’ response – that at the heart of a genuine ‘higher’ education lay critical thinking. Unless a programme sought to bring on a student’s powers of critical thinking, we were not in the company of a higher education. That idea of higher education has faded worldwide, such that now – with higher education largely incorporated into ‘cognitive capitalism’ (Boutang, etc) – the process has become one of producing skillful operants for the economy (full of ‘skills’). In turn, the capacity of higher education to play be a major institution in societal reflexivity is severely diminished. However, not only does the concept of critical thinking need to be maintained and placed centrally, but it needs to be widened into critical thought, critique and critical being such that a genuine higher education for the C21 is one of acquiring the dispositions and the powers of criticality. Without this, graduates will not possess the wherewithal to make their proper contributions to life on this planet, with all of the impairments and antagonisms that it presents.
    – 60 years ago, a debate about curriculum would have almost certainly included the term ‘multidisciplinarity’ or even ‘interdisciplinarity’. And even in the 1970s, the OECD was speaking of ‘transdisciplinarity’. This is again picking up steam in cross-national (UNESCO) type debates and it is disappointing not to see mention of that vein of thinking and innovation here. (The ‘new’ universities of the 1960s and the polytechnics encouraged by the CNAA did much on that front.) If the world is inter-connected – as it is – and if humanity needs to re-align itself with the totality of the world (the Earth) as it does, transdisciplinarity (ie, taking one’s curriculum bearings from the way the world is) HAS to be central to any programme of curriculum reform.
    Ron Barnett

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