Over the last couple of months we’ve been having structured conversations with university leaders to try to tell what we see as an emerging story about why and how universities are changing their curricula.
Universities, contrary to the popular imagination, are no strangers to change. There’s pedagogic innovation happening all over universities and, typically, plenty of support for the development of learning, teaching, and curriculum for those motivated to take it up. But we’re getting the sense that something distinctive about the current moment demands whole-institution realignment rather than pockets of good practice.
Facing the future
Sarah Speight, pro vice chancellor for education and student experience, University of Nottingham told us:
It’s about the future – future-proofing core business so that we are enabling students to fly: to make the most positive contributions to global challenges, hit the ground running, have skills, values, competencies that employers need – and to do that via an education that is authentic and reflects real-world environments.
Against a backdrop of public debate about the post-compulsory education landscape, public and policymaker consensus about the value and purpose of a university education can no longer be taken for granted. There’s a consciousness among university leaders of an opportunity to reset the social compact between universities and the wider world; a need to communicate a narrative of why higher education matters and how it prepares students to thrive – and interrogate what kinds of pedagogies and learning experiences will help them do so.
We’re also seeing serious thought given to how the diversity of students and the differences in their backgrounds, and aspirations should shape inclusive learning environments. Student wellbeing challenges and cost of living give a particular urgency to these agendas – as Graham Wynn, pro vice chancellor for education at Northumbria University told us:
It now needs to be much more student-centric in terms of how the curriculum looks and feels, and how compassionate it is. We tend to think of student experience as being about the ‘sticky campus’ being lively and fun but for a lot of students it’s about getting to the end of the week in one piece.
Actively preparing students for their future careers is a vital piece of the picture, but for the leaders we spoke to, future proofing the curriculum is more about articulating a developmental trajectory for students to have the knowledge and skills to realise their potential and contribute to the world as they do so.
When we asked our Education Espresso community their views on what a future proofed curriculum looks like, suggestions aligned with these ideas of enabling diverse students to take on the world with confidence: suggestions included curriculum should support students “learning to learn” and “develop inquiry”, and that it should be “flexible and adaptable” and that “address the societal challenges of tomorrow.”
How is curriculum changing?
At institution level, the core narrative of curriculum manifests in ways that are appropriate to the specific institution, but there are some common themes.
We heard about authenticity – efforts to integrate “real world” challenges into pedagogy and assessment through experiential learning or live brief projects with external partners, for example. But authenticity is also being used to capture a sense of how different kinds of knowledge can be mobilised to make a difference in the world – disciplinary knowledge and research practice can also be “authentic” – and integrating disciplinary knowledge and professional practice throughout the curriculum is a key intellectual challenge.
Similarly, the idea of a more holistic curriculum came up frequently – engaging students with knowledge in other disciplines, or multi-disciplinary activity, or giving greater structure to co-curriculum to enable broader participation in what has traditionally been seen as optional – and thus more available to students who don’t need to work outside their studies or who have greater social capital and confidence.
A third clear theme was structure – moving away from disparate collections of modules or units to build programmes that create a sense of a developmental journey for students. A clear benefit of this approach is the opportunity to reduce assessment and seek to embed assessment of a more diverse range of skills across the different programme elements – reducing the burden on both students and staff and creating space for innovation.
At disciplinary level, the meaning-in-practice of these terms will vary considerably. The work of curriculum change at its most fundamental comes down to bringing together the programme teams to have the conversations, and generate the insights that inform this interpretative work, and then putting the support in place for those teams to implement the ideas that emerge from this highly creative process.
Those programme teams will also need to hear from and negotiate with a larger group of stakeholders: expert professional staff in the university, employers, professional bodies, and students themselves – moving the conversation away from a “what’s covered in this module” approach to, as one Dean of humanities put it: “What does this course stand for? What do we want our students to be able to do when they leave? How do we expect them to be critical and creative?”
Building curriculum change capacity
There are lots of things that universities do to create an environment that can support this kind of large-scale change and ensure that ideas become reality – investing additional resource in faculties, developing, rewarding, and recognising leadership of curriculum and pedagogy, or offering support for change through a central expert team.
The flexibility of the scale and pace of change and recognition of the realities of the work involved are also crucial – as Danielle Thibodeau, innovation and learning manager at Queen Mary University of London, put it:
There are two kinds of innovation – the moonshot and the roofshot. Little innovations are OK, and small can also be transformative. Reporting structures are geared to big stories but we need to be alert to valuing the small changes that go down well and avoid ‘marquee stories’ that aren’t always within everyone’s remit to replicate.
What’s also clear is that curriculum change is not a process with a defined endpoint. There may be projects with clear outcomes – every programme having completed a review, for example, or a measurable reduction in assessment. But the wider impact of curriculum change can be about an increase in the “change capacity” of the institution – a cultural openness to change and more widely dispersed know-how about how to achieve it, coupled with an institutional commitment to removing barriers to change so that programme teams can respond flexibly to new challenges – such as generative AI – in ways that are authentic to their disciplinary context and students.
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