What makes a higher education curriculum fit for the future?

Mark Andrews and Debbie McVitty introduce new Wonkhe/Adobe research with university leaders exploring the changing curriculum and how universities are making their aspirations for curriculum change a reality

Mark Andrews is Pedagogical Evangelist in Higher Education (EMEA) at Adobe.

Debbie is Editor of Wonkhe

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.

Explore the full report of our findings here.

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.

Explore the full report of our findings here.

This article and the research that accompanies it are published in association with Adobe. Click here to discover how Adobe can support your institution.

2 responses to “What makes a higher education curriculum fit for the future?

  1. This is a thoughtful piece, and a welcome addition to the debates around what authentic curricula look like. The point about the ‘marquee’ pronouncements are spot on; get the hygiene factors right before you focus on the grand actions for the even grander narratives. Far too often the students simply don’t experience on the ‘shop floor’ what the sector thinks it’s delivering.

  2. There is masses of good stuff in this report (which I have just got round to reading). ‘Curriculum’ is a much neglected matter and it is very welcome to see it being taken up so systematically in this way.

    I see that future reports from the research are promised and I’d offer these thoughts as to themes that might be taken up:
    – Precisely from where is the drive coming for curriculum reform in the UK? How do we account for it? Is it unique to the UK or is it found (a) in continental Europe &/or in (b) other marketised systems? ie, is it a response to the advancing position of the students-as-consumers OR is it a response to more macro-changes of global instability?
    – What is the role of the students to be? Does it differ eg from the doctor-patient relationship? What might be the extent of co-design with the student? What are its limits?
    – What of transdisciplinarity? – a much larger and more demanding idea than interdisciplinarity. How bring it into effect across a whole institution? How,eg take forward ‘grand challenges’ on an institutional basis? How get beyond disciplinary stratification?
    – How diminish the power of ‘learning outcomes’ – which are surely pernicious in the face of the many innovations being identified in this research? Is it not now time to abolish them?
    – How to understand the difference between curriculum (what is taught/ learnt) and pedagogy (how it is taught/learnt and the character of the pedagogical relationship)? This is a vital distinction here?
    – What is the relationship to be between top-down/ bottom-up/ horizontal movements in curriculum development?
    – What has (to) become of critical thinking/ critical thought/ critique? Up to the last quarter of the 20th century, these were understood as at the heart of a (Western) higher education. Now they are relegated to ‘critical thinking skills’ at best – but for the most part given lip service or even just neglected altogther in the drive for ‘work-readiness’. There is much talk in professional life about ‘whistle-blowing’ but where are such cognitive, conceptual, and personal qualities – of ‘criticality’ – going to be developed in UK higher education?
    – What of the curriculum as a foundation for the inculcation of life-long propensities for learning, curiosity, active citizenship and personal renewal?
    – We live now in an ecological age, an age of total interconnectivity, with huge implications for what it is to be human and for society: how is the curriculum to respond to such a context of universal connectedness?

    Ronald Barnett

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