Who owns the curriculum?

What courses contain and how they are delivered is a contested space. Jackie Potter plots the rise of the university as a locus of ownership.

Jackie Potter is Professor of Higher Education Learning and Development at Oxford Brookes University

In the last weeks, there has been a vibrant online exchange of views among the SEDA community of educational developers about what we mean by the term “curriculum”.

It resulted – in the usual way – from a Friday afternoon request for a working definition of the term. Friday afternoon requests have become a bit of a thing among this online community and regularly seed debate, and sometimes even friction, as members share their own work and ideas, those of others and reflect and commentate on HE teaching and learning.

This particular Friday afternoon was no different and a series of perspectives were shared and definitions provided which together demonstrated the various ways curriculum or curricula can be described, proscribed or conceptualised. However the “what” of curricula is not the thrust of this article. Since that exchange, I’ve been thinking about who the authors, or creators, of curricula are – and whether the pandemic has introduced a new and potentially powerful player.

The creators of curricula

Depending on your views, you’ll see the authors, or creators, of curricula as including:

  • academic teaching staff that design intentional learning experiences;
  • students who create and follow unique and individual paths through the designed curricula ,and who may also be invited to co-create curricula during the design phase;
  • employers who help shape curricula through collaborations like industry advisory boards; and professional, regulatory and statutory bodies who define threshold expectations for the graduates who enter their professions and industries.

During the course of the pandemic, these authors of curricula have all been active in reframing and shaping how university programmes could be adapted and re-configured for delivery in fully online or blended ways. They have been joined, almost uniquely this year, by the voice of the university – and it is this voice that has taken a key role in shaping the curricula over the last 12 months.

All change

For most universities and most courses, adapting and adopting new models of delivery to ensure students and staff could continue to study and stay safe during the pandemic involved a huge effort. It has involved reviewing whether learning outcomes could be met through new delivery models, understanding whether assessment practices were efficient and deliverable online, re-imagining the use of technology platforms and digital tools to support students to learn asynchronously, revisiting the purpose of synchronous classroom teaching for collaboration, community building and social contact, and making previously campus-based services for students (personal tutoring, wellbeing, careers and library support) more accessible to students studying remotely. In the largest part, this curriculum reform and rethinking work has been instigated and led by senior academic managers working with senior professional services staff, as members of major incident teams or an equivalent pandemic-response forum.

In some instances they may have delegated the work to other groups of colleagues who have been tasked to work thoughtfully, rapidly and collectively to ensure there are, wherever possible, whole-university approaches to implementing changes to the curricula. As a result, I believe what has emerged in very many UK universities is a singular, overarching framing device or model for curriculum design and delivery that is subject or discipline agnostic, or open to local adaption to accommodate subject and discipline needs. The pull is most probably the need for providers to track, record and report to students the details of changes to the curricula, to meet their obligations under the CMA regulations, and to satisfy the Office for Students of the enduring quality of the curricula and teaching being delivered.

The OfS Digital Teaching and Learning Review uses the University of Leeds as a case study of a whole university approach to adopting student education principles to inform curriculum design for this academic year. At UCL, building on their pre-existing model of connected curriculum, the pandemic-response was to create connected learning, a baseline model for online learning though Moodle. I asked members of the national network, Heads of Educational Development, whether they had a whole-institution framing device or model to inform the design or deliver of curricula before the pandemic. Two of ten respondents did, eight had not. In the last year, a further seven of the responding institutions reported that they have established such models, and some are clearly promoted on their university’s websites (although more often than not, they are not available publicly).

A new power

Universities have stepped into a space, previously largely unoccupied (although see the University of Northampton’s model of active blended learning that has been in place for some years to define curricula delivery expectations). They are setting parameters to define curricula purposes and intentions – more commonly using the terminology principles and values, and they are defining the baseline or threshold for approaches to curriculum delivery. Will they step away from this role next year or are we seeing a new and permanent player define the taught curricula in UK universities?

Notwithstanding any future requirement to be prepared to deliver curricula and teaching online or as blended delivery, I think the answer may rest with the institutional appetite for enduring change, which is likely to be influenced by a couple of things.

Universities will respond to student and staff opinion captured during the past year. This will give indicators regarding the extent to which the models developed for online and blended learning this year have been well received as well as the appetite among students to retain the best of online and blended delivery even if they are keen for a return to on campus, in-person teaching and learning. And the CMA restated their views in relation to consumer protection law and the HE sector in March, with an emphasis on fairness. This, coupled with the need that any sustained changes made to curricula would need to be within the realms of what students might reasonably expect from the offer they accepted, could limit the near-term viability of some of these models and devices.

As the financial implications of the last year become clearer to universities, ensuring students receive the curricula and teaching promised, and that students commit to their university offer, will be important in balancing the books. The summer of 2020, the time that central university senior managers took unprecedented control over the design and delivery of diverse subject and disciplinary curricula, will be a moment of the sector’s history of the pandemic. Going forward, they will need to take their place once again on the field alongside academic teaching staff, the students, employers and PRSBs.

2 responses to “Who owns the curriculum?

  1. You cannot discuss curriculum without discussing knowledge- rather than as seems the case here, delivery mechanism. While subject discipline is considered the cornerstone of curriculum, power will always reside with those who determine the nature of knowledge to be learned ie academics

    Shell frameworks which have been around over twenty years, make no assumption of subject and enable learners to determine which knowledge they will co-create. A shell frameworks is a whole programme learning by contract where the award title and curriculum is negotiated between tutor(s) and learner(s) to suit the needs of the latter.

    Most academics see their role as instruction in an academic discipline rather than disciplinary (and non-disciplinary) knowledge being used to suit the interests of the learner.

  2. Forced digitisation of the curricula, especially in the mode of delivery, came as a shock to most of the HE institutions in the UK.

    As a result, and due to the inherent inertia and bureaucracy public institutions have, the importance of the content and knowledge is superseded by the complexities of online delivery.

    These complexities along with more philosophical challenges of programme design have always been in the heart of private HE institutions at least in the UK. Consequently, those universities were forced to deal with such questions much earlier (perhaps 5-6 yrs ago) and they were better suited to change and adopt under the pandemic. To them, working from home and delivering exclusively online was another day at work.

    Perhaps it is worth looking at the knowledge and lessons they have acquired instead of resolving to more academic approaches like the ones promoted by OfS and other agencies.

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