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Redesigning the curriculum

Christina Smart
Last modified 21 Jul, 2009
Published 21 Jul, 2009
We interviewed JISC programme managers, Sarah Knight and Lisa Gray, about what the JISC Institutional Approaches to Curriculum Design and Transforming Curriculum Delivery Through Technology Programmes aim to achieve and progress to date.


Last year the JISC funded two programmes of work in the area of curriculum design and delivery [1], [2]. The JISC has a long history of funding projects which focus on how technology can support teaching and learning, but while these projects often transform practice locally they sometimes these don’t impact on teaching and learning across the whole institution. The Curriculum Design projects hope to better understand the institutional processes involved in developing courses and curricula in order to facilitate widespread institutional change. At the same time the Curriculum Delivery projects are looking at how technology can enhance specific teaching and learning situations. 27 projects began work in the autumn and with both Programmes now well underway we talked to Sarah Knight and Lisa Gray about how the projects are progressing.

Christina Smart: Why are these programmes focussing on curriculum and how do they build on previous work?

Sarah Knight: The background for this work comes from various areas of work that the e-Learning Programme has been exploring over a number of years [3]. For example, the Design for Learning Programme [4] looked at designing learning activities at a session level. What we realised was that although we can do a lot of exploratory work at a session planning level, a lot of the barriers to implementing change are further up the institution at the course or curriculum level. So we felt that it was important for us to explore at a higher level some of the barriers as to why technology was not being implemented. We also funded the Learner Experiences of e-Learning Programme [5], which has just recently come to an end, and again a lot of the information we’ve been gathering through those projects has also led to the realisation that if we do want to embed technology effectively and appropriately in a pedagogically sound way we should be considering the whole curriculum lifecycle rather than just looking at individual aspects of it.

There has also been a lot of work happening at a national level that some of our partners have been involved in for example the Benchmarking and Pathfinder programmes at the Higher Education Academy [6]. Again that body of research identified curriculum redesign as key to mainstreaming technology and transforming some of the ways institutions are facilitating learning.

Lisa Gray: In the area of curriculum delivery we’ve funded a range of projects in the past that have explored how technology can enhance learning and teaching within specific contexts. For example the HE in FE strand of projects [7] were looking at how technology could enhance learning and teaching within the foundation degree context. This new Curriculum Delivery Programme is about exploring similar issues but within the broader contexts of both Further and Higher Education, in response to challenges faced by particular department or discipline areas. It also builds on the learning from the Learner Experience and the Design for Learning Programmes in terms of what has been learnt not only about developing sound pedagogic learning design that makes best use of technology, but also about how to best engage learners as part of that process.

SK: The Scottish Funding Council e-Learning Transformation programme has also been influential and we were involved in the programme management of those projects [8]. Those transformation projects were an excellent model for wide scale institutional change. It also led us to the realisation that transformation takes a long time. Those projects were funded for two years with a further two years of institutional investment. We had that in mind when we set up the four year Curriculum Design programme because really four years is the minimum amount of time you need to start to see sustained institutional change.

LG: In particular, some of the assessment projects in Curriculum Delivery programme are building on the work of the SFC funded REAP (Re-engineering Assessment Practices) and TESEP (Transforming and enhancing the student experience through Pedagogy) projects [9], [10].

CS: Sarah, can we begin with the Curriculum Design programme, the word design could be interpreted in different ways, what do you mean in this context?

SK: I’d like to refer to Curriculum and Design. In Further and Higher Education curriculum usually means the learning and teaching taking place in a particular programme of study leading to a specific unit of credit or qualification. For the purposes of this programme we’re concerned with the curriculum design processes which take place before any real learners are engaged. Curriculum Design for us addresses the questions; what needs to be learnt, by what kind of learners and what resources will this require (including technology based resources such as content, tools and learning environment)? For us effective curriculum design also asks the question what kinds of interaction need to take place between learners, their peers and teaching staff in the context of appointed curriculum tasks and using the available resources. So curriculum design in this sense ranges from looking at the representations of the programme of learning (including core documentation, handbooks, topic lists) to considering the whole curriculum design process from the initial starting point of market research around the need for a new course right through to the point of validation of that course.

CS: It looks like the design projects (in particular) are looking at institutional processes that are not well understood, such as validation and apart from the COVARM reference model project [11], the JISC hasn’t really looked at this area before, how are projects tackling this?

SK: That’s very true and I think one of the ways we designed the programme was in recognition that this is a very complex area, a very challenging area not just for us as JISC, but also for the institutions themselves. We designed the Curriculum Design programme to have a six month start up phase, which is quite a change from how we’ve managed programmes in the past. So from October until now all the projects have been reviewing their curriculum design processes to produce a baseline report of existing processes and practices within those 12 institutions. That will provide a very helpful review point because at the end of the programme, we will be able to refer back to the initial challenges that those institutions were faced with. And we will have a picture of the impact each project has made through the use of technology in transforming some of those barriers and challenges. This base lining process has been quite a difficult task for the projects to complete because it has thrown up some soul searching in terms of what some of those institutional barriers are. What we hope will come out of that initial phase will be some business process review mapping, as well as narratives from a range of different stakeholders from course teams to staff working in registry through to staff responsible for maintaining the technical systems. Those narratives will give projects descriptions of how things are now, and what they would like to see changed. We will be synthesising out some messages from those initial baseline reviews, which will be anonymised, because there is a lot of sensitive data that institutions are collecting. The review should be available in October to share with the wider community. From the technology angle all 12 projects have been having technical audit conversations with JISC CETIS to review their existing technology and also to start thinking about how they will develop their technology infrastructure over the next four years to support the processes that they are going to be changing.

CS: How will the Programme help institutions join up their systems and processes?

SK: It’s very interesting because as part of the support programme we have appointed critical friends who are working with clusters of projects to explore and share lessons learned within themed areas. The critical friends are keen to say that this programme is not around technology development, but is a change management programme. So the projects are adapting policies and procedures to ensure flexibility in curriculum design processes whilst enhancing quality. Managing this change effectively and supporting staff in the change process is critical to each project’s success. So it’s going to be interesting to see how the technology, which is key to us at JISC, is managed in relation to the change management agenda that these projects pursuing. The two really need to work together and need to inform each other, and it will be interesting to see how the programme develops.

CS: Lisa, the Curriculum Delivery projects are piloting some innovative technologies and approaches, can you tell us about some of them?

LG: The Curriculum Delivery Programme is exciting because of the depth and breadth of contexts and subject areas it is exploring. Becta have funded two of the fifteen projects, so we are able to explore curriculum issues in both Further and Higher Education contexts, and across those from subjects as diverse as Masters level courses in occupational psychology to the new Diploma in ICT qualification for 14-19 students. One of the most innovative projects is led by the College of West Anglia and that’s looking to raise retention and employability of media learners on diploma courses by developing an internet TV station. The project team is hoping the TV station will help media students to develop their skills within a realistic production and broadcasting environment. The channel will also be linked to the whole college network and they aim to inspire all learners across the college with an innovative schedule of TV programmes [12].

In the call for projects we asked institutions to identify the challenges they were facing specific to either a discipline or department, and suggest how they felt technology could address those issues. So it was about enhancement and where they felt technology could have a real impact on practice.

Another project, led by Kingston and De Montfort Universities, is looking at field trips and placements and enhancing the learning that happens in those contexts [13]. They’re hoping to address issues such as ownership of the learning that happens on field trips, issues of isolation, interaction, collaboration, reflection and feedback which have been identified by stakeholders as being problematic. In terms of technology they’re looking at integration of a range of personal technologies and social tools to address those issues. They will be piloting technologies in two subject areas pharmaceutical and cosmetic science, and earth science and geography.

One project is looking at enhancing how learners are engaging with feedback, which was identified in the 2007/2008 National Student Survey as being a problem [14]. They are not developing any innovative technology as part of the project but using the technology they have in a different way to develop an innovative approach to dealing with that issue, which will help students to collate their feedback, guide their reflections on the feedback and facilitate dialogue with the tutor about the feedback within a tutorial context to improve performance and inform their aspirations.

So the Delivery projects are in very different subject areas, across different educational levels, with very different challenges, using very different technologies, but all have been chosen because of the appropriateness of the technology to meet a particular need at each institution.

CS: Can you outline the structure of the programmes and how they will inform each other?

LG: As Sarah said the Design projects run over four years while the Delivery projects run over two years. The programmes were very much set up to inform each other and the Support Project, led by JISC infoNet, is jointly supporting both programmes to ensure learning is shared between the programmes. So for example there will be two joint face-to-face programme meetings during the first two years where projects will have the opportunity to come together and to share their learning with each other, as well as a programme of online events through Elluminate. The support project have also put in place an online community, ‘Circle’, for sharing of information, communication between teams and the identification of others working in related areas. Sarah and I are also working closely with each other as are the critical friends to spot areas of interest and overlap. The critical friends will also be reporting back to us on a generic basis some of the issues that are arising in their clusters of projects which will help to shape how projects are supported.

CS: Are there any plans for a further round of delivery projects?

LG: There aren’t any concrete plans at the moment, it will depend on the outcomes of this current Delivery programme.

CS: Both programmes are supported by a comprehensive support project, can you tell us about it?

SK: Lisa has already covered some of the aspects of the support project. I would add that we are also working with our partners to support projects. For example our projects have attended HE Academy workshops on assessment and change management, particularly the CABLE project at Hertfordshire University and Carpe Diem at Leicester University [15, 16]. We are planning similar workshops for next year on employer engagement and Open Educational Resources. The support project also gives projects access to expertise in our services including the Regional Support Centres, JISC infoNet and JISC CETIS, we are also using these channels to disseminate the key messages coming out of the programmes.

LG: We are also supporting our projects around key areas such as evaluation, so we have consultants working with projects around the formulation of their evaluation plans to ensure appropriate measures are in place to evidence the effectiveness of the changes that are taking place. In addition, synthesis consultants will be ensuring that the work of the projects builds on existing work, that the outputs produced are of the highest quality and that they are shared effectively with the wider community.

CS: Its early days for the projects, especially the design ones, are there any interesting developments or issues emerging?

SK: At the programme level we have been trialling new approaches like using critical friends and the CAMEL model [17]. Projects are recognising the benefits of working in this supportive environment. We have also been using Elluminate to run online workshops for projects; these don’t replace the face to face workshops, but give the projects access to specific expertise. We recently ran one on Learner Experiences and we’re running one on e-portfolios in the autumn. Projects also made a contribution to the Design Bash on the 8th July at The Open University [18]. One project has been looking at sharing learning designs so we’re starting to see some early successes in the programmes.

CS: What is coming up next in the programmes and how can people keep track of developments?

SK: We recognise the value of a comprehensive support and synthesis project, to ensure we have high quality outputs which will benefit the wider community. One way we are hoping to communicate the outcomes from the programmes, is through the Design Studio. This online resource will pull together existing knowledge on curriculum design and delivery from previous projects e.g. relevant JISC projects, Initiatives from the Academy and our other partners. Essentially the Design studio will be a knowledge base highlighting the role technology can play in the design and delivery process. The Design Studio will develop over the next 2-4 years and will be populated with programme outputs targeted at specific audiences. We will be working with our synthesis consultants and critical friends to ensure that we move the community forward in their understanding of curriculum design and delivery.

For this year’s ALT conference we are running a workshop around the Programme, entitled ‘Curriculum Challenges: ‘big words that make us so unhappy’ [19]. We will also be launching the Design Studio and giving an overview of our publication: “Managing Curriculum Change”. Following that we will have our fourth annual online conference on the 24th-27th November “Thriving, not just surviving!” which will give our projects another opportunity to showcase their work [20].

LG: For those that are interested all the project summaries are available on the JISC web site. Our twitter tag is: #jisccdd .

I would also add that we will also be disseminating the work of the projects on a themed basis (what we call our ‘activity areas’), which are: assessment, portfolios, e-administration, technology enhanced learning environments and learning activities and resources, so that people with a particular interest in those areas will be able to find the project outputs that are most relevant to them, no matter which programme the projects have been funded under.


Programmes like Design for Learning have in the last few years led to a better understanding of the processes and technologies educators use when designing learning sessions. Since courses are the core business for universities and colleges it is important that we better understand how they are developed and in what ways technology can better support that process. Over the next four years these projects will help us to do that.


[1] JISC Institutional Approaches to Curriculum Design Programme

[2] Transforming Curriculum Delivery Through Technology

[3] JISC e-Learning Programme

[4] JISC Design for Learning Programme

[5] Learner Experiences of e-Learning Programme

[6] Higher Education Academy e-Learning Benchmarking of e-Learning and Pathfinder Programmes

[7] HE in FE Projects

[8] Scottish Funding Council e-Learning Transformation Programme

[9] REAP (Re-engineering Assessment Practices) project

[10]TESEP (Transforming and enhancing the student experience through Pedagogy) project

[11] Course Validation Reference Model (COVARM) project

[12] KLTV, an Internet TV Station to enrich teaching and learning project

[13] Mobilising Remote Student Engagement (MoRSE)

[14] National Student Survey 2007-2008

[15] CABLE (Change Academy for Blended Learning Enhancement) at the University of Hertfordshire

[16] Carpe Diem project at the University of Leicester

[17] CAMEL (Collaborative Approaches to the Management of e-Learning

[18] Design Bash 09 at the LAMS International conference

[19] Curriculum Redesign Symposium at ALT-C 2009

[20] The fourth JISC international online conference “Thriving, not just surviving!”, 24-27 November 2009 (further details available in September)


Supported by JISC Supported by CETIS
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