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Transforming the Curriculum

Christina Smart
Last modified 15 May, 2009
Published 15 May, 2009
Some might argue that the National Curriculum is at the core of our education system. Curriculum is also at the very core of higher and further education, providing a blue print for what teachers teach and what learners learn. How to transform the curriculum was the problem being discussed at this week’s JISC Curriculum Delivery and Design Programme meetings, “Transformation: Managing and Measuring Change” at Aston University [1], [2].

Last year the JISC funded two programmes of work around how institutions and departments design and deliver curriculum and how technology can be used to support and enhance these processes [3], [4]. Two sets of innovative projects began work in the autumn and this week met in Birmingham at the Lakeside Centre to think about instigating, managing, and measuring change.

Curriculum Delivery meeting

The first day focussed on the Curriculum Delivery projects two year projects which are introducing new technology across a particular area of curriculum. In this context the JISC defines Curriculum Delivery as “processes which take place when real learners engage with a designed curriculum”. These 15 projects are looking at a range of interventions including introducing an internet TV station into a media course, using mobile phones to support field trips, using a virtual learning environment to widen access to a specialist academic writing unit. Details of all the 15 projects are available on the JISC web site [5].

The idea of the day was to consider all elements of the change process from strategy to individuals. Lisa Gray, Programme Manager for the Delivery projects began by outlining the current progress of the Programme and the workshops and seminars available to projects [6]. As well as this support the JISC InfoNet support team have organised projects into cluster groups each with a critical friend to help them work through problems as they arise [3].

Clive Alderson from JISC Infonet focussed on strategies for change and started by asking “What is an organisational culture?” Answer; “It’s the way we do things around here”. Institutions probably have a number of subcultures, he said, which makes it hard to adopt a single strategy, and also makes it hard for projects seeking to change the culture in other departments. Changing curriculum practice is particularly challenging because academics will have invested a lot of time in its development, he added.

Clive considered 5 change strategies;

  • Directive
  • Expert
  • Negotiating
  • Educative
  • Participative

Directive strategies will be quick to implement but might fail to win hearts and minds whereas participative strategies will take much longer but should be more inclusive. Although projects might aspire to a participative approach it could be difficult to achieve in a short time span. Projects then undertook a useful exercise to assess where their local culture was collegiate, bureaucratic, innovative or enterprising [7].

In the next presentation Peter Chatterton and Mark Russell told the CABLE (Change Academy for Blended Learning Enhancement) story [8]. The CABLE team at Hertfordshire had used the HE Academy Change Academy [9] approach with 16 schools and now 100 staff across the institution [10]. An important aspect of the approach was to foster a partnership between staff in the unit and staff in the schools, they said. In addition, a two day residential allowed departmental teams dedicated time to develop a clear action plan for their projects. Outlining some of the techniques CABLE used, Peter introduced the reverse brainstorming technique, and asked projects to consider the question “How would you increase the student failure rate at your institution?” Projects were forthcoming with ideas which included:

  • Don’t have any learning outcomes
  • Reduce access to facilities
  • Don’t give students any feedback
  • Bring in unqualified staff half way through the course
  • Change the timetable half way through the course
  • Assess the students with one final exam.

It’s easy to see how the list above could quickly generate an action plan for improving the student success rate.

How would you know change has happened over the lifetime of a project? Was the question posed by Helen Beetham, consultant to the Design programme in her presentation. In order to get some idea of whether a project had effected change it needs to baseline (benchmark) current activity, she said. Helen asked projects to find three words to describe the change (or transformation) they most wanted to see, and then think about how those changes might be captured. A number of qualitative and quantitative techniques were discussed.

Following lunch Clive Alderson turned the focus to how projects could support people to change, introducing the concept of the Knowing -Doing gap [11]. Managing expectations is clearly an issue for projects, and Clive emphasized the importance of continuing to engage and support staff. Clive suggested projects might find Connor and Patterson’s 8 stage model useful for thinking about the different stages staff were at and would move through during the lifetime of a project, as well as the critical points at which they might lose interest.

Engaging the main stakeholders is clearly vital to the success of any project and in their session Peter Hartley and Andrew Comrie two of the programmes critical friends undertook an impromptu reverse brainstorm asking “How would you annoy your stakeholders?” Again there wasn’t a shortage of suggestions including:

  • Patronise them
  • Spend too much
  • Miss deadlines
  • Ignore their requests
  • Bombard them with detail

Andrew then focussed on lessons learned from the Scottish e-Learning Transformation projects [12] which identified the following key stakeholders:

  1. Academic managers
  2. Teaching practitioners
  3. Learners

Academic managers are particularly important because they can provide a safe environment for teachers to experiment, “a blame culture makes practitioners revert back to old practises”, he said.

For the last session of the day project teams split into parallel discussion group around evaluation, measuring change and the circle online support environment.


A lively twitter back channel continued throughout the day at #jisccdd [13] and captured lots of insightful reflection. Below are some of the tweets and other comments that arose during the day:

Strategies for change

gillferrell #jisccdd Is it valid to use directive strategies if this enables you to direct middle managers to be more participative?

HelenBeetham #jisccdd re-tweeting my thought from yday that "resistance to change" is an unhelpful concept - cultural inertia is institutional glue.

Organisational Culture

Paulbtlw #jisccdd Organisational culture vs perceptions of it - is there really a distinction?? Stakeholder engagment

markRussell @helenbeetham #jisccdd different PoV - yep, well they are diff stakeholders and so they all have diff views. Cable helps hear those voices.

Using external experts

markchilds #jisccdd re: comments on prophets in own country being ignored. Thinks: maybe we should all swap and talk to each others' senior mgt.

Curriculum Design meeting

On Wednesday it was the turn of the Curriculum Design projects to hear the presentations and discuss the issues. Their discussions were clearly influenced by the longer time frame (these projects run over four years) and the nature of their projects which seek to transform the entire institutions approach to curriculum design rather than an area of curriculum delivery. The JISC definition of Curriculum design is “a high-level process defining the learning to take place within a specific programme of study.. the process leads to the production of core programme/module documents” [4].

These 12 projects are more ambitious and their aims which focus around issues like gaining coherence, speeding up the validation process and creating a professional curriculum. The structure of the day was the same, with some different faces, Sarah Knight the Programme Manager for these projects introduced the day [14], Peter Bullen gave an overview of CABLE and Stephen Brown ran the stakeholder engagement session [2].

Once again important issues were captured on twitter #jisccdd [13]. The change management issues facing these projects differ from the delivery projects particularly around stakeholder engagement. Whereas the stakeholders for the delivery projects might be students, teachers and academic managers, the design projects will also include managers including, heads of registry, deans, directors of information services etc. The problem facing the design projects is how to identify those individuals. Other issues include;

Issues around assessing change

AndyLloyd01 #jisccdd the need to find a way of categorising qualitative data, and the difficulties of measuring perceptions in a changing environment.

sarahknight #JISCCDD Assessing change discussions - "Validation documents weighing in at 4 kgs – we want our documents to weigh less"

Stakeholder engagement

gillferrell #jisccdd People realising that stakeholders have more valid reasons for being wary about their project than they first thought.

Paulbtlw #jisccdd As ever the importance of relationships between people is mentioned as being crucial in getting things done.

Managing Transformation

It is important for projects to draw a boundary around what their project can achieve, in order to prevent scope drift and also to manage expectations within their institutions.

marianneshepp #jisccdd the structure of the org is often more powerful than the person.

Final Thoughts

A useful two days for projects with plenty of opportunities for discussion around change. Transformation can be a scary word and several of the delivery projects were concerned that they could affect institutional transformation in only two years. The challenge for both set of projects will be to identify and change an area of practice (however small) in a significant and lasting way. And I for one will be trying out the reverse brainstorming technique in future workshops. All the presentations and links to the techniques used can be found on the meeting websites [1], [2].


[1] Transformation: Managing and Measuring Change, Curriculum Delivery Programme Meeting

[2] Transformation: Managing and Measuring Change, Curriculum Design Programme Meeting

[3] Curriculum Delivery Programme

[4] Curriculum Design Programme

[5] Curriculum Delivery projects

[6] Lisa Grays opening presentation

[7] Clive Alderson, Strategies for Change presentation

[8] Peter Chatterton, Mark Russell and Peter Bullen, CABLE presentation

[9] HE Academy Change Academy approach

[10] Change Academy for Blended Learning Enhancement

[11] Clive Alderson, The 8 stage adoption of change model

[12] SFC e-Learning Transformation programme

[13] Meeting discussions on Twitter

[14] Sarah Knights presentation


Supported by JISC Supported by CETIS
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