This paper takes the theme of change and development to the macro level, and looks at how different the experience is when the developer must work within the constraints of the administrative and political requirements of the university. The reasons for changing the course were more administrative than educational. There had been changes in our client group and new approaches to marketing were needed. We needed to remain competitive with other universities. New university course structures required equal sized units, making up 100 credit points per semester. Also, we needed to follow the pattern of our new Graduate Diploma course, so that we could double up on unit delivery. The methods of assessing and planning for change will be described and some of the problems described.
The dilemma: How can we ensure a workable balance between the educational and vocational needs of tertiary students and the political demands of university systems themselves undergoing change?
A number of years ago I presented a paper at this Forum, in which I analysed the curriculum decision making processes involved in upgrading a single unit for tertiary study. That perspective represented the ideal of curriculum development, or what might happen at the micro level of change. This is the level of incremental change, of responding to changing environments and student needs, of building on what exists to lift the quality and standard to achieve a vision to which the developer is personally committed. Although this process also is difficult, it is a far more rewarding experience than changing course materials because someone else decrees that change must occur.
This paper takes the theme of curriculum change and development at the macro level, and looks at how different the experience is when the developers must work within the constraints of the administrative and political requirements of the university. It is a case study of the curriculum change process when the changes are mandated for reasons other than educational purposes. This, I contend, constitutes a large part of the course development work we do in universities, and is interesting to curriculum researchers in that it involves many of the principles already understood by the curriculum research community. However, it is rarely considered by management as much more than "restructuring" or "reform", which will be "decreed today and put into place tomorrow", as Loucks and Lieberman described mandated educational change over a decade ago. (Loucks & Lieberman, 1983, p.138).
The second reason was that competition from one of the other universities was beginning to be felt, and even though we knew our course was a good one, it may not have looked so on paper. It still had a 21 unit structure, whereas the competition looked easier and quicker with 16 units. A two year full time course with equal credit point units would have brought ours also down to 16 units. This, it was deemed, would make it competitive and, of course, very much neater!
A third reason for change was actually educational. As the units had developed over the years, one block of units had remained virtually untouched in their original format. This occurs when the original course writer lets go of his or her ownership and no one lecturer is responsible for maintaining and updating the units. Also, the External Studies materials for these units had been neglected for a number of years. There had been a bit of patching by various people over the years, resulting more in building in inconsistencies than in any real improvement. These units also contained repetition and overlap with content which had been introduced later and coordinated into other units. We were beginning to be aware of these problems from student feedback, and in the normal run of events, solutions would have been found through the existing pattern of incremental change. The best solution would have been to re-establish ownership of and responsibility for these units with one lecturer.
Another reason against introducing innovation at this time was that the central players were incredibly busy and didn't really have the time for reflection and planning. We were afraid the quality of the innovation would suffer and that we would once again be repeating the mistakes of the past. There are principles of change in curriculum theory, and it would have been more professionally rewarding to have taken them all into consideration in our planning. Furthermore, curriculum innovation of this size requires close collaboration, joint decision making, and the adoption of common procedures by a team, and not all lecturers were willing, or able, to give this level of participation.
The pressure was on us, however, to revise this course, whether we wanted to or not, and we were locked into a mandate which, as so often happens in the area of curriculum innovation, we had difficulty accepting as necessary, or indeed possible at that time.
We planned to hold a day long Search Conference, to which we were intending to invite those who responded to the industry survey. This was not funded and had to be cancelled.
Appraisal of national courses
Brochures and Prospectuses were collected from all Australian Universities offering courses in Vocational Education and Training and related fields. This was a useful exercise.
Student curriculum exercise
This proved to be a highly valuable method of data collection. It involved the students in the old course completing a Curriculum assignment, whereby they analysed their course and devised solutions to the weaknesses and problems they discovered. It required them to think in curriculum development terms about desirable changes to their own course. Students in the VET courses tend to be overachievers, and these assignments gave us access to a wide range of detailed and important feedback.
Detailed evaluations were done of most of the units completed in the second semester of 1995, and evaluation questionnaires went out to all those who had graduated from the new Graduate Diploma in 1995. Unfortunately, those units which had already been identified as the weakest ones, were not evaluated
Team development meetings
The team continued to meet each week during 1995, whether people could attend or not. This gave a structure and anchor to the procedure and a sense of collaboration and ownership to the developers. During 1996, two team members were on leave at different times, and the team meetings were largely replaced by one to one meetings. By this stage, however, we were involved in materials development stage, and the need for collaborative decision making had passed.
External studies development
The development of external materials for the new Graduate Diploma began during 1996. This was funded, and even though there were problems with lead time and key people on leave, it gave an impetus to the development of the BA (VET) in that we were able to think in terms of materials which could be used in both courses. The Graduate Diploma course materials will give us a core of BA materials which can be used this year.
Cancellation of Search Conference
The research literature is full of situations where mandated change is not properly funded or supported. There is a management myth, perpetuated indeed by politicians, that all they have to do is say that something will happen, and it will fall into place without any further thought to how it should be done or supported.
Non involvement of some key staff members
The non participation of the lecturer who had once been coordinator of the weakest units, and had taken least responsibility for updating and incremental change, was a not untypical problem in curriculum development.
Small size of development team
Related to the above point, was the small size of the development team. There was, and still is, an enormous amount of work to develop 16 units to the level we are aiming for.
Lack of time
Lack of lead time, lack of planning time, lack of release time for writing materials, lack of space in our typically overloaded academic lives was without doubt the most difficult problem facing us! If this was an issue in 1995 and 1996, we might well ask how any successful development will ever occur in universities again, with the funding cuts, staff cuts, quota cuts, etc, we have been promised for 1997 and 1998.
Large scale development would not have been necessary if good collaborative team work had been in place. Good team work implies joint decision making, cooperative effort and mutual trust. It also implies ownership. Courses become outdated when these things are missing, and some units become ownerless and out of step with the others.
Second, team work also implies the use of individual staff skills for the mutual advantage of others in the team. University staff are often reluctant to do this. One of the team may have a strength in designing self assessment exercises for printed materials, for instance; one may be a skilled cartoonist; another an excellent instructional designer or desk top publisher. Good curriculum team work means that these skills will be shared to best advantage across the various units.
Third, incremental change, in the sense of regular revision and upgrading of unit materials, should be part of the teaching responsibilities of each lecturer. This entails lecturers working in isolation, as they keep up to date with their own specialisms. However, even this maintenance process could become part of team work, with a culture of regular reporting and sharing of new ideas and techniques in place as part of the collaborative process. Incremental change would not obviate all need for major course development, but it would make it a lot easier when it had to be done.
Fourth, when major revision does become necessary, its requirements need to be fully recognised by the administration and supported with adequate time, funding and personnel. The way we worked on this curriculum project was far from ideal and definitely not the way to achieve good results. The fact that we will probably eventually produce a very good course, was no reason for requiring us to do it under such pressure, without proper funding or time.
There is a management approach to curriculum matters in universities which bespeaks the worst features of Modernism. If universities cannot look at the lessons of the past, and learn how to devolve and reward responsibility for its intellectual property, the kind of crisis management described in this case study will play straight into the hands of the current Liberal Government policies and directions, and we will indeed become no more than factories mass-producing the cheapest possible product for the highest bidder in the market place.
Walker, D.F. (1971). A naturalistic model for curriculum development.School Review, 80 (1), 51-65.
|Please cite as: McBeath, C. (1997). The politics of upgrading university courses: Revising the BA (Education). In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p212-216. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/mcbeath.html|