Teaching and Learning Forum 97 [ Contents ]

The politics of upgrading university courses: Revising the BA (Education)

Clare McBeath
Faculty of Education
Curtin University of Technology

Introduction

I approach this topic as a practitioner and researcher in the area of curriculum change. Educational change, according to the research literature, is a difficult process. It is difficult for the developers, the disseminators and for the implementers of new courses and materials. It is probably the least difficult for are those who mandate change and those who set the procedures and formats into which it must fit. I suggest that it is the people who least understand the process of change, management and administrators, who make it most difficult for those of us working at the level of development and implementation.

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 old course

This case study refers to the BA (Education) in Technical and Further Education, which in 1997 is being offered for the first time as the BA (Education) in Vocational Education and Training. The old course was made up of 21 unequal units, covering two full time years, with one year's credit given on the basis of prior learning and experience. It has always been offered as an in-service professional course. It had been developed originally for new TAFE lecturers needing teaching skills and professional development for post-compulsory class rooms and workshops. The Technical Education Division (as it was called when the BA (TAFE) was originally set up), was our major client and the course had been devised in close cooperation with them. Incremental change had occurred in many of the units over the years as our client group and the field of vocational education and training itself had changed, and the course, on the whole, had retained its relevance and professionalism. I was actually very fond of the old course. It was working well, the students liked it and the changes which were needed were not large.

Pressure for change

The main impetus for curriculum development of this course was the decision by the university to standardise credit points across all courses at 100 points per full time semester and 200 per full time year. This sort of standardisation was occurring in other WA universities at the same time. I had been aware of the debate across the university and the gradual movement of all our courses towards the new model. It was inevitable that our turn would come.

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.

Reasons against change

Our new Graduate Diploma in Higher and Further Education, the second stream in our Vocational Education and Training Program, had begun under the new 200 credit point structure at the beginning of 1995, and there were still some grave difficulties with the change over process. Little planning had been done to assist students caught between the two versions of the course and it didn't take enrollees very long to compare notes and start negotiating for better deals in their selection of units! It would have been desirable to iron out the major problems with this course first, before moving into the new revision when we felt ready.

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.

How we did it

The development team

I can't remember when we started actual development, because it overlapped with and became subsumed into so many other things going on at the time. At some stage during 1995, staff development meetings gradually became curriculum development meetings and the possible development team finally sorted itself out into Team leadership was shared by the two mentioned first in the list above. Neither was the leader or chairperson, and neither had authority or superiority over the other. Both were overworked and stretched to the limits of possibility by existing duties and responsibilities, and neither had the time or space for directing the process. However, they shared a common "platform", in the sense that Decker Walker (1971) used the concept, and tossed the burden of responsibility backwards and forward between them as they were able. One would mention an idea one day, which the other might have found time to develop the next. And vice versa. I have never worked this way before, and it is hardly a desirable model, but against all odds, the procedure worked and we achieved most of what we set out to do. The model itself probably deserves deeper analysis and research one day.

Methods

Industry survey
We considered this a very important feature of the project. Our Vocational Education and Training market was changing rapidly from TAFE colleges lecturers to trainers in Government, Hospitals, private companies, the armed forces and professional associations. We were able to build on an old data base and expand it through brainstorming. Approximately 180 questionnaires were circulated.

Search Conference
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.

Student evaluations
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.

Problems

Poor response from industry
This is always a problem when a potential market is busy with its own problems and innovations. The responses received were not very useful for our purposes, but did reveal a number of the issues which were of current concern to the surveyed groups.

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.

Strengths

How we should have done it

My knowledge and experience of curriculum development leads me to the conclusion that development of an existing course in a university setting should never have been conducted this way.

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.

References

Loucks S.F. & Lieberman, A. (1983). Curriculum implementation. In F. English (Ed), Fundamental curriculum decisions (1983 Yearbook). Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).

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


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