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The role of curricula in shaping learning: how do we balance programme cohesion with student choice?

24 Jan 2022 | Dr Kay Hack (PFHEA) Ahead of this week's #LTHE tweetchat, Dr Kay Hack, Principal Adviser for Learning and Teaching at Advance HE, discusses whether curricula are still a useful and relevant way to conceptualise learning in an increasingly flexible and decentralised higher education sector.

Landing on the Future Learn course page the prospective learner is provided with four choices: ‘Short Courses’ - to learn new skills; ‘Expert Tracks’ to upskill or specialise; ‘Micro-accreditation’ - to gain professional or academic credit and ‘Online Degrees’ - to achieve an internationally recognised qualification. Do these four tabs illustrate the changing model of higher education and provide us with a glimpse of the future higher education experience?

Accredited short courses are proliferating. The opportunity to upskill or reskill through engagement with high quality online learning resources at a time and pace to suit the learner is attractive to employers and governments as well the learner. In demand skills such as data science, machine learning and cyber security are offered by a diverse range of providers: ‘big tech companies’, the ‘MOOC’ styled platforms as well as ‘bricks and mortar’ higher education institutions.

With one provider describing itself as an online marketplace for learning and teaching, is there any point to the continuing angst around the commercialisation of higher education?

Collaborations between providers are also providing students with more choice and an enhanced learning experience through building on the expertise and synergies offered by the individual partners. The UK Quality Assurance Agency has recognised a wide-range of partnership practices for awarding degrees and published guidance supporting institutions in establishing academic standards when more than one degree-awarding body is involved (QAA, 2020).

Choice within degree programmes is also offered. Liberal Arts programmes provide students the option to select from science and arts subjects, whilst many institutions now offer interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary core or elective modules. New providers, including The London Interdisciplinary School, nMITE and TEDI-London have built their undergraduate degree programmes on problem-based learning, using the problem to shape what and when students learn.

What does this level of choice mean for the curriculum?

The dictionary definition of curricula, is simply:

‘the subjects that are included in a course of study or taught in a school, college, etc.’

In higher education, however, curricula typically extend beyond what gets taught, to the pedagogic practices deployed to support engagement with the discipline - not just what, but how we teach, what and how we assess and how we provide feedback. These choices are informed by national guidance and frameworks, shaped by institutional culture and strategies, and enhanced through engagement with stakeholders.

The ‘smorgasbord’ approach offered in some models of higher education can disrupt progamme coherence and holistic approaches to learning, assessment, and methods of feedback and feedforward. Curriculum Frameworks explicitly linking the ‘what and how’ students are taught to institutional strategies for learning and teaching and can encompass the core attributes or competencies expected of all graduates. Typically, curriculum frameworks include transdisciplinary concepts that establish and communicate the desired USP of an institution, such as employability, entrepreneurship, sustainability, citizenship, digital competencies and inclusivity. A well-constructed curriculum framework can provide programme designers with a flexible model on which to design and structure their programme outcomes, whilst providing student choice.

What is the difference between acquiring the requisite number and level of credits and a degree, is the whole greater than the sum of the parts?

Unbundling of provision- providing learner choice not just in pace, place and mode of learning, but also of subject and provider, raises important questions for programme designers and institutions, professional bodies and employers, as well as the learner.

In this week’s tweetchat in collaboration with the #LTHE community we will be discussing the role of curricula in shaping students learning and outcomes and the tension between programme coherence and learner choice.

Join in the conversation on Wednesday 26 January at 20:00 (GMT) on twitter using the hashtags #AdvanceHE_chat and #LTHEChat.

Curriculum Symposium 2022 – Personalising the curriculum: Quality Assurance in a world where one size doesn’t fit all - Call for papers

Advance HE is currently welcoming proposals/case studies from both individuals and teams for the Curriculum Symposium 2022. Colleagues are invited to submit an abstract for either a 20-minute presentation or for a 40-minute workshop, which adheres to one of the four conference themes:

  • the role of curriculum frameworks
  • partnership approaches to developing curriculum: with students, employers and professional bodies
  • tensions between accreditation of prior learning, programme cohesion and quality assurance and
  • learning without borders - new models of flexible provision.

The deadline for submission is 17:00 (GMT) on 14 March 2022. Find out more

We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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