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Optimising Higher Education Curriculum Design

Curriculum design has become increasingly important in Higher Education. Universities must demonstrate greater flexibility and work based learning opportunities in order to ensure the best possible student experience, maintain a competitive edge and deliver a truly agile curricula.

Understanding ModernGov had the chance to speak with Consultant in Academic Practice, Dr Alison Le Cornu, who addresses the challenges and approaches involved in curriculum design.


Dr Alison Le Cornu, SFHEA, FSEDA:

I am delighted to chair Understanding ModernGov‘s workshop on optimising curriculum design in higher education. It is a subject close to my heart as – although the design of our curricula underpins the learning and teaching that takes place in our institutions, in addition to the results of that learning and teaching – we still seem to struggle to find ways to achieve the ends we are looking for.

As the national Academic Lead for Flexible Learning with the Higher Education Academy for four years, I became aware how difficult it can be to introduce a flexible curriculum structure. Yet it is so important if we are serious about the value of adult and lifelong learning, which has recognised benefits for individuals, society, the economy and employers.

It seems to me, that the real challenges for higher education in the area of curriculum design, revolve around our government’s tendency to concentrate on full-time 18 to 21 year old undergraduates. This is not to denigrate that dimension of HE – far from it. But because that constituency is largely homogenous, institutions are able to make considerable economies of scale by ensuring that the majority of students do the same modules at the same time, place and pace. However, this has the effect of preventing curricula from being genuinely responsive and agile, with an adverse effect not only on part-time learners but on the whole institution.

A second challenge lies in our continued emphasis on certain knowledge and skills, resulting in a curricula which places a narrow focus on what students can learn, and on what attributes are likely to be of real use to the future of humanity.

Taking a “big picture” approach to curriculum design could, and should, be key to optimising it. By “big picture” I mean looking well beyond the bite sized chunks that we use to divide up our curricula to the larger aims of what sort of learning will make a difference to individuals and society. Sternberg et al. (2008), for example, make a strong case for a curriculum that focuses on developing wisdom.

Another way of optimising curriculum design would be to put into place flexible infrastructures that will offer greater choice to students about what they learn, when and where, and help develop attributes that are crucial for today’s fast-moving world (HEA, 2014). This is, to an extent, dependent upon Government’s willingness to stop making policy decisions that uphold a fixed distinction between full-time and part-time students – funding is a particular issue – and to support initiatives that will develop a widespread use of credit accumulation and transfer.

Alongside that is the need to reconceptualise assessment, moving from an emphasis on assessment of learning to assessment for learning (HEA, 2012).

The Optimising Higher Education Curriculum Design workshop offers a framework for participants to examine their existing practice and consider how they might develop it in the future. It will demonstrate the ways others have addressed challenges relating to curriculum design, using approaches that could be implemented elsewhere, in addition to introducing the latest thinking within the sector.

Come prepared to be challenged, inspired, motivated and excited!


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