How to make curriculum mapping useful to university academics

The following is an attempt to make concrete various ideas that have been floating around about a project to take a very different approach to curriculum mapping. There’s a small glimmer that these ideas may form the basis for an ALTC grant application

The following includes:

The idea

The outline of the idea is:

  • Implement the following changes by working closely with the academics and changing the project, its processes, aims etc in response to the learning that occurs.
  • Modify Moodle (this is the LMS my current institution uses) so that it is possible that all activities and resources within a course site can be linked to course learning outcomes, institutional graduate attributes and other criteria/categories (outcomes etc).
  • For courses within a program that has been through a recent accreditation, use those resources to add the outcomes etc. to existing courses, resources and activities.
  • Have this process involve collaboration between the academics and people who can help with and change the system, explain the meaning of learning “terminology” and generally make it a helpful and positive experience.
  • Work with academics to ensure that current Moodle courses have outcomes etc populated appropriately.
  • Modify Moodle so that when an activity or resource changes, there are visible reminders that the outcomes etc associated with that activity/resource should also be changed. Make it simple for the academic to change these.
  • Ensure that when a course site is copied from one term to another, the outcomes etc are part of that copy process.
    The intent is that once the outcomes etc are in place, the academics only need to modify those bits that have changed and they are supported and encouraged to do so during what they normally do.
  • Draw on this information to develop different curriculum maps for different purposes. The maps can draw on the fact that there are links from the outcomes etc to actual data in the LMS (e.g. student posts on the discussion forum, assignments, quizzes etc.)
  • Work within a program with the teaching academics to make the use of the curriculum maps a useful and important part of what they do in the process of their normal course delivery. i.e. make it part of the way we do things around here. (This does not mean writing policies.)

The main part of the project would be having a group of people with the right mix of technical and educational knowledge actively working with the academics to identify how this information could be made useful for the academics. Some work would also be done for other stakeholder (e.g. accreditation bodies).

The actual uses of the information would arise from this collaboration, but some possible examples might include:

  • Access to examples of implementing an attribute or outcome within the program or the institution.
    Problem: The assumption is that given an outcome staff will pick a learning design that will help the students achieve that outcome. Most academic staff don’t have the abstract knowledge to do this. Seeing concrete examples might help.

    1 solution: Provide an interface that matches the current outcome of interest for the academic, with a other similar outcomes in other courses. Allow the academic to drill down and see the actual activities and resources mapped to those.

  • Representation of the holes and duplications in a course.
    Problem: Generally, the people teaching courses in a program don’t know what’s going on in another course or in the program as a whole.

    1 solution: Provide a program level summary that identifies the holes and duplications in attributes, outcomes, activities and resources.

What is curriculum mapping

Just to be sure that we’re talking about the same thing, the following offers some definitions of curriculum mapping

Curriculum mapping is a representation of the different components of the curriculum in order that the whole picture and the relationships between the components of the curriculum can be easily understood (Harden 2001). Curriculum mapping displays the essential features of the curriculum in a clear and succinct manner (Prideaux 2003) and provides a context for planning and discussing the curriculum (Holycross 2006).

If you want more information, the above quote is taken from this report.

Problems with current practice

The following list is based on my observations, the literature and anecdotal reports from others:

  • Staff don’t engage meaning it is unlikely to change practice.
    The curriculum mapping process is seen as an add-on, it solves someone else’s problem or something that someone else does for them. With the lack of engagement, it becomes questionable whether these considerations become a key part of day to day thoughts and subsequently makes any long-term change in understanding and practice.
  • Divorced from practice leading to unreliability of what is reported.
    Completing a curriculum map is done either at the beginning or the end of a course. It’s not done during a course. This separation leads to the reliability of what is included in a curriculum map being highly questionable. One reason for this is that memory is not perfect, what is recalled and reported may not be what went on. Then there’s the whole question to task corruption and compliance.
  • Complexity leads to unreliability.
    The task of mapping out an entire course is complex. Most curriculum mapping requires that it be done as one task after the course is complete. The complexity of the task leads to mistakes, either through academics rushing it or the inevitable problem of chinese whispers when the academics are communicating information to a third party.
  • Tools that are not integrated into practice leading to duplication and unreliability.
    Curriculum mapping is usually done with pen and paper, an excel spreadsheet or perhaps a commercial stand alone tool. Yet another tool for academics to use. Each of these tools have their limitations. But perhaps the most important is that the new curriculum mapping tool is not the LMS or any of the other systems the academic users for learning and teaching. It’s something else to learn and doesn’t even connect with other tools. These tools don’t actively reduce the workload for the academic or provide additional functionality. It’s all cost and no benefit.

Current representation

In order to implement curriculum mapping across a program or institution, you have to design how you are going to do this. How you understand or represent the problem significantly impacts upon how you design your solution. Representation has a profound impact on design work (Hevner et al., 2004), particularly on the way in which tasks and problems are conceived (Boland, 2002). The formulation of the initial state into an effective representation is crucial to finding an effective design solution (Weber, 2003).

I suggest that the process widely used to implement curriculum mapping is similar to most projects within organisations and universities. It is a teleological process. Truex et al (2000) identify a shared assumption about teleological design processes involving a three-stage rational sequence: “(1) determine goals, (2) determine steps and events that lead to these, (3) follow the steps and generate the events”.

In curriculum mapping this means some group, typically not coal-face teaching academics, identify the need for curriculum mapping. Common groups include accreditation agencies, quality assurance groups and other business and government bodies. In response to this need another group, generally some sort of central learning and teaching group, decides on a process to perform the curriculum map and then engages with and encourages academics to complete the curriculum map.

The focus – the central/core aim – of the institution then becomes of completing this project. The focus has moved away from improving learning and teaching but to actually getting the forms filled in. The questions academics are asked become, “have you completed the form yet?”. The academics start complying and not engaging.

If done well, the project will achieve its aim of getting completed curriculum maps. However, the quality of those maps will be questionable and there’s a good chance the majority of academics are annoyed at having to waste more time and teaching and learning when they all know that they get recognition and promotion for research.

One alternate representation – changing thinking

Oliver et al (2007) describe the practicalities of curriculum mapping as (emphasis added)

far from simple and require a shift in educational thinking

The “shift in thinking” is the foundation of the representation of curriculum mapping that informs the following idea.

The core aim of this project is to change the educational thinking of academics and consequently improve learning and teaching.

Representing the problem this way means that different ideas and approaches to complete the problem. For example:

  • You only change what people think by changing what they experience day to day.
  • You only change what people do day to day if it provides them with some demonstrable benefit. That the choice architecture around what they do is such that they voluntarily make a good choice.
  • You only know what will give them demonstrable benefit by really understanding their experience and if they trust you.
  • You only know what they experience and have their trust if you are interacting with them throughout the process and providing them real assistance.

This is why the above basic outline of an idea cannot be implemented as a traditional project, with set goals and outcomes. It has to be implemented as a learning project. The following from Cavallo (2004) captures this well

As we see it, real change is inherently a kind of learning. For people to change the way they think about and practice education, rather than merely being told what to do differently, we believe that practitioners must have experiences that enable appropriation of new modes of teaching and learning that enable them to reconsider and restructure their thinking and practice. The limitations inherent in existing systems based upon information transfer models are as impoverished in effecting systemic development as they are in child development.

References

Boland, R. J. (2002). Design in the punctuation of management action. Frontiers of Management Workshop, Weatherhead School of Management.

Cavallo, D. (2000). “Emergent design and learning environments: Building on indigenous knowledge.” IBM Systems Journal 39(3&4): 768-781.

Hevner, A., S. March, et al. (2004). “Design science in information systems research.” MIS Quarterly 28(1): 75-105.

Oliver, B., S. Jones, et al. (2007). Mapping curricula: ensuring work-ready graduates by mapping course learning outcomes and higher order thinking skills. Evaluations and Assessment Conference. Brisbane.

Weber, R. (2003). “Still desperately seeking the IT artifact.” MIS Quarterly 27(2): iii-xi.

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One thought on “How to make curriculum mapping useful to university academics

  1. Nils Peterson

    David
    I agree that an externally imposed goal to create a curriculum map is likely to make administrative work that is rapidly disassociated from enhancing learning outcomes.

    Our office OAI.Wsu.edu has been thinking about related issues and has a bit different take on curriculum mapping, see http://communitylearning.wordpress.com/2009/09/21/from-student-feedback-to-university-accreditation/

    Midway down that post is a link to a curriculum map that is using the program’s chosen learning outcomes to make a map that overlays faculty intention in specific assignments with student accomplishments in those assignments.

    Our vision is toward making a means of rolling up assignment level SoTL to course, program and university levels. Truing to keep the work real for the teacher by focus on questions of interest in the context of the course

    Reply

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