Daily Archives: January 19, 2010

Questions about alternatives to curriculum mapping

A small group of colleagues are discussing possible ideas around a project to engage in curriculum mapping. Possibly with the aim of going for an ALTC grant. As part of that process one of my colleagues has raised a range of questions about the project (we’re still at the storming and norming phase). The following is my attempt to answer some of those questions. The responses I give are obviously influenced by my beliefs about learning and teaching in higher education and how it does or does not work.

It is also influenced by existing writing/thinking I’ve done around curriculum mapping, including:

The following will build on and refer to the above.

Main challenges

The question

What are the main challenges for the teaching teams (and students) using mapping technologies?

My current response

The main challenge I see is staff engagement. Student engagement could possibly be grouped within this if the particular approach to curriculum mapping taken requires additional work from the students.

People will not take on new tasks simply because people outside think it’s a good idea. Teaching academics will not change their teaching practice within the current university environment. This is the core argument in my presentation Herding cats and losing weight: How to improve learning and teaching.

Unless curriculum mapping is seen and supported as a valuable and on-going part of how teaching and learning occurs, they won’t do it. At best they will be seen to do it.

This is especially true given my belief that most universities are currently at the level 2 of 3 levels of improving teaching. In particular, I would suggest that curriculum mapping, like most large-scale suggestions for improving teaching, are not being driven directly by the interests of academics or students, but by the following groups:

  • Managers of academic units who see the implementation of a unit-wide improvement as a way to show how they are good leaders. i.e. the focus is on what management does.
  • Accrediting bodies (government, professions etc) who wish to see evidence of the quality of the learning and teaching.
  • Vendors who have software or other products to sell to institutions that will help them achieve some widespread improvement.
  • Technologists in terms of information technology, but also education researchers and designers, who have some wonderful theory based idea that will radically improve learning and teaching, if only the recalcitrant academics would adopt it.

Now, the above might come across as to overly negative for some. However, it is my belief that this malaise underpins much of what goes on in universities at the moment and is either not recognised or widely ignored. It could be that I am wrong, however, there are some other folk who have made similar comments. For example, Cavallo (2004) that I’ve talked about here and here.

Disciplinary differences

The question

Are particular discipline groups engaged more with curriculum mapping than others? If so, what might be the reason for this and what are the impacts/outcomes?

My response

As I’ve written here, from my reading of the curriculum mapping literature most of the work seems to being done within the health disciplines, some within engineering and a bunch related to the idea of generic skills. I would suggest that most of these support the idea above about the important role of accrediting bodies in the drive towards curriculum mapping. In health, engineering and around generic skills there are bodies wishing to see proof of the quality.

Given that the major aim is to fulfill the purpose of the accrediting body, it is to me, no surprise that coal-face teaching academics aren’t exactly keen on the idea. e.g. the following quote from this post

Driven by government requirements, university initiatives around graduate attributes remain patchy with the best outcomes being the production of “curriculum maps” which have the potential to foster superficial and ineffective approaches to the development of graduate attributes (Green, Hammer et al. 2009).

Effective frameworks

The question

What frameworks and approaches can be developed to support effective, engaging and transformative usage of curriculum mapping?

My response

Given that I’ve argued above that the major challenge I see with curriculum mapping is that it is being done to academics rather than with them, I guess it is no surprise that I think the frameworks/approaches that have the best chance of working are those that seek to achieve level 3 of the 3 levels of improving teaching which I’ve described as

The focus is on what the teacher does to design and deliver their course. The aim is to ensure that the learning and teaching system, its processes, rewards and constraints are aiming to ensure that the teacher is engaging in those activities which ensure quality learning and teaching. In a way that makes sense for the teacher, their course and their students.

In this post I argued that around curriculum mapping such an approach would be much more bottom-up than top-down. An approach that started with what staff were already doing and seeking to build on it in interesting, useful and transformative ways.

I have previously, briefly described the mechanics of such a solution. There is more to it than just this, but it provides one concrete example. The theory behind bottom-up or emergent approaches is discussed in more detail in a sequence of posts: overview, teleological and ateleological.

This approach was inspired by the following quote from Gers Tielemans outlined in this post

The point is that Moodle works – by design – bottom-up while most curriculum tools work top-down.

  • In the top-down approach you have first to fill a cascade of questions before you can enter one single resource or activity (teachers hate this!)
  • In Moodle you start on course level and even there it is a free form design, teachers become “bricoleurs” (French for handyman).

Institutional changes

The question

What are the institutional changes needed to support curriculum mapping initiatives?

My response

The main change, and I think the most difficult, is a move away from “what management does” (this includes the tools of managers including IT, quality and educational designers) towards a focus on “what the teacher does” and how what they can do can be moved forward. The change needed is to create an environment that encourages and enables (i.e. does not force or require) academics to improve their practice. This is the argument I made in the herding cats presentation. That presentation also started making some recommendations for what changes would be necessary.

Pedagogies

The question

What pedagogies and approaches are needed to make the use of curriculum mapping applications most effective and engaging, and what evidence exists to support such approaches?

My response

Which ever pedagogies and approaches make sense to the individual academics that are working on the project. It may be that some interesting and useful appraoches arise out of the work that could be re-used. However, I don’t think you can identify one pedagogy or approach before the project starts. Once you have academics engaging effectively with curriculum mapping, then such things might be able to be identified.

As the project progress you will learn. Something from Cavallo (2004)

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.

What value?

The question

What value can curriculum mapping add to conventional methods of educational delivery and what evidence exists to support such propositions?

My response

Again, this is a problem with ROI and teleological processes. In a truly complex environment, of which I think learning and teaching within a university is an example, you cannot predict what might happen. You can’t predict what values may arise.

You can fall back onto the traditional value attributed to curriculum mapping in the literature. Here’s a couple of paragraphs from this post

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).

Curriculum maps ensure that decisions about the curriculum are not made in a vacuum. Curriculum maps are a key requirement for curriculum development, which includes identifying professional development needs of academic staff, as curriculum maps provide the necessary information to identify the requirements of a particular course and program. Curriculum mapping provides an object that can help academic and other staff communicate about the curriculum of a course (Holycross 2006). Mapping is a remarkable tool for communication among teachers (Jacobs 2003).

You might even achieve some of these. But I’m more interested in the value/benefits that arise unexpectedly.

In terms of arguing the case for this project, if pushed, the specific values/benefits I’m most interested in are:

  • Reducing the workload and increasing the validity of the processes currently used by programs that are preparing to go for accreditation.
  • Leveraging that work in such a way as to actively increase visibility of the curriculum so that academic staff and students are more aware of the strengths and weaknesses and subsequently engage in communication about the curriculum.

In terms of that last benefit, I’m not sure what the outcomes of that communication might be. I’m only interested in enabling and encouraging it to happen as I believe it’s a necessary first step in encouraging academics to increase their reflection on practice.

In terms of the first benefit, that becomes the main concrete aim of the project, at least in my head and why I’ve suggested working with the accrediting bodies. If we can reduce the workload and increase the quality of existing accreditation processes, then that’s a nice concrete aim. The rest is probably more important, but it’s more uncertain and icing on the cake.

How will things change?

The question

Will the use of curriculum mapping approaches change how teaching and learning occur OR how people learn? If so, what evidence exists to support such a claim?

My response

I hope it’s becoming clear that, at least for this project, I’m not much interested in predicting what changes might occur. In fact, I hope you can see that I don’t think you can predict what changes might occur and any attempt to do so is wasted effort and at worst a case of you fooling yourself.

What change I think I’d like to aim for out of this project is tied to the values outlined in the last section:

  1. Reduce the workload and increase the quality of the accreditation process through having curriculum mapping that is much more closely aligned with what happens and also has concrete links to what has happened within the LMS.
  2. Investigate and provide services that increase the visibility of that curriculum while staff are teaching the courses that in turn encourage greater communication around the curriculum.

As I’ve said, it’s the increasing visibility that is, I think, the most important contributor to improvements, but improvements that will be unexpected.