Over the next few weeks I am going to have a few meetings in which I’ll need to explain and justify the curriculum mapping project. This post is an attempt to further develop and share some of the perspectives and to develop an elevator pitch for the project.
It’s also reinforced the need to develop a name for the project. “Moodle curriculum mapping” doesn’t really send the right message.
Aside: I’m somewhat skeptical of the value and possible side effect of an aligned curriculum and curriculum mapping in general. (e.g. I’m not convinced institutional graduate attributes are possible or sensible, I’m not convinced that a mapped curriculum gives a true representation of what the student will actually learn/experience). However, I can see that this is becoming very important within Australian universities and that it will be done. I’m hoping this project can take the implementation of curriculum mapping in more interesting and useful directions. Time will tell.
The elevator pitch is formed by the sub-headings of the specific aims section. The “specific aims” section was written first.
At its simplest, the project aims to build on existing practices around curriculum mapping and fulfill existing needs, such as accreditation. More importantly, the project aims to make learning outcomes, graduate attributes etc a part of the everyday practice for a majority of academics in a way that is useful. As a result, it should help improve the validity of curriculum maps, encourage greater quantity and quality of use of the LMS and show how the institution is leading the sector. Most importantly, the project aims to provide a foundation that enables CDDU to more effectively engage with academics and, in broader terms, enable and encourage improvements in teaching and student learning outcomes.
It will do this through modifications to the Moodle LMS that aim make learning outcomes, graduate attributes and the alignment of those with learning activities, resources and assessment a “first class objects” within Moodle. These modifications, and more importantly, the processes used to roll them out will be designed to encourage and enable adoption and behaviour change.
The difficulties associated with doing this is that my overall focus for the project is around improving learning and teaching, which is a complex task with lots of connections. When people talk about curriculum mapping, they are typically talking about many different things, from many different perspectives.
Even more difficult is the fact that I am approaching this from the perspective of intervening in a complex adaptive system. This means that I don’t (and I believe, I can’t) have a firm idea of exactly where this project is going to go. This is because any fixed outcome is a waste of time, as the project proceeds we will learn more and the system (i.e. the university, its staff and their practice of L&T) will change around the project. What we think is a good thing to do in 6 months time, will be very different from where what we think would be good now.
And this is exactly the sort of “meta-discussion” that many of the people I’m going to talk to, will hate.
Some specific aims
So, let’s start with some specific aims.
- “outcomes etc.” – used to encapsulate the broad array of “stuff” people want to map, including: university graduate attributes, course learning outcomes, discipline outcomes/attributes etc.
- “course” – the smallest unit of study in which a student enrolls. Lasts for around 12 weeks.
- “program” – a collection of courses that form a degree.
- “majority” – the following often makes statements like “the majority of academic staff don’t teach well”. This is not a deficit model of academic staff. In the vast majority of cases the “don’t teach well” is due to contextual issues. I don’t blame the teacher.
There are a small number of academic staff who teach very well. They typically do this in spite of contextual issues and because they are intrinsically motivated. This group are in the minority.
My interest is in helping change the context so that the majority of academic staff are enabled and encouraged to improve their teaching.
Practical outcomes, reuse and a foundation
Just about every program that needs to be accredited has to generate some form of curriculum map, usually to meet the requirements of the external accrediting body. Increasingly, Australian universities are being required to demonstrate the presence and use of graduate attributes, typically illustrated through curriculum maps.
Proposition: This project will provide the functionality required to generate these and other curriculum maps.
There is existing work being done to generate these curriculum maps using established approaches (i.e. Word documents and spreadsheets). Rather than waste this work, these need to be used as inputs into this process.
Curriculum mapping is not a ends unto itself. It is typically part of a process used to increase understanding of a course and in particular its alignment and its relationships with other courses. That improved understanding informs subsequent action.
The intent is that this project is not simply about curriculum mapping, but it is focused on how the project can provide a foundation to enable and encourage subsequent action.
Make it part of everyday practice
Curriculum mapping is based around the idea that having alignment between the outcomes etc. and the learning activities, resources and assessments within a course is a good thing. The trouble is that as currently implemented outcomes etc are not part of the everyday practice for academic staff. Most academic staff, when planning a course, don’t think about outcomes etc. and alignment.
Support for this perspective comes from one of the few empirical examinations of academic practice that I’m aware of, the work of Stark, Lowther et al (1988), Stark et al (1990), Stark (2000), and Lattuca and Stark (2009). Some choice quotes from my thesis drawing on this work
How academics design their teaching is not described by a rational planning model (Lattuca and Stark 2009). In part, this is because the dominant setting for academics is teaching an existing course, generally one the academic has taught previously. In such a setting, academics spend most of their time fine tuning a course or making minor modifications to material or content (Stark 2000). Academics are usually not often required to engage in the development of new courses or major overhauls of existing courses (Stark and Lowther 1988). The practice of most academics does not separate planning from implementation, and rather than starting with explicit course objectives, starts with content (Lattuca and Stark 2009).
In part, this is because consideration of outcomes etc. are not a part of what many of them do around learning and teaching. That is, the LMS they are using doesn’t usually provide any support or recognition of outcomes etc. It’s not part of what they do in face-to-face L&T. To some extent, it’s a case of out of sight and out of mind.
This problem is made worse in institutions where an increasing number of courses are being taught multiple times a year. In my local context, this means that rather than an academic designing and teaching the course and its assessment. The design is done by the person currently teaching the course, and the next person teaching the course has to live with that design.
This becomes an increasing problem when many of these staff are contract staff employed to deliver the course. They don’t design the course, so the only place they see the outcomes etc. are in the small section of the course profile/syllabus.
Proposition: If alignment between outcomes etc, learning resources, activities and assessment is a good thing, then making outcomes etc and their relationship with learning resources, activities and assessment a highly visible and first class component of the LMS/learning environment is necessary to increase alignment, or at least consideration of it.
Improve the validity of the mappings
As argued above, outcomes etc and alignment is not a key component of the thinking of most academics. It has been widely recognised for some time that the validity of the mappings represented in static documents is somewhat questionable. Some more thesis quotes
In the absence of formally documented teaching goals, the actual teaching and learning that occurs is more in line with the teacher’s implicit internalised knowledge, than that described in published course descriptions (Levander and Mikkola 2009). Formal descriptions of the curriculum do not necessarily provide much understanding about how teachers put their curriculum ideas into action (Argyris and Schon 1974).
Curriculum mapping is typically done in a way divorced in time and space from the context within which academics teach. Subsequently, due to the known limitations of human memory – not to mention pressure to comply – it is unlikely that such curriculum maps capture the full complexity what occurs in a course. Given the static nature of such maps and their lack of use in everyday teaching, then over time the validity of their representation is only going to decrease.
Proposition: Curriculum maps that are generated, and continue to evolve, in the same time and space as everyday teaching and learning will have stronger validity in terms of capturing reality and consequently be of more value.
Enable and encourage improvements in teaching
The mapping process is fairly straight forward, if you are familiar and comfortable with a lot of the educational language involved in the process. A lot of academics aren’t. Some more thesis quotes
In the absence of formal qualifications or knowledge in learning and teaching, most academics teach in ways they have been taught (Phillips 2005) and/or which fit with disciplinary norms and their recent teaching experience (Entwistle 2003). Academic staff rarely read educational literature or call upon any available expert assistance when planning a course (Stark 2000).
A well designed mapping process would provide the scaffolding necessary for academic staff to be guided through the mapping process. It would provide pointers to similar maps, explanations of why it was done a certain way, reflections and insights from other teaching academics (not instructional designers) etc.
More importantly, the mapping process is the educationally easiest part of this process. What’s much more difficult is, once you have the map, using that to improve the alignment of the course learning resources, activities and assessments. Knowing how best, within the specific context, to provide students with the opportunity to practice and receive feedback on “critical thinking” is far more difficult than identifying where it is or isn’t provided.
The aim here is not just to help academics map the course, but then build on this to enable and encourage them to improve their courses.
Proposition: A learning environment that makes visible to all stakeholders the alignment (or not) of a course and then provides scaffolding necessary to improve that alignment will help improve teaching.
Encourage greater usage (quantity and quality) of institutional LMS
A lot is written about the poor quantity and quality of the learning and teaching that occurs within an institutional LMS. The vast majority of course sites are little more electronic photo-copiers, places to disseminate text. This is due to a variety of issues, most of them contextual and nothing to do with the LMS. However, some are due to the nature of the LMS and the types of tasks it makes easy (e.g. uploading some powerpoint slides) and the types of tasks for which it has no support (making visible and offering advice on how to improve course alignment).
Proposition: Well designed extensions to an LMS that encourage and enable improvement of course alignment will increase the quantity and quality of usage of the institutional LMS and subsequent student outcomes.
In a more institutional specific aspect of this aim, is the observation that Moodle (my institutions LMS) already offers support for tracking student progress against outcomes. However, this feature, which is optional, is not even enabled within the institutional instance of Moodle, and is currently not being used. Even though, there are parts of the institution that want to use this sort of feature.
Proposition: Building curriculum mapping around Moodle’s student “tracking” functionality will enable and encourage greater use of the student tracking functionality.
Demonstrate innovation and leadership
Within my own institution I have heard Deputy Vice-Chancellors ask “Where is all the innovative learning and teaching? We used to be at the fore-front.”
I have seen universities claim how innovative they are being around curriculum mapping because they are moving from using a Word document as the course curriculum map, to using an Excel spreadsheet. It’s not hard to be innovative in this area.
Proposition: The ideas described here are innovative and if successfully implemented can enable the institutions involved to demonstrate leadership within the sector.
Enable the CDDU to engage more effectively with academics
I work for the Curriculum Design and Development Unit (CDDU) at CQU. While I am not a curriculum designer, curriculum design is a key part of what the unit does. For me, the overall aim of curriculum design is to help academics improve the quality of their teaching and their students learning.
Current approaches to curriculum design have little impact. Arguably, this is because of a number of reasons, including – but not limited to:
- Mismatch between the instructional design process and how academics plan courses.
As outlined above, the majority of academics don’t use a rational planning model for course design. Instructional design is typically guided by a rational planning model. This mismatch is incredibly difficult for most academics to bridge, or even understand. The mismatch, in many cases, limits outcomes.
- Help arrives outside of the context of need.
An academic usually has a problem or question about teaching, while they are planning or teaching (which as argued above, is typically not separate tasks for academics). Instructional design assistance is typically not available within this context of need. Instead the academic must remember their need, at a separate time remember to ask for assistance, and then try to remember and explain the context of need to the instructional designer. Is it any wonder academics don’t draw on expert help?
- Instructional designer as the police or fire brigade.
The only time you need the police or fire brigade is when you are in trouble. The association people build up of these services is, trouble. Academics can form a similar impression of instructional designers, we only see them when I have a problem. It’s made worse in cases when management directs the academic to see the instructional designer.
Proposition: Properly implemented, this approach can make it easier for curriculum designers to embed assistance into the context within which teaching is taking place. If this works well, relationships will develop.
Specific project stages
While the specifics of the project are up in the air, not the least because of contextual uncertainties, it is possible to identify a collection of likely project stages:
- Explore what is possible with Moodle.
Where I am now. Playing with Moodle and its current outcomes functionality to see how it works and where the limits are. To find out what might need to be done, what are the limitations.
- Talk with external partners.
In mid-April I’m going to Canberra to talk with folk at University of Canberra and find out what there interest is around this topic.
- An initial local trial.
Half in this at the moment, but more progress once the “exploration” stage is complete. Work with a couple of programs to get some initial “mappings” done. This might involve a bit of rough coding to enable simple practices. Again, getting more of an idea of the project and what needs to happen. The purpose of this stage is to generate something concrete to show people what we’re talking about, rather than rely on abstract hand waving.
- Some “innovative” applications.
Arising out of the last stage, the aim will be to generate some new applications out of the initial trial to illustrate what might be possible. To really show that this isn’t just about curriculum mapping.
- Initial publications
Around about this stage we should be in a place for an initial publication or two, to get the word out.
- An ALTC grant application.
This is by July this year.
- Contributions to the Moodle community.
Eventually, when/if we produce something useful. It has to be given back to the broader community.
Lattuca, L. and J. Stark (2009). Shaping the college curriculum: Academic plans in context. San Francisco, John Wiley & Sons.
Stark, J., M. Lowther, et al. (1988). “Faculty reflect on course planning.” Research in Higher Education 29(3): 219-240.
Stark, J. and et al (1990). Planning introductory college courses: Influences on faculty. Ann Arbor, National Center for Research to Improve Postsecondary Teaching and Learning.
Stark, J. (2000). “Planning introductory college courses: Content, context and form.” Instructional Science 28(5): 413-438.