In which course design is compared to sausages.

This is one of those posts that needed to be ‘sat on’ for a few months. It was written in February 2014 and now that we’ve finished designing the modules, it seems reasonable to post it now. We’re still not ‘done’ because some of the modules wont run until 16/17 academic year. Possibly this is a bit cynical but I think it is an accurate reflection of February 2014  – very much in the midst of it all.

We’re currently in the middle of a curriculum change, and are currently sorting out our third year modules. We’ve done 1st and 2nd year so 3rd year is the point where the changes come to a head and we have to tie up all the lose ends that have been generated throughout the revisions. It’s a major undertaking and so far only one module has retained its name and full identity.

But course design on this scale is a lot like making sausages: you want something satisfying and in keeping with your values at the end, but really as processes go, you don’t particularly want to see the gory details throughout. And you don’t want to think too much about the ingredients that might be incorporated…

Looking back from the ‘peak before the summit’ position (we’re not done yet, and I will not consider us done until all modules have run, been evaluated and changes made as appropriate), there are a few things I’d suggest anyone going into such a process get straight beforehand. These are mostly generic and by no means exclusive to what we’ve done.

1. Most likely, it will be revolution not evolution. To some extent, there is a degree of binary thinking in courses – high vs low course work; high vs low examination; practical exams vs lab report only. Switching between those 1 and 0 states allows for a feeling of newness and change while really just reverting back to something else. At worse, it’s just a turn of the wheel with neither option being superior in the long run. At best, it might be a spiral where circumstances allow you to improve on things.

2. A lot of people will think back to their undergraduate experiences for inspiration. I’m not going to say more on this except to say it surprised me to see the extent to which it happens.

3. There is no such thing as perfect. Give up that notion of the course where all problems are solved, everyone understands every aspect explicitly and things run smoother than ever. It isn’t going to happen. And it shouldn’t happen. Courses should not be static things, and while university systems and external pressure can sometimes add inertia in the face of necessary change, course development is a wave, not a particle.

4. Back to sausages. Wild range of opinions on ingredients. Just try not to end up with supermarket own brand budget range…

5. It is extremely tiring, even if people don’t acknowledge it (we know how the culture in academia runs). It requires confronting fairly deep held beliefs and that is neither convenient nor easy.  And the combination of the two will make you wonder why you started it in the first place.

6. Compromise is ugly but necessary. Conflicting views are appropriate and necessary, as are extreme views (not least because they allow the majority to occupy the middle ground in comfort).

Ultimately, redesigning a curriculum may be externally imposed (might as well work through any resentment of that early on, get it out of the system), or internally desirable. Or some mixture of both as these things tend to be. It’s definitely a  journey, but hopefully one that ends up in a good place.