MEd Academic Practice – Curriculum Design 1

Back from a month of Asia, back from Summer hiatus, back to academia in full force. Yesterday was the first day back in the office and I was there until 7.30pm. I fear this is setting the tone for the twelve months ahead considering the mountain ahead I have to climb – PhD completion, MEd completion, opening of ‘The Temporary: 02 – RareKind China’, my role with the CCVA and everything in between…and you always know there is a lot (of distraction and extra projects) in between.

Time for the Masters in Education (MEd) in Academic Practice to begin (or continue as I’m only a few modules from completion) with the module ‘Enhancing the Student Experience through Course Design and Delivery (ESEtCDD)’, session one on ‘Definitions and the Problem with Why…’. I’m completing this MEd course as the CCVA is launching a new course MA Contemporary Arts China starting in September 2016 – watch this space. The first course of its kind in the UK that I am fundamental in helping to develop and make happen…therefore, my research from the MEd will feed directly into this as I am specialising in internationalising the curriculum and the cultural assimilation of international students to arts education. The induction and assimilation of international students to any course is under-resourced and pretty much non-existent for many Higher Education Institutions. At a time when international partnership and entrepreneurship is a primary focus for the HEIs, it is time to make sure understanding and support is there from not only the university and teaching staff, but from their fellow students too. Positive experience, as always, is one of the most important things as part of a learning journey. Teaching speak jumping in already. I think I have multi-dialectic capabilities for all the subjects and domains I traverse and exchange between…which I love considering I’m wordgirl. Or world-girl and wonder-girl as I’ve been called lately for various reasons.

Run by Sonia Hendy-Isaac from Centre for Enhancement of Learning and Teaching (CELT) at BCU, session one on ‘Definitions and the Problem with Why…’ began with an icebreaker where she asked the group to introduce their name, faculty and position; a hope, fear and expectation of attending the course, and a description of the course/module design experience to date. Here are some of the responses…


  • Benefit from the perspectives of other people from different faculties as to how they go about designing their course
  • Confidence to use the knowledge from the course in real-time (such as, for me, for the planned MA Contemporary Arts China)
  • Understand all the concepts and ins and outs of curriculum design
  • Better Student Learning Experience
  • Integrate Professional, Statutory and Regulatory Body (PSRB)
  • To make sure we link what we do in the sessions to real work…link to practice
  • Accreditation (bodies)
  • To prepare for imaginative design and outside the box and walk away from the pro-forma of designing courses
  • Develop and increase knowledge base
  • To understand how accredited courses are designed
  • We all have a learning experience(s) that we can use


  • Time management…time, time, time as a reiterated fear
  • Overwhelmed, again a reiterated fear
  • Of having no idea, and overwhelmed with workload
  • Having to rewrite the whole curriculum…revise documents
  • What I learn as to whether it is applicable to my courses
  • Because I have no experience in this area, I will lag behind
  • Won’t know how to apply accreditation in practice
  • That the course won’t be useful


  • Curriculum design demystified
  • Come out with the developed skills that I need…with what I have control over, what I can develop more in the school itself
  • Better expectations of what the students are learning and to give the students a better experience of learning…study skills for students
  • To get a clearer and better understanding of curriculum design in Higher Education
  • To get a broader understanding of curriculum design at BCU
  • To be a better “Sith apprentice”
  • Transition from admin to academic, need this qualification…want a proper knowledge of what goes into curriculum design
  • Putting the classroom knowledge into practice
  • Find new perspectives to drive me forward through the changes ahead
  • That we will all find it challenging

“A blank page is a lovely place to start.” – Sonia Hendy-Isaac

People tend to think that curriculum is content. It’s not. If you are driven by content, you are thinking of student numbers not learning experience, falling into the trap of the wants of regulatory bodies. If you think about the learning experience…start with a blank page and the right things to do…it will be very different.

“Curriculum is not something that we do, it is something that we are. Without curriculum, we are a series of intelligent people in buildings.”

We were put into groups and asked to provide a Definition of curriculum:

  • We are the curriculum aren’t we?! A structure that allows all learners to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to exceed their potential
  • An innovative learning experience that is student-centred, stakeholders focussed, which leads to specific learning outcomes of employability and professional development
  • A road map that forms a learning journey of self discovery and application

The terms were questioned as to whether they were applicable in primary school, secondary school, Higher Education, Higher Education in Europe, HE in the US, HE in Australia. Curriculum is a broad term…there is the National Curriculum. Curriculum is different to content. The National Curriculum is content…if anything the closest word is syllabus. In the US, they do not declare their major until their second year, having general studies for two years until this stage…will this give students a better idea of what they are good at and to make a decision as to their future pathway? The Australian system is different again, in part reflecting the US system of more broad options and modulisation of major/minor. So the UK is a “special snowflake”…we are one of the few HE systems to expect our students to declare at 18  years old what their specialism should be.

Curriculum Design 2 Sonia Hendy-Isaac

Between us, we must construct a working definition from the three definitions stated where this will be put under review at the end of each teaching session. Curriculum as a structure and road map…delivering education, knowledge with a focus on stakeholder needs with student-centred, embracing employability and professional development…which words or parts of the sentences are more important than others?

  • Start with a philosophy
  • Map
  • Self-discovery
  • Innovative
  • Learner-centred (learning from the students, students learning from teachers, students learning from each other)
  • Accountable
  • Collaborative partnership(?)


  • Structure – to be seen not as restricted, but free flow. Things need structure for randomness to happen.

Who creates the curriculum?

The curriculum doesn’t exist on paper. You have to create a particular pathway…as you go through that path other routes might appear that you can follow. You can alter pathways. The curriculum is a living, breathing thing. It is going on now. The curriculum is not what is written on the module guide – it has to be done to show the direction of travel. The documentation does not create the curriculum. You cannot have a curriculum with the learning experience taking place. It is a hypothesis on paper…a kin to a script with actors. What we focus on when we “create” the curriculum, is a focus on writing the script…they have no idea how it is going to be delivered. It is not a living, breathing thing until it is engaged with…

How is the curriculum created?

Through life, through demand, through collaboration, through implementation and evaluation. How many validation processes have we been through? They are not designing the living, breathing curriculum, they are meeting the expectations of validation. Validation is about the legal partnership…have we used the right words and terminology? Have we met employability? We never interrogate how the curriculum is going to live and breath, we focus on how we are going to construct it. It is about challenging these preconceptions about curriculum design by stripping it back and building it back up. Sonia then cited Jack Mezirow’s theory of transformative learning.

Why does the curriculum exist?

It can be checked. Attached to metrics. Balanced. Would it make the learning experience any better? From structure to a process to a learning experience…if taught by two different lecturers with the same indicative plan, content, slides the outcome can be completely different. It is about delivery…we think the curriculum is going to make us safe. It doesn’t guarantee any better a student learning experience.

Who is the curriculum for?

The institution. The learner and the facilitator. It is a satisfying comfort blanket. We need to challenge the preconception of working towards the paperwork. Designing the curriculum is not about designing the paperwork. If you think this module will give you the ability to navigate the paperwork, you’re half right. If we push toward quality assurance rather than quality enhancement then everything become remedial…stop focussing on the paperwork and more on the learning experience. Change your attitude to building a learning experience rather than articulating things in the boxes to reach the benchmarks.

Power and the Players

From regulatory to internal to external. In groups, we were asked to rate each from 1 – no power to 10 – (em)powered and whether we agree with these scores…

Curriculum Design 3 Power and the Players

Regulatory – very course specific. Dependent on the nature of the course as to who has the power.

  • QAA – Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA)​​ – even the HEA and Teaching Excellence Framework, the QAA may not exist, we don’t know. The QAA quality code is still the go to expectation
  • HEFCE – Higher Education Funding Council for England – are no longer the golden funding body that they once were but we are still accountable to them
  • PSRBs – Professional, Statutory and Regulatory Body (PSRB) – professional bodies, although we think they are highly empowered in the design process, the semantics they use/way in which they write is perfectly valid. Challenge and question everything, apply your academic rigour to the documentation that says it has to be done this way. Can it be more student or learner centred? Often out of date for specific disciplines
  • KIS – Key Information Set
  • Academic Registry and Validation – working in a post-1992 university, we as a type have anxieties about meeting the regulatory requirements
  • University Policies and Strategies – We get hung up on policies and procedures. The university says you can’t – hang on a minute, you are the university! We should also challenge and interrogate university policies and strategies

Internal  – in order on the list but needs to be much more collaborative. All narratives from these conversations are important to capture. When we interrogate for validation, interrogate the design process, we don’t look at how the script was constructed. We don’t know why things happened. If we spent more time capturing the narrative, we would understand more of the foundation.

  • You!
  • Programme team
  • Department/School
  • Central Services (CELT/RIE/Careers/Student Services/CAS/Library etc)
  • Students – need to be higher on the list


  • External examiners – external examiners set quite high in terms of power, though they shouldn’t be
  • Employers – variable. It could be anywhere between one and ten. Do you consider HE to be about the generation of employable individuals? Not necessarily…it should be about making them into creative thinkers as well as employable, where the former should bring the latter. We have to cater for different aspirations and outcomes. We have to respond to the narrative of the government. HE is about “higher thinking” . We don’t challenge employers as to what they actually mean. What does a graduate position actually mean? Whilst we need to be conscious of employability, we need to challenge it to be adaptive, responsive, creative, innovative…someone needs to take a concept, make it abstract and apply it. The employer narrative is often a need for our employee to be A-B-C-D-E but we don’t question the A-B-C-D-E.
  • External practitioners – high in the power chain
  • Other academics – not just in a broad sense, people in the panel much like an external examiner. They can put conditions imposed on the curriculum. So this could be a 10. If you look at the research of the others outside the panel that would be a 1. We often think we are creating something new or fresh in the field. Nothing new under the sun in terms of curriculum design.
  • Alumni – Your most valuable students in the process of building a curriculum is your alumni…two years since graduation

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” – Albert Einstein

All curriculum should be about change. It should not be iterative. 

The problem is WHY…

  • Curriculum is subjective
  • Curriculum is specific
  • Curriculum is expected
  • Curriculum is regulated
  • Curriculum is the product

“Faculty do not need a step-by-step rational process for developing curriculum; they need to experience a transformation of their view of what the curriculum process can be.’ (Chapman 2012: 9)

Explore your motivations for engaging with curriculum design…construct a mission statement with regards to curriculum design and delivery (referencing back to the initial exercise):

Group statement: “Curriculum is a transformative learning journey developed through experiences of self discovery, the application of knowledge and skills mapped out with collaborative consultation with stakeholders to realise potential.”

Individual statement: “Curriculum is a dynamic, tailor-made, global adventure facilitated through international collaborative partnerships and practice-led learning, dedicated to cultural assimilation in arts education, towards independent thinking, confidence in the journey ahead and a conversation that keeps on unfolding.”

Does a transformative learning journey only take place during your programme? 

Life is constant learning journey. What about interactions in the institution? Is that not part of the curriculum? Everything you engage with as a learner/student/participant is part of this learning journey. How much gets captured in our paperwork? It doesn’t. If you believe in the group statement of what the curriculum is…curriculum design in itself is not just about what we capture in the paperwork. When you think about articulating the student journey…when you talk about constructing narrative for your potential students to embark on this journey, if you believe in it being a transformative journey, you need it to be more than the paperwork. Everything becomes part of that transformative learning journey. You need to take that into account.

‘All curricula are equal, but some are more equal than others…’ onto the Bologna Process.

‘The Bologna Process is named after the Bologna Declaration, which was signed in the Italian city of Bologna on 19 June 1999 by ministers in charge of higher education from 29 European countries. Today, the Process unites 47 countries – all party to the European Cultural Convention and committed to the goals of the European Higher Education Area. An important characteristic of the Bologna Process – and key to its success – is that it also involves European Commission, Council of Europe and UNESCO-CEPES, as well as representatives of higher education institutions, students, staff, employers and quality assurance agencies (see participating organisations). How does it work?

The overarching aim of the Bologna Process is to create a European Higher Education Area (EHEA) based on international cooperation and academic exchange that is attractive to European students and staff as well as to students and staff from other parts of the world. The envisaged European Higher Education Area will:

  • facilitate mobility of students, graduates and higher education staff;
  • prepare students for their future careers and for life as active citizens in democratic societies, and support their personal development;
  • offer broad access to high-quality higher education, based on democratic principles and academic freedom.

Sonia went on to cite ‘Construction of relevant curricula’ by Robert Wagenaar (2013) for student-centred learning…

Curriculum Design 1 Construction of relevant Curricula Robert Wagenaar 2013

Great expectations?

How do you think students view…

  • the course?
  • the curriculum? – people think the course and curriculum are the same thing and synonymous. Students don’t necessarily perceive them as being different. They see their experience at university, not necessarily with the curriculum
  • the delivery? – very much about whether they like the lecturer

What do you think are their expectations of us in relation to these? – Student expectations are high. The means by which we have expectations of them, their responsibilities in THEIR learning journey. This consumer mentality (that is short-lived) is designed to force us as academics and institutions to be customer focussed. It is how to get them to realise they are earning their degree through their learning process. We’d be better invested in finding new ways to communicate with students. We also need to consider the expectations we set of our students and they expect of us and how we communicate this.

What are their means of communicating their experience? – Student reps are based on his or hers perception of what the course should be…how open they are to the conversations with their students. Student reps are the most engaged with their course. Student reps are not the people who are disenchanted…not to say they are not valuable. We need different mechanisms to engage them in the design experience.

How do we incorporate this into the design process? Explore this in relation to the university, the HE sector and employers.

One of the learning outcomes of the curriculum is about marketing the course…how we communicate our programme design and programme delivery methods. It comes down to Philosophy – What is your course philosophy? Does it focus on…

  • Content – largely arbitrary. Why does the programme exist?
  • Learning and Teaching
  • Student Experience
  • PSRB/Accreditation
  • Market factors (will come into student experience)

Philosophy 101 – why is the programme there? Why does it exist? Be honest about this in the articulation. If there isn’t a reason for the programme to exist…there is no glue to hold it all together. If written properly is can give the USP’s for the marketing and promotion. Just because someone says there is a market for it doesn’t mean we can deliver on it. We have to apply this intelligence to everything else…why? Philosophy is the building block of curriculum…they build their content, i.e. the modules, then write a philosophy around the modules rather than asking why? Why do we want to teach this course? Why are we interested in this subject? What can we offer that is different to other universities? There is an ownership of the programme philosophy…they might not disagree with what has been written. Modular construction in line with the modular level of the course.

The curriculum design “problem”

  • Not all about the paperwork
  • An absence of approval events
  • An iterative, dialogue-rich approach to events
  • Robust mechanisms to support and evidence stakeholder engagement
  • Greater standardisation of design workflow
  • Automatic generation of much of the required documentation
  • Robust version control of documentation
  • Additional support for staff engaged in programme design

Stakeholder engagement ladder

In the Stakeholder Engagement ladder:

…notify→inform→consult→involve→collaborate→empower…it is keeping track of where they are in the design process where most conversations happen at the ‘Consult’ and ‘Involve’ stages. It is also where you want the Stkaeholders to be…important for them to be as part of the ‘Collaborate’ and ‘Empower’ stages. At this stage, you are in danger of falling into the “confirmation trap”….it has to be a dialogic process. Sonia cited the relevance of a TED talk by Linda Hill on ‘How to Manage Collective Creativity’…I’ll write about this and my initial reflections on session one in my next blog post.

It has to be an honest exchange using a holistic-distributed model…distributed over time as shown in the image below. It is about the philosophical engagement with the design process…

Holistic curriculum design

Holistic Curriculum Design

  • Technology supports the discussion through a forum principle – focus on conversations not the vehicle that helps to have conversations
  • Transparent development even a the later stages of design and approval process
  • Conversations‘ themselves are iterative
  • The discussions can be supported through media and/or other ‘evidence‘ – evidence the journey, constructing a rationale
  • Higher levels of ‘ownership
  • Avoids the ‘confirmation’ trap – conversations inform the decision-making not the other way round


 Sonia concluded the session by noting the importance of Appreciative Inquiry and having an Appreciative Learning Approach throughout the curriculum design process and our research. I feel this cycle emanating from a positive core will go on to develop and define a lot of my teaching practice…and into other realms. It is how to keep this at the heart of my, and others, learning journeys…time to reflect on today’s session.



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