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Tools for designing a flexible curriculum

Christina Smart
Last modified 19 May, 2010
Published 18 May, 2010
A day after the Curriculum delivery programme meetings it was the turn of the Curriculum Design projects to gather at Maple House Birmingham to catch-up on progress and see some examples and tools being used to support curriculum redesign. Here are my notes from of the day.

The twelve design projects are now 18 months into their four year projects, each with the ambition of transforming current institutional practice around the way that courses are designed and developed [1]. Introducing the day, Sarah Knight, JISC Programme Manager, said that some useful tools and examples now are emerging which will help institutions to re-engineer the curriculum to be more flexible [2]. The aim of the day was to look at some examples both from within and beyond the programme.

Cluster Updates

The day began with a quick update from each of the project clusters by each of the Critical friends of the programme. Cluster A lead by Tony Toole includes Co-Educate from the University of Bolton [3], Enable from the University of Staffordshire [4], Personalised Curriculum Creation through Coaching at Leeds Metropolitan University [5] and Supporting Responsive Curricula at Manchester Metropolitan University [6]. These projects are clustered around issues of stakeholder and employer engagement. Tony said, the cluster is particularly interested in extending the XCRI (exchanging course related information) specification [7] (more on that later) and using modelling tools like Archimate to better understand their institutional validation processes.

Stephen Brown updated on the activities of Cluster B, The Predict project from City University [8], T-SPARC at Birmingham City University [9], UG-flex at the University of Greenwich [10], PALET at Cardiff University [11], and the Course Tools project at the University of Cambridge [12]. The common theme for these projects is flexible curriculum design and approval, and they are working towards a common process map.

Cluster C includes the Open University Learning Design Initiative [13], the Viewpoints project at University of Ulster [14] and the Principles in Patterns project from Strathclyde University [15]. Peter Bullen the Cluster’s critical friend said their focus was on enhancing teaching and learning and supporting educational thinking in the processes of course review and validation.

Managing Course Information

The rest of the day focussed around three themes that had emerged from project discussions, said Gill Ferrell from the programme support team. Namely, managing course information, learner centred timetabling and managing teaching workload.

A number of examples and tools were highlighted in the managing course information theme. In order to introduce some new models of curriculum delivery at the Open University Simon Cross and the project team have developed a series of course representation tools for curriculum teams. The course map tool provides mind map like representations of courses. The pedagogy profile tool presents a graphical representation of the different pedagogies being used in the course. The OU team have also developed a cost effectiveness tool for visualising where the course funding will be allocated. Used together these tools allow course development teams to contrast and compare different courses and to discuss different options in course design.

Next up Gordon Skelly described the Dynamic Learning Maps project from Newcastle University [16]. The tool was developed to address the question, “where is X taught in the University?” The project has developed a tool which aggregates course data from a range of systems such as the e-portfolio system and represents the course data as an interactive map. The tool allows users to drill down into individual modules even to the level of learning outcomes. The dynamic maps have proved very useful and it is now possible to search across courses to see where specific concepts are taught. However one issue that has emerged is that the more detail that a map includes, the more rapidly it is likely to change, so the harder it is to keep up to date.

The PiP project at Strathclyde is working towards a “unified but not homogenous system” for managing the course validation process, Jim Everett explained [15]. The aim is to replace the current paper-based system, (which varies from department to department) with a technology solution. The system they are designing will be based around users completing a number of validation forms online. These forms will step users through a number of structured questions with options designed to make people think about the course design decisions they are making. In the PALET project the team at Cardiff is aiming to develop mechanisms to facilitate the development of more collaborative provision. In doing so, Andy Lloyd said they were taking a risk-based approach. This approach surfaces a number of key questions such as, “who in the institution has the power to say “No” to a proposed course?” A number of risks require management including reputational risks for the institution when they choose which institutions to develop courses with.

Learner Centred Timetabling

Timetabling is often cited as a key barrier to developing greater flexibility in the curriculum. Ruth Drysdale, JISC programme manager, opened this theme with an overview of the JISC Timetabling study [17]. After consulting with 59 institutions the study found that developing the timetable is often that last step in a number of institutional processes. One useful output of the study is the high level process map of the timetabling space. Ruth added that since its publication a national ARC Timetabling Practitioner special interest group has been established for sharing good practice in timetabling across the UK.

Mike Joslin described the Footprint timetable project which introduced student centred timetabling in the Innovation North Faculty of Information and Technology at Leeds Metropolitan University [18]. Like other institutions the complex timetable at Leeds Met meant that neither students nor staff ever knew when and where their next class was without referring to the timetable. This is a particular problem when working on creative technology projects like video games, Mike said. The course team decided to scrap modules and go back to the timetabling drawing board. Their student centred solution has involved re-engineering the timetable around 7 week assignments during which students work from one base. The labs they used were also re-designed to give students access to all the design tools and technologies they needed while working on their assignments.

Managing Teaching Workload

Lack of staff time is perhaps one of the biggest barriers to curriculum innovation and the next part of the day focussed on tools for understanding managing workload. Speaking from Salford, via Elluminate, Grahame Cooper described the Managing Academic Workload project. Seeking to establish “equity in workloads”, the project established notional units of workload for teaching using a formula based on the number of credits for a module and the numbers of students taking that module. The project developed a spreadsheet based system which has allowed units to be compared across departments. The project is now funded by HEFCE through its Leadership, Governance and Management Fund and a group of 12 universities now uses this system [19].

After grabbing a quick cup of tea we were able to choose two out of three parallel sessions exploring either the workload theme (by Anne Clarke from the Cambridge e-Admin project) professional development (by James Howard from the University of Cumbria) and team delivery (by Mike Joslin).

The Cambridge e-Admin team [20] have developed a teaching allocation system similar to the Salford system, the Teaching Duties Database, which sparked an interesting discussion around innovation. Do these sorts of models actually stifle innovation? Do they encourage staff to put in the minimum effort to delivering their teaching load? It’s easy to see how on one hand these systems might be very useful for academic managers in balancing staff workload but on the other might also be threatening to teaching staff, so they need to be used sensitively.

The University of Cumbria has been working towards developing its teaching staff. Cumbria is undergoing rapid structural changes to address their current financial crisis. James Howard described how the university, formed three years ago now has a new strategic drive to create a mobile workforce trained in peripatetic practice. James said the project has established sets of professional competencies and has developed a system of cascading expertise between staff to establish a change in practice.

Extending XCRI

For the final session of the day teams split up to discuss areas of interest around curriculum management, I went into the extending XCRI session. A number of the design projects are interested in extending XCRI to the level of modules, including information such as learning outcomes. One of the ideas that emerged from the discussion was to use the QAA framework for programme specifications as a start to the extension. It was also agreed that mapping of those outcomes to competency frameworks would be very useful, and something employers would be very interested in.

Twitter feedback

Unfortunately the full agenda meant there was less time for discussion, but the twitter back channel was very busy through the day with thoughts and reflections. Below are a few of the twitter reflections others are available at:

stephenp: The "real" work of curriculum design - in the formal processes & documentation or the interpretation @ delivery?#jisccdd

FleurP: liking OU views to support #jisccdd would be useful to support change in culture for award design #jiscenable

gillferrell: #jisccdd Students can be used to test pedagogic design - do they really spend the expected time on each activity?

sheilmcn: Learning maps have had lots of "challenges" working with institutional data, not standard, variable - case for linked data? #jisccdd

stephenp: A key question - will improved documentation result in better curriculum as delivered by teachers and experienced by learners? #jisccdd

laizydaizy: Is the academic calendar a barrier to flexible curriculum design? #jisccdd.

sarahknight: The selection of the appropriate physical learning space is important consideration in developing learner centred timetable #jisccdd

sheilmcn: do systems that record teaching duties/hours stifle innovation in delivery? Heated debate here at #jisccdd

Final thoughts

Many of the tools and strategies presented are relatively simple but that’s the key. Because they are easy to use, users will be able to get to grips with them quickly. What the tools enable is a representation of institutional processes that are often opaque to those involved in only a small part of those processes. But perhaps even more important than the visual representations themselves are the discussions and conversations that those representations will stimulate between curriculum teams when designing new, more flexible courses.

The presentations from the day will soon be available at:

Other resources/feedback

From Fleur at Staffs


Blog on Managing Course information: Jim Everett

Actions from XCRI session by Jim Everett


[1] Institutional approaches to curriculum design programme

[2] Curriculum Design programme meeting: Brass Tacks - Key Challenges in delivering a Flexible Curriculum

[3] The Co-Educate project

[4] The Enable project

[5] Personalised Curriculum Creation through Coaching

[6] Supporting Responsive Curricula

[7] eXchanging Course Related Information

[8] The PREDICT project

[9] The T-SPARC project

[10] UG-flex project

[11] The PALET project

[12] The Course Tools project

[13] Open University Learning Design Initiative

[14] The Viewpoints project

[15] Principles in Patterns project

[16] Dynamic Learning Maps project

[17] JISC Timetabling Study

[18] The footprint timetable project

[19] Managing Academic Workloads project

[20] Cambridge Teaching Duties Database


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