5.0 Collaborative Curriculum Change

Dr. Stephen Powell PhD: Innovating the development of Work Focussed Learning in higher education

Section 5 header

5.1 Section Summary

This section presents my analysis of the challenges raised by radical curriculum innovation in higher education, informed by my experience of implementing the IDIBL Framework (described and analysed in Section 4) through the work of the Coeducate project.  The project was developed to enhance the universities capability to develop new curriculum where, “the starting point for curriculum development and design is the needs of the learner and their organisation, negotiated and delivered in partnership with full recognition of in-work and experiential learning.” [P28 p1].  This was in response to the analysis by senior managers that too much of the curriculum on offer for work-based learners was developed around the interests of the university and academics rather than the needs of the learners [P30 p18].  For the purpose of this claim, my role in this project was as an action researcher seeking to collaborate in the take-up and development of courses using the IDIBL Framework.

In constructing this section of my claim, I used my first hand experience to identify and assess the issues and barriers experienced implementing the IDIBL Framework. Table 8 highlights the significant aspects of my practice and links this to my portfolio of evidence.

Practice Significance Portfolio evidence
Collaborating on the validation of courses using the IDIBL Framework in Regeneration and Sustainable Communities First hand experience of the issues implementing the IDIBL Framework [P19; P24 p4; P28 p3; P33 p265; P34 p4]
Leading a Masters level course using the IDIBL Framework First hand experience of issues delivering the model of Work Focussed Learning in a different context [P28 p3P29; P33 p262]
Undertaking empirical research with university staff who adopted the IDIBL Framework Theoretical explanation of institutional barriers to innovative curriculum design [P33 p264-267]
Theorising the University of Bolton employer directed provision using the Viable Systems Model Theoretical perspective as to the issues with current curriculum development approaches. [P27; P32]

Table 8.  Significant Aspects of Practice 3

In this section I will introduce the context in which curriculum development activities take place at the university.  I will then briefly discuss cultures and curriculum change in higher education followed by the methodology I used for the analysis of the implementation of the IDIBL Framework.  Findings are then presented and I then go on to apply a curriculum change theory to the experience of implementing the IDIBL Framework.  I propose institutional strategic choices for curriculum development.  In conclusion, I identify my contribution to knowledge and argue that institutions need to make significant strategic choices that may be beyond existing capabilities if they are to implement radical curriculum change.

5.2 Introduction

The Coeducate project was funded as a part of the JISC funded Curriculum Design Programme, and ran between August 2007 and July 2012, with the aim of supporting Higher Education Institutions (HEI) to transform their approaches to curriculum design through the innovative use of technologies.

Getting widespread take-up of the IDIBL Framework in the university was always going to be challenging.  The Coeducate project was devised as an institutional vehicle to take actions to tackle the problems that were preventing radical curriculum innovation.  To understand the problems, as a part of my work-practice, I interviewed key informants and analysed the data using a grounded theory approach to discover issues arising and concerns expressed by my collaborators in curriculum change.  The outcomes of their experience can be characterised as a set of issues and concerns that colleagues face when they are trying to use the IDIBL Framework to develop courses.  The motivation in this section is, therefore, to uncover some possible underlying causes that might account for the experiences of colleagues and to propose changes that would make radical curriculum innovation more possible.

As stated earlier, the IDIBL Framework was developed to operate within the university’s systems rather than work independently, in order to encourage systemic change across academic and service departments.  As such, the project invited participants from all departments of the university to implement courses of their own using the framework.

Colleagues who contributed to this evaluation, used the IDIBL Framework in several ways:

  1. establish and recruit to a postgraduate Masters in Learning with Technology;
  2. establish and recruit to an undergraduate course in Regeneration and Sustainable Development;
  3. validate a Foundation Degree in Management and Administration; and
  4. aid the development and validation of other courses that drew inspiration from the IDIBL Framework.

5.3 Curriculum Development Activities Context

As a part of the Coeducate project I undertook an extensive ‘baseline’ activity to investigate through interviews, focus groups and analysis of university documentation the views and experience of top managers, senior managers and teaching staff in relation to curriculum development activities for an internal report [P30].

The following summary of findings is presented as background information about the context in which I sought to support the take-up and development of the IDIBL Framework:

  1. the university strategic plan was generally well understood across the university, but that there was a significant discrepancy between the senior management’s sense of urgency and university staff attitudes with respect to the need to develop new curricula that directly addressed the workplace;
  2. most courses were heavily reliant on a content delivery model and associated teaching practices were designed to support this, with strong sense of ownership of the subject curriculum by the teaching staff [P31];
  3. quality assurance processes and systems were oriented towards supporting a stable content-oriented curriculum model;
  4. cross-departmental development was inhibited by staff’s anticipation of difficulty in delivery arising from the operation of costs centres and rivalry between schools over control of boundary subject areas;
  5. the challenge in developing a credible business case for new courses was significant, and staff interviewed believed this to be made even more difficult because of the lack of support and market intelligence provided from the centre;
  6. assessment practice was perceived as needing to change to increase formative and reduce the overall amount of summative assessment and to use different approaches to evaluating what students knew and could do without the use of examinations; and
  7. many staff had been at the university for a significant period of time and the job they were now being asked to do was significantly different to that when first employed, and for many this doesn’t align with their capabilities and predispositions [P30 p28-31].

In summary, there were some valuable qualities identified in the university that meant it was a receptive place for new ideas and approaches to courses and their design.  However, any proposal that contained radically new ways of delivering higher education that were unfamiliar to the majority of university staff would be challenging to operate and this proved to be the case for the IDIBL Framework. The findings of this study triangulate well with the findings based on the interviews of colleagues who used the IDIBL Framework and are discussed later.

5.4 Cultures and Change in Higher Education

Reviewing the IDIBL project plan, and using it to reflect back on our intentions at the start of the project, two aims can be identified, that of the individual lecturer seeking to develop courses, and that of the institution pursuing its strategic objectives [P18 p4-6].

If the aforementioned aims were to be successful, an organisational response was required.  In organisational change, there are both structural and cultural issues to consider and in terms of the latter there is quite an extensive set of specific literature with relation to Higher Education (Blackmore and Kandiko 2012, 112-114), and much of this focuses on the historically high degree of autonomy of academics being eroded by increased levels of management that I discussed in section 3.1.1 of my thesis.

McNay’s (1995, 105-106) four cultural types is a widely recognised model based on the extent to which policy definition and its control and implementation in an institution are tight or loose.  The simplicity of this approach is attractive, offering four categories of university: collegial; enterprise; corporate; and bureaucratic (the labels are eloquent), albeit recognising that a given university may have features of one or all of these.  However, my experience leads me to favour an analysis that adapts to the complexity that we find in HEI’s.  The multiple cultural configuration approach put forward by Alveson and used by Trowler (2008, p12), explains organisations as places with many different cultures co-existing in a dynamic state of flux.  If a clear and strong culture could be identified throughout an organisation, then a single approach might prove successful.  However, if many different cultural sub-sets can be identified in an organisation, then each one of those may require a bespoke approach for an institution wide change to be effected.

In a sense, the cultural and structural issues are a backdrop as any real difference must come about by changes in the practices of teachers and learners which pose a significant set of issues.  There are an extensive set of rules, regulations, processes, practices, technical systems and organisational filters that make up the workings of a university that can have a significant impact on change and I will address this directly in the conclusion to my thesis.

For now, the concept of ‘Teaching and Learning Regime’ discussed below offers a way of operationalising a key layer in the cultural analysis outlined above.

5.4.1 The Teaching and Learning Regime

Trowler, Fanghanel and Wareham (2005, 428-441) use three levels of analysis when considering the enhancement of teaching and learning in HEI’s which describe viewpoints:

  1. ‘micro’, concerned with the individual lecturer and largely dominated with the idea of the reflective practitioner and the professional development activities to support that;
  2. ‘meso’, concerned with the subject department its ‘teaching and learning regime’; and
  3. ‘macro’ concerned with the institution and its regulatory control of processes and systems driven by agencies and initiatives external to the institution.

Thinking at these three levels has proved useful as an analytical tool for better understanding the implementation of the IDIBL Framework and what might be required to take action to support a change initiative by those who identified with a particular viewpoint.

In Section 3, the IDIBL Framework, it could be argued that it was primarily an intervention at the macro level seeking to impact on the university validation process, but also to appeal to the individual lecturer as a reflective and critical practitioner, but the project did not target Trowler’s meso level, which he considers so significant:

Social processes at the departmental or sub-departmental, workgroup, level are particularly significant because it is here that students and lecturers engage together in teaching and learning practices (2008).

In the particular context of teaching, learning, and assessment, in higher education, the notion of teaching and learning regimes (TLRs) as, “workgroups which engage together on common projects over an extended period of time to develop a set of contextually specific characteristics” (Trowler 2008, 51), is developed to help understand how enhancements might be made more likely to succeed.

For Trowler, the identification of a TLR is a subjective act with the intention of making a useful boundary distinction around a particular workgroup for the purpose of enhancing teaching learning and assessment, recognising that in doing so there are other ‘regimes’ that may be equally important and that the focus at any particular level of analysis necessarily omits important mechanisms that come into focus at different levels of analysis.  The term TLR is used to encompass a broad set of ideas including the underlying rules and regulations that are in operation as well as the values, beliefs and practices of a workgroup with its inherent power relationships and struggles for authority.  It also includes developing consensus around issues and ideas, all of these within the specific institutional context within which a workgroup operates: institutional priorities and initiatives; student characteristics; and institutional mission.  As such, the TLR boundary can be thought of as fluid and unstable.

Trowler contrasts the TLR with Wenger’s (1999, 149) Community of Practice (CoP), with its emphasis on participation and the development of individual and community identity with shared meanings and reification of complex ideas around domains of knowledge into single words or phrases that are shared by the community, and the development of shared practices that are central planks of CoP theory.  The TLR is a useful analytical tool, whilst the CoP is something that is occurring in a lived experience and in that sense it is ‘real’.

In unpacking the idea of TLR, nine cultural dimensions, which have a significant impact on teaching, learning, and assessment, are identified (Trowler, Fanghanel and Wareham 2005, 436-438), that are summarised by Trowler (2008, 55) as eight dimensions:

  1. sets of practices that are habitual and taken for granted;
  2. sets of tacit assumptions about what constitutes ‘normal’ behaviour
  3. implicit theories about students, teaching, and learning
  4. ways of expressing oneself and interpreting the words of others;
  5. conventions about appropriate and inappropriate practices in teaching and learning contexts;
  6. the flow of power relationships;
  7. the creation of self in relation to others; and
  8. attributions of meaning and affect to ideas, practices and institutions.

Placing the concepts, values and attitudes and processes in the eight dimensions above into four categories, delivery, pedagogical philosophy, motivations, and relationships, Table 9 identifies, analyses and explains challenges met in the implementation of IDIBL Framework.

  IDIBL Framework challenges (section 4 and 5 of thesis) Dimensions
  1. no lectures
  2. no prescribed content
  3. no examination
  4. no face-to-face engagement
1. sets of practices that are habitual and taken for granted 2. sets of tacit assumptions about what constitutes ‘normal’ behaviour 5. conventions about appropriate and inappropriate practices in teaching and learning contexts
Pedagogical Philosophy
  1. increased responsibility by student for learning
  2. patchwork media to encourage creativity and match workplace
  3. content derived from work context rather than university
  4. implicit theories about students, teaching, and learning
  1. inclusive and accessible academic literacy
  2. values associated with ‘learners for whom university do not fit’
  3. desire for learning to lead to innovation and improvement in the workplace
4. ways of expressing oneself and interpreting the words of others. Attributions of meaning and affect to ideas, practices and institutions
  1. team teaching
  2. online teaching
  3. recognition of students as workplace experts
  4. student as researcher
  5. teacher as facilitator
6. the flow of power relationships7. the creation of self in relation to others

Table 9.  Analyses of the Implementation of IDIBL Framework using Trowler

It follows from the above analysis, that for change or enhancement activities to be successful it is necessary to consider the nature of the initiative in relation to a particular TLR described by the eight characteristics and consider ways to tackle such challenges.  Other key questions identified by Trowler include what is the change theory that underpins an initiative, how well is it resourced and to what extent the group history and experience impacts on enthusiasm and willingness for change (Trowler 2008, 135-7).

A significant point that emerges from Trowler’s analysis, is that there is a very strong normalising effect of TLR on individuals: through power relationships; reification of words and actions with tacit meanings and assumptions; entrenched practices and associated rules; development of group and concomitant individual identities; and the development and application of implicit theories.  It is perhaps unrealistic to expect an individual to make significant changes from within a TLR without an intervention to create a fertile environment for innovation amongst the stakeholders in the TLR.

Trowler’s approach sees the TLR as being a construct for analytical purposes.  It is a practical approach and as such it is useful when analysing and focussing change at this particular level or system.  It is of value to me in seeking to understand the experience of implementing the IDIBL Framework.

Although finding the notion of TLR informative, I would argue that the CoP as a unit of analysis is also valuable and that in some respects, the TLR is an aggregation of communities of CoP where boundaries intersect over domain and practice.  This is the mental model that I held when thinking about how to develop a ‘movement’ within Bolton to take up institutional wide curriculum change activities.

In my original theory of change, too much emphasis was placed upon the agency of the individual to bring about change and not enough consideration given to the characteristics identified by Trowler and recognition that different sub-groups within the university have distinct and particular cultural characteristics.  This is an important understanding to have when seeking to bring about improvements.  In radical curriculum innovations, such as IDIBL, more radical approaches may be needed and these are discussed in my conclusions using the theory of disruptive innovation.

5.4.1 A Fourth Level of Analysis

In considering the work-focussed curriculum discussed in Section 4, it is possible to argue that an extension of the three levels of analysis with an additional and significant change processes for enhancement of teaching and learning, that of the ‘learner’ in negotiation with the academic emerges as a key mechanism.  At this level, the curriculum is formed through the negotiation of learning activities in each module and the experience of the learner is formed through the interactions in the online community of inquiry and the implementation of their action research in their work context.  As in the other three levels identified by Trowler, there is much overlap but this does seem to be a different mechanism by which a curriculum is formulated and change brought about.

It is these four levels: learner, lecturer, subject group and institution that I use as the theoretical framework for evaluating the IDIBL Framework change initiative in section 5.7.

5.5 Methodology for Analysis of the Implementation of the IDIBL Framework

Within the broader action research strategy, I identified the need to better understand the processes at work in the university that were impacting on colleagues experience of implementing the IDIBL Framework.  A grounded theory approach offered a practical way forward to finding out about this, based on collecting data from eight in-depth interviews with colleagues who were selected for their participation in the project. This included colleagues who used the IDIBL Framework to develop courses and others who were responsible for innovation and quality assurance.  In all cases interviews were recorded and transcribed and then coded to identify key issues relating to two issues: the qualities of the IDIBL Framework itself, and the nature of the intervention made in the university. The former provided data for evaluating the IDIBL Framework in Section 4 of this submission the latter provided the principal basis for this section.

The theoretical framework described in the next section relies on an inductive process of theory building (Charmaz 2005, 507), but as well as the constructivist stance taken the use of ideas proposed by Trowler (2008), and were identified after the research and analysis was undertaken.

5.6 Findings and Analysis – Staff Interviews Issues Identified

From the eight members of staff interviewed ten categories emerged from the grounded analysis that were relevant to the implementation of the IDIBL Framework.  Where a category had more than three quotes, it was considered significant and in discussion with colleagues meanings of these categories were developed: structure and organisation; marketing and communication; and characteristics of staff.  These significant categories were grouped into three sections and are summarised in Table 10 and the relationship to the students, micro, meso, and macro is indicated.  The evaluation indicates how staff received the IDIBL Framework and how they perceived its relative strengths, deficiencies, and value to them as curriculum developers.  This analysis is reported in detail in relation to actual responses.

Category Count MeaningStructure & Organisation relevant to subject teaching group (meso), institution (macro)
Adaptation 22 Creation of new curriculum by adapting the IDIBL Framework
Change-strategy 17 Ideas, decisions, actions and resources planned together to make an intentional change in the university’s approach to teaching & learning and curriculum development
Organisation 25 The structures, decision making, work-flows, processes, quality assurance required to operate courses
Quality-assurance 14 The departments, systems and leadership in place in the university to assure the quality of courses
Workload 5 The measurement of teaching effort within the context of 550 hours contractual maximum
Marketing & Communicationrelevant to subject teaching group (meso), and institution (macro)
Comprehension 14 The degree to which lecturers demonstrated understanding of the strategic and tactical design of the IDIBL Framework and its implications for teaching and learning
Marketing 28 The strategic and tactical effort to understand who might be the universities customers, the approach to them, some categorisation of them, the development of resources and ‘channels’ to reach them, the establishment of pricing regimes and ‘product’ alternatives, the development of material to characterise the ‘products’ on offer, the promotion of the university as a whole as an authoritative & high quality, yet supportive & flexible source of education
    Characteristics of staffrelevant to lecturers (micro)
Novelty 5 Inspirational effect of something new and different in stimulating change
Personality 17 The characteristics of staff, in particular the experiential, affective and values, that may incline or disincline them towards IDIBL Framework approaches
Staff-development 8 Planned activities to raise the capability of staff to do new things in curriculum development and teaching activities and the overall capacity across the institution

Table 10.  Summary of Categories of Response

5.6.1 Structure and Organisation

Respondents reported adaptation of the IDIBL Framework by curriculum developers to meet student needs for new, specific professional sectors – picking some of it’s modules, adding content modules, complementing it’s modules, extending its scope, changing its terminology to fit employers/students understanding in specific professional contexts or simply using it as a starting point. In this sense the original intent of the IDIBL Framework was not realised i.e. to permit lecturers from different subject groups to join together on a thematic basis combining diverse professional interests rather than within the confines of a professional sector:

“I used it as a starting point and modified it from there.” (course developer)

“People always wanted to be inspired by it and write their own thing.” (course developer)

The institutional organisational and academic infrastructure was seen as a focus for change strategies to increase the universities responsiveness to new curriculum developments and embed the IDIBL Framework in its quality assurance regulations.

Another approach identified was to focus on changing the mindset of staff. It was proposed to sell ideas through the pragmatic step of alignment with staff’s current aspirations as opposed to creating a movement of ‘troops’ on the ground prepared for a radical future:

The promoting of innovations that clash head on with a university’s established ways of working and the views of a significant majority of staff, content with a status quo, was considered to be too large a barrier for successful adoption for institutional innovators:

“I would want to start first of all by making sure that we had the right infrastructure and systems in place to support it” (course developer)

“It is to do with the fact that we aren’t strategic in the way that we went out and   told people about this.  We didn’t look to find the grain in the institution before we decided what we wanted to do with it.  We didn’t really get a feel for where people where.” (course developer)

The IDIBL Framework was designed for learners’ interdisciplinary work-roles and by its very nature staff were pushed into developing links across university academic departments.  In doing this they found themselves frequently asking questions of the institutionsorganisation and academic infrastructure as they came into conflict with them when trying to develop new programmes with different approaches:

“I think its actually getting engaged with the (IDIBL Framework) that in a way forces those changes because you can’t engage with the (IDIBL Framework) without asking questions.” (course developer)

“Well yes, maybe from an organisational perspective, I’ve probably seen the organisational barriers as a huge wall to climb over, before we even get to the student.” (course developer)

Flexibility makes some people nervous from a quality assurance perspective.  In some cases the model helped smooth validation processes, but in others, the new approaches it contained that were different to traditional expectations leading to a conservative set of decisions around what is a heavy set of validation requirements:

“People feel the need to ensure that quality is done in a very particular way and can be checked.  Something that is flexible makes people nervous on that score and it will be an issue.” (course developer)

“Proved valuable in getting validation through very quickly, so that’s a very practical thing.” (course developer)

Making sense of practice within the IDIBL Framework approach in comparison with the existing workload allocation and productivity arrangements within schools was found difficult, as the work-role and practice of a facilitator is different from the traditional lecturer.  Some middle managers found this challenging as they value a simplistic measure of teaching effort:

“That has also been raised as an issue by colleagues that I’ve tried explaining to, that not only do they have to get their heads around how to work with the (IDIBL Framework) but what does that then mean in terms of their commitments to facilitating a module.” (course developer)

5.6.2 Marketing and Communications

The novelty of the IDIBL Framework presents a comprehension challenge when explaining it to lecturers, employers and potential students.  The breadth of new teaching, learning and assessment ideas presented sometimes was found to elicit a negative response to adoption of the IDIBL Framework.  However, taking a high level view some saw the model as a simplification of the curriculum and were attracted to it for that reason.

“I think although that’s its main advantage for curriculum development, that is one of the main disadvantages as well because it is very, very difficult to get that across to other people who want something that’s prescribed, its a little bit too abstract for a lot of people and it takes a lot of effort to actually break it down and explain it to people.“ (course developer)

“understanding of the strategic and tactical design of the IDIBL Framework and its implications for teaching and learning.” (course developer)

Many respondents agreed that there was a market which appealed to new groups of students, new students’ purposes and employers’ needs. Employers were seen as liking the IDIBL Framework, but others characterised employers as uncomprehending and tradition bound. Some respondents adapted the language of the IDIBL Framework to make it more comprehensible in marketing terms

“We had enquiries from outside, people on the council wanting to do it.  Employers I liaised with loved the course, they really liked it.” (course developer)

“But once again because, and this is more related to the industry, the industry couldn’t understand it, even though it was a way to make it easier to do what the industry wanted to do because they had all been educated in a hugely hierarchical scenario they couldn’t understand it.” (course developer)

The university market intelligence effort came in for considerable criticism ranging from the scope & comprehensiveness of its endeavour to research, strategy, campaigning:

“We need something in place to help us do the market research to identify is there actually a market.” (course developer)

“And not only do we need a department of some sort, we also need a marketing strategy that allows everything to be linked together in some way so that’s another kind of way in which people are now thinking ‘Oh right’.” (course developer)

5.6.3 Characteristics of Staff

The novelty of the IDIBL Framework had an inspirational effect on some staff who were excited by innovation or simply by something different:

“I think IDIBL won over people who have had similar ideas themselves.  Developer A was one of those people Developer B was another.” (course developer)

“I’ve always tried exploring things and pushing boundaries, so maybe the personality’s part of it as well. I want to explore things, I don’t want to accept that you can’t do something.” (course developer)

The personality of some respondents was sympathetic and aligned to both the IDIBL Framework and the project’s innovation, in some cases these were people who actively sought the challenge of change; in others, people who had learning-experiences which matched aspects of the approach.

“I’ve always tried exploring things and pushing boundaries, so maybe the personality’s part of it as well. I want to explore things, I don’t want to accept that you can’t do something.” (course developer)

The IDIBL Framework provided a guide for understanding new ways of teaching and learning and a trigger to developing skills through staff development that respondents self-identified from the IDIBL Framework as mentoring, coaching and on-line presentation.

The IDIBL Framework encouraged respondents to question their teaching, students’ learning, assessment and organisation in the university and the degree to which the IDIBL Framework or innovation process challenged staff to question their assumptions, experience and practice.

“The (IDIBL Framework), yes it was a way of trying to leverage new types of teaching and learning practice amongst the staff and there is no question that is the case.” (course developer)

“What the (IDIBL Framework) actually gives you as a curriculum developer is more or less guidelines for you to find your way in working with people who want to negotiate their learning.” (course developer)

In the following section I take the analysis above and locate it in the cultures and change theory discussed in Section 5.4

5.7 Applying a Curriculum Change Theory to the IDIBL Framework

The following discussion seeks to locate the experience of staff and students using the IDIBL Framework in relation to the four levels explained in section 5.4.1 to 5.4.2, as a development of Trowler’s analysis of lecturer, subject group, and institution with my addition of learner.

5.7.1. The Learner Seeking a Higher Education That Fits

How learners respond to innovative new courses is inherently difficult to predict as prospective learners may have no experience of the new approach on which to base their opinions.  However, the concerns and influences of students studying on a pathway from which the IDIBL Framework was developed is reported and summarised [P21 p74-80].  The extent to which these concerns of students can be accommodated will in part be determined by the curriculum design and should, therefore, be influential in the design of the curriculum.  For work-focussed learners, the emphasis is on the motivational affordance of self-direction [P21, p65; P22 p5] – allowing the learning activities and assessment products to focus on the work they are doing in alignment with the Knowles and Shepherd (1980) andragogical model of learning for adults.

Increasingly learners have a direct influence over curriculum development as they become better informed about courses and the student experience through initiatives like the National Student Survey, participation on course committees, and, arguably, even more so, as they pay the substantial proportion of their courses costs (DBIS 2011, 28-32).  In the Ultraversity project and IDIBL Framework, the vast majority of the curriculum is deliberately left to be negotiated in order that learners can identify the focus of their action for learning, as is common on PhD courses.

5.7.2 Lecturer Acting as Curriculum Innovator

The experience of the IDIBL project is that it is often left to a lecturer to propose innovative course developments and success comes down to their ability to exert agency.  Trowler (2005, 434) identifies this as ‘methodological individualism’ (micro level) where the lecturer is seen, on balance, as more important for change than the organisational and cultural structures in which they operate which will be shaped by the lecturer’s actions.  Where the approach described by the IDIBL Framework aligned with the values and beliefs that a lecturer held about what a ‘higher education’ experience should be and where it addressed a problem that they had already identified, that of access for new groups of learners, then they were prepared to make significant effort to try and establish the approach. However, of great concern to them was their ability to convince colleagues of the value of their work and get colleagues to join in the process of developing and delivering new programmes. Another set of concerns for the lecturer was around structural barriers – the processes, systems and entrenched ways of working that they perceived made innovation difficult although this did not extend to university strategy which was usually aligned with what they were trying to achieve.

5.7.3 Subject Teaching Group Developing Courses

Trowler (2008, 51), emphasises the importance of recognising the Teaching and Learning Regimes (meso level) as focus for curriculum change, although observing that they are not closed systems but are part of larger interconnected regimes and as such ideas and practices will be transferred between the different regimes where lecturers participate across boundaries (Wenger 1999, 103-121) within and outwith their institutions.  This proved to be a difficult viewpoint to influence by the IDIBL project, as efforts to engage with different groups, although received with a degree of interest, failed to result in action.  As Trowler and Bamber observe (2005, 83), “Local departmental and workgroup cultures are powerful, operate against innovation”.

5.7.4 Institution Promoting Innovation

The university had set strategic goals for innovation, but from the institutional viewpoint a wider set of communities of practice need to be taken into account, where their practices have direct impact on new curriculum developments, Trowler’s Macro level (2008, 1-6).  The IDIBL project found that this was understood, but very difficult to achieve, as a culture of working within silos was reinforced by cost centre accounting practices making it hard for different teaching and learning regimes to work together on delivery of courses.  In addition, support functions (recruitment, admissions, finance, marketing, information systems) were observed to have little boundary interaction with each other or with those developing and delivering courses that they should enable.

From this viewpoint, it is also possible to identify international influences through agencies impacting on national governments such as the United Nations, World Bank and the Organisation for Economic Development who influence through reports and in some cases direct actions. Increasingly for HEIs it is the external context that is driving change.  Shattock (2006) identifies that from the 1980’s onwards a distinction between “inside-out, outside-in” drivers for change, with the latter being in the ascendancy.

5.8.5 Strategic Mechanisms for Curriculum Development

There is a wealth of literature on both change management and learning organisations that seeks to provide an analysis of change in organisations and practical guidance on how to go about it.  Although the IDIBL project drew on some of this thinking for planning and execution, our findings indicate that there are particular challenges for HEIs with their culture of academic freedom and high levels of autonomy at subject teaching group level.

Explained in the theoretical framework, I identify four viewpoints that I believe are important when undertaking particular, innovative curriculum developments.  Clarity about the influence from these viewpoints is critical as they can act as enablers or inhibitors of initiatives.  For example, the IDIBL project’s acceptance of the rhetoric of employer-led learning put forward from a government viewpoint shaped its actions. Similarly, the interests of individual lecturers or subject teaching groups could subvert the IDIBL project’s goals and values that primarily concerned the learners’ viewpoint.

In devising strategy for curriculum development there are difficult choices to be made and questions to be addressed by stakeholders.  I have summarised these in Table 11 using the three sections identified in 5.6.

Structure & organisation
Are radical new innovations created apart from the existing culture or made to be adapted within the existing culture?
Are staff inspired to change their attitudes, values and behaviours or hire new staff selected to match the needs of innovation?
Are the university’s power and costing structures re-organised to promote innovation or build a matrix of collaborative networks within the existing organisation?
Is the validation processes overhauled to achieve agility and mandate the responsible department with innovation to avoid the dead hand of quality assurance?
Are productivity agreements re-negotiated or simply devise translation from existing practice?
Marketing and Communications
How to explain and communicate new visions of teaching, learning and assessment which challenge current norms?
How to market innovation without losing credibility?
Is it worth switching resource into business planning and market intelligence activities hoping it will give you a competitive edge?
Characteristics of staff
How to encourage champion innovators and if so, how do you ensure they influence the mainstream by being respected for their creativity and energy?
How to support inspiration and interest in innovation in teaching and learning?
How to complement staff development programmes intended to address specific issues with a ‘learning organisation’ approach which values theoretical and conceptual critique alongside a craft and practitioner focus?

Table 11.  Strategic Choices for Innovative Curriculum Development

5.8 Conclusions

Whether or not truly radical curriculum designs can be implemented successfully in an existing university is still an open question.  However, my experience and research shows that it is at the least very difficult to work within an organisation that is geared up to support well developed and established ways of delivering higher education courses.   If radical curriculum innovations are to happen at the meso level, then a better understanding of how to support and enable this at an institutional level is required.

If incremental curriculum innovation were desired, then promoting innovative teaching and learning approaches so that staff are inspired and supported to adapt to fit their needs is a useful approach. This would be likely to have a wider impact across the institution in areas such as assessment, distance learning and inquiry-based learning.

On the other hand if radical curriculum innovation to meet the needs of new markets is desired, then it may be necessary to establish a new business unit with staff recruited for the purpose and systems designed to support it.

However, there remains the challenge of explaining curriculum innovation to potential students and employers whose preconceptions of what it is to study in higher education do not sit easily with the radical approach offered by the IDIBL Framework.

5.8.1 Contribution

In the introduction I have claimed my original contribution as an analysis of institutional barriers to adoption of the model of Work Focussed Learning.  In particular, my key contributions are:

  1. evaluation of the challenges faced implementing IDIBL against theories of culture and change in higher education; and
  2. development of a set of Institutional strategic choices for undertaking radical curriculum innovation.

5.8.2 Influences on Future Cycles of Action

This work led me to reflect on why the same radical curriculum innovation can have two different outcomes and I used the theory of disruptive innovation to develop an explanation that is of use in future work.  This is explored in the Summary of Conclusions and Reflection in the subsequent section.

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