By SEAN BRAWLEY
An initiative to enable student co-creators and improve student success
The Macquarie Curriculum Transformation project is a redesign of our curriculum architecture and the underlying systems/processes supporting our course suite. It is aligned with a continuing program for student success and MQ’s touchstone that students are “co-creators” in their learning.
All undergraduate courses have been redesigned as either generalist or specialist degrees with “core” and “flexible” zones. In a generalist degree, for example, the flexible zone is eight units of study. Students can use their flexible zone to increase their depth of study or broaden their interests.
MQ undergraduates like double degrees (at currently twice the national average). In 2018, however, we had about 50 students completing two degrees concurrently because their preferred combination was not offered. The new modular course architecture empowers students to decide any combination that works for them. As we start 2020, nearly 130 new double degree combinations have already been nominated.
At the postgraduate level, we introduced a modular approach with foundation, core and flexible (maturity) zones. This structure allowed us to address the perennial issue of Australian Qualifications Framework volume of learning by focusing much of our work on “admission points”. We have also extended our flexible double degree approach.
Another significant change is our introduction of “combined degrees” where students complete an integrated undergraduate and postgraduate award.
A new customised Curriculum Management System (CMS) sits at the core of our systems solution. In addition, we also embarked on a significant renovation of our Student Management System to optimise the student experience.
A bold timetable to meet an urgent need
The curriculum redesign was required because of risks identified in our course architecture and supporting processes. Ad hoc course evolution over time had created inconsistent structures and rules in our course suite. A further challenge was our ageing support systems which lacked integration and too often relied on manual processes. Our concern was that our architecture and systems were getting in the way of the student experience.
The urgency and importance of our work intensified at the start of 2018 when we saw worrying signs in student load. While the curriculum was only a part of the solution, it was clear we needed to act and act quickly. Every course would be discontinued and re-accredited under new architecture principles, supported by the new CMS/SMS, ready for semester one, 2020.
Five internal takeaways
Escape business as usual:We struggled, especially in the early days, with finding the time for this work. Delineating people and resources between project and business as usual is crucial.
Executive sponsorship never sleeps:We learned that ongoing support from university leadership is critical to keep the project mission front-of-mind. You cannot set and forget.
Find the balance between relationships and processes: Historically, Macquarie U has thrived on relationships rather than processes. While relationships were crucial to the success of the project, we needed to embrace processes to drive change. Finding that balance was an important key to success.
Quality information is impossible without quality data : We confirmed what many colleagues already knew; like many institutions, Macquarie U has a challenge with data. The project gave further weight to our ongoing remediation in this space.
Cross-sector consultation is invaluable: Few of our ideas were entirely original. Our innovation came through synthesising a range of concepts and practices from across the sector and filtering them through our institutional lens to create a unique offering. Benchmarking and liaising with other institutions was key.
Six insights for a successful curriculum transformation
We are universities. Let us act like it! : Too often, universities don’t play to their strengths and make enough use of the significant subject matter expertise in their faculties and business units. Data and evidence must trump gut-feel. Harness your colleagues’ capabilities, knowledge and best practice. And make your case in scholarly ways.
Empower members of the project team to make decisions and trust them: Deploy a methodology that supports rapid, continuous iterative development and accept that the approach could change at points in the project. For example, we found at the start of the project that our agile methodology with regular “scrums” worked well but was not as well suited to the systems phase. Here we deployed a hybrid project management methodology.
Design quality assurance processes that deliver quality improvement opportunities : Use your CMS not only as a governance/assurance tool but as a way to drive enhancement. Produce “knowledge articles” within the CMS that provoke best-practice ideas as well as the how-to information. We used this approach to introduce constructive alignment in assessment and time-on-task for learning activities.
Show your workings : Academic colleagues sometimes feel surrounded by an unwieldy bureaucracy. Through your change management and communications plans give academics insights into how much behind-the-scenes work is required to realise the transformation. Building such insights and bridges break down misconceptions and will support future project success.
Run red hat critiques and consult widely: Convene “red hat” peer review teams (including student teams). Their job is to test and find fault with work in progress. Keep regular contact with the university community through town-halls and other communications. We also subjected our curriculum principles to an institutional-wide survey. Of the 57 undergraduate and postgraduate principles presented, 18 were unchanged though consultation, 34 were revised, five were removed, and two new principles were introduced.
Communicate, communicate, communicate: You can have a great team and be very proud of your achievements but you will still not have communicated enough with colleagues. Be wary of simply delivering a message to the front door of an academic or business unit. As well as an organisational change manager consider employing a relationship/engagement manager.
To conclude, we can already see benefits from our curriculum transformation. At a time when all universities are focused on financial challenges, the new course suite appears to be playing its part in building positive trends in our admissions. Ultimately, however, this project was about ensuring student success by rebuilding our curriculum foundations to deliver innovative learning that empowers students.
Sean Brawley is PVC (Programs and Pathways), Macquarie University