Flexibility in the Curriculum

The following extract from a report by Helen Beetham summarises the state of play at the beginning of the programme with regard to flexibility in the curriculum:

Flexibility is a key term for the CD programme and for all institutions dealing with curriculum innovation. The baseline reports indicate that there are basically three approaches to achieving a flexible curriculum: Designing a curriculum that allows for flexible modes of participation on the part of students, e.g.flexibility over place of study,flexible timescales for study and timing of assessments,negotiated outcomes (‘content’ remains relatively stable but assessment is flexible according to learners’ goals),negotiated curriculum or learning path (outcomes and final assessment remain relatively stable but learners can work towards this as they wish). Often, but not always, this involves separating course ‘content’, ‘tasks’ (including assessment tasks) and ‘support’ so that they can be recombined flexibly to suit learners’ needs. This approach overlaps with the concerns of the Transforming the Curriculum through Technology (‘Curriculum Delivery’) programme.

Designing a ‘bespoke’ curriculum that meets the needs of a particular user group, e.g. an employer, community or client group, learners with particular needs. This was rarely discussed as a practical option but was understood to involve rapid development, convening a team of mixed curriculum professionals in partnership with the end users, and delivering a tightly defined, ‘fit for purpose’ curriculum that may or may not be repurposable for other end users.

Designing a highly modular curriculum which can be flexibly recombined, either to suit the personal needs and interests of learners, or to suit another stakeholder such as an employer (‘pick and mix’ approach).

This was the most widely discussed approach to flexibility. It involves consideration of the granularity (size/length) of award-bearing units, how units can be combined to achieve awards, the academic quality of components and the quality/level of a highly modular award relative to a more integrated offering. At the baseline point, flexible awards are treated as ‘non-standard’ forms of provision, and the arrangements for quality assurance and accreditation are often located outside of the common academic framework for ‘standard’ undergraduate and postgraduate awards. As institutions adapt to changing markets, it may be that these arrangements become more mainstream and even recognised as the ‘standard’.

Issues in developing flexible awards include:
– awards with many modular components require collaboration across programmes and even faculties and institutions, adding to development times and costs
– flexibility for learners can actually conflict with flexibility for employers: employers may want very tightly defined (effectively bespoke) courses to meet their workforce development needs, while learners learners may want flexibility within the course to explore their own interests and capabilities
– staff are sceptical about the implications in terms of capacity, workload and working patterns
– demand for flexibility in many universities is being driven by a small number of schools or depts: solutions that work for them may not work across the board
modules bearing small amounts of credit can challenge existing quality processes
– there is actually a demand from students – especially in the first year and at post-grad level – for larger units and a more integrated learning experience
– the learning experience may be compromised if learners lack the skills to design their own pathways and make informed choices
– flexibility for students within programmes can actually make it harder to support inter-disciplinary and inter-professional study
– comparability of academic level across different module providers, even within the same institution.

Potential indicators:
– greater number or larger proportion of award-bearing modules being available ‘flexibly’ (however defined)
– greater perception of flexibility on the part of learners or other key stakeholders.

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