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July 7th, 2012

“It’s not a game, it’s a biography!”

Claire Eustance from the UG-FLEX project, Peter Bird and I visited the OU in Camden on 5 July for a seminar entitled ‘Opening up the Game’, which was intended to give participants an opportunity to try various tools to get people talking about inclusive curriculum development. Each table had the opportunity to try all three activities, spending 40 minutes on each of the Snakes and Ladders activity, the Accreditation! game and the curriculum planning cards.

The seminar was organised by John Rose-Adams from the Centre for Inclusion and Curriculum at the Open University, as part of their research seminar series and I must admit that I wasn’t sure what to expect from the participants. On previous occasions where we’ve used or demonstrated these tools, the audience have either been linked by being in a programme team, or at a conference for people interested in curriculum design, or working together on institutional change. All of the approaches we used are pretty simple and low tech and I wondered how a more mixed group of participants would react to them. I needn’t have worried. There were around 25 participants from a very diverse range of HEIs and they were all prepared to roll up their sleeves and get on with it, however odd it may have seemed to be playing a board game at 1 o’clock in the afternoon on a working day.

There was a lot of animated conversation about engaging colleagues in what Claire has characterised as ‘creative conversations’ about curriculum design, and my favourite comment came from a table on which one participant was able to relate to a particularly large number of the dilemmas posed in the ‘Accreditation!’ game: “It’s not a game, it’s a biography!” It’s good to know that some of the difficult choices to be made are the same in other institutions!

Using the curriculum planning cards, we asked participants to plan some pre-entry and induction activities to support students from FE moving into a Foundation Year who would be expected to write essays and sit traditional exams during their first year, and they came up with some really great ideas. Lectures were relegated to minor roles as the focus was placed on developing self-confidence, managing expectations, encouraging peer review and asking critical questions.

This group wanted students to focus on taking an active role in their own learning and asking questions:


This group thought that students would benefit from the use of a cycle of events repeated several times through the year as the class moved through the modules. This approach would build confidence and skills slowly but surely through the year. Clare and I felt particularly that this activity complemented the Snakes and Ladders discussion, in which the participants talked about barriers and strategies to overcome them, because the cards then gave a visual way to operationalise the strategies into actual course activity.

I look forward to seeing continuing discussion about the activities on the OU’s CloudWorks area and hope that more people are moved to download the various tools  from the JISC DesignStudio and maybe add to the collection.

Many thanks to John Rose-Adams for organising a really enjoyable session and to all those who participated so enthusiastically.


April 27th, 2012

Calling first and second year students

There must be times when you’ve thought you could have done better in designing your course…well here’s your chance to really do it!

I’m using this post to give students more information about a project we’re setting up. Following on from the JISC-funded SRC (Supporting Responsive Curricula) project, we think we’ve developed ways to get students properly engaged with course design. Over the last few years we’ve moved from what MMUnion has characterised as ‘non-participation’ to ‘tokenism’ and now we’re trying to get to genuine learner participation and empowerment. But we need people to get involved so that we can trial it properly!

At the recent Course reps conference we ran a session called ‘Design your own course’ and it was great to see how easily students could get to grips with the constraints lecturers face in designing engaging courses at the right level. We want to develop this further and we’ve got a few plans. However, we need students to get involved!

If you are a current first or second year student who could give some time during the autumn term to this project, then please email me at r.m.forsyth AT as soon as possible, or put a  comment below. Include your phone number when you email me and the name of your programme and I’ll give you a call back to explain what’s involved.You’d need to be able to come to a planning meeting and then help to run some workshops for staff and students.

We can’t offer any cash for getting involved but we will help you to present this on your CV and there may be a bit of travel, or at the very least a  free lunch or two. Also the chance to get involved in real research and conference presentations if you’re interested. It will be fun and you will really have an opportunity to change the way things get done. Go on, you know you want to…

February 2nd, 2012

Curriculum Planning Cards at the Course Reps conference

On Wednesday 1 February I got the chance to do something I’d been wanting to do for ages: use the course planning cards with students. We’ve used them successfully with staff before, and various course teams have borrowed them to get discussion going, but it had proved very difficult to find a way of getting students together to try them out. We’d discussed using them as part of course representatives’ training with MMUnion staff and officers, but there are a lot of demands on course rep’s time and we didn’t want to overdo it. At last our chance came, with the first MMUnion Course Reps conference, where I was offered one of the parallel workshop sessions.

The context for the workshop was feedback from the internal student survey 2011: the initial report from the survey said that “Over 75 comments from final years were reflection on the overall course structure and included suggestions on the timing and emphasis of units over the different years of the course”. Additionally, the Student Voice First term report 2011 set the objective that “there is a sequential flow to class structure and assignments”.  It’s fair to say that no programme team ever sets out with the intention of not having a flow to class structure, so the session was aimed at giving course reps an insight into course planning and how structures might actually be developed within the inevitable constraints presented by managing the movements and activities of 38,000 students. I hoped also that it would encourage them to think about how they could get involved through their membership of programme committees.

We only had 30 minutes per session in practice, so there was no time for ice-breakers or any carefully crafted introductions: the groups basically just got down to planning a term’s worth of activities. They probably didn’t know each other and they certainly weren’t from the same courses and thus had very different experiences: one group had accountancy, art and design and English students together, for instance. However, they got down to work very quickly and the room was soon very noisy with a lot of card shuffling and ideas being shared. There is a short video clip here which gives a good sense of what was going on (there are no people shown as the sessions were simply too short to get consent forms from everyone – sorry if this makes it a bit boring to watch ). Each group spent about 15 minutes planning their fantasy course structure and then presented their plans to the other groups, who peer reviewed them using some fairly loose criteria. In the end we shared the prizes (sweets) across the room  but nobody seemed to mind that. Everyone had worked hard, after all…

The real purpose of the activity wasn’t to produce perfect shiny course plans, but to get participants thinking about curriculum planning and how they might get involved in the future. There wasn’t time for a full evaluation of how successful this might have been but maybe one or two course reps will be a little bit more confident about contributing to discussions, or even starting them, in the future.

Course plan layout from course reps conference

An example of the course planning activity carried out by student reps (photo credit: S Hawley)

October 24th, 2011

Document checking and management

This post introduces a revised process map for a small part of our curriculum design activity.

A bit of background first. During 2010/11, MMU redesigned all of its level 4 units. We moved from a model of 10, 20 or 40 credit units to 30, so that each year of a programme (course) has four 30 credit units. (60 credit units are also permissable). At the same time, the number of assignments per unit was restricted to 1 or 2 per 30 credit unit and 2 or 3 per 60 credit unit. The number of learning outcomes per unit was also specified for the first time, at 3-5 per unit. The aims of these changes in our rules about curriculum structure were to reduce the number of summative assessments and use the time saved for more formative assessment, to make it easier for teams and peers to understand the alignment between learning outcomes and assessment tasks, and to achieve consistency in the ways units were specified across the institution.

All documentation was checked by Faculty Quality Officers and the Centre for Academic Standards and Quality Enhancement to check for compliance with institutional regulations, and by external examiners to check that the content and level were appropriate.

The revised programmes were reviewed by Standing Panels during 2010/11 and the scale of this operation, which involved a huge logistical effort by the Centre for Academic Standards and Quality Enhancement, allowed the institution for the first time to identify good practice in curriculum design as well as highlight areas where teams needed better support in specifying their curricula. It was apparent that Standing Panels had had to spend quite a lot of time looking at the wording of learning outcomes and assessment tasks.

Levels 5 and 6 of the programmes are being reviewed during 2011/12. In response to the experiences of redesigning Level 4 in 2010/11, the Centre for Learning and Teaching produced targeted guidance which focused on the areas in which the Standing Panels had most commonly asked for revisions to documentation and also implemented a system of additional peer review which considered the learning and teaching aspects of the curriculum documents before they were considered by Standing Panels. The aim of this activity is to ensure that curricula are clearly articulated and allow Standing Panels to focus on the overall coherence of the programmes rather than the nitty gritty of aligned assessment tasks and well constructed learning outcomes. We are also monitoring the degree to which programmes have been able to respond to institutional priorities such as the Employability Curriculum Framework

This process has now begun and the workflow of the peer review process has been mapped with a view to informing a project to implement a database of programme and unit specifications, the Academic Curriculum Management System project which will begin in early 2011/12. The mapping shows where some digitisation and automation would be beneficial. The administration overhead of collecting and checking the documentation is substantial.

July 20th, 2011

Accreditation! The Curriculum Game

Having blogged about taking the game to the HEA conference, I realised that it might be a good idea to actually explain something about how it works. In the first two years of the SRC project, we acquired a lot of information about people’s attitudes to course approval and review. We used this data to improve support and guidance and to get mixed groups of staff together to discuss the processes. The purpose of this game is to encourage discussion in such sessions. With traditional ‘tell us about the system’ training sessions, we find that people tend to get bogged down in the rules rather than inspired to discuss the issues thoroughly. One thing that I find particularly difficult when talking to programme teams is to embed the notion that a programme specification document should be a living description of what interesting and creative people want to do with their students: there is a tendency to see it as a series of boxes which must be ticked in a certain order.

Inspired by Alex Moseley’s staff development game the idea of a board game seemed like a good alternative to a discussion of which boxes must be ticked, and once the conceptual leap to ‘fun in curriculum design’ was made, the actual game design was fairly straightforward to do. A prototype was developed and tested and then honed with game designer Nicola Whitton and learning technologist and designer Pete Whitton to end up with the version we’re now evaluating.

The board is divided into three sections: strategic approval, detailed planning, and final approval. You move around the board by making decisions which are presented on cards which are specific to each section, or by landing on ‘chance’ squares which have their own set of cards. To leave any one of the sections you must have progressed a certain distance AND acquired 5 quality stars. Your decisions will affect the number of squares you can progress and the number of stars you have.

The kinds of decisions you might face are based on situations such as “Your market research is queried by the planning team and you need to revisit the evidence you collected” in strategic planning, or “You realise that your team will need to receive intensive VLE training for the programme to be effective. They aren’t keen” in the detailed planning section. Chance cards might scupper your progress by pointing out that “A large pile of marking arrives on your desk just as a curriculum planning deadline looms.” or give you quality points because “You win a Students’ Union teaching award for something which you are going to expand in the new course”. There are also random opportunities to steal stars from others (sorry, share in their good practice).

Testing showed that a lot of people got stuck in the ‘Strategic Planning’ section, which although it may have added an element of realism, did make it rather frustrating. We tweaked the scoring system to make progression easier, although many testers just cheated their way out of that section. The game takes around 45 minutes to play, which is probably similar to running through the full process using Powerpoints, and it’s a lot more fun.

Someone has suggested the alternative title of Monotony! which is definitely under active consideration.

Testers have suggested using the game with collaborative partners and employers to give them an insight into the processes we need to follow, and using it with students who are involved with course approvals. We’ll be doing a full evaluation in the autumn term 2011; please contact me if you’d like to get involved. (@rmforsyth on Twitter or via email)

July 10th, 2011

Accreditation! at the HEA Annual conference

Nicola Whitton and I were given a workshop session at the HEA annual conference which we used to explain how we’ve used the SRC outcomes so far to develop a game about course approval and review which aims to get discussion going about responsiveness and the danger of tradeoff between speed and quality.

We got the 9am slot the morning after the conference dinner, which is always a bit tricky, but we got a reasonable number of delegates at the session. We took six copies of the game with us and got people playing in teams in the main exhibition hall. There was a lot of laughter and discussion, which we took to be a good sign. And even some tweeting during the session… At the end of the session, we got some very useful feedback and then we offered up the six copies for people to take away and test in their own institutions. At this point Nic was mobbed. Again, we took this to be a good sign.

We will be doing some further testing on the game early next term within MMU so look out for invitations to come and get involved.


May 12th, 2011

Curriculum planning and responsiveness

The Quality Enhancement strand concentrated on institutional processes for its first phase. These have  changed considerably, and while the project is still involved in that work, we are now shifting development focus to look at how teams can be supported in being more responsive. This week, we held two workshops attended by course leaders and careers advisors to develop ways of integrating competences into individual modules in a coherent way.  Like the Viewpoints project, we are doing this in a low tech way, using cards which people can reorganise and add to during the session. The main purpose is to get people talking about why certain elements are in a module plan and whether any existing activities might be exchanged for others which might help students to link what they are doing to their future work prospects  (eg an employer visiting to talk about an element of the curriculum, or a site visit). Teams also looked at what happens in induction and transition, and at the timing of assessments in their plans. They also considered the practical implications of the plans – what kinds of rooms were needed? Who would book special equipment? How would student engagement be monitored? and so on.

It was pretty noisy in the room, if we can use that as an evaluation measure, and many course leaders asked for copies of the resources to use with their own teams.

The approach could be used with course-specific competences as well as the university’s graduate outcomes which we used for these sessions.

UPDATE: The cards are now available for download and printing, together with suggestions for their use. Please let me know if they are useful to you.

May 12th, 2011

‘Talking about challenge and change’ project meeting

Three of us attended a Curriculum Design Programme Meeting – ‘talking about challenge and change’ – in Birmingham, for the projects in this strand. The meeting focused on identifying, communicating and disseminating the outcomes of the projects.

We worked with projects in our cluster in the morning, reviewing the evidence we were collecting to demonstrate change. Although we have an evaluation strategy already, of course, it was useful to review it with people outside the project and find out what kinds of measures they would be using.

In the afternoon we were with the UGFlex (Greenwich) and PiP (Strathclyde) projects, about which we knew less, and we interviewed each other about the evidence of change our projects. Because we knew little about each other’s projects, this was helpful in drawing out areas which were interesting to others and in identifying where we needed to clarify points which might seem obvious to those familiar with the project but which needed more explanation for others.

Overall, it was a timely reminder to think about communicating outcomes as well as having our heads buried in processes.

February 28th, 2011

SRC Mini-Conference 2010

The SRC mini-conference was held on November 4th 2010. This is an annual event which is part of the evaluation strategy for the SRC project, the aim being to gather feedback on the project work from a wide cross-section of MMU staff and capture ideas that can be used to influence the remaining phases of the project. This year’s theme was on employability and responsiveness –two key areas where the projects aims to influence the curriculum.

Kevin Bonnett opened the event by talking about the challenges that the institution faced with the changes in how funding for HE would be provided. Kevin emphasised that projects such as SRC had provide the inspiration to look at wider change through the recently launched EQAL program. Judith Smith of the HEA in her presentation on ‘Employers as Learning Partners’ looked at how universities were responding to the challenges of raising employability outcomes and engaging with work-based learning programs. Her presentation raised a debate about how to involve employers in the curriculum process, a challenge that MMU was undertaking through an new employability strategy and through the work of the SRC and EQAL projects. See Judy’s slides.

Sarah Knight was due to present an overview of the JISC Curriculum Design and Delivery program of which SRC is a part. Unfortunately due to family illness, Sarah was unable to attend on the day but provided her material which was delivered by Mark Stubbs in conjunction with Mark’s own talk on SRC/EQAL and the academic database.. The audience were interested to see the issues that other institutions were facing in terms of stakeholder engagement, transformation of quality assurance systems , new learning technologies ,central IT systems and employer engagement. Mark was able to relate these to the SRC project. A copy of Mark’s slides on SRC and EQAL can be found here and Sarah’s slides can be downloaded here.

We were then treated to a series of presentations from specific strands of the project. Rachel Forsyth reflected on some of the findings from our baseline report on the program approval process and how we were developing the new process through the EQAL initiative. Claire Hamshire gave examples of some of the student video blogs from the Physiotherapy Pebblepad trial and looked at what lessons had been learnt from the previous year; one output being that students don’t necessarily find these tools intuitive and training is required so that users know how to optimise their usage. Denise Ashworth of Accounting & Finance explained how the department was focussed on gaining professional body exemptions so that students could find quicker routes to professional qualifications and therefore employment opportunities. Mandy Isles and Jane Matthews from Law described how they were developing a portfolio system which would be used by students to reflect on their efforts to engage with employment related activities and monitored through a personal tutoring system.  Currently this was a paper based system but it was hoped that this could be turned into an e-portfolio before the end of the project. Finally, Nicola Critchlow described how she had mapped courses from five different parts of the university onto skills/competencies for digital marketing roles. The next stage was to create a website where employers could rank these competencies and students in terms of a ‘perfect candidate’ and students could score themselves against these skills to see how well courses were developing the skills that employers sought most.

In the afternoon session, Nicola Whitton ran a workshop to develop a model for measures of responsiveness  i.e. how can we measure whether an institution is responsive to its various stakeholders.. We were able to get input to the model from a  cross-section of MMU staff and you can see Nic’s latest thinking here.

November 23rd, 2010

Summary of Validation results

The project has just completed another year and validation activities have taken place across all the subject strands. Click here to read a summary of the interim results