Assessment of the principal theories and constraints influencing programme design

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Designing an academic course or revising an existing one, getting it approved by the relevant authorities and subsequently implementing it, is a very complex and challenging process. The design of an educational programme has been commonly associated with the idea of a curriculum. In formal education a curriculum generally consists in a range of courses described in terms of their content and/or learning outcomes that are offered by an educational institution together with a specific learning program that includes students' formative experience in terms of methods of teaching, learning and assessment adopted by that institution to reach the purpose of the educational programme.

Unlike the teachers in primary or secondary education, where course design has been handed over to 'experts', teachers in higher education have a considerable advantage: their control of the curriculum. An important feature in the profession of teaching is the design of the curriculum including the choice of the course, its aims or the planning of student learning experience. Consequently course design is an advantage of which many teachers in universities seem quite unaware.

The new environment in which universities operate as a consequence of changes in their student population, their mission and organization .have had a major impact on the ethos of higher education and implicitly on the nature of the university curriculum. For a long period of time the academic life has been shaped around the different disciplines and subject areas that have provided a means of structuring knowledge and understanding, contributing in the same time to the formation of professional and social identity. (Rabinow, 1984).

In the 1980s to 1990s, the organization of university curriculum around the different disciplines has started to be found as inappropriate. There were a series of factors including economical, technological or social-cultural expansion that were going to impose fundamental changes in the academic heartland of the disciplines and subject areas. Policy-makers were aware that in order to make the national economy competitive in global markets, a step forward was to improve people's skills and capabilities to make them act in new productive ways and improve economic growth. Toward this the education was viewed as playing a crucial role. To respond to these challenges a strategy of creating and developing knowledge within a multidisciplinary context needed to be adopted. In the same time technological developments, particularly in the area of information technology was facilitating the creation and transfer of knew knowledge with huge socio-economical impact. Beyond economic and technological causes, socio-cultural trends, such as the pressure to widen the participation to higher education were also working to change traditional curricula to accommodate the diversity of student interests, experience and social origins.

As a result, many of the traditional way of organizing and delivering knowledge in a framework based on disciplines, had to be reconsidered, changing the nature of the relationship between education and society. In the attempt to understand the nature of those changes and how these have affected the curriculum development, four models have emerged (Bocock and Watson, 1994).

Higher education as private interest has dominated the nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries, reflecting a position in which the forms and practice of higher education were mainly a matter of the private interests of the academic community, the engagement in knowledge discovery and transfer for its own sake being a characteristic of the higher education.

Higher education as Public interest is a model that started to shape in the last quarter of the twentieth century, when the state became interested in the performance of the higher education. The curriculum was still dominated by disciplines, but started also to carry some degree of public shape rather that being simple inventions of the minds of lecturers.

Higher education as public direction is a feature of the late twentieth century in UK and is represented as an active intervention by the state in the internal character of the academic life. In designing curriculum, the scope for subject development promoted through the curiosity of academics is restricted and students learning experience involves an acquisition of learning and skills with a primary focus on their application and economic return.

Higher education as Market direction is a modern model where the curriculum development is market driven in terms of both students' interests and employability

The four models presented above illustrate the evolution of the values and constraints driving the development of the curriculum in higher education during the last century, which has been shifted from a discipline focused to a learner centred curriculum. All these have resulted in a series of different approaches to curriculum development in higher education, including those reflecting traditional values in universities or those based on more recent beliefs about the role of higher education within the socio-economical context of the nation.

1.2 Ideologies in curriculum design

Based on the study by Toohey (1999) there are five main approaches that can be identified over time in universities and colleges' curriculum, the design of which needs to take into account a series of fundamental educational questions that van be summarized as follows:

What is the characteristics of knowledge in a particular discipline or profession

What are the goals and objective and what content is essential to achieve these goals

How the knowledge transfer is implemented and assessed. What is the role of the teachers and what is expected from students

According to these considerations the five main approaches to curriculum design can be described as follows:

The cognitive approach was driven by the idea that the purpose of learning is to develop student's mind, to provide them with opportunities for developing their intellectual faculties. This approach, originated in the nineteenth century, was promoting the idea that some subjects such as Mathematics or Latin, were important not for its content, but for helping to develop specific intellectual abilities or general skills that can be easily transferred to other areas of knowledge. The learning goals of the cognitive approach are to develop good thinkers and problem solvers, in a context where knowledge is personally structured, being focused on real word examples, to insure that new knowledge is integrated with previous experience. Consequently, the content is not chosen for broad coverage, but based on the possibilities it offers to develop key intellectual abilities and mastering important theories. The role of the teacher is to guide the students through a critical examination of theirs understandings that is also achieved by facilitating small group interactions. Examples of cognitive approach to curriculum development include the curricula developed by Edward de Bono to develop creativity and lateral thinking (Ref.), the critical thinking curricula developed at Sonoma University (Ref.), the cognitive apprenticeship model (Schon,1990), or the conceptual change curriculum for science learning (Ramsden,1988).

The traditional or discipline-based approach structures the knowledge around the different disciplines. This approach has dominated the academic life till late in the twentieth century and it is still used in some universities for the development and implementation of traditional programmes (Ex: University of St Andrews, Mathematics degree, Biology degree, Chemistry degree etc…). Programmes of study are generally structured around important concepts in some rational manner. For example, in mathematics the course might be structured based on the different branches: Algebra, Geometry, Calculus, Topology, Probabilities, etc.; in English literature, course might be divided according to the major forms (poetry, prose, drama) and the historical development of each. The principal characteristic is that the course exists within the subject matter itself, the knowledge being considered independent from the way people learn, or their interests, or to everyday problems. The knowledge is viewed as a large body of information that the teacher is supposed to filter to extract the main concept and communicate them to students so that they acquire a representative picture of the field, the learning goals being often described as a list of important topics that the student is expected to become familiar with after the completion of the course.

The performance or the systems-based approach has been first introduced by Tyler (1949), whose view was that education is a purposeful activity, which goals needs to be clearly defined, the achievement of these goals being conditioned by well chosen teaching and evaluation methods. The systems-based approach has been further elaborated by Taba (1962), Kemp (1977), Romiszowski (1984) into the so called instructional systems approach to course design, which main characteristic is that learning outcomes are clearly specified in advance in behavioural terms to allow an accurate evaluation of student performance. Within the systems-based approach the theoretical knowledge is presented only within an applied context, the main learning goal being to become a skilled performer. The learning outcomes are often presented as a hierarchy of behaviours (understand, evaluate, apply, critique) required to achieve the final skilled performance. Within this framework, the teacher has the complex role to determine the kinds of skills and knowledge that are required to achieve the outcomes, the order in which they need to be introduced and decide how they will be assessed. Based on all this, the student has a very clear view on what is expected, allowing him little choice on the content to be learned, which is specified based on the nature of practice of the specific profession.

Given that the systems-based curriculum has been developed around learning outcomes clearly specified, enabling an accurate evaluation on weather or not objectives have been met, this approach has be particularly attractive to governments, allowing them to measure the degree of effectiveness of the educational system.

The experiential or personal relevance approach

The socially critical approach

1.3 Principles of a good curriculum



1. Articulate within a particular subject discipline, a range of appropriate theories and models applicable to learning.