The Principal Theories And Constraints Influencing Programme Design Education Essay

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This report will discuss the principal theories and constraints on the design and development of undergraduate computing programs in the UK. The ACM (Association of Computing Machinery) and the IEEE ( Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers) describe Computing as "any goal orientated activity requiring, benefiting from or creating computers" , which leaves the scope of any computing course to be extremely vast (Impagliazzo 2006). Traditionally universities in the UK provided courses in Computer Science, described as "the systematic study of algorithmic processes, their theory, analysis, design, efficiency and implementation" (Comer et al. 1989), a largely theoretical discipline. As computers became more ubiquitous in the business environment, more vocational courses in IT, dealing with "the study or use of systems for storing, retrieving, and sending information" (OED 2010), were provided by universities and colleges. The General Computing degree was largely developed out of necessity to bridge the gap between the more theoretical computer science courses and the more vocational information technology courses, thus providing the theoretical foundations of computer science together with their implementation and application in computer and information systems.

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There is no compulsory certification body for computing courses in the UK, however the British Computing Society (BCS), the chartered institute for IT, do accredit some computing courses. The level of accreditation is based on a set of criteria provided by the society, each course's accreditation is checked through yearly visits by the society. The criteria provided by the BCS add a degree of restriction on how free the design of the curricula can be if the course requires accreditation. However I feel that it is important that these criteria are met by any curriculum design to provide the student with the knowledge that their course meets a certain standard and so will discuss the curriculum design theories that can meet these criteria for computing courses.

The idea of a curriculum is not new, the name itself derives from the Latin word for a racing chariot, or a course to be run (Ross 2000), but the way in which we understand it has changed over the years. Bobbit, in the first book concerning the subject written in 1918 describes a curriculum as the course of deeds and experiences a child goes through to become an adult, Kerr (1986) builds on this definition by describing it as "all the learning which is planned and guided by the school, whether it is carried on in groups or individually, inside or outside the school" (Kelly 1999). Contemporary sources concerned with higher education describe the curriculum in terms of planned learning experiences that provide a wide knowledge base , are student centered, facilitative and link to research (John Moore's University 2010; British Computer Society 2009; Manchester 2010). There are a number of curriculum design theories that influence how curricula could and have been be designed.

Content driven curriculum design theory was the dominant curriculum design paradigm in the UK for most of the 20th century (Ross 2000) . It treats the curriculum as a body of knowledge, or syllabus, to be transmitted (Smith 2010). A syllabus is basically as list of topics which must be covered through the duration of a course and will not generally indicate the importance of the topics or necessarily the order in which they should be studied. Bernstein (1971) describes how the topics in content based theory are "well insulated subjects with strong boundaries" and the teachers are specialists "transmitting the body of information" defined irrespective of the potential student. Those who follow the content driven approach by compiling a syllabus tend to take a logical approach to the subject reflecting a course they have studied themselves (Curzon 2004).

As Bernstein suggests, this approach leads to the teacher being in sole control of the content, pace and direction of the learning (Bernstein 1971). This goes against the suggestions and criteria put forward by the BCS which suggest that the curricula be designed to provide the student with a number of skills and abilities such as teamwork and problem solving, which could not be taught effectively by simple transfer of knowledge from the lecturer to the student (British Computer Society 2009). The Quality Assurance Agency for higher education (QAA) subject benchmarks fro computing also suggests that a computing curriculum should provide the student with a number of cognitive and transferable skills, which again could not be taught in a content driven way (QAA Subject Benchmarks 2010).

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Much of the curricular design processes in the UK today are not performed using the content driven theory but are instead more closely aligned to the Objective driven theory. This is mostly due to the rise, in the 1970'sand 80's of vocational courses that require an specific competency to be taught (Smith 2010). In these kinds of curricula objectives that meet specific needs or competencies, societal, economical or individual, are specified in advance, and a curriculum is drawn up to achieve these objectives (Ross 2000). Measor (1984) suggests that the popularity of these kinds of curriculum, although he is talking about secondary school, is due to the fact that these schools would provide students with the competencies they needed to get the job they wanted. This could also clearly be applied to University courses where students will usually want to enrol in a course that will give them the best opportunity to get job.

The main champion of this theory, Ralph Tyler, suggests that the main purpose of education is " not to have the instructor perform certain activities but to bring about a significant change in the students behaviour" (Tyler 1949). Tyler set out a four fundamental principles which would enable the creation of a curriculum which would address a defined list of objectives to meet this aim.

What objectives should the student seek to attain?

What experiences can be provided to attain these objectives?

How can these experiences be organised?

How can we determine if these objectives are being attained?

(Tyler 1949)

This theory of curriculum design provides a systematic way of creating a curriculum designed to achieve a well formulated set of objectives. However it still needs the whole curriculum to be designed irrespective of who it is being taught to. The objectives are formulated, the curriculum designed, then the teaching is applied to the students, leaving the students with little say in how they are being taught. Also the success or failure of the curriculum is judged by measuring a change in behaviour, suggesting that behaviour change can be easily measured which in practice may not be the case. Again this contradicts the BCS criteria and more modern curriculum definitions on the curriculum being student centred.

To create a truly student centred approach to learning, Rousseau (1762) advocated a process of learning that would reflect the natural development of the learner. Rousseau suggested that a child will develop naturally, given suitable environment; the child's development is best self directed; the role of the teacher is to enable learning not to transmit knowledge. Rousseau also believed that the learning experience should be based on an individual not on class sized groups, although this could largely be due to his distrust of the polluting effects of others (Ross 2000). While Rousseau process was devised for clearly and some aspects are clearly impractical for higher education, many of the ideas were developed by others into a practical curriculum design theory called the process theory.

The process theory looks at the curriculum, not as a physical thing, but as the set of interaction that occurs between the students, the teachers and the knowledge. Lawrence Stenhouse (1975) produced an exploration of process theory in which he describes a curriculum as being like a recipe.

"It can be criticized on nutritional or gastronomic grounds - does it nourish the students and does it taste good? - and it can be criticized on the grounds of practicality - we can't get hold of six dozen larks' tongues and the grocer can't find any ground unicorn horn!  A curriculum, like the recipe for a dish, is first imagined as a possibility, then the subject of experiment.  The recipe offered publicly is in a sense a report on the experiment.  Similarly, a curriculum should be grounded in practice.  It is an attempt to describe the work observed in classrooms that it is adequately communicated to teachers and others.  Finally, within limits, a recipe can varied according to taste.  So can a curriculum."  (Stenhouse 1975)

Essentially Steinhouse is suggesting that a curriculum is a work in progress that can be continually updated or evolved tailoring it to specific students as time goes on. The curriculum becomes an organic process which takes in to account the complex and unique interactions that will occur between the teacher and the student. The benefit of this theory of curriculum design is that it allows the student to have a say in how and what they are being taught, the pace of learning is no longer defined solely by the teacher and the content and objective if the course are no longer defined in isolation of those it will be taught to. The process theory allows universities to create a curriculum that can be tailored from year to year to suit the different lecturers and students building the best possible experience in which to learn computing. While this theory does fit with the student centred criteria for BCS accreditation, however it may not allow for the precise objectives or competencies that the BCS require each student to have on completion of their course if these objectives are eventually "tailored out".

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The most influential ideas in higher education was put forward by Biggs (1999) in his Constructive Alignment theory. It underpins the current requirements for program specification, declarations of intended learning outcomes and assessment criteria, and the use of criterion based assessment (HEA 2010). The term constructive alignment come from the two main premises of the theory i.e.

students construct meaning from what they do to learn (Constructive)

the teacher aligns the planned learning activities with the learning outcomes (Alignment)

Fig 1. Aligning learning outcome, learning and teaching activities and the assessment. (Biggs 1999)

The learning and teaching activities can be managed by the teacher, the group of students or self managed by a single student as best suits the intended learning outcome. The intended learning outcomes fit a number of criteria that can be measured to determine the effectiveness of the teaching activities.

The very best outcomes that could be reasonably expected - reflect, hypothesize

Highly satisfactory outcomes - solve complex problems, explain complex ideas, apply in practice

Quite satisfactory outcome - solve basic problems, explain basic ideas, use standard procedures

Minimally Acceptable outcomes and applications; inadequate but salvageable higher level attempts

The verbs used in each category allow the student to understand what is expected. The grades awarded for any assessment are then based on these learning outcomes and are criteria based so that the student can easily determine what objective must be met to meet a specific grade. This also enables feed back to the student as it will be much easier for the lecturer to explain what objectives have been missed.

Fig 2. Map illustrating the main steps in constructive alignment (Higher Education Academy 2010).

Like process theory constructive alignment is an iterative process that allows continual modification to the curriculum. Constructive alignment however allows the alignment of teaching activities and content with the intended outcomes and also provides a measurable way of determining if the intended learning outcomes are met, while allowing the student a voice in the whole process. Constructive alignment seems to provide the best approach to fitting the criteria provided by the BCS and QAA and also in providing the student with the best possible experience and learning environment that constantly evolve depending on the students and the teacher.