Source: Innovations in Education and Teaching International, Vol. 51, No. 1, 15–25. 2014
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)
This study examines student participation in curriculum design at course and programme levels.
The main research questions in this study were:
What levels and types of student participation in curriculum design have been achieved in the three examples?
What approaches have been used to achieve student participation in curriculum design?
and What are the outcomes for students and staff?
Case study methodology and critical theory provided the framework for the research study.
The three case studies were: a first-year geography programme at University College Dublin (UCD), Ireland; a first-year education course at Elon University, North Carolina, USA; and a first-year environmental justice programme at Queen Margaret University (QMU), Edinburgh, Scotland.
Data were collected using semi-structured interviews with academic staff involved in designing the three examples.
In addition, the author kept a journal during the study, keeping notes about the contextual observations of the case study settings when she visited the universities, met tutors, and when she observed some classes.
The findings revealed that academic staff view of co-creating curricula with students as risky, perhaps acknowledge the institutional pressures they are under to deliver courses and programmes on time and within budget.
However, it also recognises that academic staff often feel unprepared for taking on partnerships with students.
The theme of familiarity/unfamiliarity is interesting in suggesting that for both academic staff and students, there are accepted teaching and learning norms which may be difficult to deviate from without experiencing discomfort and suggesting the need for preparation.
The author found that in order for students to be authentic partners in designing learning, they need to take action in response to what they hear.
This requires entering into open negotiation of what can change and how and what may remain the same and why.
Where students were offered new responsibility for co-creating curricula in the examples studied, tutors reported them taking this responsibility seriously.
It is important to note that co-creation does not remove the need for the tutor’s expertise, but it changes the tutor’s role towards becoming a facilitator of learning.
Furthermore, in the three examples presented, the motivations of academic staff for pursuing co-created curricula were different.
However, an important outcome from this research is the realisation that there are some important preliminary design decisions that all academic staff will make prior to involving students in curriculum design.
In some contexts, it may be entirely appropriate for students to make content decisions but in other circumstances, such as in professionally accredited courses, choices about content may need to be more fully controlled by experienced academic staff influenced by regulatory bodies.
In these circumstances, students may be able to contribute more to process decisions about, for example, timetabling or preferred pedagogic approaches.
Moreover, the current case studies involve students who had previously studied a similar course, the current cohort of students, and those who were about to study the course.
In all cases, there was a mixture of these retrospective, current and future student design approaches.
Retrospective designs enable previous students to use their experiences and knowledge of a course to inform their contributions.
In contrast, current and future student designs perhaps promote the greatest ownership by students through participation in the design of their own programme or course.
The findings also revealed that in all of these cases, a small amount of funding was available for curricular design processes.
However, the co-creation of the curriculum does not necessarily need to require extra resources and further research would be useful to highlight examples where co-created curricula have been achieved without extra financial resources; an important consideration in the current higher education financial climate.
This research has outlined a range of different approaches to co-creating curricula.
In these examples, student participation has been reported to increase levels of individual and collective student responsibility for their learning, and enhance student performance and teachers’ satisfaction.
These positive outcomes provide a compelling argument for further research to discover if these outcomes are consistently found with co-created curricula in other contexts.
The findings also suggest that we should take time to think critically about the norms of teaching and learning within universities.
Therefore in some contexts, it may be appropriate to aim for high levels of student participation and in other situations perhaps, participation in selective parts of designing the curriculum will be appropriate.
However, care needs to be taken in considering whether reasons for limiting student participation are genuine, or are predominantly informed by a wish to maintain the status quo because it is more comfortable and does not demand a change to existing practices.
Co-created curricula may offer some potentially very positive outcomes, but they also require academic staff to take some risks and to reconsider their role as gatekeepers of curricula, recognising that academic staff currently have control over providing opportunities for students to engage more closely with learning and teaching processes.