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Interview

Student choice: a catalyst for curriculum change

The University of Keele recently launched its integrated Distinctive Keele Curriculum (DKC), offering extensive student choice for academic, personal and career development. Dr Lesly Huxley, editor of ENGAGE, heard from Professor Marilyn Andrews, pro-vice-chancellor, and Tim Hinchcliffe, head of curriculum support and development, about the change processes involved.

It is clear from conversation with Marilyn and Tim that they are passionate about the Distinctive Keele Curriculum and its potential for students. Their joint enthusiasm continues despite – or perhaps because of - the speed and motivation needed for the Curriculum’s development and introduction.

The University had already introduced graduate attributes and a new degree structure based on student choice prior to the appointment of a new vice-chancellor in 2010. Professor Nick Foskett was keen to “brand Keele at the forefront in leading curriculum development and asked us to design an integrated, distinctive curriculum to be introduced for 2012-13”.

From an academic perspective, students were already able to design their own, unique degree programmes. The first cohort completed in 2012 and a review at that time found “that there was much more motivation amongst students compared to 2009. The whole concept of programme choice seems to be progressing very well”.

Extra-curricular activity was a perceived gap: “we realized we needed to strengthen it and decided to call it co-curricular to raise its profile. We had discussions with employers, who said they wanted students with a good degree and skills for employment. We wanted extra-curricular activity to be something students could enjoy, but could also make the connection between the skills they developed and our graduate attributes. We wanted them to leave with a degree that equipped them for the future, whatever route they wanted to take.”

The journey through higher education is a transition which can require specific support: “it’s around learning to study, knowing yourself, personal and professional development, communications, team work, response to stress. So we wanted to tie three things together in the Curriculum: preparation for learning, preparation for life and preparation for career. It sounds like a cliché, but we’re developing good citizens”.

The latest addition, alongside the Distinctive Academic Curriculum, Graduate Attributes and Co-curriculm, is the Development Strand which “only really crystallized in April 2012”, and which they aim to have accredited by the ILM. As with any large-scale project, there have been varying degrees of participation in implementing the Development Strand, with some who have embraced it wholeheartedly, others less so. Tim adds that “it is about winning over staff as well as students, and to ensure that students get the same messages from everyone.” The journey has been one of extensive consultation and “taking staff with us; but sometimes we have had to change tack. Taking people down blind alleys with us was helpful in some cases. From a change management perspective, I’m not sure how we could have done it differently.”

Their approach to introducing change has been facilitated by key people in each academic area. Every programme has a staff/student awayday looking at personal and professional development. All academics are looking at how to integrate greater opportunities for autonomous learning to develop a “learning environment that includes lectures, 1-1s, awaydays, self-directed learning.” The Development Strand of the Curriculum is delivered in many different ways, flexibility is key.

The Development Strand was mapped to each programme, with both academic and professional staff working together, representing a “big shift in the concept of ownership” and leading to a far more coordinated and consistent approach for students”. The mapping process was not without problems (“like pulling teeth sometimes”), in linking theoretical content with ways of putting this into practice. “It wasn’t about fixing broken programmes, far from it. There were some real light bulb moments and we included a ‘future’ column to highlight areas for further development”. Particular
challenges arose in disciplines with dual honours where the same skill may be covered more than once. But working this through with staff is revealing the disciplinary richness, with two ways of learning the same skill in different contexts. “Students are acknowledging this and appreciating it”.

The journey continues to involve a range of mechanisms for embedding: “the DKC is a standing item on all committees and a regular newsletter is still produced. We run drop-ins for all staff in schools, academic and support. Initially these focused on what the DKC looks like, what one’s role in it might be. But now we’ve moved from generic information-giving to 1 to 1 support, which shows how far we’ve come. People are at different stages, meaning we have to be both proactive and responsive”.

“Staff who engaged with the process fully have got the most from it, and their students seem to be doing so too. But we’ll have to wait for the formal evaluation to really gauge success”. The evaluation will review impact on both staff and students . “Where staff are really committed, students are clearly very much more engaged. Australian universities have taken a similar route, so already have models of evaluating how students are aware of their own skills development. And that’s the really important component. It’s so great to hear students reflect well”.

A distinctive element of the DKC is a shift from didactic practice to experiential learning. “We don’t want to tell students how to work in a team, but give them opportunities to find out for themselves by working in a  team”. The integrated DKC features choice across all components, which places responsibility on “students who have to become self-directed learners, to know a destination to punch into the SatNav and then choose routes to it via the graduate attributes. For the Development Strand, the reflective portfolio recognizes and legitimises all kinds of personal and professional development”.

Marilyn is clear that 100% of her job is about building “an environment for students where they can develop a skills set that they can be proud of, and where students are responsible for themselves. What we now offer students is amazing. Reflective practice is a transformative opportunity. By the end of their time here, students will come to realise what capabilities they have, enabling them to unlock their full potential. They can choose the destination and journey that suits them best."

To find out more about Keele’s Distinctive Curriculum, visit:
www.keele.ac.uk/distinctive/

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