I joined Birmingham University in the early 1990s just as they were embarking on modularisation. It took colleagues some time to get their heads around what that meant for the programme and for their own teaching. It was my role at the time to begin to rethink the undergraduate programme in a way that reflected some of the positive elements of the older system (effectively three years learning, all assessed by final year examinations, and an extensive use of small group tutorials) and yet fitted in to the new framework. I can remember being very frustrated because my colleagues did not want to go for full flexibility, what colleagues referred to as ‘pick and mix’, something that was seen as an imposition of American models. Ultimately, however, the Theology and Religion programmes probably ended up with something closer to the US model than many other disciplines within the university at that time.
Like all other UK higher education institutions, however, Birmingham only ever went so far in modularisation, and tried to maintain a balance between the idea of progression between levels and open student choice. On the whole, therefore, I would suggest that the resulting experimentation with the modular has never really worked. We have a hybrid system that gives the impression of choice to the students, but sets so many restrictions on what we, as academics and programme planners, can or cannot do that any kind of innovation or experimentation in learning is immediately squashed. I was immediately struck, on coming to Swansea three years ago, by the number of colleagues who told me about the exciting things they would like to do in learning and teaching and yet, they said, the modular structure did not allow them to do it.
The Swansea Graduate project is one attempt to move us beyond that kind of impasse. As with learning outcomes in a module, it begins at the end, although this time of a programme, and asks what knowledge, skills, experience and mindset (or characteristics) do we want our students to leave with as they graduate from the University. The plan is then to work backwards and to develop the strategy, over three or four years, by which all students on a programme have the opportunity to gain that knowledge, learn the skills, share the experience and develop the mindset. This approach asks us to look, in some detail, at the student’s journey, from the transition from school or college discussed in my previous blog, through their degree, to the final outcome.
This kind of approach could generate many different trajectories, depending on the discipline or the programme. We could, for example, take more advantage of programme level assessment and small group project work, drawing on the best elements of earlier models of programme development. We could embed competency based task that need to be passed on a pass/fail basis rather than needing to provide grades and detailed marking schemes. Some of the professional programmes in medicine and nursing, for example, already go a long way down this approach, but is it something that could be adapted for other disciplines? We could develop a more integrated approach to our programmes, recognising that different elements of the degree are not isolated units, but come together, talk to each other, and enable students to develop a more rounded understanding of the discipline.
It also suggests that we could be much more flexible with modular structures, offering 60 credit modules, for example, which contained within them a much wider range of formative experiences, or being more flexible in our definitions of modular weight over the three or four years of the degree. What we need to do is to put the learning of the student first, to think through critically what the students need to learn, or to experience, in order to achieve the learning outcomes of the programme, and then to sit much more loosely to the modular structures, adapting them where necessary to achieve the goals we want for our students, rather than using them as a straight jacket to control our teaching and assessments.
Much of this would, of course, involve changes to regulations and definitions, but all of that is already under our own control. It may also raise challenges about the equivalence of student experience across programmes, and the development of joint honours programmes across the University, but these are challenges that can be faced, and can be overcome. What it does allow is for the needs of the students, and the design of their learning to determine the structures, rather than the other way around.