Curriculum Design: The Big Picture

Guest Post

As part of our series of articles on the technical aspects of the e-Learning Programme over the next few weeks Lou McGill, e-learning consultant, will be focussing on the Institutional Approaches to Curriculum Design projects. Now three years in to the four year programme these twelve projects have been exploring the convoluted and sometimes opaque processes universities use to design, validate and deliver courses. In this first post Lou discovers just how useful modelling approaches have been to help projects clarify these curriculum processes.

Engaging with institutional processes and practice

Learning and teaching is of course the core business of our Universities and Colleges, but the processes around how courses are designed and developed are sometimes fragmented. Curriculum Design connects with several processes and systems within an educational institution and impacts on a range of stakeholders. It is difficult to engage with institutional processes without referring to ‘business’ language – and talking about curriculum design in this way can easily alienate the very people you need to engage. Taking a business process view of educational activities however can help to highlight technical and system requirements as well as supporting strategic planning and development. Similarly, focussing on efficiencies, reducing duplication and saving time can result in real enhancements for both the staff and student experience, as highlighted by the JISC Transforming Curriculum Delivery Through Technology programme which has just completed. (see end of this post for more information)

Projects taking part in the ongoing JISC funded Institutional approaches to Curriculum Design programme have become very familiar with the challenges of taking an institution-wide business process approach. How can you get academic staff who often see the course approval process as a ‘form-filling exercise’ to use it as an opportunity to re-imagine and re-think their curricula? How do you convince staff to see the bigger institution-wide picture and understand the links between the seemingly separate processes that support teaching and learning? How do you utilise technologies to take some of the burden of these processes away, leaving staff time to focus on more important activities?

Projects have been responding to these challenges by looking at ways to effectively integrate institutional systems to prevent duplication and streamline processes, particularly in relation to learning and teaching technologies such as institutional VLEs (Virtual Learning Environment) or e-portfolio systems. They have had to articulate and demonstrate the added value that linking these systems brings to a range or different stakeholders. Their experiences in identifying which technologies and standards can meet institutional needs and, perhaps more importantly, which people in the institution have the knowledge to inform these decisions are of value to other institutions. Key to streamlining these processes and integrating systems is the need to identify which data is central and how institutions collate, share and manage that information.

Like many Universities, project teams have also been grappling with the need to align curriculum design with external drivers such as employer needs, the widening participation agenda or practical things like UCAS or HERA requirements; institutional requirements for increased efficiency; and flexibility to respond to changing learner needs. Many institutional systems reflect a time when standard three year degrees where the norm. Modularisation of courses and increasing numbers of part-time, distance and work-based students has resulted in the need for more agile systems that can reflect changing learning patterns and the need for more flexible support mechanisms.

Sarah Knight, Programme Manager for the JISC e-Learning Team says ‘This is a difficult time for educational institutions as they struggle to make sure that they continue to offer high quality learning and teaching whilst responding to drivers for increased efficiency and the need to offer flexible learning choices. The projects in this programme are making excellent use of business process modelling and other innovative approaches to engage stakeholders, highlight their strengths and adapt their systems to be more effective. The wider HE and FE communities should find much to inform their own practice.’

For many projects the programme timing mirrored an institutional desire to review existing systems which provided an ideal opportunity to re-examine the processes affected by these systems.
The processes covered so far by the programme include:

  • course creation, approval, validation, documentation, QA, management (timetabling, resource allocation), modification;
  • student data – enrolment, admissions, registration, progression and assessment, records and e-portfolios;
  • marketing and advertising – recruitment

This range of processes is underpinned by a number of systems and data, many of which will have been developed over time in response to specific needs, and often without an institution-wide consideration. At City University the PREDICT Project (Promoting Realistic and Engaging Discussions in Curriculum Teams) proved timely as the Institution had identified a need for review of IS systems. The obvious practical value of the two things happening at the same time has been augmented by the long term benefits in raising the profile and understanding of curriculum planning requirements. John Gallagher, Enterprise Architect at City said,

‘Historically with IS our projects have ignored the impact of both Curriculum design and delivery unless that was the specific focus of the project. However now, thanks to the profile of PREDICT, we do try to assess any possible impact. An example of this recently was the introduction of a new Student Module Feedback system to provide additional information in order to assess academic performance. However this feedback is also essential for staff to review the design and delivery of the module. Prior to PREDICT we would have ignored this angle as it was not a specific deliverable of the project!’

Where to start?

As a four year programme projects had time to do a comprehensive baseline review and to invest significant time in engaging stakeholders. Project baselining activities or benchmarking are of high value to any change process as they offer time to look at and record where an institution is at the start of the change process and to really examine existing practice, identify strengths and highlight weaknesses. Having to explain something you do to others in detail provides an opportunity for questioning of activities that seem obvious but can be based on historical or traditional approaches that are no longer relevant.

When baselining is done across a programme of activities a picture of the sector begins to emerge and this one has highlighted issues relating to marketing, quality assurance and enhancement, understanding and responding to employer and learner needs and demands, issues around assessment and feedback and managing course information. These areas are discussed in more detail in a briefing paper produced in February 2011 and will, of course, be described in more detail in the final synthesis reports at the end of the programme. This series of blog posts will focus on issues around managing course information and how institutions link this to other data through a range of processes and systems.

Business process modelling

During the baselining stage many diagrams were developed to capture the various processes and data that result from these. One example is the process workflow diagram from the PIP project (Principles in Patterns) at the University of Strathclyde.


It can be useful to see how other institutions visualise their activities and processes, even if they do tend to be context specific, but it is the process of developing the diagrams that has been of most significance to the institutions involved, such as this curriculum approval process mapping described by the PALET Project (Programme Approval Lean Electronic Toolset) from Cardiff university. The dialogue and learning to be had from identifying, recording and sharing how the various business processes link up has been noted by several projects. The SRC Project (Supporting Responsive Curricula) has produced an excellent case study detailing Manchester Metropolitan University’s stakeholder requirements for an Academic Database of programmes and units. This document describes the activities and includes examples of process diagrams. Engaging stakeholders through the use of rich pictures was a method adopted by the UG-Flex Project at the University of Greenwich – a diagramming technique developed to capture stakeholder views in a non-confrontational way. See this example – computer says no!


(A further explanation of developing rich pictures is available at:

It is clear from even these brief examples that Projects have adopted a range of modelling approaches. JISC CETIS ran a workshop in May 2009 to highlight the ArchiMate enterprise architechture modelling language for curriculum design processes. Discussions with projects at the end of the CETIS workshop highlighted that:

‘ In terms of cost-benefit, adopting a modelling approach for those projects that didn’t already use it, opinions differed. Some felt that the investment in software and skills acquisition were only worth it if an institution took the strategic decision to adopt a modelling approach. Others felt that a lightweight, iterative use of Archimate, perhaps using common drawing tools such as Visio during the trial stage, was a good first step. Yet others thought that modelling was worth doing only with considerable investment in tools and skills right at the beginning.’ Wilbert Kraan, JISC CETIS

The SRC Project used ArchiMate components to present visualisations during baselining activities and have also blogged about this. They presented at the CETIS workshop on their experiences with ARchiMate which they decided to try after finding the Course Validation Reference Model (COVARM) useful but a bit complex for most stakeholders. The SRC project also used UML (Unifying Modelling Language) to develop more detailed diagrams and examples are available in the SRC case study.

A range of project diagrams and process maps reflecting the different modelling approaches will be made available in the JISC Design Studio which is being added to as projects progress. The JISC CETIS Architecture and Modelling page provides an ongoing picture of developments in this area. It seems likely that these projects have significant potential to further our understanding of some key interoperability standards such as XCRI, learning design specifications, competency standards and qualification frameworks, particularly in relation to how these support data sharing across the range of institutional systems.

A shorter two year sister programme ran in parallel to the Institutional approaches to Curriculum Design programme which focussed on curriculum delivery – the space where students engage with the curriculum. Both programmes naturally involved some overlap with curriculum design and delivery having close synergies. The Transforming Curriculum Delivery Through Technology programme has now completed and outcomes (lessons learned) and outputs (case studies, guidelines, etc.) are incorporated into the JISC Design Studio. Both programmes are feeding into this resource which was created during the programmes to provide both a resource for projects and ultimately a source for the wider community.

About Lou

Lou McGill is currently working independently and has recently been involved in synthesis and evaluation activities for the HE Academy/JISC UKOER programme and the JISC Transforming Curriculum Delivery Through Technology programme. She lead the team that produced the Good Intentions report on business cases for sharing and worked on the LLiDA study (Learning Literacies in a Digital Age). She has experience of working in a range of HE institutions as a librarian, learning technologist and project manager and used to be a JISC Programme Manager on the eLearning team. In the distant past she worked for NIACE (the adult learning organisation) and in Health education for the NHS. Her interests and experience include digital literacy, information literacy, open education, distance learning, managing organisational change, and effective use of technologies to support learning. Further information on Lou’s work can be found at:

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