When I was a student – and indeed, when I was first a university lecturer - universities in these islands (and, I believe, in much of the English-speaking world) all had a similar academic year: it was structured into three ‘terms’, each with typically between eight and ten weeks. The basic teaching unit was a year-long course, which would be examined at the end of the academic year, usually in a written examination which alone would account for the marks on which student progression would be decided. Through the 1980s it became more common to allow some non-examination assessment, but on the whole this remained the standard approach.
However, there was always some awareness that in other countries this was not the norm. European universities had an academic year of two semesters – indeed, not really an academic year, since the semester was the basic unit of progression. American universities also had semesters, but arranged slightly differently.
The first university in these islands to adopt a semester-based framework was Stirling, which from its foundation in the 1960s had a different view of how student learning and progression should be arranged. From its opening in 1967, Stirling offered students modular programmes, under which students had to build up ‘credits’ in order to qualify for graduation, and these credits were awarded for the successful completion of a ‘module’; the modules were the ‘courses’ offered to students, and within certain guidelines students could put together their own menu of modules leading to their degree.
On the whole the Stirling model was frowned upon by most universities, and the suspicion was often voiced that this approach to teaching amounted to a ‘dumbing down’ of university study. It didn’t help that in Britain the other early adopters were polytechnics. However, by the 1990s some universities began to look favourably on modularisation, with the University of East Anglia and Bristol University being among the first. And by the end of the 1990s semesterisation and modularisation had become a tidal wave in Britain, sweeping along the overwhelming majority of institutions. At the time I was a Professor at the University of Hull, and in the mid-1990s we semesterised and modularised. It would be fair to say that there was a lot of scepticism in the academic community, not least because those who pushed for the introduction were sometimes very bad at explaining why it should be done, beyond pointing to the fact that everyone else was doing it.
Indeed that was one of the problems of the 1990s wave of modularisation: because it was so often championed by university senior managements and resisted by many academics, it was often poorly designed, minimalist in intent and reach, and often quite simply the old model squeezed into new units. Very often universities found themselves unable to handle the internal budgetary consequences of real modularisation (where students could make flexible portfolio choices) and so restricted it to such an extent that the real purpose was lost. by the late 1990s in Hull, almost no academic would admit to having been in favour of the introduction of modularisation, and I believe this was not an untypical scenario.
The current decade has seen some new thinking, and in many universities modularisation was re-engineered, this time with the proper pedagogical analysis and therefore with much more dynamic effect. My university now, Dublin City University, also modularised in the 1990s, but only recently have we undertaken a thorough analysis of what a revitalised modular structure could produce, and how it could provide both deep learning and flexible choices. The outcome of this analysis was DCU’s Academic Framework for Innovation, which is gradually being rolled out at this point. Similar reviews and reforms are also being undertaken or contemplated in other universities.
The reason why modularisation became so pervasive but also was initially introduced in such an unsatisfactory manner was perhaps because the academic community was willing to accept that there might be a more innovative way to acquire and assess knowledge, but was given inadequate opportunities to explore that and ensure that any reform reflected the insights gained. When modular degree programmes were introduced in dozens of universities in the 1990s it was an extraordinarily rushed job, and was in the end treated as an exercise in academic organisation rather than an exploration of knowledge and its nature and potential. It was, in my view, the right thing to do, but almost everywhere it was done quite badly. Even now, I would not be certain whether, in many universities, academics would not vote for a return to the old systems of terms.
We cannot really go back, but we must get it right. We must ensure that students have a learning experience that grounds them in the basic knowledge and analysis that they need for the area of study they have chosen, and also that they have the opportunity to make flexible choices that will bring them into direct contact with cognate or relevant disciplines; and we must ensure that we assess their knowledge and achievements in an appropriate manner that is both demanding and open to intellectual innovation. Overall, the academy still has some way to go before we have got this right – though I also believe that, in DCU, we have now made a strong start.