Modular universities

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.

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6 Comments on “Modular universities”

  1. Cian Says:

    Is the academic framework for innovation online anywhere? It strikes as the kind of thing that may be worth making available for the ordinary student to poke through.

  2. Jilly Says:

    As one of the last generation of students to study for my BA under the old ‘terms’ system, but having always taught under the new ‘semesters’ system, I’ll say categorically that I’m one of the people who would vote for a return to terms. In fact I often feel sorry for contemporary undergraduates, because I think that semesterization has clearly done harm to their experience.

    Year-long courses had huge advantages: they could be flexible in how they moved through material, because you had ‘time to play with’, and they weren’t on a constant headlong rush towards assessment. One of the huge problems of semesters is assessment, because by the time you’ve had time to actually do some real learning that can be assessed, there’s only time to set one assessment of any value. That means that it HAS to be worth real marks: whereas in year-long courses, there was time to do an exercise, get feedback and then do it again – hopefully better – and get ‘real’ marks only when you’d had some practice.

    Also, semesterization, at a stroke, doubled the year’s exam season. And in most humanities subjects (at the very least), exams are the least useful way of assessing knowledge.

    As for real modularization, I just hope Ireland never introduces it. I’m aware of the advantages of being able to take a course outside of your specialist area. But I’ve also had plenty of experience of teaching American students who were majoring in the area I was teaching: and who were at least one, probably two, years behind their Irish counterparts doing a specialist degree.

  3. Wendymr Says:

    I’d concur with most of Jilly’s comments. My undergraduate degree was taught using the ‘term’ structure, though to be honest the third term was pretty meaningless; out of eight or so weeks, we were taught for perhaps three or four. However, the assessment component was not one I’d recommend. No matter how much work we’d done during the year, the only assessment that counted was the end-of-year examination (and a little bit of self-interest here: I was one of those, in my last couple of years, who typically received Firsts for essays, but 2:1s in examinations). What really took the biscuit, in relation to exams, was the second year, in which we sat examinations which were necessary to proceed to the third year (out of four) but in all official transcripts assessment for the second year is described as There are no formal assessments in Year 2!

    I taught undergraduates under semesterisation, and can see some advantages in it, but it also led to shorter individual courses, and therefore an inability to study any particular subject in depth. For instance, I would have had something close to 40 lectures and half a dozen tutorials in one industrial relations course as an undergraduate, yet in a course in the same topic offered in the degree programme of which I was a faculty member a student would have 17 or 18 lectures and five tutorials.

    Modularisation… where do I start? Either students come to university to study and obtain a degree in a particular subject, or they come to ‘get an education’. Modularisation, if fully implemented, would lead to the US system where specialisation is avoided if at all possible, and students can graduate with a major in, say, history, yet know little more history than a UK or Irish secondary-school graduate. I remember teaching US Erasmus students, who were in their third or fourth year of university, in my first-year class, and discovering how little they knew about the subject (and, of course, appalling grammar, no understanding of referencing and a general belief that an essay using one or two sources deserved an A. But that’s a rant for another time) – just as Jilly says.

    If there’s space in the curriculum to allow students to take additional courses beyond those required for their degree, fine – in fact, Keele University required that students take additional modules in their first two years, two per semester, and that these be from faculties other than their main subjects. So students can take stand-alone modules in astronomy or critical thinking or anthropology or Shakespeare or early Roman history or whatever; but if they come to take a degree in psychology or law or business or English literature, then they follow a prescribed course, with electives in their final year, in those subjects.

    Call me a Luddite, but I never saw ‘semesterisation and modularisation’ as anything more than just following the latest fad, and I certainly never saw it as particularly advantageous to students. Greater modularisation, I fear, will simply lead to more subjects requiring postgraduate qualifications, as students won’t have achieved the required depth of knowledge at the undergraduate level.

  4. Wendymr Says:

    …and I just had to add: we’re perhaps ten years on from the initial implementation of the semesterisation and modularisation ‘experiment’, and it’s fairly clear that there are still very strong feelings around. I wonder if this topic will bring forth a record number of comments?

  5. Grainne Says:

    Most refreshing to see discussion on the advantages and disadvantages of modularisation, and its implementation, from various angles. In my mind there is no doubt that there are benefits to be had, but also pitfalls to be avoided. Just as structures should follow strategy, implementation of modularisation must surely be undertaken with a degree of flexibility that recognises the varied requirements of educational programmes, from the liberal to the professional, and the humanities to hard sciencs.

  6. Nick Greeves Says:

    Why can we not go back? It worked before. Modularisation leads to proliferation of assessment and reduction in the fraction of the academic year available for research. Are the promised advantages of modules real in UK undergraduate degrees?


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