The academic unit of exchange
I remember when in the University of Hull in 1994 or thereabouts a new modular structure for degree programmes was introduced, most academics saw it primarily as a mechanism for changing the term structures of the academic year, and they assessed (and usually resisted) it accordingly. It took a moment for it to sink in that the critical innovation was not the change from a trimester/term system to a semester framework, but rather the establishment of the module as the basic pedagogical building block of learning and qualification. Modules would allow the student to build up and transfer credits, and would allow flexible pathways to be developed in the design of academic programmes.
But then again, maybe that wasn’t the critical change after all. At a recent workshop I heard a number of academics argue that the real problem with modularisation was that it had removed or at least undermined deep learning, in that each subject had to be crammed into a twelve week course of teaching and had to be assessed or examined within that structure. Many, maybe most, subjects – so they argued – required the intensity and depth of treatment that needed to be extended over a year; but this assumption had been killed off by making semesters the unit for each module. Short modules might be the perfect unit for today’s youth with limited attention spans, but they were not always pedagogically appropriate.
The truth is, of course, that modules are flexible units that can be easily adapted to almost any learning objectives. There is actually no reason not to have two associated modules that will produce a year-long analysis of a topic. But the uneasiness that some academics feel may suggest that modularisation has been inadequately understood and implemented, and that more work needs to be done to make it an educational project rather than one driven by the administration of learning. Two decades on from the original rush to modularisation, such work would be timely.