Posted tagged ‘modularisation’

Living with semesters

February 7, 2017

Most universities in the English-speaking world (though as we shall note, not all) organise their academic sessions into semesters.  A ‘semester’, just in case this needs to be explained, is according to the Oxford English Dictionary ‘a period or term of six months’. I point this out as a precaution to ward off those who might start talking about having three semesters in one year, a feat which could only be accomplished in another dimension in which a year had 18 months. And just to explain something else, a ‘trimester’ consists of three months, so that you could fit four (not just three) into a year.

If you were a student anywhere in these islands at about the same time as I was, then you would have been used to having your year split into ‘terms’. Generally universities would claim to have three terms in the year, but typically only two of these would be real functioning educational entities. The third would be for some sort of revision, updates and perhaps social revelry; it would in any case typically be shorter.

But even back then there was a different model of which many of us would have been aware. American universities had semesters (though not all), as had the Germans. But then we also heard about the then still quite new Stirling University and its use of modular programmes taught in semesters – an innovation which by the 1990s began to gain ground elsewhere in the UK. The University of Hull adopted semesterisation and modularisation in the mid 1990s while I worked there, and since then that is the only framework I have know, in the UK and Ireland.

The last university in Ireland to embrace semesters was Trinity College Dublin. Actually, ’embrace’ is too strong a word – it was more a stiff handshake. Semesters were introduced, but the College retained the old term-based nomenclature, and decided there would be no examinations of any kind at the end of the first semester. Now TCD is proposing to complete the change, but with some resistance from staff who, according to a report in the Examiner newspaper, think it will turn the university into a ‘second-rate polytechnic’.

I suspect some of the resistance is about a dislike of change and a wish to be seen in the same company as Oxford or Cambridge (which don’t have semesters). But it is worth asking whether the pedagogy of modular, semester-based programmes has been as much to the forefront of reform as it should have been. There is little doubt that any even modest attempt to pursue interdisciplinary formation is assisted by a modular structure; but this should be seen alongside a better understanding of what the real unit of knowledge should be in a contemporary university. Modules and semesters do give us the tools for modern learning and scholarship, but these tools are only useful if we know what we are building. Are we delivering bite-sized chunks of studying, or do we have a pedagogical concept of learning that underpins the structures? Many universities do have that concept, or vision, I think – but as a sector, I’m far less sure that we have ever explained this properly.


Academic years

May 8, 2012

Back in 1978, I sat my final undergraduate examinations in Trinity College Dublin. In those days TCD had its exams in September, thus ruining everyone’s summer, and the last paper I tackled was on a Saturday towards the end of the month. Matters were not helped by the fact that, on the following Monday two days later, I was due to start as a PhD student in the University of Cambridge.

But if that was crazy, maybe we should ask whether the whole concept of an ‘academic year’ is now out of date. We enrol students for a September starting date, mostly, and round about this time of year they sit their exams. At least that’s how it is in this part of the world. Occasionally now we do make available entry routes that bring students in at other times, particularly just after the New Year. And for some postgraduate degree programmes it is even more flexible.

However, the concept of a shared journey through the course, experienced by students in groups, has value. If students came and went around the year as if they were using a train, it would become impossible to run a curriculum or maintain a group setting. In addition, it can be argued that modular structures require similar dates across subjects and disciplines, because without that you could not maintain an interdisciplinary menu.

So are we still stuck with the ‘academic year’, or is there scope for some creativity? This may become an increasingly important question, as students become less willing to set aside fixed years in their lives devoted exclusively to study. However, as long as we continue to see learning as consisting of a series of fixed segments that need to be experienced strictly in sequence, it will not be easy. Still, maybe that is what learning requires. Or then again, maybe we do not ask enough questions about pedagogy in a changing world.

The academic unit of exchange

July 8, 2011

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.

Are our universities too specialised?

January 20, 2011

Writing as a guest blogger in the higher education pages of the Washington Post newspaper, Anne D. Neal of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) complains that American students are not getting a sufficiently rounded education. In fact, she suggests that the US system of higher education has ‘a culture that is anti-intellectual and that often produces students who have neither the skills or knowledge they will need to succeed after graduation’. In particular, she feels that students graduate without having a sufficient knowledge of history, economics and literature.

It is probably worth saying that the ACTA is not without its critics in America, and indeed Anne Neal has been criticised as someone intervening in higher education without sufficient expert knowledge and with a political agenda. However, the points raised in her piece may merit some discussion. Students in our system of education are being pushed earlier and earlier into greater specialisation, often before they are mature enough to make such choices. Modularisation in universities has provided some opportunities to broaden knowledge, but its implementation in practice has often been difficult.

Is it time to look more closely at our education system and to ask whether a more rounded education, continued to a slightly later age, would benefit society? Later specialisation (which certainly cannot be avoided) may work better if it is grounded in a greater degree of general knowledge.

Student choice

December 16, 2010

When I was an undergraduate law student in Dublin in the 1970s, the content of my degree programme was largely fixed for me, but there were some choices. During my first two years studying law, all my subjects (there were no ‘modules’ then) were compulsory, in part of course reflecting the requirements and demands of the legal professions. During the third year, three subjects were compulsory, and students could choose a fourth from a menu of about seven options. In the fourth and final year one subject was compulsory, and the remaining three were chosen by the student from the same list of seven options. That was it.

In today’s higher education environment the basic structure of degree programmes has, in almost all universities, changed fundamentally with the arrival of modularisation. Students must still, in most institutions, opt for a degree programme in a menu made available to them, but within these programmes they can now expect to be able to make significant choices as to which specific elements (modules) they will take, and in a number of institutions these choices will include some ‘free electives’ that can be taken from outside the subject area they have chosen for their degree. So for example, University College Dublin (UCD) describes this part of the framework as follows:

‘In addition, you generally also have a choice of two ‘elective’ modules (subject to module entry requirements, timetable and availability of places), which can either be taken from within your main subject area to deepen your learning, or from outside it to broaden your learning. The choice is yours.’

Sometimes this level of discretion is not popular with academics, who fear that the selection of modules from outside the key discipline may create difficult complications. Modules made available in other programmes may not be easily understood outside of those programmes, and students taking them in this way may lack necessary background knowledge. There may also be budgetary difficulties as student numbers become hard to predict in individual modules.

Nevertheless, as we increasingly emphasise the significance of interdisciplinarity, modular flexibility may become  more desirable. But how far should it be a free choice, and to what extent should it be constrained or at least guided? The traditional understanding of higher education was heavily focused on education within and for disciplines. Is such intellectual compartmentalisation still possible? Do we have a new pedagogical understanding of the coherent formation of students?

Keeping universities traditional

September 7, 2010

The reform and modernisation of higher education has been one of the themes of the past decade. This has not always been greeted enthusiastically within universities, but nevertheless recent years have seen restructuring, modularisation and commercialisation, and while some aspects of higher education have remained largely unchanged, the sector as a whole has gone through significant renewal.

The reform drive has often been prompted and pushed by government, the media and industry. Nevertheless, it appears that not all modernisation is seen as good. To illustrate this point, let me quote from an article in the Sunday Telegraph of this past weekend. The article, on what are described as ‘Mickey Mouse degrees’, contains the following passages:

‘An analysis of courses available through the university clearing system has disclosed that while most traditional courses are now full up, there are empty places in scores of “eccentric” degree courses. Education experts said it was unfortunate that such courses appeared to be proliferating at a time when school-leavers with good grades could not get places in core academic subjects….

Yet despite record demand for places at top universities, hundreds of places are still available in less well known higher education institutions, many of them offering unconventional courses. Northampton University initially had 250 places available through the clearing system, including such courses as Third World Development with Pop Music, Dance with Equine Studies and joint honours in Waste Management and Dance…

Mr Willetts  [Universities Minister] said: “In tough times I suspect some of these more eccentric courses, which date from the excesses of the dying days of the Labour government, will disappear because students see they are not a route into a well-paid career. Some of them sound like very odd courses indeed.”‘

It is not my intention to assess or defend particular programmes of studies in any university, but rather to point out that the whole intention behind modularisation (which has been backed strongly by governments and funding agencies) is to allow much greater flexibility so that students can assemble degree courses to suit their interests and/or career intentions, while maintaining appropriate academic grounding. Whether that has been achieved in programmes mentioned above is not necessarily the point, because the comments quoted there make assumptions about the dubious merit of unconventional subject combinations – comments which on the face of it fly in the face of the whole point of modularisation. The pedagogical idea, and indeed the perception of what society needs, is that making links between different subject areas opens up the possibility of interdisciplinary analysis and the acquisition of significant skills on the part of students. Universities should be the home of ‘eccentric’ initiatives, whereas here the assumption appears to be that traditional prudence is better than innovation.

Of course we should not defend programmes of study that have been assembled without proper pedagogical planning or which have inadequate intellectual foundations. But the people to make this judgement should appropriately sit on peer review panels; they are probably not going to include journalists from the Telegraph, or even the English Universities Minister if he makes such casual judgements.

Widening the university curriculum

February 13, 2010

The University of Aberdeen, one of the oldest universities in the UK (it was founded in 1495), has just introduced a major reform to its undergraduate curriculum. According to a report in the Guardian newspaper, students will now need to include in their chosen programme of study one course each year that will cover topics not necessarily related to their main discipline. These include risk in society, science and the media, and sustainability. Aberdeen also includes optional work placements for students within the programme.

In this way what many may have regarded as a rather traditional university is reforming its curriculum and moving beyond the by now fairly common regulated modular structures of most institutions. It is also due to move to a semester framework for the academic year (though semesters will be called ‘half-sessions’).

What the Aberdeen reforms have in common with some of the more advanced modular systems is that they encourage students to consider issues and perspectives that are not part of any of the traditional disciplines, while not however compromising the disciplines which will continue to be taught. The pedagogical question in all this is whether knowledge can or should be studied in university degree programmes according to the perspectives of a discipline (assuming we can agree what a ‘discipline’ is), or whether it can be assessed according to the issues and questions that are relevant to modern society, such as questions about health, about energy, about social organisation, and so forth. Aberdeen is suggesting, if I understand it, that you do both: you maintain the discipline, but you also assess interdisciplinary issues in separate courses taught at the same time, but outside the disciplinary syllabus. It is an interesting contribution to the debate about higher education.

The flexible degree programme

April 9, 2009

I used to have a German friend who was by inclination, temperament and vocation a university student. When I last had contact with him in the mid-1980s he had been what we would call an undergraduate student, in the same course, for nearly nine years, and he was showing absolutely no sign of wanting to bring that phase of his life to an end. For all I know he is a student still. In this part of the world we have taken a very different approach: your degree programme is, probably, three or four years long, and most students will complete it in that timeframe; a small number may fail enough examinations to extend their progress by a year. But that’s it, really.

Our approach to this has been guided by economic prudence – it is expensive to keep a student on a course – and educational principle – students should focus on their studies and complete them in a timely manner. This has been based on the implied assumption that a student is, usually, a full-time learner. But a lot has been changing. As participation in higher education has grown dramatically, so the student body has become much less homogeneous and different persons have different needs. For example, a significant number of students nowadays help fund their time at university by engaging in what is often nearly full-time paid employment. This can result in a situation where the student struggles to keep up with their studies for lack of time.

It may be that we need to find some middle way between the not uncommon permanent student found in Germany and the strictly regulated programme duration in our own universities. As universities are increasingly operating modular systems it should become easier to design pathways that leave the student with more flexibility (for example as to how many modules to take in a given year) while still maintaining a degree of supervision and proper academic rigour. This, for example, is one of the aspects of DCU’s Academic Framework for Innovation.

Neither our student body nor their expectations and needs are the same today as they were when higher education was much more elitist. Not only do we now have many more students who need to work to have an adequate income to live off, we have more mature people whose professional expectations have been overturned by economic events and who may benefit from retraining, but who cannot simply slot into the old ‘full-time’ courses. We need to ensure that we support the drive to open up higher education much more, and we need to be flexible in pursuit of it.

Modular universities

December 9, 2008

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.