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Reflections on Curriculum Development at RMIT


By Paul Miller
One of the first steps in an education or training program is to develop the formal curriculum that
will be presented in the course. But the question of what the curriculum should be and who should it
serve is a fraught and often political question. I was given the opportunity over the previous summer
to review the curriculum for a course that I have had a long term association with. Through the
implementation of this curriculum, I think there have been some successes as part of this process
and some things that could be improved upon. I will start my investigation by having a look at some
broader curriculum issues from the point of view of some theorists and then look at the pressures on
curriculum development and some problems I have with the current state of affairs. I will finish by
looking at the curriculum I developed in the course I ran and some reflections of why things worked
or didn't work and why that might be the case.
Pinar (2012) advances the idea of curriculum as "complicated conversation". That is, curriculum in
the broader sense is what we as citizens should know as citizens in the modern world. Part of that
complicated conversation is who the students are and what their needs and interests are. He argues
that the educational point of curriculum should be to develop understanding that is knowledge of
not just of the specific academic discipline but also and understanding of us as individuals and as a
society an understanding of our relationship with one another. A key point that comes out of this
conception however is the diversity of the voices involved. Education should not be simply
determined by politicians nor by industry. One of the outcomes of the control that politicians and
businesses have over the educational process is the anti-intellectualism that exists within the
education system. This has resulted in two important and somewhat related trends: an obsession
with standardised testing and a shift towards "outcomes based" or "competency based" education
and training. This "tying of the curriculum" to performance has vastly reduced the freedoms that
teachers have in performing their jobs. Another impact of this culture is reduced thinking skills.
Students are less likely to be able to transfer knowledge from one domain to another; it also means
that students have poorer communication skills.
My other key theoretical source for my analysis is Pierre Bourdieu and in particular Bourdieu's
conceptions of "cultural capital" and "habitus" (Bourdieu, 1986). Bourdieu takes the economic
category of capital and applies this more broadly. Part of his argument is that " the structure of the
distribution of the different types of capital represents the immanent structure of the social
world" and "It is in fact impossible to account for structure and functioning of the social world unless
one reintroduces capital in all its forms " In this article, Bourdieu breaks down capital into three
forms which can be converted from one to another: economic capital, social capital and cultural
capital. Admittedly there can be some confusion as to what capital is. It isn't just goods that can be
exchanged if it was then there would be nothing special about it. Bourdieu defines capital as
labour-time as stored in various forms (p54). So, when we talk about economic capital in terms of
machinery or raw material in an industrial process, their economic value comes from the invested
labour-time grapes on the grapevine have no value; they only have value once harvested. The
same applies to machinery its value derives from the labour-time to not only produce the
machinery but the research and development involved in creating developing equipment of that
type (Marx, 1885). Machines as capital are identified as "fixed capital", that is capital that is the
machinery is purchased upfront and as it wears down it distributes that capital to the commodity to
be produced. Likewise, in Bourdieu's theory, it takes time and effort to convert economic capital into
cultural and social capital.
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I will not explore social capital in detail as it is less critical to my discussion of curriculum. Suffice to
say that it is related to building up networks which create opportunities for turning into economic
capital. Cultural capital on the other hand is very important to this discussion. The concept of
cultural capital may be summarised as the extent that culture and knowledge enable the easier
acquisition economic capital. We get our initial injection of cultural capital from the environment are
brought up in that is from our home education prior to school. We accrue further cultural capital
from our education both formal and informal. The learning we accrue is referred to by Bourdieu as
cultural capital in an embodied form. But cultural capital may also take an objectified form. This is in
the form of books, objects, media, art collections, poetry, etc. That is as cultural goods that are
transferable from one owner to another. Finally there is institutionalised cultural capital. This is
represented by the conferral of award onto the individual to recognise in some objective sense the
embodied cultural capital a person has. The institutionalisation of cultural capital in this way allows
attainments done through formal education to have greater economic value that what a person
learns through informal self-study. The other key concept I am taking from Bourdieu is the notion of
habitus. Habitus is essentially Bourdieu's adaptation of class as referred to by Marx (Blunden, 2004).
Bourdieu saw class as being broader than simply one's place in production but rather it is the how
we internalise the various class conditions that represent our life chances. This is not deterministic
as we can change and challenge our habitus over time.
Before I look at the contending drivers for curriculum change, I want to look briefly at who the
students coming into the course I run are. That is what are their backgrounds and motivations. This
section is based on a combination of statistical analysis of enrolments coupled with my own
observations and conversations with the students. We have a mixture of onshore enrolments and
international students 29 international students and 109 onshore students. 17 of the 138 students
enrolled are female and 121 are male. The majority of our students are doing the degrees in
Computer Science, Software Engineering and IT, with some outliers. Now, in each of these degrees,
the course I teach has been moved one semester earlier in their program and one of the
prerequisites for my course has been removed. However the learning outcomes for the course have
been slightly increased to meet the needs of the courses they may study after this course. What this
means is that students are required to become more familiar with concepts in less time. Also,
students have been at university one semester less and so some of the negative impacts of high
school curriculum are still having a greater impact for example, I have noticed that their ability to
infer one thing from another is less than I would have expected.
Before I explore the contextual drivers of curriculum in the university context, I want to explore a
little of the values and expectations of the students and how that clashed somewhat with my
expectations as a lecturer. I encountered an expectation from students as the course progressed
that what they needed to know would be given to them and that they would not need to make
logical jumps in their understanding. I found this in particular with the in-class assessment. We
presented them with what we thought were simple problems derived from the lecture examples and
they did not know where to start in solving them. Another point I want to explore is the
underpinning reasons that students are studying and how this relates to Bourdieu's theory of
cultural capital and habitus. There are essentially two expectations that I get from students as to
what they want from their studies the first is high grades or the certificate to prove their
competency and the second is to develop their knowledge about the area with less concern on the
outcomes. In other words there is either a focus on accruing institutionalised cultural capital or
embodied cultural capital. A focus on the embodied capital in my experience is related to a desire
and practice of developing a deeper understanding of the concepts in a course whereas a focus on
institutionalised capital is related to a more shallow focus on the material and a greater focus purely
on performance. In the development of both my curriculum and my teaching practice I try to
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develop students' focus on developing embodied cultural capital whereas students partly because
this is how they have been trained want to gain institutionalised cultural capital; that is, they want
the grades and certificates and so tend to learn less deeply.
We now need to look at the drivers of curriculum change the bodies both internal and external to
the university that have an impact on the development of curriculum. One of key ways that industry
has an impact on courses in Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) is via The Australian
Computer Society (ACS). The ACS is a professional organisation representing many practitioners in
the fields of Information and Communication Technology (ICT). Recognition (called accreditation) of
degrees by the ACS forms an important part of their broader recognition and marketability. The ACS
places a range of expectations on degrees that get accredited as well as on the institutions that are
accredited; that is, accreditation performs an important part of the development of institutionalised
cultural capital, which many students consider to be an import reason to study the certificates
increase their chance of finding work.
The ACS places some expectations on the nature of the institution that is delivering ICT education.
For example, the institution delivering such education must have a school or department dedicated
to the delivery of such education made up of a mixture of industry experienced and purely academic
staff, the majority of which must have a background in ICT rather than in non-ICT disciplines. The
ACS also puts some emphasis on the intellectual culture of the school. The school needs to be
outward looking and have a staff development culture that focuses both on educational design
(curriculum) and technology as it is being developed in industry. There also needs to be a teaching
committee of some sort which gives teaching staff the ability to provide feedback in terms of their
own experiences to help guide the overall development of curriculum in the school. There must also
be a sufficient team of technical staff to support the needs of the educational programs. Students
should also be provided with adequate resources for teaching and learning as well as adequate
facilities to run any experiments required as part of the learning process.
The ACS specifies a core body of knowledge (CBOK) which is the core learning that a qualification
in the claiming to deliver ICT learning outcomes should deliver. The extent to which each area of the
core body of knowledge is delivered is dependent on the context of the qualification. The CBOK is
broken down into four components, or blocks: The skill block, the core block, the spec block and the
comp block. The skills that I teach in my course are mostly related the skill block and the core block.
That is, for my students, we are developing many of the skills required for them to work as a
software developer as well as the generic skills required to work in the ICT industry such as problem
solving, technology building and professional knowledge. One final point about the requirements for
ACS approval is that when degree programs are changed, the ACS needs to be informed in writing.
The overall program and contextual changes within the school that delivers the program will be
reassessed as part of the next scheduled review.
There are also some drivers to curriculum change coming from the federal government and the
main form that this comes in is in terms of the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF). One of
the main impacts here is on the language used to describe courses. On the surface this does not
seem to be a big issue but the effect of this is subtle on the way that course outcomes are presented
to students. For example by reformulating what students take from their educational context in
terms of verbs (essentially competencies) rather than as learner attributes, there is a more exclusive
focus on performance of tasks in the destination employment environment that is on
competencies rather than on knowledge and understanding. In fact, even knowledge and
understanding are reformulated as actions rather than as attributes. A large part of the curriculum
reform within the university right now is actually on the AQF so that they can be defended in a
national curriculum context.
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If we take together some both of these external drivers of curriculum development, we can see
Pinar's point about the lack of diversity of voices involved in the curriculum context. For example
three does not seem to be any space for the community's involvement in the setting of curriculum
priorities for the sector. Likewise, the definition of industry involvement is often fairly narrow in
practice larger companies have much more say in national curriculum priorities than does the
broader community.
Along with the context established by industry bodies and the government, there are the internal
processes within the university that must be complied with in order for a degree program to be
changed. I have spent about two weeks communicating at various levels with the university and
have not got very far. The information I have so far is that new degrees programs and alteration to
the duration of a degree or the cessation of the offering of a degree need to be approved by
Academic Board but that changes to degree programs such as, for example, the removal of a
course from a degree program or the changing of prerequisites for a course within a degree program
can be managed within each school. This is a relatively recent change intended to remove red tape
from the approvals process for degrees it is assumed that it would be more efficient to make
changes at the college and / or school level as that allows for more involvement of the teaching staff
in curriculum change. There is however an annual review process of each program which may
impact on this change process.
There are various committees within the school which can propose changes to degree programs.
Two committees that can do this are the Teaching Committee and the Industry Advisory Committee
(Jensen, 2014). The existence of both committees is advertised within the school's website but as a
casual academic who has spent seven and a half years teaching in the school, I dont ever remember
being sent minutes from either committee. I have received minutes from academic board and other
university wide committees and I have the right and capacity to run for a position on a range of
those committees but the committees that impact most directly on my teaching practice and for
which I would have the greatest capacity to provide feedback on my experience of teaching are the
places I seem to have the least access to. This however is not a rare or unusual occurrence. It is
common within the school for much of the casual staff who deliver a great deal of the teaching
within the school to feel that their experience and reflection on that experience is not valued by the
school. For example, I teach an online course Introduction to Information Technology along with
another staff member. We have been informed that this course has been rewritten. At no time in
that process was my colleague or I asked what we thought about the current curriculum or what
direction we felt that the curriculum should go in. This also fits in with Pinar's critique of curriculum
practices today. The focus on curriculum being overall shaped or driven by industry and bureaucrats
and the limited (if any) input from professional teaching staff with a wealth of experience in
curriculum and pedagogy are largely disempowered and their jobs are often reduced to
administrators rather than teachers.
I want to contrast the processes mentioned above with the process of curriculum development that
I was engaged in. Late last year we discovered there really wasn't a formal process of informing
staff that the overall programs (at RMIT the sequence of units that contribute to a qualification are
called a program and each unit is called a course) that incorporate what was then "COSC1284
Programming Techniques" was being submitted for approval to the ACS. This course had not been
rewritten for a rather long time. I studied the course in 2006 and it was a number of years before
that that it had last been rewritten. Along with other changes mentioned below, the course I was to
rewrite was changed from "COSC1284 Programming Techniques" to "COSC1076 Advanced
Programming Techniques". My intention in going into this process was to ensure that all teaching
stakeholders for the course would be consulted so that the final course would be reflective of actual
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learner needs and the context that these students were coming from and going to. Part of the
problem was that as part of the rewrite of the degree programs, one of the previous prerequisites
for the course had been removed from the program and so the students coming into the program
would have more varied backgrounds than in the past; generally though the students coming in
would have less background in computer science and so we would need to cover some material
which had previously been covered in the removed course. In particular, the programming skills of
searching and sorting would need to be covered as these were essential knowledge for some
courses covered later in their degree program.
I then held some initial discussions with lecturers who have previously run courses for which the
course I was rewriting was a prerequisite. The key problem was that the course was not currently
meeting the needs of two courses for which it was a prerequisite: "COSC1112 Operating Systems
Principles" and "COSC2123 Algorithms and Analysis". There were two problems highlighted in my
discussions with the lecturer: firstly, that students were coming into these courses with poor
debugging skills; the second problem was that the final topic in the course, "Generic Programming in
C" was gaining little attention from the students as it was not assessed in the course and students
have had the attitude in the past that "If it is not assessed, it is not worth me spending my time on
right now; I have better things to do." This is understandable to some degree given that that module
is delivered at the end of semester at a time when they have pressures coming at them from all
sides. That is, their entire focus was on institutionalised cultural capital, not their development as
programmers which we would call embodied cultural capital.
So the question was "how do I write a curriculum that meets all these needs?" I could simply write a
curriculum that was "readily attainable" by the students and this is often what happens some
learning outcomes are discarded to ensure a good pass rate and good feedback for the lecturer. I
didn't consider that as I believe that is only betraying the students if they come out of the current
course with poor learning outcomes, their difficulties and potential failure is delayed to a later
course; if it is not handled in a course in their academic career, they will have to face the
employment market with poor skills. This would not be fair on them or their future colleagues or
employer.
So, what were some of the changes made? Many of the lectures for the course were previously
rather short on detail and some concepts that we thought were important were introduced too late
into the course or dealt with in too concise a manner. We greatly expanded on these topics as well
as developing relevant examples to help students understand the concepts. As curriculum cannot be
divorced from assessment, we added in some additional assessments to support this new
curriculum. We were aware that you cannot simply throw in assessment without supporting and
scaffolding of the students' learning. We introduced an assessed lab in week 6 which pushed
students to become familiar with the debugging tools that they would require; we also introduced
into week 12 an assessed lab on generic programming and this has also become a topic for the final
exam. We also cancelled the tutorials in the first week and replaced them with labs where students
were expected to work on through an induction guide on using UNIX. We also introduced a lot more
detail on algorithm development, software design and also conceptual notes explaining how the
code we were writing related to the mechanisms of modern computers the Von Neumann
architecture, memory management and so on. We also tried to incorporate ideas into assessment
that related to students' interests. The first assignment was to create a game of blackjack, for
example, whereas it had previously been a series of unrelated string manipulation exercises which
many students found difficult.
The question remains of how successful were we and how did that relate to the theoretical
principles I raised earlier. Let's start with the assessed labs I introduced in weeks 6 and 12. I can say
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that most students performed poorly in these. It really does seem that part of the problem here is
that students find it difficult to apply the principles they have been taught to unfamiliar contexts.
That is, they are being held back by the previously didactic teaching methods they have been
exposed to but I think it is more than that. I have found myself faced with students who could not
recall concepts that had been repeated weekly in lectures and tutorials and for which I had
mentioned repeated that they would be assessed that what is not immediately in front of them is
generally not even being considered. It would be a wrong approach to blame those students, many
of whom are rather bright, so there must be another answer. To me at least part of the answer is
poor study practices. Students in the school of Computer Science and Information Technology (CSIT)
are not taught how to study. They are presented with materials that they are supposed to develop
and understanding about and integrate into themselves but are never shown how to do this and so
they fall short of the expectations places on them.
The next thing I want to look at is overall performance on the assignments. This is important as I
changed the order in which many of the concepts were delivered with some concepts being
introduced very early which used to be introduced near the end of the course. There were several
outcomes in this regard that are important. Firstly, we introduced structs in week 2 and this was
something that some of my colleagues were concerned about that it was introduced too early and
students would not understand them. Surprisingly that did not end up being an issue. Once change
that did become an issue however was that there was a reduced understanding from students about
string and buffer handling, which is a problem as those are fundamental issues that students need to
grapple with.
Finally there was the UNIX induction guide and its success. I am sad to say that I don't think that was
very successful but I don't think that was the fault of the course either. This has more to do with
judgements made about various sources of cultural capital and how much they are valued by
society, the school and the students themselves. The message that students get from society at large
is that if a program cannot be used with a graphical user interface, then it has no value. This is
despite the fact that much of the IT industry, and especially web servers, all run on UNIX or
derivatives. Students are also trying to minimise their own effort in the short run for what they don't
think is important; all they end up doing however in increasing their own difficulties in the long run.
In conclusion, I think that the development of curriculum is a fraught process which involves an
understanding of who students are but also involves pressures on us from our employer and from
industry. All too often some important voices are lost from the debate including the most
important voice for me, the students. For a more successful curriculum development process all the
players in the education system need to have greater involvement, especially students and teaching
staff. Teaching staff in particular have been excluded from having a real voice in the curriculum
development process and if this is not fixed we will suffer as a society.
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Bibliography
ACS Accreditation Committee, Document 2: Application Guidelines Professional Level Courses,
Accreditation Management Manual, Australian Computer Society, Professional Standards Board,
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Bourdieu, P, "The Forms of Capital", in JE Richardson (ed), Handbook of Theory of Research for the
Sociology of Education, Greenwood Press, 1986, pages 241-258.
Egan, K, "What is Curriculum", in Curriculum Inquiry, volume 8, number 1 (1978)
Jensen, K, Interviewed by Paul Miller, 26
th
May, 2014.
Marx, K, Capital, Chapter 11, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1885-c2/ch11.htm, last
visited 6
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June, 2014, 4 pm.
Pinar, W, What is Curriculum Theory, Second Edition, Routledge, 2012
Rowthorn, B and Harris, D, "The Organic Composition of Capital and Capitalist Development" in
Resnick, S, and Wolff, R (eds), "Rethinking Marxism", New York: Autonomedia, 1985.