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Strategic Directions in Higher, Vocational and Professional Education: Exploring Contexts

Exploring Context

graphic illustrating the four themes this article explores

Institutional Context

Tertiary providers are increasingly expected to deliver 'work-ready' graduates. This is a challenge when we must acknowledge that many graduates will begin a career, in a year's time or in the three years, that does not exist today (Susskind, R., & Susskind, D., 2017). Identifying the competency frameworks within our disciplines and those of our professional colleagues is a good place to start (Atkinson, 2015). We can then identify a range of graduate attributes that will underpin our programme outcomes and inform the development of real-world assessment.

Challenging Our Assumptions

It is critically important to challenge our assumptions whenever we contemplate introducing any new courses or programmes into our portfolios.

Whether you are designing an individual course or an entire programme, it is important to ‘future-proof’ it to the greatest extent possible. To ensure that it is consistent and logical. If one sees individual courses as self-contained ‘units of learning’ with their own outcomes and assessment, you risk creating problems later on, for course substitutions, updating and student continuity

It is important to question all of our assumptions about the context into which our learning design is intended fit. Despite the fact that you may feel you know your learning context intimately the chances are there will be some contextual evolution. Take the time to go through these questions, if only to confirm your assumptions.

Regardless of whether you are charged with designing an entire degree-award, a programme or an individual course, you will be doing so within an institutional context. Validating learning is a responsibility of approved degree-awarding institutions in the UK and many countries too, although some have regional or national validation processes (www.inqaahe.org). Regulations vary marginally between contexts but they are remarkably consistent in their aspirations despite different levels of detail being required.

You should design your course or programme with reference to the academic regulations and policies and practices implemented by your institution. But, it is important to avoid copying existing learning on the basis that they will automatically be suitable for validation. The regulatory framework also evolves over time, it adjusts over time in response to the dynamic dialogue between innovative course designers and those responsible for institutional quality assurance. Never copy and paste!

You might want to convene a course team and ask:

Context Questions
Course / Module
  • What credit weighting is my course expected to carry?
  • At what Level is my course intended to be taught?
  • Is it intended to assess the same course at different levels?
  • Where in the programme sequence is my course intended to appear?
  • Is my course intended to flexible enough to be aligned to multiple programmes
Programme
  • Is my Programme divided into Stages, are there multiple exit points?
  • What are the naming conventions within my Programme?
Department
  • Where does the academic management of the learning sit?
School/Faculty
  • Which School will oversee the quality processes associated with this learning?
  • Are there graduate attributes at a School level?
University
  • How does this learning align with the strategic objectives of the University?

National Quality Assurance Context

Once you have a sense of how your learning design might conceivably fit into the institutional context, but before anything is regarded as fixed, it is prudent to review external contextual influences on learning design. One of the most important is the national, regional or state context.

In the United Kingdom, for example, this oversight is provided by the Quality Assurance Agency (qaa.ac.uk) or QAA. This section is illustrative of the kinds of questions you will need to be asking yourself..

The UK Quality Code for Higher Education is a web-based resource with printable PDFs (qaa.ac.uk) that provides a comprehensive structural guide as to how learning designs should be interpreted. It does not provide a design template, rather it functions more accurately as an evaluative framework. Part A of the code is the most pertinent to the design process at this moment. There are four themes that UK course and programme designers need to consider:

Themes Design Questions
Levels At what Level is the programme’s named award to be made (Graduation level)? In the UK these levels are defined in the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications
Qualification Characteristics Broad guidance as to the distinguishing characteristics of specific named awards.
Credit Framework Convention determines that certain exit awards have a certain number of credits associated with them. Credit is often defined through the concept of ‘notional student hours’ which might, for example, suggest that 1 credit equates to 10 hours of study. This measurement should include everything the student does, including assessment.
Subject Benchmarks Disciplines, at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, may have subject benchmarks associated with them. These provide valuable conventional guidance on what is anticipated to be learned by students under specific discipline, or subject, headings.

These may closely relate to professional criteria which is dealt with next.

Professional Accreditation and Employment Trends

Now you know your course or programme is going to fit into your institutional profile and you are assured that it will meet the quality assurance criteria, you need to ask yourself 'why would a student want to do this course'?

Given the design process is likely to take several months and it may take a year or two before you enrol first students; the reality is your Postgraduate students will probably be graduating in two years at the earliest, your Undergraduates students in 4 years; a great deal can change.

It is important to build into your design and review processes, some form of environmental horizon scanning. This may exist in your practice already but where it doesn’t it is worth instituting. Gathering White Papers from commercial partners or competitors, clients, employers as well as press clippings and exploring changes in the direction that your profession or discipline may be heading should be the focus of some course team debate.

For more on horizon scanning, you may want to explore this UK government resource.

There is clearly also value in sharing your early programme and module designs with representatives from the professions or disciplines that your graduates are intended to graduate into. It’s often a good idea to do this very early on in the process, not to ask for validation of your designs, but to capture the widest possible intelligence on future directions.

Here are some basic questions, but you should explore as a course team those questions that seem more appropriate to your evolving context.

Professional Accreditation

Competency Frameworks What competency frameworks (apprenticeship standards) and professional body guidelines exist in my discipline?

If there is no national guidance, what about international guidance that might be indicative of trends?

Ethical Standards Are there globally recognised ethical standards in my discipline?

What internationally agreed accords are under development?

Anticipated Changes Are competitors working on alternative offerings such as two-year degrees or new degree apprenticeships.?

Employment Trends

Globalisation vs Localisation How is my profession or discipline evolving over time, are there identifiable trends?

How important is language ability or digital skills?

Automation / Systematisation How much of my discipline or profession is data-driven, or knowledge-based, and therefore more prone to automation?

On the contrary, are there inter-personal or affective skills that distinguish my discipline that is likely to require personal presence?

Anticipated Changes What are the big ideas in my discipline?

Are there new Internet applications that take away part of what has traditionally been seen as a distinguishing feature of my discipline?

Scholarship Agenda

It is natural for course teams to be intimately familiar with the scholarship that underpins the ‘content’ that they intend to deliver to students. Harder for most course teams is to get some distance from their own practice and to take a ‘bird’s eye view’ of their design as it emerges.

Again, it is important to be sensitive to the evolving discipline landscape. The best way to do this is to establish some form of ‘environmental scanning’ or ‘horizon scanning’ processes within your design team. Avoid the danger of fixating on a competitor’s advantage, or a particular client’s requirements, by maintaining as broad a view as possible.

Here are four categories you may want to start with. Review sources in each category with the same question; “What does this source tell me about the evolving needs of effective learning design in my discipline?”

Academic Literature Academic Journals in your discipline

Academic Books and Book Chapters in your discipline

Academic publications in related fields that impact directly, or indirectly on your discipline.

Conference Proceedings Conference proceedings are very often very much current or future implementations of scholarship. A great place to get a handle on what is happening ‘now’ and in the near future.
Grey Literature The blogosphere is a great place to source original and innovative approaches. Once you have validated the sources (so that you know the writer has credibility) you may want to track their train of thought over time.

White Papers from software producers (most disciplines make some use of technology!) and publishers are also counted as ‘Grey Literature’. Some software companies have in-house R&D divisions that foreshadow major trends in your discipline.

Contacts Personal or Team contacts also provide invaluable accounts of practice that inform the design process. You may find out the difficulties, or advantages, of running virtual scenarios for example and correct your design accordingly.

Evaluating your Contextual Judgements

It is important to return to these questions as you go through the future stages of the 8-SLDF. You will want to revisit these questions each time you have a course team meeting:

  1. Has my institutional strategy or alignment changed in any way?
  2. Have any quality assurance regulations, guidelines or benchmarks changed in any way?
  3. Do I still have all of the external reference points (my horizon-scanning) established to be able to define Programme Outcomes?
  4. What contextual circumstances might suggest that I should do something different from the norm and what external support is needed? And if I’m not doing anything innovative, why not?!
  5. What issues has my horizon scanning produced that others in the School or wide University need to be aware of?

References

Atkinson, S. P. (2015). Graduate Competencies, Employability and Educational Taxonomies: Critique of Intended Learning Outcomes. Practice and Evidence of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 10(2), 154–177.

Susskind, R., & Susskind, D. (2017). The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts. OUP Oxford.
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