It is hard to describe the significance of this book. It is layered, informative in its specifics, timely in its publication, and helpful in its references to the academic literature on facets of curriculum change. It is much more than the sum of its component chapters. In its totality, the book is thought-provoking, particularly for those working on matters related to the evolving public policy framework within which government support is provided to postsecondary institutions.
The book is a collection of seven articles describing work on various facets of curriculum transformation within seven Irish postsecondary institutions, all located in the greater Dublin region and all members of the Dublin Region Higher Education Alliance. Each chapter in the book includes a case analysis of a curriculum change project or process, paired with a response written by an expert from outside the institution in question. Each chapter is designed to be self-contained. The book, at its core, is a practitioner’s manual: a sophisticated practitioner’s manual loaded with reflection and insight—and with the appropriate inclusion of relevant citations from the academic literature on curriculum design and transformation. As the editors emphasize in their preface, it is designed to be sampled from, not swallowed whole. Each chapter speaks to its own particular audience.
Those colleagues in institutions that are working on modularization will focus on the Harvey, Hayes and O’Rourke paper on “Modularization and ‘the Crowded Curriculum’,“ describing the implementation of a modularized programme design system at the Dublin Institute of Technology. Others who are concerned with student access and inclusivity will turn straight to the Garvey and Foley piece on the “Trinity Inclusive Curriculum: a Case Study on the Development of an Inclusive Curriculum Strategy.” Dublin City University’s Academic Framework for Innovation is discussed and the use of technology to support e-learning options at the Institute of Art, Design and Technology Dun Laoighre is assessed. University College Dublin’s ‘Focus on First Year’ project is reviewed. National University Ireland, Maynooth’s contribution is on the role of the university teacher in an evolving student-centred curriculum, while the relationship between institutional strategic planning and curriculum design is analyzed in the contribution from the Institute of Technology Blanchardstown (ITB), a new institution, relatively speaking, in the Irish higher education sector.
There is much to be gleaned from each of these chapters on what has worked and why, when introducing changes to curriculum design and delivery. There are hard reality checks, as well, on the challenges around timelines, around successful implementation, around general institution-wide adoption of new processes and regarding unintended consequences resulting from changes to key pillars of curriculum. The reader is reminded frequently that choices to address one area of curriculum design, for example, modularization can result in enhanced concerns about a “less integrated” approach to learning, or about an increase in exam pressure experienced by students. Overall, however, the authors collectively project a creative, engaged, constructive determination to engage their academic and administrative colleagues in a process of successful change that is responsive to evolving student needs and to the changing demographic profile of the Irish postsecondary student population, while also meeting the requirements of the Bologna Accord and the policy priorities of the Irish Government and its agencies.
The term ‘dynamic’ in the title of the book is apt and is captured in the narratives in each of the seven chapters. There is something else captured in the prose as well, explicitly and implicitly. There is an understanding about the inherent tension between the requirements of top down policy direction from government and the tradition of collegial, self-regulated change and evolution driven through academic ‘grass roots’ initiatives. There is a concern floating underneath the rational descriptions of the strategies employed to resolve these tensions. It is a not quite articulated worry that the academic community is losing its voice in the public conversation about the value and values of higher education, and that the sphere is becoming more circumscribed as a result. Indeed, to the extent that postsecondary education policies at a national or subnational state level are becoming contemporary replacements for traditional national industrial development and economic development strategies, it is the case that government and public support for third level education is defined through an economic value-added lens. Alternative constructs of the value of a postsecondary education, particularly the concept of a postsecondary education having strong a ‘personal growth’ dimension, beyond its utility in the employment market place, have lost their centrality.
There is an inevitability to this, as more public resources are devoted to supporting much larger and more diverse higher education student populations in an increasingly competitive, technology intensive, global economic environment in which the costs of public services are rising fast and productivity enhancements are an economic imperative. Larry McNutt, from ITB, alludes to this ‘frisson’ carefully and elegantly in his chapter on strategic planning and curriculum design, the final chapter in the book. He opens the door for Bill Hunter, in his response, to talk about passion, about heart and soul, about those magic moments that are central to all of our experiences in and outside of classrooms where we connect with our teachers, with our learning material, where there is a spark and a thrill of discovery and understanding, a delight in the purity of a concept, a comfort in our understanding and a new confidence in our own ability to think and act based on our new knowledge. Hunter (and I must declare he is a UOIT colleague of mine), in his few brief words, has captured a process that is unstated but we must assume is at the core of the content of framework agreements, of policy and strategy documents, of accountability templates and of learning outcome descriptions. It is the process at the heart of learning (to borrow Hunter’s term) and it is the fundamental driver that motivates our academic colleagues in their teaching activities.
This book ably captures the hard work it takes to build and maintain curriculum innovation focused on sustaining the passion of learning. The institutions represented in this book have demonstrated commitment, innovation and clarity of purpose in their creative approaches to changing various facets of their respective curriculum delivery systems. Interestingly and importantly, while all institutions are working toward the common goals of meeting Bologna and national policy objectives, they do so drawing strength from rather than diminishing their own distinctive cultures and identities. They do so with a steady focus on the needs of their students.
There are two personal anecdotes that frame my reaction to this book. The first relates to the fact that I am an alumnus of Trinity College. In reading Garvey and Foley’s informative and honest article on the development of the Trinity Inclusive Curriculum Strategy I was taken both by the importance of the project as a critical enabler of access for students of diverse backgrounds and by the challenges of widespread adoption across the university. This, I thought, is a long way from philosophy tutorials in Kennedy’s on Westland Row, as I read for a moderatorship in mental and moral science! A long way in a very good sense. An image of Sweeny’s across the street came to mind and with it the sense that there is something quite Joycean about this collection of chapters. The book is profoundly local in its subject matter and yet universal in the issues it addresses. As an instance, each one of the chapters has relevance to discussions underway in Ontario in this summer of 2012, led by Glen Murray, the provincial Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, on innovation and productivity in Ontario’s postsecondary sector. I was at one of the workshop sessions this morning on the topic of expanded credential options and supplements. Tom Carey, Research Professor at San Diego State and Athabasca University, used a phrase in his presentation. “Part of the role of faculty is to be contagious!” There we go again: the hearts and minds. All of our planning, all of our innovative use of technology and assessment methods in our courses, all of our programme design and our responsiveness to public policy priorities is so that we can, at best, continue to touch souls.
Tim McTiernan is President of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa, Ontario. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org