Teaching and Learning Forum 98 [ Contents ]
What is the effect of the introduction of a restructured course on students caught between the old and new versions of their study program?
Faculty of Education
Curtin University of Technology
This paper describes the introduction of a restructured course and discusses the issues which arose from assisting students to change from the old course into the new. It concentrates on the effect on students and the difficulties they faced in coping with the change. The students were all mature aged, part time and employed in the workforce. A questionnaire was sent to students asking them to comment on a number of aspects of the change. Responses were mixed, and as many students were happy with the changes as were confused and critical. The research indicated that better information and explanation of the changes would have made the change easier for students, but that the pressure on staff to get the changes into place as quickly as possible had made clear and open communication difficult.
In 1997 the Faculty of Education at Curtin University introduced the newly structured BA in Vocational Education and Training course to replace the old BA in Technical and Further Education.
The old BA(TAFE) course consisted of 20 unequal units with credit points ranging from 15 to 30. In line with university policy to standardise credit points across courses, the new BA(VET) was to consist of 16 units, each worth 25 credit points, with one year's advanced standing given on the basis of prior learning and experience.
Details of the strategies used by the development team to evaluate student and industry needs, to create a matrix to deal with course sequence, continuity and integration, and to select design and formatting features for learning materials, are discussed in a paper presented at this Forum last year (McBeath, 1997). That paper concentrated on the issues of curriculum decision making and group participation in developing the new course. This paper will explore the effect of the change on the students who had to change from the old course to the new in the middle of their study.
Introducing the new course
The most important issue in the literature of curriculum change is how difficult it is. With 25 years' research in support of this fact, how could we have expected it to have been otherwise? While knowing this and, in spite of careful planning to minimise the worst effects on staff and students, we still experienced the inevitability of the hard work, conflict, confusion and stress caused by change.
Unit materials were developed in full as Plans, Guides, Readers and text books, so that they could be offered simultaneously to internal and external students. This meant an inordinate amount of writing, desk top publishing and printing had to be done. The core units were ready and some had been trialed in another course the previous year. Others, however, were still being written at the last moment and had to be photocopied and posted to students. One was being written "on the run", and posted in several dispatches during the semester.
The Faculty had instructed the students to enrol externally in the new units, so that External Studies could handle the printing and distribution of materials. However, invariably some students had not done as they were asked, and an alternative system had to be set up to find these people and get the new materials to them. This was further complicated when several lecturers decided to run internal classes anyhow. Although External Studies had been told which new units were being offered, many students had enrolled in old units and were sent old materials. When they were advised by the Faculty to change their enrolment, External Studies had to do new print runs to cope with the extra numbers, and these materials arrived late. External Studies were also sending out letters to students whom they thought had enrolled in courses which were not being offered. Frustrated students were on the phone almost daily for the first few weeks, asking us what was going on.
It is impossible in a paper this size to describe in detail the problems we had, and it very easy for staff caught up in the logistics of change to see every new disaster as nothing less than the sky falling in. This in itself caused more stress and emotions ran high.
There were 80 students enrolled in the course at the beginning of 1997. Of these, 49 (61%) had begun in the old course and were changing to the new in mid-stream. The research described in this paper concentrated only on these 49, but the remaining students were also affected by the changes, in that they received conflicting information and materials, had to wait for new text books and had to struggle with un-trialed materials still being written and developed. One must question the effect this could have on our reputation as a provider of quality tertiary education, and perhaps next year's paper could revisit this question from the point of view of the new students.
At the time of the change, the university itself was undergoing massive funding cuts, staff redundancies and pressure to cut programs. With every section of the university under pressure, it was difficult to keep good communication channels open between the Faculty, the Bookshop and External Studies. That was reason enough for some of the conflicting information given out at the beginning of the year. Another reason was that some of the units were ready earlier than originally planned. Others were much slower, and we couldn't tell a year in advance which units would be ready for the following year.
We could have tried to make the change-over more gradual, but once the new units were ready, it seemed sensible to get them up and running. We were actually into the new course almost before we realised it, and the pressure was on us to keep up with the writing. This, of course, was our commitment, and our responsibility in the change process was to make sure that students were not unfairly disadvantaged in any way.
The problems of coping with the change were canvassed initially with an on-campus group of ten students. From their input, a questionnaire was developed and distributed to the identified population (49). The questionnaire probed the possibility that the change may have confused students, caused them undue stress and slowed their progress.
The response rate was 49% (24 out of 49). An analysis of the non-responders indicates that 16, or 64% of those who did not respond, are currently not studying, are on deferred status for medical or family reasons, or are studying at a remote campus or study centre and do not see the Faculty of Education as their first point of contact. The actual response group therefore was 72% (24 out of 33), and can be regarded as a satisfactory response.
The students were asked when they first heard that a new course was being introduced. Ten respondents had heard during 1996, some had heard when they were asked to change enrolments at the beginning of 1997 and the rest had heard in May when the course Adviser wrote to all students advising them on planning their new courses. In retrospect, it is easy to say that they should have been told during 1996, but at that stage we had not planned to bring in the new units until the second semester.
The responses to how they felt about hearing that the changes were occurring were mixed. About 20% claimed not to be concerned, as typified by the following statements.
A similar number claimed to be pleased, especially about the name change.
- No concerns - I didn't know anything about University change processes.
- I understood units were basically being upgraded. Old units phased out and new units put into the existing places. I did not realise the course was being restructured.
Nearly two thirds expressed some worries, mostly to do with length of time and number of units still to complete. Others were very critical of the university for doing this to them.
- I was pleased in regard to the change in name of the course, and the increase in credits for each unit.
- I was happy with the idea. It means less units to complete, no more Internship units & the change from TAFE to VET means I would not meet confusion in the "outside world" - ie, being identified with TAFE. VET is more relevant to my needs.
A large majority said that they did not get behind in their course because they were told to change their enrolments, nor did they feel that the changes would make any difference to the time they would take to complete their degrees.
- Confusion. Unhappy at lack of direction.
- How will this affect me? Will I have to complete more units? How will I make the transition?
- Initially I didn't think it would change my subjects. When I found it would, I thought I'll be one of the guinea pigs trialing the new subjects.
- How will this change impact on my current studies? Will there be a transition period for students?
- No explanation - typical Curtin attitude towards students.
The questionnaire asked how many letters they had received about enrolment or course changes. and the answers ranged from 3 to 6, with a couple of students claiming that the letters had been received twice! They were asked to give details of any confusion experienced from receiving these letters, and the answers again were mixed.
They were asked to comment on the improvements and disadvantages they could see in the new course structure. The improvements they could see were heartening.
- Yes, each letter gave me a different list of subjects to complete.
- No, I was slightly confused before I received the letter.
- Yes, I was informed that a unit was not being offered externally. In reality it was only being offered externally.
- They contradicted each other.
- Some letters in early 97 were conflicting. Enrolment changes were always accurate.
- One letter stated that Ed389 Reflective practitioner was replacing Ed238 Theory and practice of teaching 1. My enrolment advice says I am enrolled in Ed389.
- Yes, confusing. I still do not understand what is happening.
- I was unsure which semester the new subjects would be running next year. I now know.
- At first, but this was clarified by a telephone call.
- I had to withdraw from some units and re-enrol in others. Also the people to whom I spoke at Curtin were unable to help me.
The disadvantages given were critical but, in some cases, were based on erroneous or misunderstood information.
- Not as many units to complete. I like the idea of 25 points for each unit. This makes it easier to select units for points.
- Project orientated, more challenging.
- Maybe the units are better tailored to the real world, eg, competency based training, national framework etc.
- The course is better set out with more emphasis on development of materials. Less Internships.
- Simplified, well structured, good coverage of all knowledge and skill areas.
- The new course seems to be more practical. It is less confusing with all subjects having the same credit points. Consolidating subjects into less total units.
- New name. More relevance in units to keep up to date with changing practices, eg, CBT, flexible delivery, open leaning.
- The name is recognised as the "new way" of education as "TAFE" is out.
- The course is sharper, more modern and not so drawn out.
- The lecturers are more up to date with what is happening in the real world.
- The course is more relevant to my present position at work.
- Change assistance by Curtin lecturers has been excellent.
Finally they were asked what we could do to improve the process next time, and some valuable responses were received.
- Perhaps having to do half a unit again.
- Stuffing existing students around.
- Harder work. Less support available from the lecturers than before.
- Too much reading - more than 10 hours per unit!
- Having to revisit subjects like Ed256 Adult learning & assessment which I thought I had passed in the old Ed227 unit. Modules like Ed217 in the new course which demand too much time and are untested so students drop out due to time constraints.
- New courses always need to be trialed and bugs removed before they work well. Subjects developed by different people may not necessarily follow on well.
- Less practical style units. The old course curriculum allowed practice of teaching principles.
- Difficulty with people who do not like change. What student research was done, and did the lecturers have a say in the new program.
- In my situation I was well advanced in my studies. I hoped to complete my studies end of '97. Unfortunately the modules I needed to achieve this have not been written.
- Post modernism (Reflective Practitioner) may be ideal for community based training but it is ineffective for National Standard Training courses.
- Perhaps more warning to students.
- Keep student fully informed about the need for changing the structure of the course. Explain why restructure is necessary.
- Keep students informed of the changes and options open to them.
- Involve the students. Decide what has go to be done, how you are going to do it before disseminating information. Changes in midstream have been upsetting.
- When changing texts, please consider the cost impact this has on the student who would prefer to buy second hand books!
- Don't change the course half way through. Let students who have started the old course continue and finish the old course. New enrollees could be given new course.
- Send out a list of the new course units vs the old course units earlier, like the list attached to this mail out.
- Have a set change date and allow easy exemptions process. Provide an information day to answer trainee questions and assist with enrolment changes.
- Better communication about the transition process. Make sure all staff are aware of changes so that conflicting advice is not given.
- Maybe explain that units are being replaced to upgrade the course. "Simply" set out, showing what the course units originally were; what was being removed; what was being replaced. A letter explaining why Curtin felt it was beneficial to alter the course and how it would affect students.
- I approve of the letters of explanations and I was particularly appreciative of the personal information I received on the course change update which displayed my details in table form eg, units passed, current units, units needed to complete BA This was very clear and gave me information that I can use to make decisions on for my enrolment next year.
- Easy access phone link for External clients for specific queries - saves being placed on hold; time factor, etc.
- Give students an indication of the future changes in advance so they can organise their picture from their end. Let the consumers see the big picture and possible advantages & disadvantages.
- I would like an overview of the subjects that are optional for me next year.
- Better dissemination, student involvement and an agreed transition period for students with less than twelve months of study left.
- If possible give as much advance notice as possible so students can plan their courses and reduce duplication or wasted time.
- There are no easy ways to achieve a course change over with external/internal students all at different stages of completion. You can't please everybody. Nevertheless I am very satisfied with the management of the course.
- The misinformation from the (office) in the form of letters.
- Inform the people who answer the telephone of the problems that may occur. Also communicate with the external students to let them know of what is happening to the enrolments so students do not purchase wrong materials.
- Next time you should practice dissemination & not diffusion as a means of advertising & notifying the lecturers and students. Run the old & new courses in parallel until the old course students have graduated.
We were lucky that our students were as patient and pragmatic as they were. They are all practising educators, and know that curriculum change is always difficult. They were aware that many factors and many different people can intrude on the process, upsetting the most carefully laid plans. Indeed, they are taught this in their course!
However, most of their criticisms were valid. There should have been a distinct pre-planned dissemination process, and the pressures we were under could have been more carefully explained to them. Their responses also made it clearer to us what their problems and misconceptions were. As a result of this research, students were sent a detailed letter explaining the background and intentions of the changes more fully.
McBeath, C. (1997). The politics of upgrading university courses: Revising the BA (Education). In Teaching and learning within and across disciplines, p.212-216. Perth: Murdoch University. http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/asu/pubs/tlf/tlf97/mcbeath.html
|Please cite as: McBeath, C. (1998). What is the effect of the introduction of a restructured course on students caught between the old and new versions of their study program? In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 199-203. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/mcbeath.html|
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