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?

Clare McBeath
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.

Background

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 research

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. 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. 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.

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. The disadvantages given were critical but, in some cases, were based on erroneous or misunderstood information. Finally they were asked what we could do to improve the process next time, and some valuable responses were received.

Conclusion

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.

Reference

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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