Teaching and Learning Forum 2000 [ Proceedings Contents ]

What price curriculum commercialisation?

Stanislaw Paul Maj
Department of Computer Science
Edith Cowan University
    As government funding is effectively reduced, institutions are seeking alternative sources of revenue. The commercial arms of Australia's universities are expected to generate significant revenue streams from a variety of activities such as fees from foreign students, patenting, leasing university facilities, organising conferences, etc. In this context there is therefore considerable pressure to commercialise curriculum. The general perception is that, for relatively little investment, curriculum can be a significant source of revenue for both the institution and staff. Furthermore it is believed that such curriculum has the potential to raise the profile of the university and engender a market oriented approach to university education. In this context marketing theory suggests that curriculum development should be based on a market based approach rather than the more traditional asset based methods. An exploratory market audit was therefore conducted with the associated identification and profiling of market segments in an attempt to achieve, if possible, a unique selling position thereby positioning Edith Cowan University (ECU) in a difficult market place. It should be noted that curriculum offered on a commercial basis must compete not only with that offered by other universities but also with the private sector. The private sector is well established with international leverage and offer competitively priced but very high quality courses in a fast moving and highly competitive environment. Accordingly, a new market based curriculum was designed and implemented at the undergraduate level. One unit from this curriculum was also marketed and successfully offered as part of a full fee executive development program. This paper presents the results of this curriculum design exercise and discusses the advantages and problems associated with this approach and the implications for curriculum development within universities.
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Introduction

As government funding is effectively reduced institutions are seeking alternative sources of revenue. The commercial arms of Australia's universities are expected to generate significant revenue streams from a variety of activities such as fees from foreign students, patenting, leasing university facilities, organising conferences etc. In this context there is therefore considerable pressure to commercialise curriculum. According to Campus Review, 'The university (ECU) is considering selling its Claremont campus and using the proceeds to relocate commercial activities to its Churchlands campus - "which would become and entirely commercial campus."' (De La Harpe 1998). There is no single formula for commercial success. Organisations may compete on price, quality of service etc. However it is a commercial advantage to identify a market niche with few if any competitors. Following from Strengths, Weakness, Opportunity, Threat (SWOT) analysis, the author established in 1993 a multi-disciplinary design team (Computer Science, IT, Business). We defined our team mission statement to be 'Learning for life' thereby identifying our core personality and purpose. The key features of Learning for life were defined as - relevance, access and quality. Our strategy, thereby defining our focus, direction and goals was to produce curriculum in Information Technology Management more directly relevant to both students and employers. We adopted a market based philosophy rather than the more traditional asset based methods.

Accordingly an exploratory market audit was conducted with the associated identification and profiling of market segments in order to achieve a unique selling position thereby positioning ECU in an increasingly difficult market place. The market analysis identified significant major technological developments that were going to have a major impact on commercial organisations. A review of the traditional Computer Science and Business IT curriculum found that they did not provide either the skills or knowledge to meet this projected demand. Within Western Australia an exploratory market audit was conducted of a wide range of industrial and commercial companies. This was complemented by a further detailed analysis of the IT department of a state wide rail company. From this survey a set of guidelines were developed for the type of skills expected of computer science graduates entering the field of computer and network support. Using the criteria developed a random selection of ten, final year ECU computer science undergraduates were interviewed from a graduating population of approximately one hundred. According to Maj,

It was found that none of these students could perform first line maintenance on a Personal Computer (PC) to a professional standard with due regard to safety, both to themselves and the equipment. Neither could they install communication cards, cables and network operating system or manage a population of networked PCs to an acceptable commercial standard without further extensive training. It is noteworthy that none of the students interviewed had ever opened a PC. It is significant that all those interviewed for this study had successfully completed all the units on computer architecture and communication engineering. (Maj, Robbins et al. 1996)
All the students interviewed had successfully completed the standard units on computer and network technology. Furthermore, interviews conducted with five ECU graduates employed in computer and network support clearly indicated that they were, to a large degree, self taught in many of the skills they needed to perform their job. Preliminary investigations indicated a similar situation with computer science graduates from other universities within Western Australia. According to Campus Leaders, 'the predominant reason why they (students) have gone to university was to get skills, knowledge and a qualification that would assist them in either gaining employment or enhancing their prospects for promotion or a more rewarding job.' (Workforce 1996). A market niche in computer and network technology management had been identified.

New curriculum

The first named author established a team to design a new curriculum. Our strategy was 'Technology Management - Computer & Network Management' which clearly defined our focus, direction and goals. The market driven need to graduate students with industry relevant skills and knowledge clearly demanded a new course with an appropriate level of relevant technical depth and a substantial practical component using 'real equipment'. A dedicated laboratory was designed and two new units Computer Installation & Maintenance (CIM) and Network Installation & Maintenance (NIM) were piloted in semester 1, 1996.

Success of the CIM and NIM units can be measured using various metrics. One such metric is student demand. The response from students was overwhelming. The initial quota of 100 students for CIM was exceeded with 118 students enrolling and even then demand exceeding possible places. The student attrition rate was 8.5% with a subsequent unit failure rate of less than 10%. An independent unit review of the unit found : 80% would recommend this unit; 75% found the practical sessions useful; 70% found the unit relevant to their needs and 55% think this should be a compulsory unit. According to Maj (Maj, Robbins et al. 1996), 'It was remarkable to see students, in the first week, actually queuing to attend the Friday evening workshop and forcefully attempting to exceed the quota.' The unit NIM was also oversubscribed.

After the unit CIM had been offered on three consecutive semesters it was independently evaluated by an educational expert in order to assess students' perceptions of the unit, the educational approach taken and the educational value of the unit. Interviews were conducted with students at the start and end of the course. Results presented here are from interviews conducted at the end of the course. Five students, chosen at random, were interviewed. Interviews were semi-structured consisting of a number of closed and open ended questions and respondents were encouraged to comment on any positive or negative aspect of the course and its effect on their learning. Students' responses were grouped into common themes, reported below and substantiated by quotes.

All students perceived the unit as being very valuable. They thought it was "excellent, really good" and especially liked the "hands on stuff" and the "logical, sequential presentation of content". Students appreciated the modular organisation of the unit. One student thought that "the practical side was really good and I learnt a lot". A fourth year engineering student described the unit as "very helpful" explaining that all the rest of his course was theoretical, with nothing practical dealing with the "components with which I have to work". He said that "I never see the component in the whole four years of my course" so to actually work with the components "was helpful to my understanding". He stated that this unit should be in first year "to help students visualise what they are working with". A business student described it as "a very good unit" saying "it taught me many, many things I did not know despite my background in information processing". Another student with a poor background in computing also liked the unit saying "It's a great unit, I liked it very much" and felt that he would "benefit very greatly from it". One student appreciated the way in which this unit effectively "demystified the machine and took me behind the scenes" and "gave an understanding of how computers work". According to Maj this unit

is perceived as very valuable by students from different disciplines; supports learning in other units; increases students' understanding of computers and computing; is clearly distinguished from a TAFE unit; generates a demand for further curriculum in this field; is enhanced by the series of lectures and workshops given by an experienced computer support technician and is about right in terms of difficulty. (Maj, Fetherston et al. 1998)
The curriculum developed appeared to be unique within the university sector in WA, was subject to very strong demand and had been successfully evaluated by an educational expert. Furthermore, this work on curriculum development was published in the Australian Computer Journal, the official journal of the Australian Computer Society. Papers accepted by this journal must : 'Discuss significant new results of computing research and development, or provide a comprehensive summary of existing computing knowledge with the aim of broadening the outlook of Journal readers, or describe important computing experience or insight'.

International comparisons

Other countries similarly have professional accreditation. In the United Kingdom (UK) the British Computer (BCS) accredits university courses and has an internationally recognised examination scheme in two parts with Part II at the level of a UK honors degree in computing. The initial ECU student questionnaire, first used in 1993, was also conducted in 1999 at two universities in the UK. A similar study is currently being undertaken in Sweden. The first university has well established degree programs and is fully BCS accredited. The second university recently redesigned their IT awards, some of which are now BCS accredited. The degree programs at the first university offer students the opportunity to examine a PC in the first year as part of a module in Computer Organisation. However they never take a PC apart. Students are taught network modeling, design and management but they do not physically construct networks.

The results clearly demonstrate that students lacked knowledge about PC technology and the basic skills need to operate on computer and network equipment in a commercial environment. This is despite the fact that most students thought such knowledge would be beneficial. The survey indicated that any practical knowledge students have of hardware is largely a result of experience outside the course. At the second university the results demonstrate that these students had a broad, hobbyist's understanding of the PC but no knowledge of health and safety law. Significantly, the students interviewed identified that their skills and knowledge of PCs and networks came from self study or employment, not from courses at university. Again student responses indicated that such knowledge would be useful. The survey results further helped to confirm that a market niche had been identified.

Full fee

This new curriculum was designed not only for undergraduate students but also as a vehicle for introducing general management to Information Technology thereby providing a revenue stream and raising the profile of ECU. It should be noted that curriculum offered on a commercial basis must compete not only with that offered by other universities but also with the private sector. The private sector is well established with international leverage and offer competitively priced but very high quality courses in a fast moving and highly competitive environment.

The ECU commercial arm marketed this curriculum as 'Computers & Networks - There's only one place that provides the inside information you need'. Advertising consisted of a high quality brochure a newspaper advertisement. The brochure included comments such as 'Now you can learn to do exactly that and gain invaluable, career enhancing knowledge by taking one - or both - of these ground breaking courses'. Accordingly the author of this paper taught, on a full fee basis, junior and senior managers from a range of backgrounds. A detailed questionnaire was completed by the applicants on completion of the course. The questionnaire was very extensive and sought to obtain information about pre-enrolment, unit content, lecture and workshop quality, suitability of lecture times etc. Information such as this is invaluable as a marketing tool. The feedback was extremely positive but identified weaknesses with the infrastructure support system e.g. lack of catering facilities. By example the lectures were offered in the evening and participants typically traveled directly from work to attend a two hour lecture followed by a two hour workshop. During this time no refreshments were made available to participants. The success of this venture encouraged us to plan a calendar of commercial offerings of these units. Interestingly, even though assessment was optional the majority of the participants elected to complete two assignments and sit an examination. To assist the participants additional tuition was provided - at no extra cost.

Issues

The general perception is that, for relatively little investment, curriculum can be a significant source of revenue for both the institution and staff. Furthermore it is believed that such curriculum has the potential to raise the profile of the university and engender a market oriented approach to university education. However, it has been the experience of the author that rhetoric such as this is largely divorced from reality. A quality of service that is acceptable for undergraduate students paying HECS is not acceptable for participants paying in excess of $1,000 for the same material. The author elected to produce undergraduate curriculum to a commercially acceptable standard and offer it to both undergraduates and full fee students. This had the advantage that the curriculum could be rapidly improved in quality by means of critical feedback from the undergraduates prior to being offered on a commercial basis. However to do this a considerable investment of time and effort was required. In order to obtain a return on this investment a calendar of commercial courses is needed. We programmed that each unit should be offered on alternate semesters, one day per week for 5 consecutive weeks. Participants would therefore attend the university one day per week for five weeks. The requirement was therefore for an extra day of teaching for half of each semester. In addition to this, as previously noted, there is the overhead of extra tuition and assessments.

Whilst this provides a revenue stream for both the individual and the university - at what cost to the individual? All staff must now undergo a Performance Management interview. The categories at ECU are Curriculum, Teaching and Learning; Research; University Service and also Community and Professional Service. The first two categories have by far the highest value and it is the expectation that all staff must be involved in research. Obviously the measure of successful research is publications in fully refereed journals or conferences. Within ECU no rigid criteria is supplied for what constitutes an acceptable research output. However various, unofficial, figures suggest two to three publications per year would constitute an acceptable performance. Furthermore, such an output must be consistently obtained each year. However this level of research performance would not be acceptable for candidates interested in promotion.

The author submits that it is not possible to have a full teaching load (12 hours contact time per week), write three refereed publications per year (every year) with the additional teaching load of five days (i.e. 40 hours) per semester. The income from the commercial activities may be used to 'buy' lecturing time - however this results in little or no financial advantage for the lecturer. Furthermore it should be noted that within the Information Technology field there are many and rapid changes in technology. Within the university sector academics are expected to continually update their curriculum. This can be contrasted with the commercial training sector. By example, the Novell certification program course notes are produced by educational designers and distributed internationally. In commercial training organisations presenters of this material do not do any marking or lesson preparation and are not expected to conduct research. All course material is provided to the students. The presenters are provided with the entire student notes and additional supporting material. When new software or technologies are introduced presenters are typically sent on training courses. Obviously all the necessary lecture material and workshop exercises are supplied.

On a personal basis the effort required to develop commercially viable curriculum was at the expense of research output. Certainly there was a short term financial gain but arguably be at the expense of longer term career prospects. The author cannot recommend commercialising curriculum to any academics. However should it be necessary to do so the author recommends the use of standard material, such as Microsoft, Novell, Cisco, etc. However, whilst this reduces the overheads of producing course material, you will be in direct competition with the commercial sector. Furthermore, the use of such material, whilst offering considerable savings in preparation time, raises the issue of 'training or education'. This issue will not be considered in this paper.

On a positive note, this market oriented approach provided an opportunity to examine in detail the types of knowledge and skills that are of direct value and relevance to industry and commerce.

References

De La Harpe, M. (1998). ECU plans to make an entrance. Campus Review, 6.

Maj, S. P., T. Fetherston, et al. (1998). Computer & Network Infrastructure Design, Installation, Maintenance and Management - a proposed new competency based curriculum. Proceedings of the Third Australasian Conference on Computer Science Education, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia.

Maj, S. P., G. Robbins, et al. (1996). Computer and Network Installation, Maintenance and Management - A Proposed New Curriculum for Undergraduates and Postgraduates. The Australian Computer Journal, 30(3), 111-119.

Workforce, E. T. (1996). Educating the workforce for the new millenium. Campus Review.

Please cite as: Maj, S. P. (2000). What price curriculum commercialisation? In A. Herrmann and M.M. Kulski (Eds), Flexible Futures in Tertiary Teaching. Proceedings of the 9th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 2-4 February 2000. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2000/maj2.html


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