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Richard Millwood and Stephen Powell (2011)

A cybernetic analysis of a university-wide curriculum innovation

Campus-Wide Information Systems, 28(4):258-274.

Purpose – This paper seeks to describe and analyse an approach to course design as part of a strategic, technology-inspired, cross-university intervention to widen participation. A curriculum framework was developed for students who wished to make their work the focus of their study and could not readily access current university provision. A deliberate assumption was made that this would require a technologically inspired response to teaching, learning and assessment.

Design/methodology/approach – The approach taken was one of action research, by planning the curriculum framework, validating a course, delivery and review through interviews. Cybernetics was applied post-hoc to analyse the data generated.

Findings – Staff found the framework a useful source of inspiration and critique for current practices, although established practice and preconceptions could render the framework meaningless. The ideas in the framework are not enough to change the institution – authoritative sanction may be needed. The cybernetic concepts of variety and its absorption proved useful in analysing the framework, and highlighted weaknesses in the design of the framework regarding the organisation of teaching.

Research limitations/implications – Clarity about strategic purpose when making a change intervention is vital – in this instance raising the level of critical debate was more successful than recruitment. The establishment of an independent unit may be a more successful strategy than embedding university-wide. Further work is required to understand how to market novel approaches. The action research shows that the university has the capability to develop curriculum designs that offer new groups of students access to higher education while improving their work practice.

Originality/value – The findings from interview confirm the value that peers attach to this development. Although the pedagogical design in this action research is based on previous work, the cybernetic analysis and conclusions are new.

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