Alfred Rafael Garcia
Curricular reform in European higher education, as one of the three dimensions of the modernization agenda as appropriated by the European Union aims to make Europe the most competitive knowledge economy in the world. This, however, does not belong to the exclusive competence of the EU’s Lifelong Learning Program: the three-cycle system, competence-based learning, ﬂexible learning paths, recognition of qualiﬁcations, are hallmarks of another model, theBologna Process, which aims to promote compatibility and comparability between national educational systems within Europe and beyond. These complementary, even mutually symbiotic,instruments have shaped different actors’ perceptions on the direction have inﬂuenced the policy and practice of European higher education as we know today. (Batory and Lindstrom, 2011; Corbett, 2011: 36-38; Weymans, 2009).
But what exactly does this mean for the curriculum, inherently national as its universities? For allits talk of reforming teaching and learning, there have been criticisms of the uneven implementation of Bologna instruments (Adam, 2006), or an obeisant compliance of the language of theseinstruments as nothing but a fad (Karseth, 2008). As a point of departure in understanding howthis supposed convergence operates, a point of departure would be to look at curriculum as howit is arranged, as it is, after all, in a context that exempliﬁes the pinnacle of these three conceptions of the European dimension of higher education: the Erasmus Mundus Program.
The primary goal of the research is to illuminate to what extent the rationale behind the, as wellas the instruments of the Bologna Process is reﬂected in educational programs. To this respect,the study and practice of curriculum will lend theoretical and methodological means to understand how a program and its modules are arranged, and perhaps shed light as to the educational considerations undertaken can also reﬂect the political and social rationales that permeatehigher education systems and its sub-units. Reﬂections on this arrangement will hopefully inform key decision-makers on potential factors to be involved in matters of course/module and program design, once an educationist perspective is balanced with the political and the social.
It is through looking at the curriculum that one can determine the extent through which educational considerations are manifested and conveyed. For this research, an understanding of curriculum will be presented and following the argument presented above, the Erasmus Mundus Program, as representative of Bologna and Lisbon recommendations, will be a preliminary determiner of the so-called European dimension in higher education. The question, with the following sub-questions, is phrased as follows:
“How do lecturers, course designers, and program administrators in Erasmus Mundus Masters Courses perceive curriculum design?”
Of the massive reforms enacted by Lisbon-Bologna, the impact on curriculum is manifest in different ways, not in how classes are taught, in se, but at the factors that affect the arrangement ofteaching in learning, as suggested by the Bologna action lines (Adam 2006). One, in particular,the “European dimension” has come to mean the embodiment of the implementation of Bolognain a higher education (Weymans 2009, p. 571). While some aspects have been readily adopted,their implementation in the level of instruction have been less so, because of tensions in the understanding of curriculum that have been traditionally in the realm of teaching. Karseth (2008) states that due to the scaling of these issues on a national-supranational level, higher educationappears to be taking on a ‘new architecture’:
“…curriculum issues that used to be dealt with on an institutional level have become political issues on a national and even supranational level. Implicitly and explicitly a framework indicates what ought to be the purpose, content, sequence and evaluation of a programme, which all repre sent central elements of the deﬁnition of curriculum. (2008, p. 52)”
To this point, the Erasmus Mundus Program can best exemplify an illustration of if this “new architecture” operates in reality, one that fulﬁlls all three dimensions of the ‘European-ness’ towhich both Bologna and Lisbon aspire. It is the hallmark European program according to Weyman’s conceptions of the ‘European dimensions’, primarily through the competitive grantscheme through which university consortia (i.e. a cooperation between two or more universities) can apply. It fulﬁlls both conditions of being aspiring to be competitive in the global academic market for foreign students, as well as competitive within the European space for institutionalfunding. And perhaps most importantly, it is the ‘truly’ European program, in the sense that themobility scheme associated with the courses are detached from the national-ness of the universities. It had been imperative, to fulﬁll these conditions for applying for Erasmus Mundus funding,that the Bologna instruments (as interpreted by EU member states) are in place (Weymans 2009, 576-577).
Stark and Lattuca (2009) state that complex understandings of curriculum are rare, despite thefact different actors within and outside of an education space assume to know what it is. Their Academic Plan Concept builds on foundational theories of curriculum that provides a heuristic with which to understand different elements at work, as actors make decisions whether or notthey are aware of these elements. An analysis of curricula, therefore, is essentially ‘design-inreverse’: an examination of outcomes to arrive at purposes, motivations, and meaning behindinstructional decisions (Conrad and Pratt, 1986; Dressel 1971, 1976, 1980; Dressel & DeLisle, 1970; Dressel & Marcus, 1982; Toombs, 1977–1978; Toombs & Tierney, 1993, in Stark and Lattuca, 2011, p. 3-4, 16-17, 19).
The exhaustive heuristic on how to understand curriculum in terms 1) the elements with which it is constituted and 2) the factors andagents that shape curriculum and 3) how they all ﬁt in an educational space. The curriculum is termed as an ‘academic plan’whereby it assumes that instruction (teaching and learning) is acritical, integral part of the curriculum process (whereas some individuals would distinguish them).The three determinants of this plan are the 1) faculty members, who they argue as the key actors in the whole process; 2) existing academic plans/curricula, and 3) salient features of the academic environment. In considering innovation, different changes might include course content, institution or abolition of modules, instructional and assessmenttechniques, to name a few. The academic plan has eight elements, as from the ﬁgure inset (Stark & Lattuca, 2009, pp. 8-11).
“Understanding a curriculum requires more than an examination of its different elements. To grasp why, and often how, a particular curriculum is organized, we need to consider the contexts in which it was created and implemented. In a larger sense, a complete picture of college and university curricula in the United States (or any other country) requires a sense of how and why these institutions evolved over time.” (Stark & Lattuca, 2009, pp. 11-12).
Academic plans are not operationalized in vacuum in se, but are managed in relation to various features in which it is situated. This situation, as a whole, is the sociocultural context where discrete features inﬂuence each other and contribute to the academic plan. In its immediate context, the academic plan functions in an educational environment, where the academic plan situates itself in an institutional and organizational context, e.g. a university. Path A (Adjustment) operates in this environment, where an individual/collective faculty adjusts the elements of theacademic plan according to its immediate results, i.e. assessment and evaluation. The educational environment is shaped both by external (market forces, government policies, accreditationagencies, professional organizations, to name a few) and internal inﬂuences, commonly referredto in literature as external and internal “stakeholders”. External and internal stakeholders have a discursive relationship with each other, one inﬂuencing the other in a ﬂux (Stark & Lattuca, 2009, pp. 2-22).
Using Stark and Lattuca’s (2009) Academic PlanFramework, the researchwill attempt to illustrate aprovisional model for thearrangement of Erasmus Mundus modules, giventhe speciﬁc external andinternal forces which shape educational environments, such as theErasmus Mundus Master Courses. If we follow the arrangement of their model, the hypotheses positedby the model are as follows:
Because of the historical and political developments in Europe, it is hypothesized that this arrangement will not hold, in which Karseth (2008) argued that curriculum reforms, or at leastreforms being advanced by supra/inter/intra/sub-national, are headed towards a direction inwhich sequence should ﬁgure less in the arrangement, theoretically in favor of the other elements.
This case study follows an instrumental case study approach, hereby deﬁned as an in-depth description of a single unit that is selected as representative of a general event or phenomenonunder investigation. As such, the topic of interest is assumed to be inherent in the selected case,and the unit is studied in an attempt to investigate its inherent characteristics and the relationships of its components. The ensuing ﬁndings are expected to provide insights in the understanding of the general phenomenon under investigation as resultant from the study of the selected case. The approach provides for the possibility of depth in terms of data and context, butmay suffer from fallibility in generalizations due to the potential particularity of a case in its environment (Ary, Jacobs, & Sorensen, 2010, pp. 455-458). However, the purpose of this research is not to generalize about this case with similar other cases, but to investigate how a theoreticalframework operates in a given case, that when applied with similar cases, potentially similar,comparable results may occur (Yin, 2009, p. 9).
The case was designed according to the methodology suggested by Yin (2009), in which a single case with multiple embedded units would govern data collection and analysis. The primary rationale is that this design allows the research to test “a well-formulated theory…[wherein t]hetheory has speciﬁed a clear set of propositions as well as the circumstances within which thepropositions are believed to be true. A single case, meeting all of the conditions for testing the theory, can conﬁrm, challenge, or extend the theory. The single case can then be used to determine whether a theory's propositions are correct or whether some alternative set of explanations might be more relevant” (p. 47). The case selected is the researcher’s own Erasmus Mundus Master Course, the Masters in Research and Innovation in Higher Education (MARIHE).
Several elements are proposed to be under the focus of investigation: 1) program administrators working in an 2) Erasmus Mundus program and their perceptions of 3) course design. The relevant unit of analysis in this research is an operational educational program design under theErasmus Mundus framework. “Program design” is here understood under the theoretical propositions of the academic plan framework (Stark and Lattuca, 2009), hitherto interchanging “curriculum” and “course design” interchangeably as the primary unit of analysis. Using an instrumental case study approach, the framework is investigated under the backdrop of European reforms in the past decade, namely the Bologna Process and its successors. The primary objective of this study is to describe operational curriculum design in a speciﬁc context, one that hypothetically challenges interpretations of a theoretical framework. Secondary objectives include,but are not limited to, provide reﬂections on curriculum designs in similar contexts, e.g. other Erasmus Mundus or similar transnational educational program offerings occurring in Europe or elsewhere.
The data collected follows a variety of techniques; primarily document reviews and expert interviews. These sources were expected to corroborate the reliability of data from varying datasources. The documents include
Due to the organizational structure of this EMMC, the respondents to the questionnaire and theinterviews have been segregated according to their level of involvement in the program, withtheir accompanying data collection instrument employed:
This segregation results in an overlap of respondent “identity”, i.e. one faculty member can havemultiply roles. As such, the program coordinator is assumed to have three sets of data, one for each of the ﬁrst three “levels”, academic directors, two sets, and both types of lecturer with only one set, with prejudice to the “module designer” role in case of role multiplicity. The data collection instruments have been designed following Yin’s (2009) approach of following theoreticalpropositions (p. 130), wherein an established theory (in this case, a framework) is tested in aspeciﬁc case.
The instruments were designed to collect information regarding the eight elements of the academic plan: Purpose, Content, Sequence, Learners, Instructional Resources, Instructional Processes, Assessment and Evaluation, and Adjustment. These elements will serve as the categories in which the codes will be compared across the four embedded units, i.e. curriculum design in the four constituent institutions. An analysis of the ﬁndings should reveal how curriculum is operationalized under the perspective of this particular theory. In the case of conﬁrming/ex-tending/challenging the academic plan framework in the context of European, transnational curricula, a general inductive method is proposed to investigate the proposed conﬁguration of thetheory in this case context. Any signiﬁcant ﬁndings will be presented, particularly, but not limited,to test the hypothesis regarding the Sequence category.
Due to the particular nature of Erasmus Mundus curricula (joint,transnational, transcultural, etc.) a re-conceptualization of the Academic Plan concept was proposed, to have aworking understandingof the processes thatunderlie an operationalcurriculum in a giveninstitutional context. The hypothesis thatguided the analysis was that MARIHE contains four discrete programs academic plans encapsulated in onedegree program.
It will, of course, by no means be completely accurate, but to test this hypothetical model wouldbe to highlight that these issues are present in educational artifacts regardless of whether or notthey are explicitly stated.
With the eight elements of the academic plan framework in tow, the four units that make up theMARIHE consortium have realized conceptions of a “curriculum”. The data concedes to the hypothesis that Purpose and Content of program and course (module) curricula supersedes any discussion on the teaching and learning arrangement. The other elements, however, vary insaliency per institution (with some corroborating data that indicate that they vary per faculty member/instructor). The data also supports the secondary hypothesis that the moderate relationship between Content and Sequence was further diminished, favoring a hypothesized ‘ninth’element of the academic plan in a joint-degree program such as an EMMC.
Data reveals that the collaboration between the actors of the four institutions have a considerable impact in the content arrangement (scope and sequence). Traditionally,
“in any discussion about sequence, educational beneﬁts and instructional rationales should drive discussions about subject matter arrangement, rather than the reverse.” Sequence, in and of itself, is not consistently mentioned by faculty instructors (Stark and Lattuca, 2009, p. 9; emphasis the researcher’s).
This traditional notion of the importance ofsequence is being challenged (Karseth,2008) because of the increasingly popular use of the modular arrangement of curriculaand instruction, especially espoused in theBologna Process, namely that sequencing ofknowledge units are more ﬂexible and semistructured, as compared to highly rigid structuring of academic requirements in the erstwhile “elite” stage of higher education development (Trow, 2007, pp. 243, 254).
Although there are potentially several alterations between the theoretical conﬁgurationof the academic plan concept and the actual form of the MARIHE curriculum, this “network” element appears responsible for the most evidentdifference: the decoupling of content and sequence from the course design planning decisions as mutually interdependent elements, at least understood from the academic director and theprogram’s perspective. In this relationship paradigm, “network” represents a collective coursedecision element that naturally relates to both content decisions of the program as well as thepurposes of the MARIHE curriculum. This “network”, in turn, ﬁlters these priorities into the current sequencing of the topics and modules. That the priorities in sequencing stem from inﬂuences other than content is a recurring theme in all of the respondents’ data.
Based from the collected interview data, this “network” element is the collective of individuals incharge of the program, and the characteristics that they bring into the planning and implementation of course designs. Stated otherwise, this refers to faculty/program representatives who construct the program and whose presence is iterative within the course design, similar to how thecharacteristics of “learners” are theoretically embedded in the designs of curricula. Several indicators throughout the interview data justify the primacy of “network” over the de-emphasis of sequence in discussions of design. When asked for (the most) inﬂuential elements of the program,direct statements and indirect inferences refer to the conﬂation of the following factors, as “network”:
Consistently, “network” decides content sequence as they were ﬁrst implemented. By virtue ofthe policy of Erasmus Mundus II, a collaborative arrangement is a requisite to avail of program funding, and is manifest in module/program academic plans. Network also appears to havesome inﬂuences in the remaining other elements, particularly in their consistency across the four institutions, e.g. Instructional Processes in countries differ, although bound by program guidelines. Less evident is relationship of the Learners in the Purpose-Network-Content paradigm,given that in this institutional context, Learners are the constant element across four academic plans. In further detailing the quintessential, added-value nature of this ‘new’ paradigm, one director states,
"It’s not the structure, it’s the people. I do believe in it. So, of course we need structure, we need instruments, we need an implementation, no doubt about it. But, we need the right people for it […] This is the reason why we keep our cooperation within the four universities as close as possible, and as long as we understand each other in the consortium and with the students, and we have a common goal, everything will be good. And if we would lose this, that would be the major obstacle for quality in this program. […] I really have the feeling that everyone in this program has the same picture for it. Of course, this picture is maybe different in the view of one or another colleague, but we have the same understanding, even if we talk different, or we use different languages, and English is not our mother tongue, but I do believe that we have the same language, the same under standing, and the same goal. So the answer that this are we…the quality are we.” [Emphasis the respondent’s]
It should not be surprising that a network-like element should appear as iterative in academic plan decisions, given that a joint degree program naturally embedded in a network of organizations through collaboration. What the data and its analysis suggest is that this terra incognita ofcurriculum theory and practice in multi-institutional consortia arrangements offering joint degrees have implications that come with their implementation and evaluation. The “common view” aspect is inviolate; one would be hard pressed to ﬁnd any educator willing to divulge that s/he does not consider the whats and the whys of teaching. But the “with whats” and the “whos” will certainly drive discussions of joint program curricula in one direction or another. At least in theory,this is what we can expect.
To answer the research question, the theoretical concepts of the plan appear to be perceived ina similar fashion to an operational Erasmus Mundus Master Course. It may be beyond the current scope to claim that the academic plan concept could be extended in a “post-Bologna” context, although certainly the issue of mobility and intensiﬁed, transnational cooperation in program offerings could force the issue. At least from this case study, the differences between the theory of the model and the form of how it appears in this particular European incarnation appears to becosmetic in nature. The priorities of the plan, and its supposed new element, gives pause as towhat it may entail for the operation of these kinds of programs. With the twilight of Erasmus Mundus II and the advent of Joint Master Degrees under the Erasmus+ scheme, the policy goals of either program may still outweigh these discussions of the technical minutiae of educational processes: the ﬁndings seem to lead to that direction, although it would be premature to declare outright.
Despite the ambitious trajectory that this study attempted to conduct, logistical and theoretical limitations currently structure the conduct of this research. This attempt at “reverse-engineering” the design process has been, however, a fulﬁlling activity on the part of the researcher, reconciling concepts of curriculum along the broader political spectrum attendant to current European developments in higher education. The following recommendations apply not only to the extension of the research to other elements of the selected Erasmus Mundus case, but to any joint degree programs, particularly those that operate transnationally.
Needless to mention, a glaring exception to this study are the impacts of educational processes and educational outcomes that lie outside academic plans. Data from the outcomes of these programs are nevertheless fed into the plan through the planners’ perspectives, though a comparative study between perceptions of faculty and students would complement the results of this study, particularly in Path B, where educational effectiveness is perceived and ﬁltered. Of particular import from the results of this study is the issue of curricular coherence, which is the actual and perceived interrelationship between concepts. Curricular coherence itself is a function of sequence, a major focal point of this study. Furthermore, observations of the interview data reveal that there are outcomes from the program that are transformational to the organizational structure of the units themselves (Path C), although to which extent this is signiﬁcant may require more longitudinal methods than descriptive or explanatory.
Although the academic plan is in se operational in context, the context itself needs further elaboration, as, by its very nature, the network structure of the MARIHE consortium (any transnational educational program, for that matter) compounds the internal inﬂuences of the HEI units on theacademic plan. In particular, preliminary observations of the interview data suggest that in terms of “illustrative proﬁles” (Stark and Lattuca, 2009, p. 80-101), the MARIHE program may share its characteristics with the Business ﬁelds (compared to the interpretive Social Sciences ﬁelds; although admittedly, multidisciplinary ﬁelds may share more than one distinct and discrete proﬁle). A comparative study of the four HEI units and their respective illustrative proﬁles could potentially complement the ﬁndings of this study, or the extent of the inﬂuence these proﬁles may exert on the program’s current form.
The program secretariat, for the opportunity. The support of kith and kin from home. Austria, Fin-land, China, and Germany for having been home. Lifelong friendships, in my classmates. The brilliant, inspiring educators, supervisors, turned respondents. Close friends, professional contacts, in innumerable countries. To Ronnel, Andrew, and Alexander, for having been there, at one point or another.
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