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Master Thesis Reader - Research and Innovation in Higher Education

Curriculum Europæum

Alfred Rafael Garcia



The Case of an Erasmus Mundus Master Course in A Sociocultural Context: Reflections on the Bologna Process, Course Design, and Transnational Education Provision

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.

Research questions

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?”

  • How significant are differences in perception with regards to course design?
  • How can these differences be explained based from a theory of curriculum?

Theoretical background

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:

  1. Purpose and Content should figure to be most important in the arrangement, and that they areclosely related
  2. Sequence, Instructional Resources, and Learners figure in second place, with Sequence be­ing moderately linked with Content
  3. Instructional Processes and Evaluation and Assessment figure third and last, respectively,with Adjustment as a preter-dominant feature.

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).

Research design

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.

Case study protocol

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

  1. Public documents: information about the MARIHE program as available in the official website.
  2. “Semi-public” documents: artifacts of course designs throughout the program (module syllabi,MARIHE Moodle Learning Platform
  3. Recommended documents occurring in expert interviews and other sources
  4. Disseminated questionnaire to all MARIHE faculty members

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:

  1. Program coordinator (1) – key informant interview
  2. Academic directors (4) – key informant interview
  3. Module designer/Lead lecturer (x) – online questionnaire
  4. Guest/Occasional Lecturer (51-x) – online questionnaire

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.

Key Findings

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.

Perceptions on Course Design

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”:

  1. Key individuals
  2. With expertise and motivation
  3. And share a common view

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.

Implications for further research

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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