Sprint to the finish: redesigning university programme validation

Sprint methodology can compress university-wide validation of academic programmes into an intense, hierarchy-free three-day process

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De Montfort University,University of Gloucestershire
11 Nov 2022
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Often the most challenging part of designing or redesigning academic programmes is the validation and approval process. It’s often long and drawn out, with lots of meetings, endless paperwork and many boxes to be ticked. While the academic quality of programmes is paramount, so too is the need to consider more rapid approaches to innovative design. So, imagine reducing the process into a few days.

This is the validation sprint.

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Over the past academic year, De Montfort University (DMU) has been using sprint methodology to help revalidate most of our academic programmes. As part of our Education 2030 strategy, our programmes have been switching to a block mode of delivery, where students study one module at a time. This has called for new, dynamic pedagogies to be introduced while also revisiting assessment methods. It has involved extensive consultations with stakeholders without losing sight of quality assurance and the student experience. Using sprints has helped to refine the complexity of university-wide validations shifting to a new pedagogical approach.

So what is a sprint?

The Design Sprint methodology was developed by Google to design and refine solutions to complex problems. There are six phases: understand, define, sketch, decide, prototype and validate. Crucially, activities take place over a five-day period (hence the name), allowing teams to clear diaries and hyper-focus on a shared vision.

It is essential for sprint participants to understand the methodology, in particular the optimum approach and guidelines, to facilitate an effective and efficient outcome. Because of the intensive nature of the sprint, a great deal of focus is required, so distractions such as emails and phones should be limited. Similarly, participants must be able to fully dedicate their time to ensure collaborative decision-making.

There needs to also be equality of contributions; all ideas are encouraged, and any hierarchy or sense of seniority should be removed. This may result in suggestions that are unrealistic or unviable. Given the intensity of a sprint, participants need to be prepared to move on and not scrutinise every idea. To support this, it helps to recruit a sprint facilitator, ideally someone from outside the core team, to ensure progress.

Sprinting in HE

The process starts from the end point: what makes the ideal graduate?

Coventry University was the first, we believe, to use sprints within HE curriculum design. Using design methodology helped course teams focus and redesign programmes, seeing success across a range of disciplines.

Revalidating hundreds of programmes in a short time is a mammoth task, particularly when it sits alongside normal teaching and research activities. So, working with key stakeholders, we redesigned the sprints to take place over three consecutive days. Reducing the length of time made it possible to include more academics from across the programme in the development of the curriculum.

Here is how our timetable breaks down:

  • Day one: The first day started with the end goal in mind: what should a graduate of this programme be able to do? This involved a SWOT analysis leading to the development of learning outcomes and an overview of the programme structure.
  • Day two: The team developed a programme assessment strategy and considered the student journey. Module learning outcomes and assessments were designed and constructively aligned to the overall programme vision.
  • Day three: The final day focused on testing the new programme with stakeholders. This included teams across the university, such as careers, library, research centres, EDI and resource planners. In addition, external parties – such as industry advisers, external examiners and professional, statutory and regulatory bodies – were invited to provide insights. The final test was with students and alumni of the programme.

Feedback has been positive: “One of the things I love about De Montfort is how connected they are with the local community. As part of designing Education 2030, they asked us: what skills and knowledge do graduates need?” said Glynis Wright, chair of the Faculty of Business and Law advisory board.

Throughout the sprint, teams are encouraged to complete the relevant documentation, which then forms the evidence required for the final validation event.

At DMU, processes were transformed to remove unnecessary bureaucracy, resulting in a streamlined yet rigorous approval event. This was possible thanks to extensive consultation during the sprints, essentially removing the need to repeat the examination of the programme design at the final panel.

A marathon alternative to a three-day sprint

For some course teams, it wasn’t possible to take a chunk of time out of their normal weeks. This was particularly the case with small course teams, where regular teaching was shared among all. In those cases, more of a marathon was introduced.

The same planned activities took place, but in an extended format over a few weeks, rather than the few days. Although the finish line was the same, there wasn’t the same intensive focus, which colleagues said helped to shape the vision and bring in stakeholders to collaborate fully on the course design.

What next?

Will this become the norm now? Would we go back to the “old” way of validating programmes?

The exercise of validation sprints enabled course teams to have focused time to reshape and redesign their offer. There are difficulties in carving out the time to allow this focus, but the benefits were clear.

A much higher number of commendations came out the validations. These specifically referenced engagement with students and stakeholders where it was clear that their views were being used to shape the programmes. The approach to inclusive assessments and the general programme design were also commended, particularly in how the sprints had helped build a shared vision.

Our work has shown that validation sprints can help the time pressures of managing large-scale curriculum validations, but the most important takeaway is how this can build on team design of programmes and great stakeholder engagement.

Leanne de Main is deputy dean in the Faculty of Business and Law at De Montfort University. Sarah Jones is pro vice-chancellor for academic enhancement at the University of Gloucestershire.

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