Essential parts

September 29, 1995

Is the modularisation of courses a stepping stone or a stumbling block? The latest signs seem to point to a brighter future, say Norman Jackson and Patricia Gregg. Nearly 90 per cent of universities now run modular courses, or operate a quasi-modular unitised common course structure, or are moving towards modularity.

But the speed with which undergraduate curricula have been restructured is most astonishing, with more than 50 per cent of universities expanding or introducing a common curriculum framework since 1992. Despite widespread resistance to modularity in the academic community there is no doubt that modularity is here to stay.

Modular courses are based on the principle that the curriculum is divided into discrete units or modules of learning which are normally, though not always, assessed independently. Each unit or module is a measured part of an extended learning experience leading to a specified qualification(s), for which a designated number, and normally sequence, of units or modules is required. Such requirements may be totally or partially prescribed. The group of required units or modules is known as a course or a programme of study. Each course or programme is located within a hierarchy of awards and qualifications - certificate, diploma, degree, etc. Within a degree each unit is assigned to a hierarchy of levels (sometimes two but normally three, and four in the case of Scotland).

Unlike the United States, where modules are defined in terms of units of teaching, modules are generally defined in terms of learning and the notional study time required to attain the required standards. In the United Kingdom module size varies considerably (from a sixth to a twelfth of a full-time one-year programme, or from 75 to 200 hours of notional student effort, including class contact and private study time). But most institutions permit a range of module sizes based on multiples of the base unit (by halving or doubling it, for example).

Modular course structures first emerged in the US over a century ago, but the first steps towards modularity in the UK came after the visionary Robbins Report in 1963. Course "unitisation", delayed specialisation and greater curricular breadth, at least in the initial stages of a degree course, were embraced by many new universities. The University of Stirling came closest to a modular curriculum model, being, from its inception in 1968, not only unitised, but semesterised as well.

The Open University was the first with a credit-based modular framework providing for the accreditation of prior learning, the awarding of interim certificates and qualifications, extensive student guidance and support systems and the issuing of transcripts as records of achievement.

Modular developments in the former polytechnics began in the early 1970s at Hatfield, City of London, Middlesex and Oxford. As in the US, semesters or trimesters defined the length of the module, major and minor as well as joint subject combinations were permitted, a degree of choice through an electives programme was designed into many courses, and interim awards were available via the DipHE.

In the mid-1980s modular course development was aimed primarily at widening access to adult learners, enhancing student choice and improving the relevance of courses to the labour market. Credit-based modular structures were developed (University of Strathclyde), as well as modular associate student and free-standing credit accumulation and transfer (CAT) schemes (as at Newcastle and Wolverhampton polytechnics), and modular combined studies schemes (as at Lancashire and Sheffield polytechnics).

The Council for National Academic Awards developed its own CAT framework, based on 360 credits for an honours degree, which has subsequently been adopted by many institutions and forms the basis of Scotland's SCOTCAT credit framework. Towards the end of the decade and into the early 1990s some former polytechnics began to draw together their modular developments in an integrated whole-institution modular and credit-based scheme while others (such as Liverpool University) created a whole-institution credit-based scheme.

The restructuring of higher education curricula has accelerated dramatically in the past three years. Existing modularised or unitised programmes or combined studies schemes in post-1992 universities and higher education colleges have been expanded to embrace all, or most, of the undergraduate provision, and most pre-1992 universities have also unitised or modularised their courses.

The reasons for this phenomenon are complex. While institutions highlight the desire to improve choice and flexibility, many academics consider the primary motivation to be economic, social and market-driven rather than educational. But the very range of reasons for going modular suggests that the move fulfils many useful purposes.

The one constant across the UK is the absence of standardisation. Many academics feel strongly that a non-standardised approach to modularity is necessary in a higher education system in which diversity of mission and culture is celebrated. Furthermore, in order to effect such a profound structural and cultural change in a "democratic" environment of strong and distinctive academic cultures, it is necessary for each institution to demonstrate that it is developing a modular policy that is acceptable in the local context.

Five basic approaches to modularity can be distinguished (see panel below). In virtually all institutions with unitised or modularised curricula, students are awarded credit for the successful completion of a module or unit. Most institutions have adopted the CAT framework developed by the former CNAA and adopted by SCOTCAT, which allocates 120 credits to each year of a full-time degree programme.

Modularisation has resulted in a range of courses or programmes with varying degrees of choice and flexibility. The first step for many institutions is to adopt a common course structure and unitise existing courses. This may result in single or joint subject unitised courses with tightly prescribed curricula and choice restricted to options within the subject. Or learners may be able to negotiate their learning objectives and the experience necessary to achieve these objectives with a tutor or curriculum committee and develop a learning contract.

Then there are courses and programmes which offer varying degrees of choice primarily through regulations which encourage learners to study elective units or modules from outside their main field of study. The amount of choice varies from between a twelfth to a third of a programme but the amount of choice usually decreases as the course progresses.

The impact of modularity is difficult to gauge as perceptions are confused by unrelated factors such as semesterisation, the rapid growth in student numbers, a climate of increasing public and political concern for quality and academic standards when institutions are being asked to "do more with less". But there is no doubt that modularity has had a profound impact and each institution's approach generates its own practical problems and standards issues.

At a time when the purposes of higher education are changing, the debate on standards must recognise that different types of modular programme are designed to fulfil different purposes. Many educational developments have been fostered in a modular context, for example work-based learning, "active-learning", the greater prominence of independent and supported self-study, negotiated learning contracts and the assessment of learner capability coupled to skills profiles.

New approaches to learning require new forms of assessment, and modularity, coupled with continuous assessment and more explicit learning objectives and assessment criteria, is tending to move assessment towards a "criterion-referenced" model and away from the traditional 'norm-referenced" model based on end-of-course examinations.

Modularity has expanded the opportunities for curricular breadth, both through improved student choice and through the design of broader-based programmes. While the traditional notion of "honours in depth" is being maintained in single and joint subject modular and unitised programmes, many academics are having to grapple with different notions of standards in respect of "honours in breadth".

The range of standards which are appropriate to higher education is likely to have been extended as a result. The challenge is to define the boundaries of this range in order to establish comparability.

Criticism of modular structures has focused on their alleged tendency to destroy the coherence of a programme and the source of this belief is traced to student choice. There is a tension between aspirations to promote greater choice and flexibility by reducing the level of curricula prescription and the desire of subject teams to define the curriculum according to their view of coherence and integrity.

Curriculum designers employ a range of strategies to maintain coherence and progression in modular programmes, such as designation of core, prerequisite and corequisite modules and the use of linked modules with integrated assessment. The vast majority of students are enrolled on single, joint or major/minor subject courses which have been subject to a formal peer review and approval process.

"Pick-n-mix" modular schemes, where students construct their own programme without formal guidance and approval, have not been encountered in our survey work. Even in independent studies courses, where a programme is developed through negotiation, students must demonstrate and justify to a competent authority the relevance of their proposed module selections to their stated aims. In fact, the shift in educational values reflected by modularisation is not away from coherence, but rather to greater student involvement and responsibility in maintaining and justifying coherence.

Designing a flexible modular programme which ensures coherence and progression while permitting a degree of choice, requires sophisticated curriculum design and mapping skills, and an effective infrastructure for academic guidance. Such techniques, and the guidance systems and quality assurance arrangements which support this type of curriculum organisation, must be developed over a period of years in the light of experience. The first few years of implementing a modular policy are likely to be characterised by experimentation, mistakes and much learning.

Restructuring the curriculum within a modular framework necessitates the identification of core knowledge and skills and an understanding of the process through which they are developed. The process should engage curriculum designers and peer reviewers in high-level pedagogic and epistemological debate. Balancing theory and application often challenges traditional views about the aims and purposes of higher education.

The notion of level implies equivalence of intellectual demand and rigour, and sustaining any notion of comparability of standards depends on a secure framework of levels, which in turn depends on a clear understanding of the characteristics of learning which might be expected at each level. Yet few institutions have more than a rudimentary level description to guide curriculum design and assessment practices.

The development of a more comprehensive set of ways of describing levels which could be applied universally would assist those involved in processes which involve defining, setting and verifying standards.

Modularity has been blamed for declining standards : an assertion which is not based on an understanding of the many changes in higher education. What is apparent is that modularity often exposes standards issues which have previously been hidden within traditional academic structures, for example substantial differences in conventions on the use of the mark range and variations in classification practices which result in students with essentially the same overall mark profiles in different subjects and faculties being awarded different honours degrees.

Standards, like quality, must be developed and judged in the context of the purpose of the education provided. Modularity encourages much more detailed specification of the learning intentions which will meet these purposes and increasingly modules are being defined in terms of learning outcomes. However, modularity also demands an enhanced level of understanding as to how such specifications aggregate into whole learning experiences, programmes and awards. Such understanding becomes increasingly more difficult to acquire in flexible modular schemes as the focus for setting standards shifts from the programme to the module.

Sustaining the notion of broad comparability of standards in modular degrees is dependent on the high professional standards of the academic staff who design, teach and assess the course, together with the quality of institutional support for learning and the effectiveness of quality assurance arrangements which ensure that the standards of curricula design, teaching and assessment are subject to independent, authoritative critical peer appraisal. The diversity of quality assurance arrangements increases in flexible modular frameworks and the locus of responsibility for quality assurance is pushed downwards through the academic structures.

Modularity is making institutions re-examine the ways in which they ensure that standards are broadly comparable across programmes and awards. For example many institutions have found it necessary to review marking practices and honours degree classification procedures across disciplines, departments and faculties. Modularity has also had a significant impact on the work of external examiners, causing some institutions to radically reappraise their purpose and develop new roles to fulfil different purposes.

Modularity is undoubtedly contributing to the dramatic change in higher education. It certainly poses considerable challenges to many aspects of academic and institutional practice. The process of "going modular" requires a steep learning curve involving considerable adjustments to cultures, academic and administrative practices and professional values.

Critics of modularity envisage a path which seductively leads the traveller into all manner of academic amorality and intellectual promiscuity. Enthusiasts unwittingly support this image by portraying a yellow brick road which leads to a modular Oz where all educational wishes may be granted. Of course both views are designed to promote a particular point of view. The academic landscape of the UK is rich and diverse, and the road to universal modularity is not a single road at all, but a series of tracks, country lanes and urban roads which now appear to be converging into a high-speed motorway.

Joining the modular highway is rather like joining the M25 in the rush hour. It requires skill and judgement based on practice and experience, and general adherence to some basic rules. Modularity may appear daunting at first but, in time, both individuals and institutions will be able to navigate confidently the seemingly impenetrable modular traffic.

Norman Jackson is currently investigating aspects of modularity for the Higher Education Quality Council. Patricia Gregg is a Pennsylvania State University PhD candidate investigating the impact of modularity on teaching and learning in the UK.


Modular or unitised structure

* single and joint (not major/minor combinations) subject courses managed by department or faculty.

* standard regulations cover course structure (eg number of units per year). May include credit arrangements.

* locally managed and regulated assessment.

* limited student choice. Students do not negotiate study programmes.

* may coexist with a free-standing combined honours scheme .

Institutional scheme

* single and combined (plus major/minor) programmes managed by central administration.

* modules linked or shared between programmes.

* centrally managed assessment.

* own regulations.

* student choice and learner autonomy. Students may negotiate programmes.

Multiple departmental or faculty-based scheme

* single and combined (plus major/minor) programmes, modules linked and shared between programmes.

* locally managed assessment.

* institution-wide or scheme-based regulations.

* varying student choice. Institution's minimum requirements policy may govern individual programmes.

* CATS in a central unit, departments or faculties Credit accumulation and transfer (CAT) scheme

* centrally managed.

* students construct study programmes.

* own assessment regulations and academic standards committee.

Mixed economy approach

* major institutional scheme combined with separate departmental/faculty-based schemes.

* CATS within departments or faculties or an independent scheme.

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