All together now

Lancaster University pioneers ‘inclusive curriculum’ to cater for entire student body via course content, delivery and assessment. Melanie Newman reports

April 2, 2010

A university has issued guidance advising academics on how to tailor courses to engage students regardless of class, disability, gender or race.

Lancaster University’s guide, drawn up as part of a Higher Education Academy project, “Designing an Inclusive Curriculum in Higher Education”, will be published later this year and will include advice on how to use course content to “address gendered, social class, race or disability perspectives”.

In one example cited, female engineering students are asked to write a paper on why women are under-represented in the subject.

“This gives the department greater awareness of the challenges they face in attracting women on to the course,” the authors say. The same idea could be used for male students on nursing, education or social work courses, they add.

Another example quoted is the study of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) as part of an English literature degree. An inclusive curriculum could teach novelist Jean Rhys’ critique of race as seen in Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), her response to the novel, or a “disability studies critique of Mr and Mrs Rochester’s experience of disability”, the guide says.

It also recommends the teaching of discipline-specific writing skills to help international students as well as those who are new to the discipline.

Ann-Marie Houghton, director of research in equity, access and participation at Lancaster, said work had been under way for some years on making sure that course delivery met the needs of the academy’s diverse student body.

“Inclusive delivery has been closely associated with issues of disability,” she explained. “But inclusive curriculum design is something that has a much broader remit and is much less widely used within the sector: it takes in course content, delivery and assessment.”

She added: “The project is all about enabling all students to access the curriculum… We’re all familiar with the low-floored bus as an example of universal design that has benefited huge numbers of people for all sorts of reasons. We’re interested in applying some of that thinking to higher education.”

Similar work is being carried out in other countries.

Julie Mills, an associate professor of engineering, is currently developing an inclusive curriculum in the subject at the University of South Australia.

In an interview with Campus Review magazine, she identifies a “common misconception” that engineering content is gender neutral because it is technical.

“Lecturers often say: ‘I teach students, I don’t teach men or women,’” she said. “But teaching and learning styles are often tailored to the interests and perspectives of either the teacher or the dominant social or cultural group of students in the class, which in engineering is male and mostly white.”

Women prefer to examine problems and exercises alongside their legal, environmental and social contexts, rather than thinking about theory divorced from consequences and context, said the professor, whose book on the topic, Gender Inclusive Engineering Education, was published by Routledge last month.

The book says that introductory courses in engineering often assume prior knowledge, such as familiarity with car engines and circuit boards, which many students do not have.

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