Small and modular is beautiful

January 20, 1995

Earlier reports of the death of courses may have been exaggerated, but this time things look serious. A principal of a college in the Midlands was heard to say the other day that he had no courses left in his college, except for a doggedly surviving HND.

We have had the branchless bank, now the courseless college. To have none at all is exceptional but most alert colleges could point to areas of activity where courses have gone, to be replaced by modules, by pick 'n' mix, by roll-on, roll-off or by whatever commercial analogue is current in the college.

There are good business arguments for providing what the customer wants when the customer wants it, and we all understand those these days. But there are better educational grounds for organising learning into smaller units, to be selected and assembled by students according to their task, their ambition and their means.

A modular curriculum is harder to organise and much more difficult to control (two powerful reasons why we have clung so long and so determinedly to courses). But it puts the student first and cannot seriously be contested as an improvement on the old ways.

At its simplest, the switch has been from the course to the qualification. Students are grouped not by the date they started but by the learning objective they are aiming for. In a college hairdressing salon, for example, an observer would note what looked like a conventional class of 15 or so, going through the usual hairdressing hoops: curling, blowing, perming and tinting, but since the skills have been separated into micro-units people attend only for the bits that they, or their employer, actually want. Next week at the same time there may be 15 again, but perhaps only ten of them the same, the other five either doing something else or perhaps, having completed that part of their programme already, staying away from college until they are ready to return.

On the surface things look much the same as before but it is very different: not just full and part-time students intermingled but students attending intermittently, in bursts of full-time or intensified part-time. Distinctions between different modes of attendance cease to have any real meaning. It is not how often you come, it is how you accommodate your units. It works best in vocational areas, where disaggregation into modules or units is well developed, where competence is measured, not time served, and where assessment is continuous.

That sort of pattern is terrific for clear-headed students who are supported by effective counselling and the sort of agreed personal programmes which have dates, places, and times agreed well in advance. It is a nightmare for those who are responsible for plotting students' progress and their gradual acquisition of credits or what are now called learning outcomes (a particularly grey and wan way of describing success). I recently attended a presentation by a major educational software company who were trying to flog me a package for recording students' activity and thereby claiming my reward from the Further Education Funding Council. The software architecture was magnificent, full of confident conceits and elegant aerial bridges, but it was based on courses. The students' "home", their cyberbase, was the course: it was how they were to be categorised and identified, administratively handy but not really de nos jours.

Once you break down the course system, you have to think of a new way to use your teaching staff. Personalised student timetables do not necessarily gross up into neat parcels of teaching-time. Without the reassuring repetition of a year-long pattern of demand, how does a teacher organise things so as to satisfy the need for a measured level of productivity? The hairdressing salon provides at least part of the answer. Provide the facilities for a variety of people to do a variety of things at a variety of levels, and put a teacher in to ensure that learning takes place and they do not set fire to the curtains. The workshop model, in fact, now common in colleges for mathematics, communication and information technology, and catching on with languages: the classroom-as-library. More flexibility is needed, however, and I believe that the best answer is some form of case-loading. If you start from the premise that professional staff, working in teams, should take overall responsibility for a group of students, however disparate, you can quickly see that an enhanced tutor's role will emerge. Staff could have targets, expressed as units of FEFC activity. They would have to ensure that their students had access to that teaching, those workshops and such private study facilities as were necessary to achieve their qualifications.

Individual learning agreements would be the basis of what amounted to a contract. Colleges would be organised very differently, but I do not think that the lack of courses would be mourned for long.

Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College.

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