Jenny Donald - by Effy Alexakis, copyright Macquarie University

The opening argument

By 2017, all content on iLearn will be made visible to all Macquarie staff. Or at least that’s what’s proposed in the recent Learning and Teaching Green Paper. So what happens when you open up your unit content to your colleagues? Ask Associate Professor Jenny Donald.

Your ‘home’ department of Biological Sciences has long had its iLearn units open to everyone in the department.  How did that come about?

DDI_group03It seemed to us that the best way to actually develop your units is to learn from your peers, to share ideas and approaches. If you want to try a quiz and you’ve not tried one before, you can look at somebody else’s unit and see how they do it. It’s very useful for new staff to actually go and have a look at a range of different iLearn units when they’re setting their own up for the first time.

So everyone in the department has always agreed to this and embraced it?

This has been going on for a long time now and there’s never been any problem.  It’s part of general collegiality. We’re not interested in looking at the marks a student got in an assignment in some other unit. It’s at a much higher level – basically so that we can share good ideas with each other.

I’m now encouraging other departments to make their units widely available, in the hope that we will be able to share all our units across the Faculty of Science and Engineering, to look at and just be inspired by what other people are doing.

And presumably it will help with the new focus in the Green Paper on program-level curriculum design?

Yes. It’s something that is going to be quite useful for that sort of development.  If you’re a program convenor and want to look at assessment across all the units, you can always go to the unit guide for a brief outline, but it may well be useful to look at the actual iLearn units that make up a particular program too. It’s also part of the move in the direction of the Learning Commons.

So is the program-based development cycle mentioned in the Green Paper “just another curriculum review”?

It’s not as if this approach is something that we’ve never ever thought about before. From discussions with departments, clearly there are a number of programs where people already do this. And all programs have now got program learning outcomes and a designated program convenor, so in essence it’s already started.

On the other hand, there are programs that have been assembled over time from a collection of component parts. It’s a chance to go back and say ‘look at that particular skill from our program learning outcomes, there’s only one unit that even touches on that’.  Or on the other hand, ‘this particular element, we’re actually assessing 15 times’.  Things like integrating employability skills within the program – that’s possibly something that wasn’t considered when programs were assembled.

One thing we need to be aware of is that units are the building blocks of programs, but the blocks might actually be building several different houses where you have interdisciplinary programs. A unit might be in a Biology major but also part of two different named degrees, one of which has units from several other departments, or from outside the Faculty. That is going to take quite a bit of negotiation.

So the program convenor role is going to be pretty important here?

I think program convenors are going to need some support, particularly where you’ve got a program that’s been assembled from bits and pieces. Input from other stakeholders, the Learning and Teaching Centre, and various other people is going to be useful in terms of looking at the program as a coherent whole rather than little bits owned by different people.

What about the unit convenor role?

Possibly the unit convenor will need to be a little more aware of the context. People will get together and talk about the bigger picture: are we duplicating material in this program, could we make something a bit leaner and free up time for people to do other things?  The unit convenor is going to need to be engaged in those discussions.

Associate Professor Jenny Donald is Associate Dean Learning and Teaching in Macquarie University’s Faculty of Science and Engineering.

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