How does one design a non-accredited program? What works and what does not? This case study of a new Macquarie program shares some insights…
Macquarie University is moving towards program-based design. All programs are encouraged to take active steps to review the existing offerings, and make sure that ‘the whole’ (program) is larger than the collection of its parts (units).
In other words, units need to be designed in such a way that content, activities and assessments in different units are aligned and build on each other.
There are very good reasons to adopt program-based approach:
For example, earlier units can focus on the basic level of skills, while later units develop them further.
Considering the whole program helps to identify gaps, e.g. whether some skills get too much prominence (e.g. writing essays), while other skills (e.g. ability to conduct independent or group projects) may be under-represented.
Being a part of a program enables students to ‘connect the dots’ between different units and see a big picture. It also helps them to experience the program as a part of cohort and improves their sense of belonging.
While we have a relatively good idea of how to structure and build an externally-accredited program that comply with external regulations (see this blog post), there is less clarity on how to approach a non-accredited program.
Challenges of non-accredited programs
Being a non-accredited program has both advantages and drawbacks. For example, non-accredited programs have considerable autonomy and freedom, but they can suffer from a ‘burden of choice/freedom’.
Using an every-day metaphor, accredited programs are like pilots working for a commercial airline. They have a set destination to navigate to. In other words, they do not need to decide where they are going (the exact destination), they only need to decide how to get to their destination.
Non-accredited programs, on the other hand, can be compared to someone who owns a plane. Not only should they decide on how to get to a destination, but they also need to choose a destination.
This blog post is a story of a ‘non-accredited’ major that is currently being developed at Macquarie. The program is called ‘Environmental Humanities’, and it will be run for the first time in 2017 (exciting!).
The idea of this major started with one particular unit that Donna Houston taught for a number of years with Deborah Bird Rose, and from 2013 has taught with Emily O’Gorman.
Both Donna and Emily are from the Department of Geography and Planning. The unit offered an overview of environmental humanities approaches and concepts, and Donna and Emily noticed that there were always some students who, after taking the unit, wanted to delve further into particular topics and study other units on related topics. And while Emily and Donna were aware of some units across the university that had similar themes, there was no coherent pathway for students. What is more, sometimes it was simply not possible for students to take units from other faculties within their existing programs.
An idea is born
Emily and Donna had an idea of collaborating with colleagues across the university and creating a major for those students who are interested in humanities and environment.
While the idea may have seemed risky, Emily and Donna were confident that it could work. Emily drew on her own experience as an undergraduate student – when doing a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Queensland she found herself gravitating towards environmental humanities subjects and assembling her own ‘version’ of an environmental humanities program.
Fast-forward more than a decade, and the new Environmental Humanities major is ready to welcome its first students in 2017.
There seemed to be 9 critical elements that helped the program team to create this major.
Even though there was no externally articulated goal to strive to, the program team knew that they wanted their ‘ideal graduate’ to be someone who has a deep interdisciplinary knowledge about a subject and understands that one can approach an issue from different perspectives. This interdisciplinary experience, the team believes, will provide students with many tools to tackle environmental issues. Having this clear vision of an ‘ideal graduate’ was important for deciding what content/activities and assessments to include.
To find potential collaborators Emily and Donna searched through handbooks, met with different convenors, who, in turn, introduced them to other convenors. They also actively networked with people at different conferences and events. Even though it took time to get to know colleagues across the university, it was worth it. Not only did it help to strengthen the relationship between different departments and faculties, but it also resulted in a better research culture for environmental humanities, which is beneficial for research and grant applications as well as teaching.
The majority of units in this major are compulsory. These units act as a backbone that provides coherence and helps students to make sense of this new field. This was an important strategy to provide coherence and avoid duplication.
While this major was designed around compulsory units, the program team also aspired to give students an opportunity to experience various disciplines through elective units. This is why, in addition to core units, students have 6-7 elective options every semester. This wide range is designed to expose students to as many interdisciplinary perspectives as possible.
An important decision in this major was to involve program directors in the design of core units. It helped to avoid duplication and to make the progression logical and appropriate to each level.
The content of the ‘core units’ will be outlined and workshopped at a planned event in November this year. This is intended to be a truly collaborative exercise that will improve the quality of core units and give convenors a sense of ownership of the program.
The program team plans to have regular events to workshop pedagogy, discuss learning and teaching matters. It is important for any program, but particularly for such an interdisciplinary and diverse program as this one.
Even though the core of the program is fairly well-defined, the program team is open to change and, in fact, expects that they will make changes to the program based on student and convenors’ feedback. This attitude helps to be more receptive to feedback and ideas for improvement.
The program team recognises the importance of keeping different convenors informed about other units, and, in addition to face-to-face meetings, is considering different ways to do it, including circulating unit guides, regular newsletters with updates, etc.