Graphically representing a curriculum

Schematic map of the Milky Way

I’ve been a bit quiet on the blog lately, owing to the fact that I’ve been putting a lot of time into the next phase of my PhD. This post is in part an attempt to summarise and try to make sense of what’s going on there, as well as to assuage my feeling of guilt at not having posted for a while.

In terms of my research progress I’m currently running a Delphi study among clinicians and clinical educators, as well as a document analysis of the curriculum. The Delphi is trying to identify the personal and professional attributes that clinicians believe are important in terms of positively impacting patient outcomes, the relevant teaching activities that could be used to develop and assess these attributes, and any appropriate technologies that might facilitate the above teaching and learning activities.

I’m busy with the second round of the Delphi study (I’ll post the main results of the first shortly) and will begin analysing the curriculum documentation soon. The combination of these two projects will (hopefully) give me enough data to determine how we need to change the curriculum in order to better develop the attributes we’ve identified.

As part of that process I’m starting to look at curriculum mapping. What I’m struggling with at the moment is to figure out how best to represent what I’m learning as far as what the curriculum looks currently like, and how we need to change it. These are the difficulties I’ve come up with:

  • The learning process isn’t linear, which cuts out a narrative representation
  • A curriculum is organised by many things e.g. outcomes, content, teaching approach, assessment tasks, time, space, etc. How do you emphasise all of these (and their relationships) while keeping some measure of sanity?
  • There are many interrelated concepts i.e. multiple connections, nested connections, linear and non-linear components, etc. all of which makes a mindmap difficult to work with (mindmaps are usually hierarchical, and a curriculum presented as a hierarchy would be necessarily simplistic)
  • A Gantt chart might be useful to show how activities or projects progress over time, but it doesn’t have much scope for depth
  • Tabular representation doesn’t allow you to expand / collapse sections, or add detailed notes. It also allows only very simple, one-to-one connections e.g. content over time but not time, content and outcomes.
  • At the moment I seem to have settled on CmapTools for concept mapping. It’s not the ideal solution but it seems to be the one that enables most of what I need (see list below)

As much as I’ve read around curriculum mapping I haven’t yet found a solution that helps me to address everything that I think I need. I know that I probably won’t be able to find a tool that enables all of the following, but this is what I’d like to be able to do:

  • Create relationships between concepts e.g. outcomes, teaching activity, assessment task, etc.
  • Emphasise the nature of the relationships
  • Annotate concepts and relationships
  • Expand and collapse sections i.e. see the big picture (e.g. national exit level outcomes) as well as drill-down into the details (e.g. lesson plans)
  • I should be able to show a process over time i.e. workflow should be built in
  • I’d like the ability to input more data over time, and delete outdated content
  • I’d like to be able to detect redundancy, inconsistency and omissions (of content, tasks, outcomes, etc.)
  • It’d be great if it was collaborative
  • Must be able to review vertical (subjects between years) and horizontal (between subjects in the same year) alignment, as well as the sequencing of activities
  • Define a shared vocabulary for use in our department (we often use different terms for the same thing, creating confusion)

I’ve also been also looking into other domains for ideas that will help me to get a better understanding of graphical modelling to represent complex information. One example is Unified Modelling Language (UML), a general purpose modelling language that is used to represent the various facets of objects and systems in computer science. It is used to “…specify, visualize, modify, construct and document the artefacts of…a system”. It also offers a standard way to visualise the different elements of that system e.g. activities, actors, processes, components, etc. I’m still holding out for a modelling tool from another domain (besides education) that might serve my purposes.

During the above-mentioned process, I also had fun looking at a curriculum as a computer platform. A computer platform includes:

  • The operating system (OS), which is basically a set of instructions for what to do in certain situations, including task scheduling and resource allocation. I think that this is a useful way to think about the structure of a curriculum i.e. what should happen, when it should happen, who is responsible for it, etc.
  • Architecture (hardware) that includes the CPU, data bus, chipsets, graphics cards, motherboard, sound card. CPU is concerned with how programmes access memory. The physical structures that enable the manifestation of the curriculum.
  • Frameworks are collections of software libraries that contain generic functionality that can be modified by within certain constraints. Frameworks allow developers to spend time working on useful features rather than having to write code for low level functionality. Within the curriculum there are modules that share generic features e.g. problem solving. A way of assessing whether or not a student can solve problems is a generic “framework” that can be modified slightly to be used in other modules. Why should every lecturer have to re-create the same libraries of tools in order to assess the same thing in a different context?
  • Programming languages that use a standardised set of vocabulary and grammar to create a set of instructions that the OS will understand.
  • The user interface (UI) that allows a user to interact with the computer and its peripherals. This is the most visible part of the platform, and often the part that draws the most attention. This is the part of the curriculum that everyone can see. The handouts, the lecture, the assessment tasks i.e. this is what the students and lecturers  use to interact with the curriculum. Is is also the part that people will love or hate. No matter how “good” the underlying structure is, the student engages with the UI and most people in higher education haven’t caught onto the idea that “pretty is a feature“.

Schematic transit maps and Venn diagrams might also be useful in terms of thinking about curriculum mapping in a different way. I’m inclined to think that a combination of all of the above will be an interesting experiment.

I guess the biggest issue I’m having is trying to figure out a way to show how we can go from what we have to what we want, from a very high to very low level. It’s harder than I thought it’d be…